The Knoxville Entrepreneur Center Hopes to Spark Digital Startups with MediaWorks

Jim Biggs has done the Bay Area startup thing. After taking time off from practicing law to care for his three daughters, Biggs joined a friend in a handbag startup business in San Francisco. But once the business got established, Biggs says he wanted explore his interest in technology, and joined a software consulting company. He served as Essention Group’s director of business solutions even as he and his family made the move to Knoxville, his wife’s hometown, a couple years ago. In January, he was hired as the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s new executive director.

The KEC was opened last year by the City of Knoxville as a place where small-business owners and entrepreneurs can get help to develop and support their businesses; the Market Square location was designed and renovated with the help of donations and grants from private and public organizations. There, Biggs teamed up with musician-tuned-CEO Jonathan Sexton—of the Big Love Choir music group, the Artist Growth app company, and Bandposters, a software-enabled promotional poster printing company—who is the KEC’s entrepreneur-in-residence. The pair had observed last fall’s general business accelerator program and the subsequent Startup Day (put on by the KEC) in which about 30 companies gave shorter pitches in a less formal setting after going through entrepreneurial programs. But they wanted a Silicon Valley-style, industry-specific accelerator program, one with a focus on digital media. Biggs and Sexton came up with MediaWorks, which had its first pitch session earlier this month. 
So now are we ready to finally enter the ranks of cities with burgeoning digital-media economies? 
Biggs isn’t under the impression that Knoxville will ever be able to compete with places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley in any industry—the state of California had more than $1 billion to invest in startups last year, and Tennessee had about $150 million. But, Biggs says, Knoxville has an advantage over smaller startup cities such as Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo. in fields like digital media, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, and advanced materials. With the help of well-established, stable institutions like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and companies like Scripps Networks and Local Motors, Biggs says smaller startups stand a good chance, even in what he calls a “risk-averse” business environment.
“We’ve got really strong corporate and institutional support where it’s not being dominated by much bigger economies. Knoxville can become an Austin or a Boulder in some of those sectors,” Biggs says. “Knoxville has a great opportunity and access to world-class resources that other areas would love to have.”
At MediaWorks’ Demo Day, held Aug. 5, the startups pitching their ideas were fresh off a 12-week course that began in May. They took over the stage at the Square Room and gave presentations summarizing their business ideas and plans in front of a crowd of about 200 people, some of whom were potential investors.
The participants in the inaugural program kept regular day jobs while attending three-hour sessions for two nights a week at the KEC. On Mondays, they went through a crash course in the business model canvas, which is a template for new startups to follow in order to define their ideas. On Thursdays, participants would hear from a local digital-media figure and practice pitching their business ideas based on what they’d learned and the homework they did that week. They’d also meet with the mentor they’d chosen to work with to talk about the week’s work. Sexton explains that MediaWorks was designed to produce high-tech companies that can grow quickly and show investment returns within a couple of years.
“These accelerator programs are specifically designed to help those companies get where they’re trying to go faster. And we can do nine or 10 at once,” Sexton says. “They’re not all going to succeed. But if four or five of those companies succeed, and they stay here, then that has a big impact on the local community.”
Before the KEC opened, most of the resources in Knoxville were focused on things like how to pay taxes as a small business. Tech 20/20, a public-private technology startup based in Oak Ridge, held accelerator programs, but it wasn’t focused on digital media. Nor is the University of Tennessee’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which caters to students. Neither of those programs would turn anyone away, Sexton says, but they didn’t fill the digital-media niche.
Haseeb Qureshi got his business psychology degree from Carnegie Mellon University, and came to UT to attend law school. During one summer, he managed a recording studio in Ojai, Calif., as a favor to a friend. He also taught himself how to code, and started Avenue Factory, a website development company. (The City of Knoxville hired Avenue Factory to work on its new website.) 
Qureshi was no stranger to the KEC. He’d spent time there trying to develop some other music industry-related ideas that didn’t work out, and brainstormed with Sexton to come up with AudioHand. The program offers bands a certain amount of cloud-based storage space for audio tracks recorded on multiple smartphones, which will be mixed by AudioHand into demo tape-quality work. Qureshi asked his friends in local band the Black Cadillacs to help test his software as he built it. 
Qureshi says the most valuable part about the program was being able to hear constructive criticism from actual digital media entrepreneurs.
“Putting the idea out there in front of so many people just for them to potentially shoot down, [but] having a culture where it’s okay to criticize—that was huge,” he says. “Everything the lessons covered seemed like common sense that we already have in us, but the way that they phrased it and talked about it, you could tell there was the power of research behind it.”
Qureshi says he’s gotten very strong interest from a few investors after pitching AudioHand at Demo Day.
Frank Podlaha has been a computer software consultant since 2007, and has been involved with the KEC since it opened last year. The startup he pitched at Demo Day, Street Jelly, is already coming up on its two-year anniversary. He says he’s sought business advice and support from just about every available avenue in Knoxville, but MediaWorks offered something more.
“For me the biggest thing was connections,” he says. “When I started Street Jelly, I did not pursue funding. I totally bootstrapped it. It’s hard to get seed funding for an idea.” 
Street Jelly allows artists around the world to stream live video of them playing in their living rooms, and to receive tips. Viewers can buy tokens through PayPal to tip the musicians like they might tip street performers. Podlaha says he built the website, which he and his wife run by themselves. The next step for Street Jelly is going mobile, which is what Podlaha plans to do with any investment he receives. 
Stuart Jones was in the opposite situation as Podlaha. He didn’t even have an idea for a business when Sexton asked him to apply for MediaWorks. Jones was a mechanical engineer at ORNL but quit when he grew tired of the work and the office culture. He taught himself how to use video equipment by watching YouTube videos and filmed a video contest entry for a friend. The company hosting the contest, Festool Woodworking Tools, liked the entry so much they hired Jones to film more marketing videos. Since then, he’s also worked with Under Armour on an internal corporate video. And he did all that with little outside support.
“I knew there was such a thing as the KEC—they seemed very unattainable. I didn’t realize I could just walk in [to the KEC] and talk to people for business advice,” he says.
But after talking to Sexton about his work, he agreed to participate in MediaWorks with no knowledge of what the course would involve. He soon realized the program was prepping him to run a business that could potentially bring in millions of dollars. This particularly venture might not lead to those millions, but the instruction (provided by Nashville consultants the Back Porch Group) focused on how to start businesses that can grow quickly and bring in that kind of money. 
Jones, who’d recently purchased a drone, parlayed his work with local Realtors into the business Airborne Digital. The idea is that real estate agents will cut their repeated expenditures on photos for house listings by downloading an app that costs $50, buying a drone, some sensors, and an HD video camera (all one-time expenses), and shooting videos of the houses they’re trying to sell. 
Jones hasn’t built the app, but he says he’s been able to establish valuable connections thanks to MediaWorks, not just for Airborne Digital, but for his videography company Stuart Jones Media.
“I definitely think Stuart Jones Media will never be the same,” he says. “If Airborne goes anywhere, it’ll be because of MediaWorks.”
Both Sexton and Biggs say they hope they can make the next MediaWorks program (which will again run from May to early August next year) a full-time program. The advantage of a full-time program would be that participants would get something similar to a stipend, and come out of the program as a fully operational company. Biggs says whether the next MediaWorks program is full-time depends on what the participants want and need.
“If the teams that are applying need to do it as a second job, we will,” he says. 
The inaugural MediaWorks cohort was all-male, and mostly white. But that was due mostly to the fact that it was put together in about a month, Sexton says, and Biggs and Sexton had to personally ask people to apply for the program. 
“Going forward, there will be a much greater emphasis on diversity of all kinds,” Biggs says. “We really want to make sure we’re not leaving anyone out.”
People who are interested in participating should stop by the KEC at 17 Market Square, Biggs says, or give him a call at 865-282-4322.
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