Builders + Backers, Heartland Forward unveil Stepping Stones initiative

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 796 views 

Dimitri Clark, founder of Fayetteville tech startup Abily, is part of the inaugural Stepping Stones cohort, which kicks off this month in Bentonville.

Donna Harris, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, estimates that 60% of adults in the U.S. have a business idea.

“That’s tens of millions of businesses that could be getting created every year,” she said in a recent interview. “And we’re getting a fraction of that right now. We’re missing the true idea stage.”

Harris is the visionary founder and CEO of Builders + Backers, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that invests in entrepreneurs and their ideas. At the heart of its work is the belief that anyone can be an entrepreneur and that most people have an idea to start a business at some point in life, but, for various reasons, most never act on it.

The idea stage, Harris said, is when a company is at its most vulnerable — a pivotal juncture teetering between success and potential failure.

“We can increase the likelihood that [an idea] blossoms into an economically thriving business, rather than flailing or, worse failing, by surrounding the founder with intensive, hands-on support,” said Harris, a board member of the nonprofit entrepreneurship ecosystem Global Entrepreneurship Network.

For the next year, Builders + Backers, in partnership with Bentonville nonprofit Heartland Forward, will provide that kind of backing to a dozen entrepreneurs through a new program.

Stepping Stones is geared toward entrepreneurs whose ideas are proven to work and are ready to launch companies that grow revenue and create jobs.

Donna Harris

Builders + Backers selected 12 entrepreneurs for the inaugural cohort. They received $25,000 in non-dilutive funding and a free spot in the Stepping Stones program.

Harris and Katie Milligan, program director for workforce and entrepreneurship at Heartland Forward, announced the program details in November at the Heartland Summit, an invitation-only annual event hosted by Heartland Forward, a nonpartisan “think-and-do” tank in Bentonville.

Following the announcement, five companies that had previously completed the Builders + Backers Idea Accelerator pitched their ideas to national attendees and funders. They were selected to participate from a video pitch competition and chosen for the strength of their businesses and the potential economic impact their ventures could have in the heartland.

They each thought they were competing for a $25,000 prize. After the competition, each participant was surprised that they were each awarded $25,000 and a spot in the inaugural Stepping Stones cohort.

Builders + Backers later added seven more startups to the program. Harris said the 12 were selected from over 500 entrepreneurs across the heartland who completed the Builders + Backers Idea Accelerator, receiving $5,000 in non-dilutive funding to refine and test their ideas. Milligan said selected entrepreneurs’ early experiments proved that they are ready to launch and grow a revenue-generating, job-creating company, and the Stepping Stones Program will surround them with a venture studio team to help them do just that.

“We have seen exciting and innovative ideas come out of the Idea Accelerator, and Heartland Forward is thrilled to continue partnering with Builders + Backers to launch the Stepping Stones program across the heartland to provide additional support and funding to help these entrepreneurs fully get their businesses off the ground,” Milligan said.

The Stepping Stones program starts on Jan. 21 with a week of intensive in-person workshopping in Bentonville. It will continue throughout the year, mostly virtually, as each entrepreneur works with their venture studio team to set their new company on a growth path.

Funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Ford Motor Co. Fund and McKenna & Associates, a consulting firm in Arlington, Va., supports the program.

Dimitri Clark says having groups like Builders + Backers support entrepreneurs is essential because everything an entrepreneur does is “the land of the unknown” until they figure it out.

Clark, 24, is the founder of Fayetteville tech startup Abily, one of two Northwest Arkansas participants in the Stepping Stones program. Bentonville-based Gnargo Bike Co., which repurposes classic steel bike frames into electric-assisted cargo bikes, is the other.

Abily is an early-stage company working to create a completely picture-based web browsing experience for people with motor and visual disabilities. Clark, like his younger brother Leks, has cerebral palsy.

Clark said having an organization like Builders + Backers believe in him and his idea means a lot. Especially since, like most entrepreneurs, he was unsure where the idea would lead when he started.

“These nudges of validation are not only meaningful to me as an entrepreneur, considering this idea began with just a pen and a few pieces of paper, but they also confirm that I am on the right track,” he said.

Clark said Abily’s focus now is on minimal viable product (MVP) development.

“With the support of Builders + Backers, we are ensuring that we construct the optimal MVP for the present, for people with motor and visual disabilities,” he said. “In a year, we’ll have identified the optimal market for Abily’s launch and will be actively pursuing our first customers.”

Misti Staley is approaching Stepping Stones from a different perspective. Staley is the founder and CEO of FreeArm, a Helena-West Helena company that’s one of the oldest in the cohort.

Misti Staley

“My team celebrated our fifth anniversary with FreeArm in November, which makes me so proud,” she said.

FreeArm is a Class I medical device designed to hold patient feeding tubes, gravity feeds, and infusion pumps at the hospital, at home and on the go. Staley and her husband, Will, created the device when they needed a helping hand tube feeding their son Freeman, who lost his battle with pulmonary hypertension at almost 10 months old, the day after Valentine’s Day 2016.

Staley said she has registered over 10,000 sales, and the FreeArm is in homes or hospitals in all 50 states and 26 countries. She hopes to launch a new product line for hospital incubators later this year.

Staley expects one of Stepping Stones’ most significant benefits during the next 12 months is the opportunity to build an entrepreneur and mentorship network virtually over Zoom and Slack.

“FreeArm is based in the Arkansas Mississippi River Delta,” she explained. “In many ways we feel separated from the state. Two hours to Little Rock, five hours to Bentonville — it pulls a lot of time away from building your business if you are constantly on the road for weekly in-person meetings with the cohort.

“Profitable businesses are being built in the Delta every day and I’m thankful to be surrounded online by various business ideas and people from all backgrounds,” she said. “I’m excited and ready to create more economic opportunities in Helena-West Helena.”

Harris said she hopes Stepping Stones produces an array of outcomes. The pathway is designed to help each startup become an employer in the community, create at least two to three jobs and grow to $1 million in revenue.

“We do imagine that at least a couple of them will hit that million-dollar revenue mark by the end of the year,” she said. “A handful of others will drive significant revenue and make progress toward that mark. It’s about becoming sustainable job-creating ventures that are on a pathway to growth.”