As captain in the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War, Jeff Amerine was part of an elite team that manned nuclear weapons systems at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
He once designed and delivered defense electronics and commercial satellite communication network systems in Baltimore, Maryland, for Westinghouse Electric Co. Inc., one of the world’s largest nuclear power firms.
And, back home in Arkansas, Amerine served as vice president of communication and networking for American Freightways and later worked for Silicon Valley-based KonaWare.
His career has been exciting and has consisted of a wide range of experiences. However, Amerine considers the seven years he spent commercializing technology at the University of Arkansas to be the highlight so far.
“I always felt as though I could see the tangible impact resulting from the work with the students and researchers. Every time a new student-led or researcher-inspired venture launched, it was tremendously gratifying to be a small part of that process,” Amerine said.
He resigned Dec. 31 from his position as associate vice provost of research and economic development at the UA, in order to spend more time at Startup Junkie Consulting LLC, which he founded in 2011 and of which he still serves as principal.
He plans to continue teaching entrepreneurship classes at the Sam M. Walton College of Business and also to work closely with the UA, as the school supports a cause that is central to the work Amerine has done in the area — especially through Startup Junkie — to establish a lasting venture ecosystem.
A Full-Time Job
Amerine has become known for his efforts in promoting entrepreneurship. He and his team have served as mentors for a number of business owners and have both created and participated in many programs and events, all with the purpose to develop, attract and retain talent — both technical and founder talent — and to make sure there are capital sources for every stage of a company’s life cycle, from seed money, to venture capital funding, to private equity.
But Amerine wants to do more.
“I started to find it was something I couldn’t do on a part-time, after-hours basis,” he said.
And two shots in the arm for Startup Junkie’s mission might have expedited his decision to go full-time.
The first was a $2 million (dispersed over three years) grant from the Walton Family Foundation awarded to Winrock International, a Little Rock-based nonprofit that works closely with Startup Junkie.
In 2015, that money will help increase the depth of programs and one-to-one mentoring efforts it already provides in Northwest Arkansas, Amerine said.
The second affirmation of Startup Junkie’s cause came via a $500,000 U.S. Small Business Administration contract, which is renewable up to three years and will be used to fund entrepreneurial services for businesses led by military veterans, women, Latin Americans, Native Americans and Marshallese in Northwest Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri.
Conéctate/Get Connected 2015 Women and Minority Business Expo, set for May 5 at the Springdale Civic Center, is one event new that serves these community members.
Intended for business owners and also those interested in starting a business, it will bring together resources for entrepreneurs, said Jayshica Amargòs, Startup Junkie executive consultant.
A representative from the Walmart Supplier Diversity Program will attend the expo to help educate on how anyone who is interested can do business with Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
“That is one of the big questions people have on their minds,” Amargòs said.
To provide its services, Startup Junkie often turns to specialized organizations that have already been on the ground in their field and have done the research.
“We are always finding partners to collaborate with so we can utilize the resources out there, but at the same time in order to give them exposure,” Amargòs said. “We have a huge network, so, we are very good about being able to promote and help others get their programs and events out there; it’s part of our mission and what we do.”
The team’s connections include advisers from various industries, investors, nonprofits, grassroots organizations and industry leaders looking for innovative technologies to use within their companies.
The extensive network can mean a potential for scalability that is unique for small businesses in the area, Amargòs said, in addition to making possible other opportunities that would be impossible for Startup Junkie to cultivate on its own.
Recently, it started working with Accion, one of the largest microfinance lenders in the U.S., to help bring alternative funding to entrepreneurs for whom a bank loan might not be possible or who do not want to relinquish control of their company.
To reach out to the Marshallese community, the team formed a relationship with Marshallese Education Initiative founder April Brown.
Also, a partnership with the Springdale School District TV production department and La Zeta radio station allowed for bilingual Startup Junkie segments on Marshallese TV, an online conduit used by the Springdale School District to inform that community, and also on “Paso a Paso,” a radio show that is popular in the Latin American community, boasting 40,000 listeners each Sunday.
“We cannot help if people don’t know the service exists,” she added.
No-Cost, Multilingual Service
A central message of Startup Junkie’s outreach? These services are available in multiple languages and are free.
As a veteran of the consulting world, Amargòs said, “I know what a customer would have to pay to get this kind of consulting and to me it’s thrilling to know that we can offer this at no cost to them.
“I consider it world-class consulting,” she added, referring to the breadth, both in variety of industries and depth of experience offered by the mentors. “It’s just amazing.”
Startup Junkie only asks the companies report on their progress and hold true to the company’s mantra to “pay it forward.”
Amerine classifies it as the embodiment of the Golden Rule. “That’s kind of what it’s all about for us. We will go out of our way to try to make people successful without any expectation that there will be any kind of return on it for us,” he said.
There are many terms the team members at Startup Junkie use to describe themselves, including dot connectors, boundary expanders and evangelists — evangelists because “about 50 percent of the job is getting people to show up,” Amerine said.
However, as the startup success stories pile up and the word spreads about resources available, more people are participating in the startup scene.
“Just to know you can tap into a community, it kind of emboldens people to take the step,” said Jeannette Balleza Collins, programs director.
Startup Junkie Programs
In addition to networking events, some of which are geared specifically toward, for example, veterans or women, Startup Junkie is involved with Innovate Arkansas, which is a partnership of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Winrock International that works to turn inventions and high-tech concepts into viable businesses.
Other initiatives of Startup Junkie include the ARK Challenge, a mentorship-driven technology accelerator program, and the G60 “elevator pitch” contest, which gives aspiring entrepreneurs 60 seconds to pitch ideas to a panel of judges for cash prizes.
Startup Junkie also fosters funding efforts through the Natural State Angel Association, a quarterly networking event that allows potential startup companies to present in front of angel investors, and through Tonic NWA Fund, a $575,000, member-driven angel fund.
“We’re moving degrees of separation between founders and whatever opportunity they need to succeed,” Collins said. “We have all these resources and help connect those dots at least a little faster than they would normally.”
And, when necessary, the team asks the hard questions.
“We’ll have brutal conversations with people,” Amerine said. “We try not to sugarcoat things. We try to give people the straight truth because the market they’re going into is tough. There’s nothing harder than creating a successful startup that gets through those typical failure points.”
By virtue of the SBA contract, Startup Junkie is now able to quantify its efforts and the effect they are having.
During the last quarter of 2014, the 39 companies (a cross-section of clients) that reported to Startup Junkie collectively added 84 jobs, took in $9.3 million in revenue and paid its staff $4.4 million, according to a report Startup Junkie submitted to the SBA.
Brett Amerine, director of operations, is tracking the data, which also includes the number of new products and services added, patents applied for and approved, and the number of private and public capital obtained by the companies.
“It will hopefully show we are having an impact in making this a healthier, more vibrant startup community,” he said.
And for Startup Junkie, the plan is to eventually apply its efforts to emerging ecosystems throughout the country and internationally.
“We’re not doing this just for this region,” Jeff Amerine said. “We want to get Startup Junkie to the point where we are the leading venture startup ecosystem catalyst in the world.”