story and photos by Kim Souza
It’s been one year in the making, but the ARK Challenge, the shared brainchild of a handful of entrepreneurial cheerleaders between Fayetteville and Little Rock, have made the dreams of at least three fledgling ventures come to fruition.
Two of those those teams have roots in Northwest Arkansas.
At Thursday’s (Nov. 8) final Demo Day held at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Gov. Mike Beebe announced the state would provide another $150,000 to help a third team elevate their business venture.
Beebe said there is too much talent to be ignored in this young generation and though he was grateful that the federal government and private money had given to this cause, he wanted the state to also do its part by granting a third team the same opportunity as the winning two.
“I asked our director of economic development to include a third company at the state’s expense. And while that will mean three companies get initial funding, I hope the other 12 will push on and make applications because there could be other avenues of help for them as well.” Beebe said. “We want them all to succeed, and when it’s possible, do so in Arkansas.”
Btiques, MineWhat and StackSearch were the three businesses chosen to receive the top prizes. They each waded through a tough field of international competition to get to the finalist stage which began 14 weeks ago. From more than 80 entries that field was narrowed to 15 teams, who each received $18,333 in start-up money in exchange for 6% stake in each company.
Sara Beck and Will Carter of Fayetteville – a sister and brother duo – hope to help small fashion boutique owners ramp up their e-commerce sales through a little venture they call Btiques.
“Our company is all about changing the way small boutique owners sell their products online and through our mobile application we are also to drive more traffic to their stores,” said CEO Beck.
She has a decade of marketing experience cutting her teeth at Saatchi & Saatchi X before launching her own marketing firm. Beck looked cool as a cucumber pitching the venture to a room of investors and the team of seven judges.
Btiques has already signed up a few local users is confident this new funding will help them scale up to meet be able to meet fashion buyers where they shop. Btiques was the only team among the 15 finalist to focus on fashion sales via e-commerce.
“Our product would be a big asset to the local business community by taking the online sales to another level and helping raise awareness of the stores in terms of social media,” Beck said.
The second team called to the stage was MineWhat, led by co-founders Janakiram (Ram) Ganesan, Pavan Kumar Thiruvuru Vijayan, who made the trek from Bangalore, India, to be part of the competition. Both are software techs who developed a cloud-based, user engagement platform to benefit e-commerce businesses.
The main goal of the software is to help companies yield a higher online conversion rate, thus increasing revenue.
“We are a company that wants to seek out fast solutions by asking the right questions,” said Ganesan. Our product will provide a better chance at bringing a customer back, because we are focusing on the user behavior as opposed to only the page traffic.”
The company is nine months in the making and will soon be ready to pilot. Ganesan says
Though both team members are from India, they hope to stay on in Arkansas as long as possible, Ganesan said.
Jeff Amerine, an investor and mentor of the Ark Challenge, said the program guidelines require the companies that get funding to have a headquarter presence in Arkansas, though it’s possible some of the services could be sourced from abroad.
“It’s also important to remember that the Ark Challenge has a 6% share in all of these businesses and we want them each to survive and flourish,” Amerine said.
StackSearch co-founders Mark Brandon and Sloan Ahrens, also of Fayetteville, made the final cut thanks to the governor’s announcement.
Sarah Scott, already an investor in the company, said “Governor Beebe is high on my list of favorite people.”
StackSearch, like the other two winners, focuses on e-commerce business. But their model is about the search engine, which Ahrens engineered and Brandon is selling.
This veteran duo has already signed on several clients and their search engine is being tested by a few others. Brandon said PackSave is using their product and reports a 43% jump in online revenue and sales between Oct. 10 and Nov. 7.
StackSearch hopes to help online retailers turn more browsers into buyers and buyers into repeat customers. This duo is ready to hire talent nearly immediately as they will need to scale up operations to reach the plethora of small to medium size online retailers they are anxious to serve.
Amerine said the ARK Challenge committee will meet with the teams next week to set forth the guidelines and start doling out the money. The mentoring that has taken place over the past 14 weeks will definitely continue as these three companies began to scale up, he said.
In the meantime, the ARK Challenge group is set on a sequel contest for which planning will begin in January.
“The competition will likely start in June and run to September because we don’t want to exclude college students. Amerine said.
Organizers estimate more than 100 investors, including local and out-of-state capital venture firms like Fulcrum Partners in Atlanta and Meritus Ventures out of Knoxville, Tenn., came to scope out the talent and look for possible investment opportunities.
“Being here today as investor/entrepreneur is equal to what attending the NFL combine would like for a football fanatic," said Kristian Andersen, of Gravity Ventures and one of the founders of the ARK Challenge.
Angel investor Ramsay Ball of Fayetteville also agreed. As soon as the competition winners were announced and the group dispersed he made his way to see the Sooligan team out of Berkley, Calif.
“This is a wonderful event in a beautiful venue and there is much talent and opportunity in this room, it’s astounding,” Ball said midway through the presentations.
Weiting Tan, founder of EpicPledge, said the past 14 weeks have been a world-wind experience that he will never forget. Tan, a native of Singapore, earned a finance degree in upstate New York, but said the ARK Challenge was a crash course in entrepreneurship that will likely prove invaluable, even though he his venture didn’t make the top three.
His co-founder, Anthony Chew, said the competition and entire experience has been wonderful opportunity to learn and make valuable connections that will likely endure.
Beebe’s announcement caught the audience and organizers by surprise. But the news was welcomed by all, including the seven judges who had to make the tough decisions.
Tom Dalton, of sponsoring Winrock International, joked the state would figure out some way to pay for it because the Governor’s check always clears.