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Fueling Up the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in NWA with Matthew Ward
Episode 19719th October 2022 • Be EPIC Podcast • Matt Waller
00:00:00 00:14:34

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This week on the podcast Matt sits down with Matthew Ward, Director of the Fuel Accelerator and consultant at Startup Junkie. Fuel is a program where they connect growth stage AI and machine learning startups from around the world to enterprises and mentors in the Northwest Arkansas area. In the episode Matthew highlights how Fuel and Startup Junkie are recruiting early stage startups to the NWA area with opportunities to work with large enterprise partners in our region including Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt. He also shares how large enterprises in the area are investing in AI through automation and how his own journey began with entrepreneurship, capital allocation and finance.

Learn more about Fuel Accelerator here: https://www.fuelaccelerator.com

Transcripts

Matthew Ward:

We just want to give you value because that's what we're here for is to drive economic value for the area to create jobs, bring investment capital, and bring in great talent because that's what we need in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Matt Waller:

Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College, and welcome to the Be Epic podcast. I have with me today, Matthew Ward, fuel accelerator director, and startup junkie consultant. Thank you, Matthew, for joining us day. I really appreciate it.

Matthew Ward:

Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Matt Waller:

So, Matthew, you have had a lot of good experience in areas associated with finance and venture capital, you did a number of internships. And but now, you're a consultant with startup junkie. So Matthew, you have a lot of experience in internships with associated with capital allocation. And, and in addition to that, of course, you are director of the fuel accelerator and consultant Startup Junkie, but why don't you take a moment to just explain what the fuel accelerator is, and also what Startup Junkie is, and then we'll get into some other topics as well.

Matthew Ward:

Yeah, so to start with, Startup Junkie, we are a mission driven organization that's looking to empower innovators and entrepreneurs in the area. Really do that through two ways. We have consulting, and then events and programs. So with the consulting piece, we meet with anyone from idea stage to 25 million revenue, at no cost, because we are funded by organizations such as Walton Family foundation, City of Fayetteville, EDA and others in order to drive economic development in the area. But then on the other end of the spectrum, we also have events and programs. So if you've heard of startup crawl, we typically have that on the Fayetteville Square, typically over 2000 people. I mean, we also have other programs such as Kiva, and Fuel. So what Fuel is, is a program where we connect growth stage, AI startups from around the world, to enterprises and mentors in the area. And the hopes with that Dean Waller is to secure contracts. And then if they like the experience, both on the business side and the recreational side with what NWA has to offer then plant roots down here, whether that's an office or their headquarters. And we've seen a lot of success from that last few years for the whole program. So really excited about that, and really happy about the future of Fuel moving forward.

Matt Waller:

So yes, Startup Crawl, I've participated in that before, that's always very interesting. It's fun to meet all of the companies that are early stage and that are participating in Northwest Arkansas. You know, I know a lot of these companies, these early stage companies are coming from outside of the area. How do you lure them in? how do you? How do you market to them?

Matthew Ward:

Yeah, so I was fortunate to come in for this cohort, the fourth one, so we already had some brand equity built in with how we draw them in is mainly with the enterprises in the area. So I mean, we have Walmart, Tyson, JB Hunt, and all the vendors surrounding them. So as a startup that is looking to scale up, become enterprise ready, or internationally trying to break into an American market. It's a great way to not only get the connections, but also gain the knowledge because it's not easy working with large enterprises. You can't just walk in and say, hey, I have a great product or solution. Could you please take it? And that's not how it works. So we try to walk the startups through that. And when we're recruiting and going through that process, they find a lot of value in that. I mean we've had a lot of success attracting awesome startups. I know you had Ox with Charu on about 10 or so episodes ago, and she has done a amazing job in the area relocated from Atlanta, Georgia, has created around 30 jobs now and continues to show why NWA is a great area to be in.

Matt Waller:

Yeah, you're right. I've been following her since she moved here and her company and but yea I did have her on the podcast not too long ago, a few months ago. And one thing I really liked about her story is it illustrates the importance of pivoting. And I actually had another podcast not too long ago with an economist named John List who's the current he's currently the Chief Economist for Walmart, the first Chief Economist for Walmart. And he's also a Professor of Economics at University of Chicago. He developed the algorithms for Lyft and Uber and, and others, and now he's at Walmart, amazing guy. But we, the reason I bring it up is we're talking about the sunk cost fallacy, you know, how people say, Well, I've already invested this much money, I've got to do this, you know, and, and one of the examples he likes to use is, okay, you know, you've got, you've got tickets to a concert. And it turns out, the weather's gonna be terrible, it's gonna be very cold, but people will still go, even though they would be, they would enjoy being at home, watching a movie or something instead, but they'll go because they've already spent the money on the tickets. And of course, this is pivoting is kind of similar, you know, as a, as an early stage entrepreneur, you put all this effort into something, and then you realize you have to pivot. And the sunk cost fallacy sometimes keeps you from, from doing that.

Matthew Ward:

Yeah, it's funny how that relates not only to business, but you can look at dating or hobbies, or whatever else, you're investing your energy energy into, like, I bought all this equipment to do CNC machinery, I need to make sure I get that money back somehow, or, you know, I've been dating this person for six, seven months, like, you know, it's not the best fit. But, you know, I've already committed the time. So that's definitely a big piece of the startup world, because you want to you don't anybody telling you your baby's ugly, but whenever you are putting it out in the market, and seeing if there's traction soon enough, you're gonna have to figure out another way to make it happen. Unless you have unlimited funds, which typically startups have limited resources, you have to figure out a way to make it happen.

Matt Waller:

Matthew, I know for the Fuel Accelerator, you're focusing on firms that are involved in artificial intelligence, machine learning. Tell me a little bit about that space in general, how is that doing?

Matthew Ward:

Yeah, so seems like from the investment side, the amount allocated towards that space has gone down, but it still seems like I mean, feel like at Walmart, Tyson, some other organizations that they're looking to get in automation. And that's a big piece of AI. So at the end of the day, with any corporation, you're looking to either make money, save money, deal with compliance, or have some sort of competitive moat, when dealing in the competitive environment. So we just want to make sure that with our startups, that we are offering the enterprises a buffet of options to where we can go into one of those buckets for them and drive value at the end of the day.

Matt Waller:

If, if, um if someone say they had supply chain artificial intelligence solution that was relevant to CPG, for example, how would you explain the value of fuel to them?

Matthew Ward:

Yeah, so I think one, you can look at the mentors in the area, doesn't necessarily have to be people that are within the enterprises, it can be somebody that was involved in it, retired, now, they want to allocate a lot of time in giving back to the community and giving not only potentially connections, but their knowledge. Because it's not easy, like I was saying, dealing with enterprises. Um, so there's that aspect of dealing with mentors. And also, we don't take any equity at all, we want to give you the value without taking any money away from you. So when we're going through the curriculum, and the mentors and the two demo days at the end, we just want to give you value, because that's what we're here for is to drive economic value for the area to create jobs, bring investment capital, and bring in great talent because that's what we need in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And lastly, we want to be a collaborative, accelerator, not a competitive one. One of my favorite aspects of our program is a CEO roundtable is where we have all of the founders sit around a table, and we go to each one and talk about personal matters and business matters, because those typically intertwine when you're running a startup. It's not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to potentially get to that spot that you want it to be in. So when selling it to that company, it's collaboration, you know equity taken, mentors, and honestly just a great area to be in with NWA with the bike scene, the bar scene and some other pieces as well.

Matt Waller:

So Matthew, how did you get interested in capital allocation entrepreneurship and finance?

Matthew Ward:

Yeah. So I think my interest was piqued first, when I was an undergrad, I went to Ouachita Baptist University, did accounting and finance and was on the investment teams called the Arie Fund, which is about a $2.5 million fund pretty similar to what Arkansas has with the various funds. And that was my first exposure to investments in the public markets. And when I was a freshman, I heard about it, talked to the guy who was running it. I was like, hey, when I'm a junior, let me get into it. He's like, yeah, just work hard. Keep your GPA up. And we'll see what we can do. And that was also Dr. Bernie, awesome finance professor, but was able to get into that. And I really enjoyed the process of learning about companies and seeing where there are potentials to drive Alpha. I mean, it's, I remember a class I had with Jon Johnson in my MBA class strategy, everything goes down to brand, it's not just you have a better margin. What's in that margin, it's marketing, sourcing, finance, I mean, there's so many different pieces that go into it. Not to play lightly, it's not a game. But you have to figure out a way to balance all the pieces while being able to reward your stakeholders at the same time. So there's a lot of different pieces that you have to be able to think of while you're doing that. So from the financial investment point, trying to find those opportunities, just getting that initial initial exposure was how I got into investments. But more on the private market side was when I was getting my MBA from Arkansas. For about a year and a half, I interned with startup junkie. And while I was doing that, I had the opportunity to get a little bit of exposure with Cadron capital, which is a VC based out of Fayetteville, Arkansas, was able to see just the various business models, what you're looking for, and how at the end of the day, you can reward your your LPs, because a big piece in NWA that's still lacking is early stage investments. I don't know if Carter talked a little bit about that. But that's a big piece of any entrepreneurial ecosystem, you have to be able to allocate that capital to make sure these startups have the fuel to grow, create new jobs, and hopefully make Northwest Arkansas a better place with that. So that's where it stemmed from.

Matt Waller:

So Matthew, you graduated recently, a little over a year ago with your MBA with a finance concentration from the Walton College. So what advice would you give to students in general? Based on your experience?

Matthew Ward:

Yeah, so there's a few things. One, listen to advice. But be very careful about how you bring that into your mindset. So I'm what I mean by that is, we had someone on our podcast awhile back from Sternum Tech, and we asked him questions surrounded by that. And he said, the true test of a leader is someone who can synthesize data. Just because someone who is a tested leader in an industry tells you something does not necessarily mean that's the truth, the way, you have to be able to relate it back to your experience. And I had a terrible habit of not listening to advice. So listen to advice, but also synthesize it to your experience to make sure it's bringing optimal value to your situation. And also something the dean of my business school said from undergrad that sticks with me today is I'm paraphrasing this, most people are sorry. And that can be a good thing, or bad thing. Not a lot of people are willing to do the little details go the extra mile to have that little bit more of an outcome that can make a big difference in the end. So that's something I've seen you in running the programss little details, whether it's getting that extra mentor or making that extra connection, those add up and that's something that we've seen from our end, as well. So those are some of the pieces of advice that I would give.

Matt Waller:

Thank you so much, Matthew, for taking time to visit with us today. Really appreciate it.

Matthew Ward:

Thank you Dean Waller, I really appreciate it.

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