Millie Ward has done enough to be a leader and influencer in Arkansas’ business world. But she continues to push, and has in recent years expanded her efforts to improve the state’s startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Ward, the co-founder and president of Little Rock-based Stone Ward, was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2015. Earlier this year she received the Rotary Club of Little Rock Business & Professional Leader of the Year Award.
Stone Ward, an advertising and marketing agency, began more than 30 years ago with 10 employees. The company now has more than 55 employees and in 2014 had $47 million in capitalized billings.
Ward recently visited with Talk Business & Politics to discuss her thoughts about startups and entrepreneurship and how they intersect with her business legacy.
TB&P: You have been an advocate for the startup/entrepreneur ecosystem in Arkansas. What is the driving force behind that?
Millie Ward: The first thing is that the startup community and the entrepreneurs in our community and state are going to be the baseline growers of our economy, as a state and as a country.
You look at the number of small businesses across the country and the role that they play in driving our national economy and then you boil it down to Arkansas – startups and entrepreneurs have been the engine for America’s economy for many many years. When you think about Arkansas you think about Don Tyson, you think about Sam Walton, and you think about J.B. Hunt. All those guys were startup guys, at one time. That’s what happens. It takes a lot, you go through a lot of startups to get to those great ideas. If you don’t have those people and that energy and the ability to support all of that in your community then you never have the opportunity to grow a company like that.
Stone Ward – we’ve been around for 32 years – we have been interested since the beginning in being a vital part of the economy here in doing what we can as a company to help other good companies succeed and support those efforts that are part of economic growth. It’s just something we’ve been interested in for a long time. We were a startup, 32 years ago, as well. So, we have a real affinity for that
And the Second reason is that we also have a strong client base in the franchise industry. Snap-On tools is a global franchise, very strong, one of the strongest in America. We have Sports Clips, also one of the strongest franchises in America. And, the franchise model and all of the business growth involved in a system like that is pretty incredible and gives people who may not have the wherewithal to start alone an opportunity to start their businesses with a successful model that’s already been proven in that franchise system and that has made a big difference in our country too.
Third, startups and small business are a sweet spot for women in America and in Arkansas. More and more women are finding their way to the startup communities and trying to do their own startup because it is a way to manage and envision their own futures and to do it their way versus a path that a large corporation might offer a smart ambitious woman.
I’ve always been a champion of women in business, I think that it is important for women who have succeeded in business to help others are trying to succeed and I think that the startup and small business model is perfect for women as well.”
TB&P: What are some of the more important things new entrepreneurs need to remember?
Ward: I think one important thing for entrepreneurs to know is that this is hard and startups are even harder. I think another important thing for startups and entrepreneurs to know is that for many, many successful entrepreneurs they have a number of failures before they found their success. So, don’t be afraid to fail. If you are a startup or a true entrepreneur i think you don’t operate out of fear, you operate boldly without fear of failure.
And I think the third thing to note is that It’s going to be important to make sure that your idea is sustainable over time to be successful.
So, if you have to run a test to get your idea it has to be financially feasible, you have to find your finding, so you have to be prepared to sell yourself and your idea aggressively over and over again. You have to make sure your idea is sound against the marketplace and that means you are going to have to constantly, at the beginning and throughout the course of your business, being responsive to those marketplace trends and to the cultural trends that make those markets.
The fourth thing I think is as you become successful you have to be prepared to help others to do the same thing.
TB&P: How have you seen technology change in business during your career, especially in your industry?
Ward: While we were in business our first year, in 1984, we bought our first computer. We actually still have that computer. It was (over/almost) $10,000 for one computer and a printer. Everything has changed. Everything that we do, that I do in my life, and that we do in our business has been enabled and accelerated by technology. The principles are still the same. We identify our clients’ strength and we tell those stories and we help them connect with their customers across all the channels where their customers are, but how we do that is radically different.
There were three TV networks when we started, now everyone is producing TV content. There is nothing about our business that is the same except for the base of what we do.
I like it a lot better. I think what we do today is so much more exciting and so much more effective than we were able to be in the early days when the technology wouldn’t allow us to know as much about our clients’ target customers and how to connect with them in relevant ways, ways that matter most to them.
TB&P: What do you want to see more of from future entrepreneurs? From startups?
Ward: I think if there is anything that startup people sometimes have to learn is that discipline matters in business. Sometimes when you are a startup and an entrepreneur you have so much to do and you have so many opportunities to chase, it’s a little harder to put some discipline around that. And I think the sooner you learn to do that, learn to put some discipline around what you are doing, so that you are doing first things first, you can accelerate building to be successful. So, I think sometimes when I give advice, it might be to just slow down enough to put a little more discipline around it.
TB&P: What do you see as your future role in the startup/entrepreneur ecosystem?
Ward: I have enjoyed so much my role as a board member on the Venture Center because there are other board members that have bought and sold companies two or three times over and I have been inspired by their story and I have been inspired by watching their ability to help these young startups and entrepreneurs do what they do.
I wanted to continue that. I want to continue to be a part of the organizations that are fostering entrepreneurialism in Little Rock and in our state. I have had the ability to judge a couple of contests, like the ARK Challenge. I think that I am interested in doing more of that. I think I’ve learned some things as a Venture Center board member that would enable me to bring some wisdom to that.
I think the other thing that I have been thinking more about is where I might invest, financially, in some of these companies. That would be a new thing for me because I haven’t really done as much of that in my past.
The other thing I’ve been doing that I enjoy doing is public speaking, speaking to groups, entrepreneurs or people young in business. That’s something I enjoy. I enjoy interacting with those 20 something to 30 somethings that are still in the formative stage of their careers.