Lane Shuler wasn’t planning to start an entrepreneurship center.
He had just finished his spoken word poetry set and was back in his car after a long day of work—first, at his day job, then at the venue performing slam poetry, which was his hobby. He’d changed out of his suit in a hurry when he got to the performing center, and his tie was lying across the passenger’s seat.
That’s when he realized that his 9-5 job, the thing he was only doing to pay his bills, was slowly killing him. He decided to pursue a career in spoken word performance and supplement it with realtor work.
In 2018, Lane and two other entrepreneurs, Rachel Buchanan and Jeremy LaDuke, decided that they wanted to open an entrepreneurship center to support local entrepreneurs in Blount County, Tennessee. They wanted people in their region to have what they didn't when they were starting out—a community of likeminded people on the same journey .
“I think part of opening Sky City Entrepreneur Center was just trying to shine a light on the joy of small business ownership,” Lane explained. “I didn’t really know that there was another option. But I want other people to know that they can own their own time and how well it works for people.”
The entrepreneurship center opened in October of 2019.
“The founders saw the model of successful entrepreneurship centers like Chattanooga’s CO.LAB and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and wanted to bring it here to Blount County,” explained Shannon Bryant, the Community Manager at Sky City.
Shortly after they opened, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Sky City to close their doors, but they were able to survive financially thanks to an out-of-town business renting their space throughout 2020. The nonprofit hosted their grand reopening in the spring of 2021 and hired Shannon as their sole employee that July.
“Blount County, which includes Smoky Mountain National Park, is a large county with several municipalities,” Shannon explained. “We get lots of tourists visiting the national park, so I’d describe the area as very hospitality-focused. We have lots of crafters and service-oriented businesses, including hotels and food service.”
They believed that the best way to support the entrepreneurs in their community would be through a center that offered both a coworking space and structured entrepreneurship programs.
“One of the reasons we have a coworking space is because our founders realized that entrepreneurs are often isolated. But in community, we find strength. In the coworking space, I’ve seen partnerships form—people are willing to step up and support each other in community.”
"In CO.STARTERS program cohorts, people form relationships, reach out to each other, and continue to support each other after the programs. And that’s a huge help to people, just knowing that there’s a group of folks that’s got their back."
-Shannon Bryant, Community Manager at Sky City Entrepreneur Center
The entrepreneurial community that’s risen around Sky City is one of the most notable features of the center. But the founders also recognized a need for structured educational programs that would lead entrepreneurs through every step of starting a successful business.
“In addition to building camaraderie, accelerator programs give you a roadmap and a network of mentors and stories,” Lane said.
People approach entrepreneurship in different ways, Shannon added. She explained that they’ve had entrepreneurs who have planned and saved for entrepreneurship, and some who have had it thrust on them due to life changes like injuries or caring for elderly parents. Sky City has supported entrepreneurs from various backgrounds and education levels.
“But none of those people don’t know what they don’t know.”
Sky City realized that offering cohort-based programs helped entrepreneurs from all backgrounds as they built their businesses by providing them with resources and accountability from the community.
In the spring of 2022, they launched their first CO.STARTERS cohort. Since then, they’ve had 40 businesses go through CO.STARTERS programs, including CO.STARTERS Core and CO.STARTERS Bootcamp.
“In CO.STARTERS program cohorts, people form relationships, reach out to each other, and continue to support each other after the programs. And that’s a huge help to people, just knowing that there’s a group of folks that’s got their back,” Shannon said.
The impact of small businesses has trickled through Maryville and the larger Blount County community. The community has worked together to buy from and support local businesses and give back to the Sky City Entrepreneur Center.
“I like to quote a statistic that small businesses support local causes at a rate 250% higher than larger businesses,” Shannon said. “So when we’re investing in these smaller businesses, we’re investing in our community, and we’re investing in the success of Blount County as a whole.”