Outdoor rec startups thrive at UA’s GORP business incubator

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 839 views 

Phil Shellhammer, who's led the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program (GORP) since 2021. is helping outdoor startups to launch. GORP's fourth 12-week business incubator started Aug. 29.

Phil Shellhammer wants to develop a statewide hub of outdoor recreation companies. The entrepreneur and former retail executive is focused on that goal as the leader of the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program (GORP), helping to launch outdoor recreation startups.

“As we’re building a cycling industry up here, we think we can help support a hub of outdoor recreation companies in Arkansas that are building products, services and hopefully digital solutions all around outdoor recreation,” said Shellhammer, who’s led GORP since October 2021. “If we can be the beginning of that, that’s my goal.”

Over the medium term, he looks to replicate the GORP model across the state as some entrepreneurs can’t attend the program here. He added that the next step would be establishing a later-stage startup accelerator program, which might help attract outdoor recreation companies to Arkansas.

Recently, GORP established a partnership with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission that will allow GORP’s startup incubator to expand to eight participants this fall. Shellhammer said the commission is sponsoring some of the participants in the fall cohort, which will be GORP’s most significant so far.

“The support from Arkansas Game and Fish is monumental,” Shellhammer said. “The agency brings a wealth of industry experience and insight that will be invaluable to the GORP companies as they build, launch and begin to scale.”

GORP is one of three business incubation programs led by the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OEI) at the University of Arkansas. GORP’s focused on helping outdoor recreation startups and is based at the Collaborative in Bentonville. GORP is supported by a $4.1 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

Biannually, GORP has offered a 12-week business incubator for early-stage startups in the outdoor recreation industry. The third cohort took place this past spring. The fourth cohort started aug. 29 and runs until the week before Thanksgiving.

Brandon Howard, communications and social media specialist at OEI, said the fall cohort includes outdoor apps, services and products. The fishing, water sports and shooting startups will be new to GORP. Also, a high school student is a participant. The following are the Northwest Arkansas-based participants:

  • Rogers-based Jane Wick LLC; provides backpacks for women shooters
  • Cave Springs-based Outdoor Education Services; education-based outdoor adventure company
  • Bentonville-based Paddl; paddling destinations app
  • Bella Vista-based Rider Up; location-sharing cycling app
  • Bentonville-based SABO Outdoors; outdoor activities app
  • Fayetteville-based Slapchalks; designer of athletic apparel that allows wearers to chalk hands quickly.

Shellhammer said the incubator trains participants who meet in person and take workshops weekly. It also provides startups with mentor teams, a UA student intern and up to $15,000 in non-dilutive seed funding.

“That cohort program is meant to help you confirm your business model and move quicker to launch with a better chance of success,” he said. “Most companies that have gone through it have talked about the speed is way more than they expected because we move through so many topics so quickly of all the stuff you need to think about.”

Shellhammer also helps startups outside the incubator.

“We’ve had 185-plus ideas come across my desk … in two years,” Shellhammer said. He’s spoken to people nationwide, from Vermont to Los Angeles. “We’re going to help them throughout the year with connections through our network, or we’ll do workshops and training here or a lot of consulting.”

Shellhammer said he’s the sole full-time employee at GORP, designed as OEI’s first community-focused program outside the university. He noted that some incubator participants have been students, but most are from the community. Seventeen startups have completed the GORP incubator.

“I know of only one of our 17 companies that has decided not to continue forward,” Shellhammer said. “The other 16 … are still going strong. Not all of them are taking revenue yet. Some of those business models take a little longer to get going. Each model’s different, but the feedback we get at the end of the cohorts has always been positive.”

Brent Robinson, owner of Greenway Bike Co. in Fayetteville, said the incubator this past spring helped him better understand his customer base. The business he and his son started during the pandemic converts regular bicycles into electric bikes.

In the incubator, he said he received “frank feedback … you could trust” from other participants. He learned about supply chain and other retail-related topics from those with Walmart experience. He also learned how to better negotiate with suppliers in China.

“The biggest impact, I think, is the emphasis that Phil and the program put on audience research,” Robinson said. “I had to do at least five customer interviews a week.”

Cate Handley

Through customer research, he learned his audience is 45 and older, including couples who are empty nesters. He’s converted over 40 bicycles to e-bikes; all customers, excluding his son, were at least 45 years old.

He’s currently exploring how e-bike conversation kits can be built in Arkansas because assembling the components in the United States would result in lower tariffs.

Cate Handley, co-owner of Little Rock-based Yonder Adventure Co., said the fall 2022 incubator helped with cost analysis and P&L forecasting.

Yonder Adventure, which launched in June 2022, offers guided trips on the Buffalo River, with meals and camping equipment provided. During the trips, guides operate oar-powered drift boats for clients.

Handley highlighted the camaraderie the GORP incubator offered among entrepreneurs and the resources and mentors available for Yonder Adventure. She noted that the intern is helping the company earn additional permits from the National Park Service to offer guided backpacking and hiking. She’s also looking to add boats and guides.

Mark Marsiglio, co-founder and owner of Bentonville-based technology startup Trail Pilot, participated in the inaugural GORP incubator in the spring of 2022. He’s been an entrepreneur for almost 30 years and said he was previously unaware of the connections and resources available to him that he learned in the GORP incubator. He also pivoted Trail Pilot’s business model to a tourism- and sponsor-based model to offer a free experience for riders using the Trail Pilot app.

Mark Marsiglio

In 2020, he launched the app, which provides turn-by-turn guidance on area mountain bike trails. While mountain biking, app users can see photography and hear GPS-triggered advice about upcoming trail features. It’s only available for Apple devices, but an Android app is in the works. He’s also looking to expand his business to offer guidance on trails across the country.

An Ohio native, Shellhammer earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. He worked in engineering at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School.

He spent five years at Best Buy before moving to Arkansas to join Sam’s Club in 2009. Shellhammer was a merchandising executive for Walmart’s wholesale club business.

His corporate career goal was “to get to officer before I was 40 at a major Fortune One company,” he said. “I got there, and I was proud of that.” In 2019, he left Sam’s Club to focus on entrepreneurship.

“I want to be a part of building something,” he said. “I want to be a part of a small business to try it out and not be the big corporate guy I’ve been my whole career.”

He spent a year studying business models and the challenges he wanted to solve. He purchased the franchise Wize Computing Academy of Northwest Arkansas, a children’s afterschool program providing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning. His franchise offers programs at area private schools and runs all the STEM camps at the Bentonville Community Center.

Shellhammer also co-founded Eksplor Gaming, a passion project focused on the gamification of travel destinations. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic started, industry companies focused more on remaining in business rather than on an app. The business has since become dormant.

He learned about the opportunity to lead GORP while providing consulting for other entrepreneurs and developing relationships in the Northwest Arkansas startup community.

“I enjoyed the help I was giving others,” he said. “I could take many skill sets from my previous career and bring that to the table. This opportunity came up as we ebbed and flowed on the business model we were working on.”