A Micro-Enterprise Hatchery for Market Square?

Knoxville Overground hopes to make Market Square a home for entrepreneurial start-ups.

Alex Lavidge, with his camp-style satchel and down vest and jeans, looks like he's spent the afternoon hiking. He has thick dark hair and a reddish beard and an idealistic gleam in his eye that it's hard for people much beyond 29 to imitate. He talks about the creative class matter-of-factly, like others might talk about the bar association, and he wants to do something to promote brash entrepreneurial innovation in his hometown.

His specific cause is an idea called Knoxville Overground. If it works, the principle of this non-profit will be almost biological: As a small innovative business, its products will be other small innovative businesses. He calls them "micro-enterprises," businesses that might get started with only a couple thousand dollars invested. Its literature describes K.O. as "a community-building nonprofit organization that empowers entrepreneurs, investors, and self-employed professionals who measure success by the ‘triple bottom line.'" (That recent phrase refers to People, Planet, Profit—a combination of ecological, economic, and social benefits that some scholars like author John Elkington believe will be how businesses of the future are judged.)

For more than a month he's been working on the concept out of a small office in the commercial center of Sequoyah Hills. He has hopes of moving into a much-larger walk-up space in a century-old building at 35 Market Square.

That second floor of that century-old building is the former home for a company that must have been unusually hip for an engineering firm, with high ceilings and bare brick walls and 14 comfortable-looking offices lining the sides. The afternoon sun flatters the space, which is more than 5,000 square feet. "We couldn't have asked for a better layout than this," Lavidge says, mentioning its adjacency to the Chamber Partnership and all the amenities of Market Square.

He's a little ahead of himself, maybe. Knoxville Overground isn't leasing it just yet. They're waiting for a critical mass of at least seven businesses to chip in the $400-$500 he figures they'll charge for monthly rent, as well as some other funding from private or public grants. He's admittedly vague about the opening date, but is looking toward July or August.

At its simplest, it's a big office on Market Square for young entrepreneurs who can't yet afford it. But he says applicants will be chosen based in part on potential for innovation. He hopes to recruit some experts in various aspects of starting a new business who might be available as advisors. He sees it partly as an option to people who are presently working at home, but would prefer the environment of an offbeat office.

Fore and aft are conference rooms, lit by large windows; he sees them as places for seminars, podcast lectures, and maybe a general reception area where newcomers can browse Knoxville's entrepreneurial fringe.

"I want to be able to just walk into a place, just walk in, not make an appointment, just walk in, and be plugged into a professional thing," he says.

Originally from Knoxville, Lavidge attended Oregon State University and the University of Iowa. He lived and worked in California's Silicon Valley for a couple of years, and it seems to have influenced his worldview. He did contract work in graphic design, "cleantech," human relations, public relations (it may be in the blood; his grandfather founded Knoxville PR firm Lavidge and Associates).

He says what he's trying to do is inspired in part by San Francisco's Renaissance Center, a large operation which has been in operation since 1985. K.O. has a board of five, plus maybe a dozen other dues-paying members, mostly young professionals between 20 and 40, nearly half of them from out of town. If we can judge by the number of accounts linked to K.O. by Facebook and Twitter, as Lavidge cites, more than 300 are at least interested.

It may remind some folks of a city initiative to capitalize on Market Square's astonishing tech company of the '90s, the computer-game company Cyberflix, which was wildly successful until suddenly it wasn't. Digital Crossing was to be the high-tech breeder originally proposed for Market Square about 10 years ago, but Lavidge says his group opens a bigger umbrella. "This is user-driven," he says. Among the likely first participants, he says, will be several tech startups—one that deals in iPhone applications, one in educational software, one in Internet advertising—but also two others whose innovations are mainly in clothing and shoes.

When he talks about another entrepreneur's apparently abortive plans for the 35 Market Square space—to rip out all the old engineers' offices to make it a two-story nightclub—he cringes more than you expect a guy in his 20s to.

"It's all great, I love it, it's awesome," he says of a downtown that seems to be teeming with restaurants, bars, and nightlife opportunities. "But we don't need any more bars or coffee shops. We've got the whole, let's-go-out-for-a-beer-and-hear-some-music thing down," he says. "Too much of anything is too much.

"I really see a bunch of what we're talking about as a social movement. To make this an up-and-coming, hip, prosperous entrepreneurial community."