Knoxville, TN isn’t a startup hub. Here is what it needs to do

The city of Knoxville, TN has been working to establish itself as a startup community for quite some time now. Probably longer than most people would recognize. I know, because myself and a hand full of others have been involved in that push. But the reality is that the city of Knoxville, and surrounding cities, have been a hub for innovation since long before our time. One need only look about 15 miles away to Oak Ridge, TN, where the first atomic bombs were developed, to see our early innovative times.

Still, outside of the two commercialization giants of ORNL and the University of Tennessee, the grassroots startup scene in Knoxville has struggled to establish itself as a true startup community. It isn’t for a lack of effort from key stakeholders. In fact, the infrastructure that is necessary to create a startup hub is mostly in place.

Just look at the number of organizations in and around Knoxville that are available to help entrepreneurs through their startup journey. Yet, with all those resources, the city still isn’t what I would consider a startup hub.

Here are a few things that need to come together to get Knoxville on the startup map.

Capital — some of the more prevalent startup communities are flush with sources of capital. While organizations like Angel Capital Group and others have worked hard to support local entrepreneurs with access to growth-stage capital, there still isn’t enough to capital to go around.

Talent — there are some really smart people in Knoxville. Unfortunately, the vast majority don’t understand entrepreneurship and startups. And of those that do, most end up just treating being an entrepreneur as a hobby. I can say that because I am one of “those people”.

A defined niche — Knoxville has yet to define the startup industry that it wants to be known for. When you think Silicon Valley you think tech. New York City is known for fintech. Probably the closest startup niche Knoxville could be known for is media companies. Still, Knoxville hasn’t made a definitive move to stake its name on that industry.

Exits — the startup industry is all about exits. Knoxville has had a few startups scale to the point of being bought out. But I would be surprised if you can name a handful.

Noise — as someone with a Marketing brain I am in awe of the lack of noise Knoxville creates around its startup community and the companies within that ecosystem. When the city does have a startup exit or something worthy of news there is usually only one or two players screaming about it to the world. If I were the city of Knoxville I would consider hiring a PR firm (wink, wink) to manage the distribution of startup news within the community.

To become a startup hub Knoxville only needs to decide that it is going to put a focused effort on doing so. The city can no longer dabble in entrepreneurship. Attract the right talent, provide them with the resources (including capital) necessary to be successful and make sure everyone knows about it.

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I’m a former C-level banking exec. and 3x startup founder leading a corporate innovation/product team and have helped companies raise over $500M in funding.

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