Tom Ballard, a Southern startup advocate, doesn’t know how to quit

Ep. #30 of the SouthFound podcast - Tom Ballard of Teknovation

*This interview was recorded for episode #30 of the SouthFound podcast

From newspapers to entrepreneurship & startups

Tom Ballard grew up interested in the newspaper industry. In fact, while in college he thought he wanted to be a reporter. Until his future father-in-law questioned his career choice.

Luckily, for the Southern startup community, Tom’s dream of founding a weekly newspaper never came to fruition.

Tom’s interest in entrepreneurship and startups goes back almost 25 years. But the professional background that led Tom to where he is today starts at the University of Tennessee. 

Tom spent 35 years at the university, eventually ending up as the Vice President for Public & Governmental Relations. It was here that he gained experience around economic development and helping the Tennessee economic engine grow. After a 35 year career, Tom decided it was time to slow down. Or so he thought.

His next venture, working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory with tech transfer and partnership development,  would bring entrepreneurship and startups into Tom's full focus. 

Tom had served in 1994 as a founding board member and eventually the third chairman of Technology 20/20 (later shortened to Tech 2020). Tech 2020 was created as an area-wide initiative to provide technology and innovation. According to Tom, it is Tech 2020 that is the foundation upon which much of the East Tennessee startup community is built upon. With ORNL’s partnership with Tech 2020, Tom again engaged with that organization.

Once again, Tom felt it might be time to slow down. Or so he thought.

Teknovation is born

In January 2012 Ed Pershing, a co-founder of the professional services firm PYA, asked Tom to come aboard to lead initiatives designed to increase the company’s exposure in the community. One of those initiatives was the creation of the Teknovation blog. 

On January 23, 2012, the Teknovation blog was published with the early plan of featuring local entrepreneurship and start-up stories. Over five years later, Tom is still producing daily content. In fact, he has become so proficient at publishing that content is currently scheduled for six weeks out. He has also completed over 1500 interviews. Content marketers could learn a lot from Tom’s content schedule.

Later in our time together I asked Tom why the Eastern Tennessee startup community struggled to make a name for itself. While access to capital is often blamed, Tom didn’t feel that was the case. Rather, Tom felt that the parties involved have failed to set their identity and have not been clear about the target market of businesses that they are trying to attract. 

Finally, I asked Tom what was next on his plate. Having recently turned over his responsibilities as COO of PYA’s analytics division, he is continuing with his role as publisher, author, and editor of the Teknovation blog, as well as helping out with a few upcoming startup events in both Chattanooga, Tennessee and Knoxville, Tennessee.

What finally does appear to be on the horizon is slowing down. From nearly 60 hours a week to 30-40 hours a week. Notice I didn’t mention retirement. 

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