Sara Beck wants to change how fashion boutiques sell online. She and her brother Will Carter believe they've hit upon an idea that could yield $8 million in revenue in three years. Their company, Btiques, provides what they call a social commerce platform, which allows small boutiques to conveniently sell their merchandise on social media sites such as Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Through their platforms, Beck says, independent retailers can upload a product image, price and other sales details, and with a simple click of a button, push the information out into social networks.
Last week, after Beck delivered a 10-minute presentation of her business plan to a roomful of investors and techies in the Great Hall of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, she and her brother received promise of $150,000 in funding, a remarkable feat considering that they only conceived the idea for Btiques nine weeks ago.
Btiques' funding and existence owe to The ARK Challenge, a three-month start-up accelerator in Fayetteville that concluded its term Nov. 8 at Crystal Bridges with presentations from 14 participants. The ARK follows a proven model — give an entrepreneur access to seed money, workspace and mentors, and she can turn an idea into a fully-fledged tech company in a matter of months — and adds a local twist. It separates itself from other accelerators by targeting companies focused on retail, food processing and logistics, not coincidentally areas in which the likes of Northwest Arkansas heavyweights Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport thrive.
The ARK kicked off in August with 15 teams, selected from more than 80 applicants (one withdrew before the presentation). Participants moved to Fayetteville from as far away as Singapore and India. Each received $18,333 in start-up money in exchange for a 6 percent stake in each company, guidance from more than 50 business mentors and access to The Iceberg co-working facility, a 5,600-square-foot basement space in downtown Fayetteville equipped with whiteboards, wireless Internet and plenty of workstations.
Applying to The ARK came naturally to Beck and Carter. They're from Rogers originally; both went to the University of Arkansas and have worked in marketing and sales in Northwest Arkansas. They were accepted into The ARK based on their plan for POSTPORT, a social media-driven travel app, but after five weeks of trying to flesh it out and explore their potential market, they tossed that plan by the wayside and conceived Btiques.
In the lexicography of start-ups, such a change in course is known as a pivot. While traditional business people might be skeptical of abandoning a company and creating a new one in such a short period, the pivot is common in start-up culture. A dating site was the original vision of the creators of YouTube. Groupon began as a community promoting political action. Flickr spawned from a multiplayer online game.
"Adaptability and agility shows something, I'm hoping," Beck said after event organizers announced Btiques as one of three $150,000 winners. It may demonstrate an ability to execute, a quality echoed among investors.
"At the core of all of this — it doesn't matter if its Facebook or Apple — it's the people who do it who are the real secret sauce," said Chris Miller of the $36.4 million venture capital fund Meritus Ventures of Knoxville. "In the investment community, we say bet the jockey and not the horse."
Funding for The ARK comes from a number of federal and state partners, chiefly three jobs-focused federal agencies and Winrock International. Additionally, the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, Winrock and two Arkansas-based seed-stage venture capital funds, Fund for Arkansas' Future and Gravity Ventures, put in the investment money that initially staked the teams and provided $150,000 to two winners. Gov. Mike Beebe, attending last week's event, surprised the ARK Challenge organizers by announcing the state would fund a third winner.
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