Michael Burcham - Only at full speed

Michael Burcham is the non-stop dynamo powering the fledgling Nashville Entrepreneur Center [From our print edition featured in Monday's City Paper]

By Erin Lawley


11-08-2010 12:06 AM —

It’s not yet daylight when Michael Burcham arrives at the office. Really, at this hour, it’s not much of anything downtown because the bulk of white-collar crowd has yet to emerge from bed. But there’s Burcham, at 5:30 a.m., flipping on the lights at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center’s Lower Broadway home.

An hour later, after much email checking and calendar arranging, he zips down to Cool Springs for a 7:30 a.m. speaking engagement. By 10 a.m., he’s back in Nashville for a solid day of meetings —with executives incubating their businesses in the EC, with entrepreneurs who want incubator space, with the leader of a local business association, with one of the EC’s founders, and so on — until sometime after 7 p.m.

There’s just enough time to switch rooms, switch topics and deal with a stream of interruptions: During one entrepreneur’s investor pitch rehearsal, Burcham is summoned — it’s good practice to just keep going, he tells the presenter — and doesn’t return. Staff members, entrepreneurs and visitors intercept him — and he them — as he darts from office to conference room to the incubating companies’ desks lining the perimeter of the second-floor space. His iPhone continually alights with text messages, emails and phone calls. In lieu of a real lunch, he bolts a handful of saltines at the start of his 2 o’clock meeting.

It’s the pace of a typical day. (Except for Sundays, when he only logs about seven hours of work.) And it’s exactly what Burcham signed up for when he took the president and CEO posts at the fledgling center in July.

“Running the EC is a start-up experience,” Burcham said. “I expected to spend 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s what I got.”

Getting stuck in traffic

While it might seem exhausting, Burcham shows no sign of fatigue or even a dip in the thoughtful focus and enthusiasm he brings to every interaction. He is setting the tone for the office, he said, by demonstrating the sweat equity it takes to earn success.

So far, his strategy seems to be working.

The Entrepreneur Center’s mission is to “connect entrepreneurs with critical resources to accelerate business creation and growth.” It’s described as the “front door” for Nashville’s entrepreneurs, a home for networking and training events, mentoring opportunities with successful Nashville entrepreneurs and a resource lab with information on turning a business concept into a viable company.

It’s the EC’s incubator program, however, that makes the organization hum. Entrepreneurs accepted into the program pay $2,500 for a three-month lease that gets them a desk, a parking pass and a business address with the standard office trappings — Web access, printing, copying and the like.

More importantly, entrepreneurs in the incubator program get a weekly meeting with Burcham, daily access to the myriad board members and volunteers who serve as mentors, and introductions to a range of potentially valuable partners, clients and other contacts Burcham brings through the EC every day. The goal: In three to six months, a company will have moved from an idea to “an investable story” that’s ready to raise capital and grow.

“It’s like this unofficial crash course in entrepreneurship,” said Jason Moore of HealthDataSource, one of the 10 companies currently incubating in the EC.

Moore said he was attracted by the opportunity of getting in front of Burcham and taking advantage of his expertise and that of the entrepreneurs and business people Burcham brings to the EC week after week.

“The flow of traffic here is every big name in town,” Moore said — names that would otherwise be difficult to get in front of.

That traffic is what entrepreneur Jonathan Kerr says has been most valuable to him in launching J9 Group, which is developing Web and mobile platforms to bring together data from physicians, pharmacies, hospitals and health care payers.

“The best thing it has done for me is it has provided a hyper-networking experience beyond what I could do in a normal social scene,” Kerr said. “Every morning I walk in, Michael will always call me into his office, or I’ll walk by, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, Jonathan, come in here. I’ve got something lined up for you, I just want you to know.’”

Peer to peer, too

Then there’s the collaboration that takes place among incubating companies. With the EC’s incubator space now half full and an entourage of part-time staffers and college students hanging out and helping out, the center is bustling come mid-afternoon. People are huddled in groups of three or four around the office, seeking feedback and suggestions — or offering them unsolicited.

Chris Thompson and Will Green, co-founders of incubating company SplitSecond, said they were discussing writing their business plan one morning when the entrepreneur at the next desk suggested some software he’d used to write his own.

“Since everyone is kind of doing the same thing in different phases, people just say, ‘Oh, I just had that problem and it was a nightmare. Here’s how I did it,’ and it’s been really helpful,” Green said.

That environment didn’t create itself. Burcham handpicks the companies that get to incubate in the EC in order to foster a creative and collaborative atmosphere. In each entrepreneur he meets — roughly 100 since July — he’s looking for commitment, perseverance and the strongest concepts, he said. By picking the companies with the best chances for success, the EC begins to feel like a start-up factory.

“You get eight or 10 people together who have a common culture and work ethic, and you don’t need anyone to manage anything,” Burcham said. “You just get the hell out of their way and they do amazing stuff.”

From questioner to candidate

Burcham built his entrepreneurial knowledge over a nearly 30-year career. Most recently, he served as a clinical faculty member at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, a post he took in 2007 after the company he founded in 2000, ParadigmHealth, was acquired for $230 million.

During his time as an entrepreneur, corporate board member and angel investor, Burcham estimates he’s vetted between 300 and 400 business ideas. But he didn’t get involved with the EC intending to become its leader. As a donor and board member, he sat on the search committee that was interviewing candidates for the job.

“But the more I got into it, the more I realized I was not going to start a company right now, and I had this enormous sense of, ‘This is something you should really spend a chunk of your life doing,’” he said.

Burcham and applicants from across the country went through a “very intensive interview process and selection criteria process,” according to HealthStream CEO Bobby Frist, who was on the EC’s CEO selection committee. An EC board member, Frist in 2007 co-led the 75-member task force that first developed the EC concept.

Frist said the board recently met for a 90-day EC progress update. “We all left that board meeting feeling confident we had selected the right person for growing this,” he said. “It’s a critical stage in the beginning to gather interest and secure funding for some capital needs, so having Michael at the helm is exciting.”

On Nov. 11, the EC will kick off a capital campaign to help it raise $5 million to $8 million, said board finance committee chair Chris Calton of Avondale Partners. The money will go toward the roughly $3 million renovation of the EC’s future, expanded home — one of the trolley barns on Rolling Mill Hill — and create an endowment to help the incubator sustain itself. Revenue from rent paid by entrepreneurs, as well as sponsorships and grant money will also help support its operations and staff.

Calton said the EC is exceeding expectations as it moves down a path intended to foster future economic development in Middle Tennessee. He credits that partly to better-than-anticipated demand from entrepreneurs, and partly to Burcham’s hard work.

“You know, I have sent him emails at 3:30 in the morning and gotten responses by 4,” Calton said of Burcham. “I get the sense he really only goes at full speed.”


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