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August 12, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Recent UTK grad’s start-up was motivated by the murder of his best friend

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Like many entrepreneurs, Mekal Smith was motivated to start his new venture by a specific cause. Most, however, are not as unfortunate as his was . . . the murder of Smith’s best friend on Smith’s birthday in 2019.

Today, the recent graduate of the Master of Accountancy Program in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) is starting a new career in Memphis. He’s leaving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he was a Human Resources Specialist, but not abandoning his dream of commemorating the untimely death of his best friend.

“He loved writing short stories and manuscripts,” Smith said. “His stories were so detailed that I wished I could see a visual representation of what he wrote on his pages.”

So, to honor his friend, Smith will officially launch the Sleepy Owl Company on the friend’s birthday – this coming November 24 – and after seeing the results of a recently launched a Beta site for authors to use at this link. The idea and Smith’s passion earned him an investment of $10,000 in the most recent “Boyd Venture Challenge” hosted by the Haslam College’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. As noted in this recent article, he was one of four recipients of funding.

Smith says the site was created to allow authors access to a platform that would grant them the ability to write a story or upload completed stories and attach digital media to the words of that story. The underlying technology is called D.R.E.A.M, an acronym that stands for “Digital Recordings of Enjoyable Acquired Moments.”

The $10,000 investment secured through the “Boyd Venture Challenge” will enable Smith to begin securing a patent for the D.R.E.A.M. concept and also allow him to acquire Amazon Web Services to make the platform more innovative.

In addition to being motivated by his best friend’s murder, Smith is driven by several other factors, both personal and societal. In terms of the former, he says he has seen “a whole new world” during his time at UTK. He’s also a new father, something that usually has a significant impact on individuals.

From a societal perspective, Smith says that “the innovation behind how we experience books is changing. I want to provide an avenue to every author to share their stories.”

What’s the business model?

Smith explains that he wants to provide the platform for the authors. If they choose to charge for content, his business will charge a three percent fee. If the content is offered for free, there is not fee.

“Authors have all the power,” he explains. “They can charge nothing or whatever they want.”

Smith is a Chattanooga native who was part of a large family – six sisters and two brothers. After graduating from Howard High School, he went to Tuskegee University, earning his undergraduate degree in Social Psychology in 2016.

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