The startup sector is gaining support and momentum, but Arkansas still has to work on its image, according to Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Mike Preston.
He is optimistic the state economy will continue to grow in 2017, and that should “trickle down into the startup community.” A lot depends on the national and global economy, but the indications on that front so far are good, with stock markets doing well since the presidential election, he said. That climate will make individuals more willing to take that “leap of faith” to start their own companies. And with the state’s effort to be business-friendly, “I’m optimistic that folks will want to do it here in Arkansas,” Preston said.
He also predicts a renewed push from the state government on backing the startup sector. It’s a priority for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Preston has met with members of the Arkansas Legislature to discuss the state support of new programs and revamping older ones, he said. AEDC wants to ensure it is paying attention to new businesses, while continuing to place the main focus on its more traditional role of attracting high-paying jobs in target industries.
Jeff Amerine, founding principal of Startup Junkie Consulting in Fayetteville, said the state entrepreneurial community is stronger than ever before, because of the support it has gained and a more universal recognition of the crucial role new business plays in sustaining an economy.
“This understanding which has long been known by entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial support organizations is now shared by state and local government officials, institutions of higher education and large businesses,” Amerine said.
That realization has garnered funding for organizations like Startup Junkie, which supports entrepreneurs through mentorship, advising and programs, from bellwether nonprofits like the Walton Family Foundation. Arkansas-based Winrock International, an organization focused on boosting entrepreneurial ecosystems throughout the world, also now has broad support from a variety of sources, including the AEDC.
In December, Springdale-based Tyson Foods reinforced corporate dedication to the effort through its creation of a $150 million strategic venture fund.
“That was a huge move,” Amerine said.
It also shows in initiatives from the public sector, he added. The University of Central Arkansas in Conway is funding the Conductor program, focused on providing mentorship, training and technical assistance for entrepreneurs. Startup Junkie and the nonprofit Community Venture Foundation helped start Conductor, which is will led by former Acxiom executive Jeff Standridge.
The city of Fayetteville also contracted Startup Junkie to help brand itself the “Startup City of the South.”
This broad attention bodes well for the state of the entrepreneurial community in 2017. When it comes to challenges for the upcoming year, Amerine and Preston point to a continued lack of access to capital and a needed improvement to the state’s reputation. Preston pointed to a lack of capital compared to coastal areas of the country and said the next step is “making sure Arkansas is on the map” for the large venture capital players nationwide.
“We need to do better marketing ourselves, make sure we’re getting the word out about the talent, the drive, the opportunities we have here, so we’re not getting passed up by these investors in other parts of the country,” he said.
Amerine agreed, adding the need to battle negative views of the potential in the state.
“We’ll need to continue to overcome the perception that great new ventures can’t grow in Arkansas. That is flat wrong, but we have more to do in the PR arena,” he said.
Still, Amerine said there is work to be done in logging more successful exits, in helping companies scale up and keeping the momentum going along every tier of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in 2017.