BENTONVILLE -- The first cohort of the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program, a business incubator focused on outdoor recreation entrepreneurs, graduated in late April, and the participants say the program has magnified their chance for success right out of the gate.
The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation's new program, know as GORP for short, targets early-stage companies from initial concept to launch. During the 12-week program, the founders of four Northwest Arkansas companies sat in on workshops, were assigned mentors, shared co-working spaces at the Collaborative -- the UA's education and research hub in Bentonville -- and received one-on-one input on product service and design.
"We had a basic idea, GORP helped us to think bigger," said Tyler Baumgardner, who along with his wife Morgan founded Encore Bike Rentals. "GORP came in and started to push us."
Encore Bikes rents bikes -- including mountain bikes and electric bikes -- via concierge service to riders in Bella Vista, Bentonville and Rogers through online booking and delivers [and picks up] bikes directly to a trailhead, vacation rentals and other locations. The couple, who are avid mountain bikers, got the idea when family came to visit and they struggled to find bikes to enjoy the area trails.
Phil Shellhammer, the director of the GORP project, said that's one of the key aspects of the program -- developing a product or service that solves a problem. He said many would-be business creators have interesting ideas but to be successful the concept must alleviate a real world need for customers.
Shellhammer said GORP's first cohort had a good mix of businesses focused on both products, services and experience enhancement -- many with digital elements. Members of the pilot cohort were given up to $15,000 in funding that didn't require them to give up company equity, along with the use of a fully funded intern from the university's Venture Intern Program. A $4.1 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation helps support the incubator.
Shellhammer said the application process for GORP's next cohort will begin in mid-June with the program starting in August.
Nick Olano co-founded American Hunt along with Justin Conner and Jared Edwards. American Hunt helps outdoor enthusiasts gain access to land that's typically inaccessible for activities like hunting, fishing, archery and camping, American Hunt is a two-sided market place, connecting land owners to folks who want to access that land for daily use.
Olano said the incubator, through access to mentors, helped focus his attention on key aspects of his business, and the peer-to-peer aspects of working with folks also building outdoor-focused businesses was motivating.
"It's like a fire hose of knowledge," Olano said of the experience. "It has 100% made our plan more viable."
He said the funding and the help of a paid intern took a great deal of pressure off his shoulders.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, in 2020 Arkansas' outdoor economy was responsible for 37,089 direct jobs, $1.5 billion in wages and salaries and a 2.2% share of the state's gross domestic product. Nationally there were 4.3 million direct jobs attributed to the outdoor economy for the same period and the segment generated $689 billion in consumer spending.
Jeff Amerine, founder and managing director of Startup Junkie Consulting, served as one of the speakers to the GORP cohort. He said the outdoor recreation segment embraces a lot of business types, from service providers to product makers, as is evidenced by the makeup of GORP's first cohort.
He said the members of the group were both tenacious and coachable and willing to learn and to apply what they learned to their various ventures.
Amerine also praised Shellhammer's leadership, noting his skill set including a master of business administration degree from Harvard Business School, a stint as a vice president with Sam's Club and experience as a serial entrepreneur.
"Phil was precisely the guy to do this," he said.
Mark Marsiglio and Erica Schmitz are co-founders of Trail Tours, a GPS-enabled mountain-biking app that provides guided tours of the area's bike trails from a local expert. Marsiglio said the app provides audio snippets giving the rider vital information about upcoming features, option lines, hazards and turns.
"Our tagline is ride like a local," Marsiglio said.
He said the GORP program connected him with a broad base of other entrepreneurs who provided him with a variety of vital input. He said the peer-to-peer aspect of the cohort, with its small size and focus on outdoors businesses, helped him identify the best outcomes for the budding business.
"The connections have been huge," Marsiglio said.
He said after the 12-week program, he had a clear idea about where his business stands and where it can expand. He noted at the end of the course, he had a year-long to-do list already in hand.
"I have much more clarity on my path forward," Marsiglio said.
Bentonville-based Lacaida Ropes, founded by Pedro Somarriba produces locally made rope with custom designs and prints for rock climbing. He said GORP helped him start the patent process for one of his rope offerings and to automate his rope-making process and secure investors.
He credited the program with moving his business forward faster and on a sustainable and scaleable path. He said the mentors he met along the way, his fellow business owners in the cohort and the advice he received from Shellhammer were invaluable.
But one of the most important lessons, he said, was about himself.
"I discovered I had an entrepreneurial spirit," Somarriba said.