Acumen Brands founder John James moves to new role with venture fund

by The City Wire staff ( 419 views 

John James left the comfort of a successful business to lead an intense $100 million venture fund in Northwest Arkansas. Why? Because James says he’s more interested in the journey than the destination.

It’s been six years since James and his partner Terry Turpin founded Acumen Brands in hopes of selling scrubs to medical professional’s – a career James ditched following completion of his medical residency. 

James, a self-professed nerd and tech junky, said he is far more comfortable starting a business than running the day-to-day operations of a successful venture like Acumen Brands. Fayetteville-based Acumen grew exponentially in 2012 from its Country Outfitter branded business that James and Turpin founded in 2011. 

“It’s a pretty good success story. We started Country Outfitter to sell boots and other western apparel online. We cracked the code on Facebook on Labor Day of 2012 and went from 0 Facebook fans to 7 million in just four months time. The business went from $1 million in 2011 to $15 million in just one month by the end of 2012,” James said last week during the University of Arkansas Business Forecast Luncheon he moderated.

James told business professionals Thursday (Feb. 5) at the Cross Church Summit luncheon that he looked up last year to see a company that had grown from three to 200 plus employees in five years and he felt restless in the role of CEO.

He told The City Wire that his formal title at Acumen is still founder and he’s a very satisfied investor and board member but he reached out last year to Dr. Steve Graves, an organizational strategist and life coach, to help him transition into a new role. That new role may be larger than just a career change for James.

James is working with a group of local investors to raise $5 million toward funding an entrepreneurial residency program with a goal of creating a viable startup each month.

“Given that Acumen is on an upward trek, it has given me the opportunity to look back at the innovation stage of companies, which is what I am most excited about,” James said. “I wanted to get back into the community and mentor some of these startup founders and get some capital funding around them and teach this young class of entrepreneurs about how to start a business.”

He told The City Wire that when students graduate from college they shouldn't be encouraged only to take a corporate job. He believes entrepreneurship should be more of an option, but it will only be a broader option if there is a supporting community with mentors and funding.

“I am working on the final stages of the $5 million funding for this residency program. We will try and start a new company every month or every other month with a team of experts around the table. You need designers, developers and people that drive traffic online and someone to lead the company,” he said.

James said the residency program will start small but hopes to eventually grow into an incubator-type program that could accept multiple teams. He said there would be resources invested in the team that would raise their chances for success. His vision for the program is based on the medical residency model — See, Do, Teach.

On Thursday, James had little more to offer on his plans to raise $100 million in capital venture funds in cooperation with Newroad Ventures, which he announced last week.

“It’s too early for details, but I will say the region really needs this type of fund and I want to be a part of it however it shakes out. I want to help with the fundraising and the advocacy of it,” James told The City Wire.

He said $100 million is a challenge and he’s more than ready to do his part. Last week James said there are commitments for almost 30% toward the $100 million. 

“I don’t want to over-speak now but I promise to provide more updates as the funding toward to $100 million goal takes place,” he said.

James has been in the trenches trying to raise capital for his own ventures, and shared that six years ago he could not raise $100,000 to start Acumen Brands. James said when he really needed the early capital to grow the Acumen it couldn’t be found in Arkansas. But once it succeeded the suitors lined up.

“We are missing a seed money capital venture fund in Northwest Arkansas. You can’t tell me that with the world’s largest company in our own backyard that we can’t fund our own capital venture pool,” James said.