Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
August 26, 2020 | Tom Ballard

“Scaling” start-ups was the focus for most of yesterday’s “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival”

Yesterday’s coverage in had a lot of content from Chattanooga – two thought leaders serving as panelists at Launch Tennessee’s “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” and CPR Wrap winning $20,000 during the Nashville Health Care Council’s “Inspiring Innovation Pitch Competition.” Today, much of the focus shifts about 100 miles north to Knoxville with five individuals on different panels during Day 8 of the virtual conference.

Scaling in the Southeast.

The theme on Wednesday and again today is “Scale,” and the numerous panels focused on various aspects of the topic. First up was one on “Scaling in the Southeast,” and Knoxville’s Bill Malkes (pictured from the broadcast at right) was one of the panelists. The serial entrepreneur who was recently named Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NellOne Therapeutics Inc. shared the stage with Dave Payne, Managing Director of Techstars Atlanta; Monique Villa of Nashville, Co-Founder of Build In SE, a community of start-up founders and ecosystem partners committed to company building in the Southeast; and Mark Flickinger of Atlanta, Chief Operating Officer of BIP Capital, who moderated the session.

No discussion about scaling would occur without thoughts about access to capital. Villa cited a report that Build in SE had done and recently updated that currently identified about 250 firms that are actively deploying capital in the region.

For Malkes, who has been part of at least four local start-ups, raising capital is part of his DNA. “I’ve seen a lot of progress since I’ve been here,” he said, reflecting back on his move about two decades ago from Michigan to the Volunteer State. “It’s an exciting time.”

Perhaps the most insightful advice Malkes offered to the international viewing audience was something that he says regularly to local entrepreneurs in terms of decisions on whether or not to accept a term sheet.

“Some of the best money I’ve ever come across is money I did not take,” Malkes emphasized. “I feel blessed with a lot of our investors and also those we’ve walked away from.”

Later, he added that he was “encouraged by how much entrepreneurial-led growth” is occurring in the region. “People now believe they can do it here,” Malkes said.

Sales, Marketing and Fundraising Strategies.

Jenna Johns (pictured from the broadcast at left), Chief Operating Officer of RDI Technologies Inc., was one of the panelists focused on the topic of strategies to succeed in sales, marketing and raising capital. In a fast-paced, tightly-edited discussion that quickly switched from panelist to panelist, Johns spoke from experience on all of the topics.

RDI Technologies has been the highest ranked enterprise from the Knoxville region the last two years on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing privately held companies in the U.S. It was #33 in the nation in 2019 and #301 this year (see recent article here).

“I have never been a huge fan of starting with an idea and trying to fit that into the market,” Johns said. “I always preferred really starting with a market problem and then seeing how you can make your technology solve that problem.”

On the topic of driving marketing efforts, she underscored the importance of content and thought leadership, saying that it is “a really good way to position yourself as an expert in the field and make people trust what you say. Our market is sensing, and we want to be on the forefront.”

As far as raising capital, Johns was emphatic that start-ups should pursue bootstrapping or angel capital as long as possible. Finally, regarding key performance indicators, her list was topped by sales – “You’re nothing without sales.” The next two were customer retention and new products and innovation.

The Post-Pandemic Investment Landscape.

Three Knoxville-based investors were one-half of a panel focused on how angel and venture funds have been responding to the COVID-19 challenge and what the future looks like. They were, in alphabetical order: (1) John Bruck, a Member of Queen City Angels (QCA) and Co-Founder of “Startup Knox” among other roles; (2) Grady Vanderhoofven, Founder and CEO of Three Roots Capital; and (3) Ken Woody, Partner in Innova Memphis.

All three were participants in a series we ran in in early April where they highlighted the approaches they were taking and the recommendations they were making to their portfolio companies.

One of the questions they were asked yesterday related to the impact of COVID-19 on deal flow this year. Both Vanderhoofven and Woody said they were anticipating fewer deals, while Bruck said that QCA did not expect much of a drop in the number or dollar value of investments in 2020, but the fund would be focused more on follow-on funding.

“You need to prepare for uncertainty and chaos,” Woody advised at the end of the panel.

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