Evan Austill

B.S. Human and Organizational Development, Class of 1993; Master of Business Administration, Class of 2004

Founder & CEO, Tennessee Harvester

Could you provide a brief recap of your career since graduating from Vanderbilt?

I’ve started three companies since Owen and have helped many others launch their businesses as well, primarily across the healthcare and cannabis space.  I founded Veran Medical Technologies while at Owen with classmate Jerome Edwards (’04). On graduation day we launched a medical device company doing groundbreaking things in image guided pulmonary biopsy. Veran sold to Olympus at the end of last year, a fantastic capstone from my time at Owen. 

After Veran, I founded PatientFocus in 2011, again with an Owen alum, David Frederiksen (’96). PatientFocus offers patient friendly billing options for patients with the greatest financial needs. We scaled the platform using unprecedented transparency, flexibility and compassion in the patient billing space and the company has found its niche in the oncology space. 

I next took a pivot to serve as the founding CEO for 3 Boys Farm, one of the first eight vertically licensed medical cannabis companies in Florida. I led the capitalization strategy, cultivation and production plan, and go-to-market effort that quickly created acquisition interest from a publicly traded multi-state cannabis operator. We sold the company just 18 months after our license was awarded and provided our investors a tremendous exit. 

After the sale of 3 Boys, I returned to Nashville to see CBD and the hemp industry exploding in Tennessee. Massive amounts of capital pouring into nascent and volatile markets, too many ‘me too’s’ chasing too few sophisticated operators, and a no-stop hype cycle gave hemp in Tennessee all of the markings of a gold rush. Looking at who needs picks and shovels was a driving factor in founding Tennessee Harvester

Despite large volumes of growers and processors of raw hemp, there were no reliable, compliant end stage manufacturers of hemp-based ingredients.  Our service model is stabilizing the hemp supply chain and we are creating a center for excellence in Nashville for cannabis and CBD-derived products for consumer packaged goods companies.

What is your company and where did the idea come from? What served as the biggest motivator or influence in starting your company?

Headquartered in Nashville, TN, Tennessee Harvester is a cGMP-certified manufacturer of premium plant-based cannabinoid products. We act as the industry’s true north by delivering premium products, exceptional service and industry-leading transparency. We serve the southeastern hemp supply chain with the resources, technology and sales channels to increase market access for plant-based wellness products. 

With Tennessee Harvester, I saw an opportunity to address the paradox between the massive and growing interest in CBD and the byzantine patchwork of regulations governing the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of those products. I also wanted to bring attention to the hypocrisy that products like cigarettes and opioids (known causes of heart disease, cancer, addiction, and death) are commonly sold while the lack of a regulatory pathway for CBD products still stifles an industry that can do so much good for so many. 

Consumers deserve safe, quality CBD products, but typical regulatory guidelines for production and distribution are non-existent. Tennessee Harvester has filled that vacuum of leadership by creating production standards that exceed the highest pharmaceutical standards. Our hallmarks are quality, consistency and trust- core values that didn’t exist in the industry when we started three years ago. 

What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur and how have you worked to overcome this challenge?

One challenge all entrepreneurs face is uncertainty. New models emerge when you do things differently. That means there is no playbook, and you must take risks with limited information. Being able to calmly assess risk and to develop confidence in making critical decisions quickly are both important skills to develop. Michael Burcham taught us in Catalyst that you’ll hope for about 60% of the information that you’d like. That’s a good rule of thumb. And you can usually trust your gut. If things feel off they may be, but the right decision usually feels right.  

What qualities are most important to possess as an entrepreneur?

Courage and humility, discipline and flexibility, & persistence and patience are all great traits of effective entrepreneurs, but perhaps the most important is balance? Great leaders balance the courage to lead with the humility to take blame for all failures and give credit for every success. Founders are long on passion and determination, but the successful ones temper raw drive with the ability to listen and learn- to wisely pivot with market demand. Building a successful company takes longer than you think. It’s important to balance the persistence to keep driving with the patience to appreciate the journey of building amazing things with amazing people.

What are you most proud of about your business?

The vision we created for an industry that didn’t exist three years ago. That and the caliber of the team we’ve built to execute our plan. When you pioneer a new venture in an emerging sector, there is no assurance of success. When you put your model to market and it works, it is an incredibly gratifying experience. When you trust your resolve to try things others won’t, or do things others say don’t, and customers validate your thesis, it makes all the difference in the world. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have assembled a diverse group of leaders who are collectively committed to the success of our vision.

What advice do you have for students as they launch their business? Are there any tools you consistently use as an entrepreneur?

Our culture romanticizes the entrepreneurial journey. “Shark Tank” is fun, and billion-dollar unicorns are as abundant as ever, making start up life look like a cool way to overnight riches. In reality, most start-ups fail, require far more time and capital than anticipated, and almost never see the straight-forward path to success originally envisioned. 

I find joy in taking a company from a raw idea to profitability. This means consistently making hard decisions while knowing how often you’ll be wrong. Good, bad, right, or wrong, every major decision you make can be a weight. Facing never-ending obstacles that block your vision from becoming a reality is frustrating. 

Curiosity and humility go a long way in keeping things in perspective. Try to appreciate the gift of taking an idea into reality and prize the milestones along the way. If you can see the opportunities that hard obstacles provide and can understand that challenges are an important part of personal growth and character development, entrepreneurship can be an incredibly fulfilling career path.

What do you do to live a balanced life? Do you have any interesting or fun hobbies?

When I’m not working, I spend as much time as possible with my daughter. She’s my light and I’m always looking for shared experiences with her. My gratitude for our time makes me appreciate the hard work and sacrifice required in building my company. I also have a growing skate & surf habit that seems to be getting worse. I’m up to three boards and travel to ride waves multiple times each year. Learning a challenging sport later in life is a lot like being an entrepreneur- if you want to get good, nothing beats hard work and persistence!