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Governor’s Cup seeding entrepreneurial spirit in Arkansas

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the most recent issue of Talk Business Arkansas magazine. Link here for the online version of the magazine.

Even though the economy has been slow to recover since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, it has not stopped Arkansas’ budding entrepreneurs from not only having dreams of building their own business, but putting those dreams into writing in the form of a business plan.

One event helping young entrepreneurs develop their business plans is the Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup, billed as “the premier statewide business plan competition for college students.”

Sam Walls, president of the Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation (AEAF), the annual event’s sponsor, said the competition, founded in 2001, is about more than just helping business majors write a well-formed business plan.

“If you look at the great stories in Arkansas — Wal-Mart, Tyson, Stephens, Acxiom, J.B. Hunt — those have been a large economic driver for us. The question is where is the next one? You want to see as many of those businesses as you can.”

According to Walls, the competition is about encouraging students to think outside the box and even if their initial idea does not place in the competition, to continue pursuing an interest in entrepreneurship down the road.

“You hope it plants the seed, drives the interest for them, to be an entrepreneur, to at some point down the road step up with the next big idea for our state.”

One business plan that has gone from an idea to an award-winning business plan to an actual company is TrustedWills.com, the brainchild of Ouachita Baptist University student Lindsey Fowler and her faculty advisor Bryan McKinney.

Fowler, who competed in the Governor’s Cup last year as a junior, presented the idea for a website that would allow individuals to create legally-binding wills online. And even though she still had a year of school to complete, Fowler said it was far from her first business plan competition.

“Bryan McKinney came to me and had this vague idea for what became Trusted Wills and he had seen me participate in the freshman year business plan competition at OBU and he thought it would be a really great partnership for us to do this business, so we started working on it last year,” she said.

The vague idea from McKinney, who is an attorney and the dean of OBU’s Hickingbotham School of Business, landed Fowler with a first-place win in the school’s business plan competition, as well as first place in another business plan competition hosted by OBU that included entries from the school’s cross-town rival, Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.

“The next step was the Governor’s Cup. Throughout the process, we were getting feedback from the judges that really helped prepare us for the Governor’s Cup and for the statewide level,” she said.

Using that feedback to update the company’s business plan, Fowler was able to take TrustedWills.com to the Governor’s Cup, where she finished as a finalist and also won a competition known as the Elevator Pitch, where the various competitors are able to pitch their business plans to a group luncheon, with those in attendance choosing a winner of the competition.

McKinney said he believed one advantage Fowler had as she presented was being able to have a product that was live and able to be shown in service.

“The thing that I’ve seen win at these competitions are things the students are passionate about and actually intend to do, instead of just a class project.”

Since launching in June 2013 and using the feedback from the competition judges to refine the company’s business plan, TrustedWills.com has logged 5,368 visits and 11,659 page views (as of February 2014). And while the numbers may seem light when imagining an online business, McKinney said the company had already recovered its startup costs, again emphasizing that he and Fowler had taken the advice of competition judges in re-tooling the site.

“We significantly exceeded our start-up costs immediately upon our launch in June of 2013, shortly after the Governor’s Cup competition. We had initially planned to launch initially in Arkansas and Texas, but we were surprised to see the level of interest from beyond those two states,” McKinney said. “Some of the judges in the competitions along the way had strongly encouraged us to go to every state as soon as we are able.

Their advice was spot on. We are currently working to have each state live within the next two months.”

There are dozens of teams in this year’s Governor’s Cup attempting to take an idea and use the feedback to build their business, just as Fowler and McKinney did. According to AEAF Executive Director Marie Bruno, 38 teams from 10 universities filed intents to compete by the January 31 deadline, with business plans due for the competition on February 21, with winners to be announced April 9.

Among the students taking part in this year’s competition is John Brown University student Chase Skelton, who is one of a four-person team. Skelton’s idea, he said, came from his time interning for a Wal-Mart vendor in Benton County in the summer of 2013 and having a conversation with a co-worker who used to work for a company that produced dolls targeted to pre-teen girls.

“She was just talking about her experience in the company and kind of the reason that she left was after she had a daughter, she kind of thought that their products really weren’t about the healthy values she would want to share with her daughter.”

Skelton added that he and his classmates were also being bombarded by messages from their peers on social media decrying certain dolls for young girls as not portraying realistic self-image and realistic beauty, adding to the perceived need for a values-based doll.

“Talking with my classmates, we thought there was a real opportunity here for a real accurate representation of beauty in like girls’ dolls, girls’ toys, and with that also healthy values,” said Skelton.

As a result, their plan calls for not only the physical production and sale of the dolls, but also an interactive component online for children and their parents to craft the doll’s characteristics in a positive way.

“And so that was the idea behind our product — kind of a custom doll that they like built together with the girl and the mother’s perception of what is real beauty,” he said. “And through that, like prompts about (the doll’s personality). Like what does the doll do for fun? Like activities that she’s a part of? And we’d have like different pre-set prompts that comes up as they’re creating the doll out of these like modular pieces and all of these different aspects that promote values conversations for the mom and the daughter to kind of have naturally.”

Eva Fast, Skelton’s business instructor and faculty sponsor for the Governor’s Cup competition, said while it may have sounded easy for Skelton and his team members to come up with the idea, it was a challenge to develop the right idea for a business.

“That was not their first idea at all,” she said. “They went through probably…they probably had three or four other ideas that they actively researched before they landed on this one.”

Fast said her role as a business instructor and advisor is not to form the students’ ideas and subsequent plans for them, but to get them to start noticing openings right in front of them.

“What I do is I meet with the juniors once right before summer time just for an hour and I tell them you need to become aware of your environment and you need to become alert to opportunities. So I give each of them just a really small notebook that they can keep in their back pocket.”

The goal, she said, is to get the students to not only find challenges in their community but to see if there is a way to solve those challenges through business.

“I encourage them not even to think first of the product, but to think first of the problem. A solution — you can write down a solution, but until you identify a real problem and a real need that people will pay for, then you don’t need to spend any time working on the product.”

Another group competing in this year’s Governor’s Cup competition did just that. Danielle Clark, a senior business major at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, is part of a group of four students who tackled the problem of individuals on bed rest — mainly pregnant women — who have back and neck pain as a result of being immobile for extended periods of time.

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“Basically, in the past, (pregnant women) have just had to stack pillows on their side or if you’re in the hospital, they just had to stack pillows on the side of your bed. You’re uncomfortable, plus the nurses can’t even maneuver,” Clark said. “So this pillow is shaped in a wedge and you don’t have to move or anything like that. It just provides support for anybody on bed rest. And it also helps with bed sores.”

The prototype Clark and her team members will present at the competition will cost about $500 each and will only be available through hospitals, she said, and was developed through surveying a variety of potential users in their region, reinforcing that the business plan was right for their target market.

As part of the business plan, Clark’s group — Launch Pad Invents — estimates that it would need about $125,000 in startup costs. The group also included in the plan a sales projection of 85 pillows a month by August 2015, just more than a year after the company expects to launch in July of this year.

Clark and Skelton said they hoped to follow in the footsteps of Fowler in launching a successful business, possibly while still in school. The process could be made easier should either place in the competition, as first prize is a $30,000 cash prize, with second receiving $20,000 and third receiving $10,000. Additionally, first and second place winners in the undergraduate and graduate categories will go onto the Tri-State Business Plan Competition later this year at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

As for Fowler, she is in the process of finishing her studies at OBU and plans on using earnings from TrustedWills.com to help finance her ultimate dream — law school. She is also encouraging Arkansas students to pursue their dreams in business and to make competing in the Governor’s Cup a part of that journey.

“There’s few things in life more satisfying then seeing an idea taken from the very first stages of just discussing it to having a vague idea to getting feedback from business professionals from across the state,” said Fowler. “The Governor’s Cup did such a wonderful job of bringing in people to encourage you and give you really healthy, helpful feedback to say you can take your idea from the beginning stages all the way to where we are right now with Trusted Wills, where we are a launched website, a working business.”

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