Venture Center Marks Progress, Programs After First Year

by Todd Jones ( 55 views 

When the Little Rock-based Venture Center launched in May 2014, the organization hit the ground running. Within just a few weeks it launched the first Pre-Accelerator class, “1 Million Cups” as well as other programs.

“We like to say that we operate at the speed of business,” Lee Watson said with a smile.

This is one of his “Lee-isms,” said Steve Rice, director of Digital Strategy and Marketing for the Venture Center.

Lee Watson, president of the Venture Center, is talking about the one year old organization, and all of the startups that have found a home, or a start, as a result of the center. These are, as Watson says, programs, not events. They are programs, because, he said, they are “designed to produce an output.”

“Everything we do has a component of hard and soft skill development,” Watson said. “What we like to call modern workforce development.”

He added that they also bring “people together, and every one of those programs helps people develop soft skills, teamwork, presentation, communication and hard skills such as coding and product development.”

Initially Watson said the Venture Center hoped to find space in which to operate, but like any good startup, found itself pivoting when a meeting with Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Jay Chesshir led to the opportunity to use most of the first floor of the chamber’s downtown headquarters. From May until December, the Venture Center held programs, including its pre-accelerator classes, huddle hour sessions and 1 Million Cups events on the first floor of the chamber building.

Watson said Chessir wanted to help.

“He basically let us take over the first floor of the chamber of commerce to run programs, gave us offices, and conference rooms to meet for our mentorship programs, the big meeting space for 1 Million Cups and the pre-accelerator. The Chamber opened their doors to what we were doing, and really let us take over the first floor of their building.”

Continuing, he noted: “It allowed us to immediately focus on running programs. … Turns out, he said, space is the easy thing to do. Running programs that can help entrepreneurs create real companies, raise capital, hire people is harder.”

Watson said using the Little Rock chamber space led to them becoming partners with the Little Rock Technology Park Authority. The partnership with the Tech Park allowed them to share 8,000 square feet of space beginning in December 2014.

Watson likes to say the Venture Center is the center of gravity for entrepreneurialism in Central Arkansas. The center is one of the players in the Central Arkansas system, but it helps hold the others together.

The programs the Venture Center offers help to balance that gravity.

1 Million Cups in Little Rock is well-documented, and Talk Business & Politics offers a preview each week of the presenter. The speaker series is open to everyone and helps bring people in the door at the Venture Center. In doing so, it introduces them with the hub of activity. Watson said programs like 1 Million Cups have a 3-5% conversion rate, meaning, 3-5% of the participants in these “first touch” programs decide to move forward and test the viability of their idea or business.

Other programs that serve as an entry point include Catalyst, the JOLT Hackathons, 2 Days to Startup, Code*IT and the Pitch contests.

Pitch N Pint was a successful program in the summer that brought in pitch contestants. The program was held offsite at The Flying Saucer. This is an example of optimization of the programming.

“It was supposed to be a little more like Shark Tank,” Watson said, adding that instead it became a more casual event.

Catalyst started out as a member mixer intended for members of the Venture Center. After low initial turnout, the Venture Center reached out to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and Catalyst began to operate more like an opportunity for the community to connect. The staff added the speed networking to have more structured networking between participants.

The Mentorship Network is the crown jewel program for The Venture Center. Watson referred to it as a “Real Managed, Mentor Program.” He wanted the mentors to be equipped to lead intentional mentorship sessions. The mentorship program, according to Watson, is a metrics-driven program. The purpose of making it measured is that it’s more than advice over a cup of coffee,” he said.

The Venture Center would like to see those with business ideas in the Pre-Accelerator program. Watson said the program is not a class of theory, but one that helps facilitate the process of startup. The Pre-Accelerator is where founders learn to do the process of starting a business. Companies such as Merger Match and Zuni Learning Tree are pre-accelerator alum.

Watson is pleased with the progress of the Venture Center in the first year. He said he hoped to see the Venture Center listed among the top 20 to 30 best programs in the country for entrepreneurship.

He also said the Venture Center would launch two new programs, and, the third class of the Pre-Accelerator began in mid-September. The Venture Center will also use Catalyst next week to celebrate the maturation of Apptegy and Elyxor who have successfully moved to their own spaces.

Watson is hoping to create more businesses and jobs. He said 53 jobs were created in the first year, and there were 53 ideas screened. The numbers break down to roughly one per week, and he said there is opportunity to improve upon the numbers. In addition, the Venture Center helped three startups raise $1.5 million.

The Venture Center provided the following stats on their first year.

• 25: Pre-Accelerator teams
• 155: Members
• 41: Active startups
• 53: Jobs created
• 17: Mentors
• 200: Mentor sessions
• 53: Ideas screened
• $1.5 million: Dollars raised by member companies in the last 10 months