Los Angeles entrepreneur’s comeback story leads to NWA
Chris Thompson took his first drink when he was 19.
Over the next five years, he began cutting himself off from friends and family, and the isolation fueled his alcohol addiction. He eventually hit rock bottom in suburban Philadelphia.
During his final few weeks as a binge drinker, Thompson often woke up on city sidewalks.
“I was shaking with the DTs; all the things that come with extreme alcoholism,” Thompson said, referring to delirium tremens, an effect of alcohol withdrawal. “I was out of answers when it came to my alcoholism.”
But on Nov. 22, 2018 — Thanksgiving Day — Thompson began his comeback story.
“It was that day I decided my recovery was going to be the most important aspect of my life moving forward,” he said. “I decided that day to go all-in.”
Four years later, Thompson is sober, a budding entrepreneur living with his girlfriend near Bentonville. They relocated to Northwest Arkansas from Los Angeles earlier this year as part of the Life Works Here incentive program.
The nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council started the $1 million campaign two years ago to attract talented people to the region. Those selected receive a $10,000 grant and a bike.
Thompson, 28, is the CEO and founder of Sidekick Mobile Technologies, creators of Sober Sidekick, a sobriety and recovery app on iOS and Android for people struggling with addiction or recovering from alcohol or drug abuse. Among several features, it offers instant anonymous sober support from real people.
Thompson launched the app in January 2019. The growing social network is approaching 150,000 members — there were less than 10,000 in January 2021 — and has been downloaded by users in more than 150 countries.
“One of the most impactful stats for me is that by the fifth time someone engages with their peers on Sober Sidekick, their monthly risk of relapse goes down by 300%,” Thompson said. “We’ve gamified empathy to the point where for every member who posts, at least six other members will respond in minutes, if not seconds.”
Thompson said the company raised $140,000 from a recent Wefunder campaign — with significant support from Northwest Arkansas investors — and he’s expecting to close a $2 million seed funding round in early 2023. He said that a global healthcare leader has committed to lead the round, but he declined to say more.
“What I love about Chris is his dedication to learning more about the users on his platform,” said Emma Willis, the chief operating officer for Bentonville-based Venture Noire, a national nonprofit focused on supporting Black entrepreneurs. “He’s not just there to turn a profit. He is there to ensure he creates an environment that proves empathy exists, and humanity is front and center. That’s what drew me to Chris. He is refreshing and honest.”
A DIE-HARD SPIRIT
Willis said Thompson’s inspiration resonates. Before returning to Arkansas a few years ago to work for Venture Noire, Willis lived in Los Angeles. She previously worked with Thompson, who had traveled from Pennsylvania to California in November 2018 to check into a rehab facility. When he checked out, he remained on the West Coast while putting his life back together. He also began working on a new side project — an idea for a different kind of sobriety app.
“I remembered Chris’ die-hard spirit and never lost touch with him after leaving California, and I knew he was working on this [Sober Sidekick] project,” Willis said. “I thought he needed to get out of California for his product to stand out and not be drowned out by all the lights of [Los Angeles].”
Thompson said Willis suggested more than once that he should relocate to Northwest Arkansas to tap into the region’s startup scene, not to mention a captive investor audience.
“To be honest, I didn’t believe her,” Thompson said. “It went in one ear and out the other the first few times. You’re telling me I will have more traction in Arkansas than in Los Angeles?”
Willis organized virtual introductory meetings with various angel investors like Ramsay Ball.
“Chris and Sidekick are making incredible strides in addressing behavioral health issues through a digital community that is rapidly scaling,” said Ball, who has an extensive background in real estate, private investment and community development.
Thompson eventually visited Northwest Arkansas in the spring to meet Ball and other business advisers face-to-face. Ball arranged for Thompson to have an audience with another angel investor and startup adviser, Paige Jernigan.
Jernigan, a Pine Bluff native, worked for 15 years as an investment banker on Wall Street and spent her adult life working in New York and London. She and her husband bought a home in Bentonville in 2014 so their three boys, raised in the UK, could summer in the Natural State closer to family.
Jernigan splits her time between Northwest Arkansas and New York, working as the director of development for the Bentonville think-and-do tank Heartland Forward.
She said she immediately saw potential in Thompson’s idea and joined the chorus of people trying to convince him to relocate.
“He could stay in Los Angeles because that’s where the money is, or Chicago or New York or San Francisco,” Jernigan said. “But I will tell you something about Northwest Arkansas that you will get here that you will not get there, and that is access — to people and mentors who will take genuine care in developing you as a manager and a company founder.
“There’s not as much capital here, but the number of folks who come through this town, given the ‘big three’ firms that are here … there’s no better place to be right now in the U.S. if you’re a founder.”
Jernigan secured a ticket for Thompson to return to Northwest Arkansas one month later and attend the Heartland Summit, a high-level event organized by Heartland Forward. The two-day, invitation-only gathering in May convened approximately 300 policymakers, investors, business and thought leaders and entrepreneurs from across the country.
Organizers said the goal was to promote action by convening people playing a role in the success stories of thriving areas of America’s heartland.
Less than three months later, Thompson’s action was for him and his girlfriend to move to Northwest Arkansas.
“You could feel the intentionality here, the pace that things moved,” he said. “That’s what sold me. I just sensed that this whole community was a startup, and there was no better time to get in on it.”
Thompson said Sober Sidekick’s growth in 2022 can easily be tied to being in Northwest Arkansas. He referenced securing the undisclosed lead investor in the healthcare space for the ongoing seed funding round. In September, Fortune magazine interviewed Thompson for a profile in its “Term Sheet” business newsletter.
He said the Department of Defense’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO) has also requested a meeting to explore a possible pilot program with Sober Sidekick.
“We never had much difficulty generating traction from our members on the app; our users are loyal,” he said. “But we had trouble generating adoption in the healthcare space. Since we moved to Northwest Arkansas, that relationship-building has been good. We’ve made tons of amazing connections, and it’s all resulted from being able to shake hands, meet people face to face and build relationships.”
Thompson said 95% of Sober Sidekick members are in the U.S., where, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battle substance abuse each year. But there are growth plans on an international scale.
“We want to get our partnerships up to speed before we focus too much globally,” he said.
Jernigan sees that sort of potential, too. And not just for Sober Sidekick but for other applications under the Sidekick Mobile Technologies holding company. She said the algorithm is proven and could be tweaked for various uses.
“Name the purpose for a community to be in touch with one another, and the algorithm works,” said Jernigan, a Sidekick board member and investor. “Growing by 130,000 users in 18 months is amazing when you [consider] that’s only for one market it’s addressing right now. Tweak the algorithm five different ways, and you have five different markets you can introduce it. That’s how I look at investments, and I was blown away by it.”