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July 24, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Tolsma talks about being a coach in this year’s “What’s the Big Idea?” competition

Big Idea-teknoJohn Tolsma says that he agreed to be one of the mentors in this year’s “What’s the Big Idea?” competition so that he could give back to a community that had been supportive of him.

In an interview with, the owner of Knoxville-based Knowledge Launch characterized the experience as more akin to coaching than mentoring.

“Mentoring is over years rather than months,” Tolsma explained. “This was coaching for a few months around a business plan.”

The Duke University graduate knows a good deal about mentoring, having benefitted significantly from the guidance of people like a former Duke President and several local business executives.

“Nan Keohane (former Duke President) invested a tremendous amount of time in me when I was a student and class President at Duke,” Tolsma said of the years at his alma mater. “I also benefitted a great deal from the advice of Dee and Jimmy Haslam” after returning to Knoxville and starting his own business.

So, it was only natural that he agreed to help the Knoxville Chamber with “What’s the Big Idea?” when Mark Fields asked. As an added incentive, Tolsma chairs the Chamber’s Marketing Committee.

“I had a lot of people who invested in me over the last 15 years,” he said, adding that he hoped that he could offer a few good ideas to the participants during their preparations for the competition.

Tolsma was one of three mentor coaches. The other two were Parker Frost, Founder of Gigmark Interactive, and Jimmy Rodefer, Chief Executive Officer of Rodefer Moss, the presenting sponsor.

Each of the judges mentored three of the entrepreneurial teams selected for the semi-finals. The down selection process produced one finalist from each mentor/coach team. Tolsma coached Charles Chinn of Neural Energy Games.

We asked the mentor to compare his initial expectations for his role and how the effort actually evolved.

“It was in line with what I expected,” Tolsma said of his involvement.

After selecting his three semi-finalists, he said that discussed a schedule with them and his expectations as to how the mentoring would proceed.

“Everything aligned with what I expected,” Tolsma said, explaining that he viewed his role as “not just dispensing advice, but asking them some tough questions.”

Would he volunteer for 2014? Tolsma said “absolutely, but there’s a value in involving new people.”

What was the aspect of the experience that he found most challenging? Tolsma says he was “surprised at the lack of financial literacy.” He believes the curriculum should be improved in that regard to provide a better financial component for the participants.

He said the formal training needs to help the mentees answer the question, “What are my resources and use of cash?”

Because he’s an entrepreneur himself, Tolsma has a firsthand knowledge of some of the challenges that start-up companies like those in “What’s the Big Idea?” face.

“Knoxville has a less sophisticated investment community than Nashville, Austin or Research Triangle,” he said. In Tolsma’s view, the community needs to do a better job of creating an environment and network where entrepreneurs can “fall and fail” without giving-up.