Entrepreneurship is alive and well in Arkansas, but it is requiring a more dynamic entrepreneurial mentality and environment to develop the next generation of start-ups.
From traditional businesses in new markets to new businesses in traditional markets, there's no shortage of ideas, efforts, or energy.
But where do you go to get started?
There are choices and access to that information that are becoming easier to tap than at any time in the state's past.
Sam Walls, CEO of Arkansas Capital Corporation, has launched a new web site through his organization called ArkSourceLink.com.
The one-stop shop for entrepreneurs offers resource assistance, government data, venture forum information, mentorship opportunities, and a variety of educational access. It's all at your fingertips 24/7.
“If your 'free' time to research comes around at 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday, you need to have the capability to find the information you need then, without having to wait for 8:00 a.m.,” says Walls. “We use the 'e-Harmony for businesses' analogy to describe our efforts to people. Imagine that you’re a business looking for help furthering your marketing skills or marketing plan. You can go to the website, and, after entering information on what you are looking for, you will soon have on screen a list of good 'fits' for what you need to help you move your business to the next level.
Parts of ArkSourceLink.com are still under development and Walls suggests that may be a permanent part of the web site's entrepreneurial appeal.
“This site will never be what we would call 'complete.' It will be constantly updated, with new material always going up and pulling obsolete material down. It will, in essence be, a living site,” Walls said.
THEY'RE OUT THERE
There's no shortage of entrepreneurs vying to be the next Sam Walton, John Tyson or J.B. Hunt.
According to statistics kept by the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center (ASBTDC), there have been an average of 456 participants annually for the past 4 years in the group's popular “Starting a Business in Arkansas” classes.
The three-hour program covers the major steps crucial to starting a business, such as required licenses, permits and taxes. It also provides the foundation for defining the most critical aspect of a new business: does the enterprise have a market?
“Before launching any type of business, entrepreneurs need to be sure a market exists for their products or services,” says Janet Roderick, director of the ASBTDC.
Her organization offers tailored market research for clients with high-quality information coming from three sources: subscriptions to dozens of proprietary market research databases, special mapping software, and the wide range of academic resources ASBTDC has access to as a university-based program.
“Our consultants across the state work one-on-one with entrepreneurs, offering personalized guidance and recommendations on how to interpret and implement market research findings,” Roderick says. “With a 'street value' in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, the market research data and analysis ASBTDC provides would typically be out of the price range of small businesses, but our services are free for current and prospective Arkansas small business owners.”
CLEARING THE HURDLES
Knowledge to getting started is a huge hurdle for many first-time entrepreneurs, and a second huge hurdle — once the homework is done — is finding access to capital.
In northwest Arkansas, an innovative start-up incubator is hoping to propel a new generation of entrepreneurs over that hurdle.
The ARK Challenge is a program tied to the Iceberg CoWorking Space in Fayetteville. The $2.1 million initiative is sponsored by Winrock International, a non-profit focused on rural development, in partnership with University of Arkansas and NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
The ARK challenge just closed its application deadline last weekend in its effort to recruit 15 tech start-ups into a 14-week program aimed at ultimately providing funding for the best of those start-up models.
The 15 finalists will receive $18,000 in funding in exchange for 6 percent of equity with the ultimate goal of winning $150,000 in additional funding.
Shortly before the deadline closed, ARK operators said they had scores of applicants from 7 different countries and 11 different states.
The tech push is part of developing the next evolution of companies to serve the region's major players: Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt, says Mike Harvey, COO of the influential Northwest Arkansas Council.
“We'd be foolish not to take advantage of food, logistics and retail to capitalize on,” he said. “We're kind of weaving in our entrepreneurial programs with that next generation. How do you do IT and mobile applications to support those types of industries? That's where we feel like the next boom is for us.”
Harvey says the region's approach to home-growing new start-ups needs an ecosystem to thrive in, but not necessarily a formula.
“There's no real magic elixir to entrepreneurship,” says Harvey. “If you're an aspiring entrepreneur, how do we get you from idea to full-blown company? There's a process that a company goes through in our ecosystem. It's validate your idea, give you mentorship to bring that along, provide physical space for you in an affordable fashion to nurture you and grow your company, and hopefully connect you with investors in northwest Arkansas or abroad to fund your idea or product and keep you here.”
The ASBTDC's Roderick describes that ecosystem in broader professional terms.
“While an entrepreneur may have the vision and skills to operate a business, he or she may not be an expert on every aspect of business ownership and management,” she says.
She advises start-ups to work with accountants, insurance agents, attorneys, and bankers to provide valuable perspective on a plan, which can also help provide “a reality check.”
“Trying to avoid the expense of using professionals for specialized services can end up costing more time and money in the long run,” Roderick said.
She also advises a trip to the Secretary of State's office before getting started to file proper paperwork and to make sure a business name doesn't already exist.
Arkansas Capital Corporation's Walls circles back to the catalyst for his ArkSourceLink.com site. He contends that entrepreneurship will be the saving grace and future catalyst for pushing Arkansas' economy forward.
“Statistically speaking, entrepreneurship is where the jobs are,” said Walls. “As a nation, we have become dependent on the ingenuity of our people to move us forward and to continue to power our economy. Entrepreneurship isn’t some new fad –- we’ve always had entrepreneurs, it’s just that in the last decade or so, this country has started taking a second, closer look at entrepreneurship out of necessity.”
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