Jess Knox figures he was born to stir things up.

Born in Waterville, he grew up in York and then spent some time working on grass-roots political projects around the country. In 2009, he joined Karen Mills’ senior executive team at the U.S. Small Business Administration, where he oversaw regional administration offices.

He spent three years at the SBA, “looking at what was working and what could be improved” while commuting between Washington, D.C., and Maine.

“It was a liberal interpretation of living in Maine,” Knox said.

He returned to the state hoping to help encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. He founded Olympico Strategies, a business consulting firm, and last year co-founded Maine Startup & Create Week in his capacity as coordinator of Blackstone Accelerates Growth. The event featured a weeklong series of workshops, panel discussions and networking sessions designed to help people start and grow businesses.

The second and expanded version of Maine Startup & Create Week will be held June 22 to June 28.


Q: How did you come to help create Maine Startup & Create Week in Maine?

A: I went to a conference in Boulder (Colorado) with Brad Feld (a high-tech investor and proponent of fostering startup companies). He talked about the movement of creating startup companies around the world and encouraged people to do the same in their hometowns. So I was in the right place and right time, but I’m also a pretty good agitator, and we started to do it and had a successful first year last year.

Q: What’s the idea behind the week’s events?

A: We try to use the power of convening people from not just Maine, but all over the region and all over the country, to focus on the skills and mindsets to create a community of entrepreneurship. Using the intensity of multi-day events, we engineer serendipitous connections between people and resources and have workshops on skills. It’s for people who want to take more risks with their companies or for people in the food industry. It’s intended to be a mix of people with different backgrounds.

Q: Why do people with enough confidence to start their own company need help like that?

A: People have seen the “valley of death” (the time between a company’s initial startup and when it develops a product or service enough to bring it to market) as a barrier. They need talent, mentoring, the community encouraging them and a risk-taking profile to help them get through that. That’s what we’ve seen around the country – that a community can help grow its entrepreneurship. Maine is really great at building small companies, but when it comes to growing to a higher-level company, sometimes we’re not as successful. And that’s where job creation comes from – high-growth, high-impact companies.


Q: Can you explain more about the valley of death?

A: It’s this construct of economic theory that companies get to a certain level that they can’t get by. People thought that the way to grow entrepreneurship and innovation is only through (access to) capital, but what we’ve learned is it’s more than just capital. That effort can be accelerated by creating networks of people who know that they’re not the only person in their community doing it. Having a network to encourage you, help you get the resources, helping you get back up if you fail is a very important part of a startup-and-create community.

Q: What are some of the features of a community that helps entrepreneurs?

A: How communities focus on conditions for growth is important, like a transparent and predictable regulatory environment. It’s also about encouraging collaboration between existing companies and nascent companies. Partnerships and joint ventures are important, capital is important, and talent and an attitude of embracing the possibility of the future and not just the challenges of the past are important.

Q: How will the second Maine Startup & Create Week be different from the first?

A: It’s an evolution from last year. We’ve had more than 35 volunteers meeting every week since mid-February to go over three tracks: the specialty food track for people in the food industry; the track for small-business owners who want to take more risks; and the scaling growth track. We’re trying to put together content for innovators and what they’re facing. We’ve looked at trends, like different models for businesses. We’ve put together panels and sessions that are focused on them and we’re trying to mix together folks from Maine and folks who are not from Maine. It’s important to mix people together. Then we recruit people from all over the country to be here. It’s an all-volunteer effort and there’s a lot of persuasive outreach that happens. One thing different this year is we have a different keynote speaker every day – speakers who are looking at the future from a 100,000-foot level.


Q: Why the focus on food businesses?

A: Because it’s here. We’re not trying to create things that aren’t happening and we have a very vibrant food industry and a lot of people who are working to create that. We have the agricultural side and the restaurant side, so part of it is looking at the capacity we have in the community. Last year we had two sessions on food-related companies and they were packed. We see a lot of food companies that want to grow, so we want to create content for a week of that. There are a lot of industries that we could have done tracks for this year, but we thought the food industry would be a good one. We think it will be value-added.

Q: What do you see down the road for Startup & Create Weeks?

A: Time will tell. That’s the advantage of being an event, not an organization – we can be really agile. If we get great feedback on something, we’d look at that. Or if another partner comes in and wants to do something, we’d look at that. That’s the advantage of this – we’re really open, we try to be as agile as possible and we’re open to different models along the way. Every year, we’ll look and evolve and see how we’re doing. That’s the fun part of it.


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