Propak’s Clark discusses networking, startup funding, and what a city can do to encourage entrepreneurship

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,469 views 

A large art installment was part of the 2016 Unexpected event in downtown Fort Smith. Propak CEO Steve Clark founded and helped fund the project.

Entrepreneurship is not what you do, it’s how you see the world. That was one of the key takeaways in Steve Clark’s fireside chat with Startup Junkie and young entrepreneurs on Wednesday (Dec. 6) from the Friedman-Mincer building/Propak headquarters in downtown Fort Smith.

Clark, founder of Propak Logistics, 64.6 Downtown, and The Unexpected, shared advice and details from his personal entrepreneurial journey in the hourlong Q&A. Entrepreneurship, Clark said, “has everything to do with the lens through which you see the world.”

“If you subscribe to the fundamental tenets that you don’t need permission to do the right thing; it’s okay to help your neighbor; you see a problem, fix a problem; all those inherent things we were raised with — try to be a problem solving-minded person, try to leave things better than you found them — well, that’s all, in many ways, the tenets of entrepreneurship,” Clark said.

Clark encouraged collaboration whenever possible, noting that “No one’s good at everything, and the quicker you cross that bridge, the better off you’ll be.” Clark advised young entrepreneurs not to “confuse networking with building relationships.”

“Relationships imply the passage of time. You have a relationship with someone because their behavior is predictable, and they’re somebody you connect with. It is so important not to get a million business cards or a million contacts or connections on your LinkedIn, but to build a much richer, smaller circle, usually of people who are further down the road from you that can give you the benefit of the passage of time or fill a personal weakness.”

As an example, Clark acknowledged being good at growth and strategizing but observed “accounting, that’s not my strong suit and not the most efficient use of my time.”

Clark advised hiring what you perceive to be your deficiency or leveraging relationships to fill those gaps.

“Time is your most valuable resource. So if you’re doing things that you’re not necessarily good at, that’s an incredibly inefficient use of your most valuable commodity or most valuable resource.”

Clark continued: “Most entrepreneurs who want 30 minutes of my time think they’re pitching me an idea, and I’m interviewing them for a job. Just remember that (networking) is the game you think you’re playing versus the game that’s being played. When you’re networking, you have needs, and they have needs. Sometimes they’re the same thing, and sometimes they’re not. You reduce your risk as best you can by leveraging current valuable relationships.”

On funding a business, he urged entrepreneurs to learn the value of money and to start with a solid banking relationship, crediting First National Bank of Fort Smith for taking a chance on him when it didn’t necessarily make sense to do so.

“I learned the importance of building banking and investment relationships before you need them. So if you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re trying to build your business, go talk to your bank and introduce yourself before you need anything from them. That way you’re building history so when time goes by and you say, ‘Remember that time I told you that if these three things happened, I would come see you? These three things have happened. I need to see you. I need a line of credit.’”

Clark encouraged lines of credit for entrepreneurs first and foremost because “you don’t give up ownership” as in a venture capital relationship, though he noted those types of investments have their place, too.

“It’s a way to get funded,” Clark said.

Clark, sharing the “Readers’ Digest” version of his own journey to creating Propak, explained that it all began when he was a young professional on a business trip with a group of mentors, who were older colleagues he loved, but “their lives were a mess.”

“While I loved them, I didn’t love what they were, so I told my wife at the time, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’” Clark indicated his mentors were him in about 20 years. “I said, ‘I see how it ends, and that’s not what I want.’”

When he returned home, he called up his colleagues and said, “Guys, I love ya, but I’m out.” Clark said he had “no plan, no nothing, except I had spent a lot of time and energy in the supply chain world and thought I’d figured out a few wrinkles that could be exploited in the process. And so I went to work on a business plan right then and there. I think it was two weeks later, a couple of members of my family and one guy, Greg Jensen, started Propak right here in Fort Smith, and that’s it. My story is very much about a lifestyle as opposed to getting rich or building market cap or any of that. I was just trying to make a difference.”

Despite the epiphany, Clark still encourages most young entrepreneurs to take a “real job for five to seven years” before doing their own thing for a few reasons. “One, for training; two, for maturity; and three, for network, where they’re meeting people in an organized environment, seeing how candidly grownups work, and how important it is to show up every day.”

Clark reflected a bit more on his personal journey after the event, describing to Talk Business & Politics the role his upbringing played in his entrepreneurial career.

“I was the first kid on either side to go to college. My dad worked in the trucking industry his whole career and provided for us fantastically. But again, it’s not what you do, it’s how you see the world, and I think you give people permission to see things a particular way; that they’re not waiting on someone to give them the green light; that they do what needs to be done because they see what needs to be done.”

Clark continued: “I think most of us in this part of the country are one generation from a working farm. My parents grew up on working farms. And so I think a lot of that, ‘word is your bond,’ ‘hard work,’ and ‘being true to what you say you’re going to do,’ are the tenets of building network and relationship, which leads to self-entrepreneurialism. Mind you, the modern concept of jobs is relatively new. Before, we were all merchants and tradesmen and farmers, which is the bedrock of entrepreneurship. We’re talking about this (entrepreneurship) like it’s a new concept. But no, this is the concept that’s always been, we’re just relearning it.”

As for what the city of Fort Smith can do to encourage new business, Clark said “talking about it if nothing else; showing up to these types of events and letting them know it’s important; doing those things that indicate it’s a business-friendly environment; collaborating with the university on business classes that speak to entrepreneurialism; and considering districting part of the downtown for tax incentives for entrepreneurship startups to exist. The city can play a huge role in that.”