Getting off on the right foot is undoubtedly a science, especially when it comes to starting a business. The right resources, a solid plan of action and experience are only a few components that entrepreneurs must consider when taking that jump into the business world as a startup. And given how long it can take to become an established and respectable brand, it’s no wonder that some individuals with million-dollar ideas might shy away from taking that next step.
Arkansas is lucky to be the home to one of the most innovative entrepreneurial resource centers in the country. The Venture Center, located in Little Rock, provides startups with the opportunity to strengthen their concepts and make lasting connections in their prospective industries through specialized programs.
The FIS Fintech and ICBA (Independent Community Bankers of America) ThinkTECH accelerators at The Venture Center both promote the growth of startups in the financial sectors. FIS brings the entire package right to the fintech-affiliated entrepreneurs with bankers, financial executives and experts in the field for presentations and advice. Likewise, ICBA ThinkTech provides fintech entrepreneurs with mentorship from experts and access to the ICBA executive network. But that’s not all — the ICBA ThinkTech Accelerator is the only community bank-focused fintech accelerator in the world, and it’s right here in the Natural State.
Executive Director Wayne Miller said The Venture Center has roughly 10 community programs held monthly or bi-monthly mixed in with yearly programs that focus on bringing entrepreneurs together with pitches and structured mentorships.
“We create programs to help keep people connected and help keep them stay on top of the available resources,” he said. “The Venture Center just tries to grow the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem, and we try to connect entrepreneurs with corporate partners or government partners or whatever or whoever is needed. We love it because we can help move things forward while working with really amazing entrepreneurs.”
The amount of interaction and assistance entrepreneurs and businesses receive from the accelerator programs is unmatched. The programs typically span around 12 weeks and require entrepreneurs to push their ideas and learn. But Miller has witnessed time and again how much exposure the businesses are able to receive, and he believes the benefits of this exposure in the long run are immeasurable.
“When people participate in the accelerator, they’re getting a chance to interact with mentors, they’re getting a chance to share ideas amongst themselves, they’re getting stretched in terms of process and learning skill sets about marketing, sales, finance, etc.,” Miller said. “The big difference for us is the way we go about providing connections. If these companies were to go out on the street tomorrow and they wanted to meet with 125 banks, the opportunity for them to do that would take them years. But through the accelerator, this is possible to accomplish in at least one month to 12 weeks.”
Countless businesses and entrepreneurs have applied and journeyed through the accelerator programs. FIS “Demo Day” in August 2021 featured a few alumni businesses that had completed the program. The businesses were able to present their concepts and show their growth.
One such growth-stage company from the 2021 FIS Fintech Accelerator is Little Rock’s BankLabs, led by Matt Johnner. BankLabs is a lending company that offers assistance to the community-oriented banking industry.
“At BankLabs, we like to position ourselves as a friendly fintech, here to help banks elevate with new technology,” he said. “Our two products help banks increase efficiency and save time by being available on mobile devices and making everything automatic. Through the accelerator, we worked on our second product, Participate. Participate automates how banks work on loans together. This helps banks make customers happy by closing in days rather than months with e-signature automated workflow and electronic documents.”
Through the program, BankLabs was able to put its second product through the wringer — it was laid out before experts and potential clients who came up with ideas to make the product more effective.
Johnner explained: “The Venture Center organized calls between us and FIS clients where we received feedback after each and every demo. So, after 25 minutes of conversation on the demo with a bank, The Venture Center speaks with the banking client in a five-minute, rapid-fire session: What do you think is going to fit? Would you recommend any changes? What do you think about their choice model? And then on a weekly call-in, they would read back the feedback from all those different banks along the way for that prior week, and that was helpful.
“There were so many helpful points. The meetings with banks for rapid, iterative feedback on how we’re perceived and therefore can improve, and then the elevated status within the FIS executive space, which ultimately will help us with distribution partnerships leveraging their brand and their distribution network, to name a few.”
Teslar, a fintech lending company based in Springdale, is an ICBA ThinkTech Accelerator program alumnus. Its mission is to improve the efficiency ratios in banks by simplifying the exception tracking methods. The company uses advanced software and innovative approaches to help financial institutions strengthen their operational systems.
Much like BankLabs, Teslar went into the accelerator with the goal of building connections and hearing firsthand from bankers about its business model and what could be improved.
Teslar’s Colin Savells said the firm applied for the ICBA ThinkTech Accelerator after The Venture Center approached its chairman and CEO, Joe Ehrhardt.
“The experience was empowering, to say the least,” Savells said. “All the bankers we spoke with, the connections we made with other companies and clients and the feedback we received, all helped us push further. The relationship Teslar has with The Venture Center is long-term, more of a partnership now.”
The impact of the connections made and partnerships formed through the programs applies to not only fintech companies and The Venture Center, but among the alumni firms, who may have completed the programs at different times.
BankLabs Marketing Coordinator Felecia Hancock said, “The Venture Center has also been trying to build its alumni of fintech companies who have been through the program and connecting them with one another. When you first look at the program, it just looks like a 10-week course. The programs are, of course, very valuable, but I think that it’s especially unique that The Venture Center has worked on how to prolong those relationships past the 10 weeks and make the relationships really work for the cohort members.”
The Venture Center has recently announced the Spark! program to cater to small businesses looking to dip their toes into an accelerator program but at a different scale. Referred to as a “pre-accelerator” program, Spark! is designed to help local entrepreneurs get in touch with the right connections and opportunities to take their small business to the next level. Much like the FIS Fintech and ICBA ThinkTech, it will use mentorship and demos along with group sessions, expert-led workshops plus the chance to win cash prizes in a pitch contest.
Spark!, FIS Fintech and ICBA ThinkTech represent application-based programs. Savells believes they are worth every second.
“Apply, apply, apply. There is no other program like this that will help move your business forward. The feedback, face time with experts in your industry and lasting relationships are invaluable,” he said.
The programs have not only helped aspiring entrepreneurs and businesses looking for growth but also boosted the outlook for Arkansas to become a larger global presence in the startup world. The Venture Center has turned Arkansas into a one-of-a-kind resource for fintech companies to explore and branch their roots.
“Every time we have an accelerator event, the program brings in visitation, food, lodging, air travel and participation from the fintech visitors, and all of that adds up to about a million dollars for the state,” Miller said. “And then, of course, we’ve had a handful of companies out of the accelerator programs that have come through our program and decide to make Arkansas, specifically Little Rock, their own and move their headquarters here. So, we’re continuously working on ways to amplify our state and bring in more companies that will want to stay here.”
Becky Pittman, The Venture Center’s director of communications and brand engagement, said the programs shine a positive light on the state.
“There are definitely eyes on Arkansas,” she said. “When judges, leaders and influencers visit the state, they thoroughly enjoy their stay because our entire community pulls together and welcomes our visitors with open arms. Arkansas is seen in a very good light.”