Start-ups, Rock and Roll and Demo Day: The State of the KEC

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, 17 Market Square, Knoxville, July 2014

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, 17 Market Square, Knoxville, July 2014

When mutual friend, and all around good guy, Rusty Odom, introduced me to Jonathan Sexton, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew a little about his music, most recently photographing him at Blankfest playing with his latest band “Feed the Birds.” He wanted to meet for a cup of coffee and that’s pretty much a sure way to get me there, so we sat down in a coffee shop to talk.

One of the things I didn’t know about him was that he is currently the Entrepreneur in Residence at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. I’d written about an event they hosted last November which I really enjoyed: Entrepreneurs made pitches to a panel of judges and a small sum of money was given to the winner to pursue their vision. The money represented less real financial help than symbolism and the draw for those doing the pitching really lay in the opportunity to present to people with some sense of what might work and to hear their idea critiqued. The center also offers mentoring to people attempting to start or improve a small business or launch a start-up.

Feed the Birds, Scruffy City Hall, Blankfest, Knoxville, May 2014

Feed the Birds, Scruffy City Hall, Blankfest, Knoxville, May 2014

It opened in April of last year with the backing of seven different organizations. The hope is to spot and help start-ups on their road to pairing with investors which will, in turn, pump money into the community. Original director Mike Carroll has been replaced by new director Jim Briggs, who had worked for twenty years in San Francisco as an attorney and software consultant for non-profit agencies and came on board here this past January.

Jonathan’s circuitous journey to the center took him through a rock and roll stint in Nashville. Originally from Knoxville, he attended UT, and after receiving his education degree, taught for several years before admitting to himself that the classroom wasn’t where he could spend the rest of his working life. He’d played music, but hadn’t given it a full shot, so beginning in 2009 he hit the road, playing 150 nights a year and rising to the level of playing festivals like South X Southwest and Bonnaroo.

It was when he and friend Matt Urmy each became parents that they realized they had to approach their music more as a business. They bought iphones and, “thought that qualified us as technologists.” Out of that conversation came the development of an app to run your music business from an iphone. The idea attracted investment capitol in the millions and Jonathan came off the road, deciding that he might be able to use his knowledge as a traveling musician to develop apps that make that life more manageable.

Jonathan Sexton, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center Entrepreneur in Residence, Knoxville, July 2014

Jonathan Sexton, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center Entrepreneur in Residence, Knoxville, July 2014

He realized that business can be a creative endeavor and he became involved with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, which he described as pairing “hackers with Vanderbilt professors,” in a highly creative atmosphere. While his original business continues to grow, he is focused on a newer idea that solves the problem bands encounter with getting posters made for their shows on a tour and having to mail them to venues. One app takes care of the entire enterprise.

After returning to Knoxville and recently accepting the position at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, he is involved in the many activities hosted there including arranging for guest speakers, a morning coffee club for entrepreneurs, a “Women in Entrepreneurship” group, arranging for events and programs and individual mentoring. They service both High Growth/High Tech businesses as well as lifestyle (brick and mortar, smaller scale) type businesses.

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, 17 Market Square, Knoxville, July 2014

The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, 17 Market Square, Knoxville, July 2014

Jonathan pointed out that this is a media town with companies such as AC Entertainment, Jupiter, Scripps and Whittle operating or having operated here. The media entrepreneur buzz is growing and the KEC has developed a MediaWorks program to assist these startups. They have centered an accelerator program on digital media and it will culminate with a great event next week (August 5 from 4:00 – 7:00 PM) at the Square Room.

Nine potential start-ups were selected and sent to a boot camp for startups. They were paired with coaches from the Back Porch Group, a digital media think tank from Nashville. These local entrepreneurs spent the last twelve weeks perfecting their business model and their pitch. They will make the pitch next Tuesday night to a room full of investors who can make their vision happen. It should be intense and I plan to be there. Admission is free, but you need a ticket in advance, which you may get online right here.

Demo Day

Jonathan senses that the scene is building in Knoxville and we are probably only a few “hits” away from putting ourselves on the map. He notes that Newsbreak is an example of a small Knoxville startup that is local (100 Block of Gay Street) and is growing rapidly. They provide the news and weather at gas pumps in Knoxville, Nashville and several cities in Missouri.

He believes others will follow and a culture of entrepreneurship will grow in Knoxville, benefiting us all. He left me with this thought, “I want to make Knoxville a place I don’t ever want to leave.” Not a bad goal for us all.


  1. This sounds awesome! I am trying to rearrange my schedule so I can be here. Thank you for telling us about this!

  2. Delila Johnston says

    I am an app developer in Knoxville but after seeing the presentations first hand, I am appalled by the lack of diversity at the KEC. Why were no women or minority owned businesses allowed to compete? It was frustrating to watch all these talented Knoxville start-ups flourish and to know that no women or minority owned businesses were offered that same opportunity. Rant over.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      It’s a good question. On the other hand, I’m not sure how many women or minority applicants there were. Is it possible there were none?

      • Delila Johnston says

        You’re a reporter, why don’t you do a follow up and ask him? I’d be interested to know, and I bet other people would to.

        • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

          Nothing like a little goading with “you’re a reporter . . .” to get me going. Expect a follow-up piece to the KEC piece sometime soon. You were goading me, weren’t you?!? 🙂

  3. If you were at Start Up 2014 you would have noticed several minority/women based businesses pitching. If you need examples I can provide them but one simply needs to go to the website to see the pitches.

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