From Idea to Reality
Our guest, Layne Fortenberry, started work for his family’s rice mill in Arkansas back in 1999. He quickly encountered a huge challenge common to farmers and grain buyers – a seemingly endless stream of brokers that rarely allowed farmers to sell to the end users. His idea sought to fix this and overtime it evolved into what is today Grainster, a tech start-up in Little Rock, Ark and the 2017 Global Winners for Best Idea in the Talent Unleashed Awards, a world-wide competition which is judged by Apple, Inc. cofounder Steve Wozniak and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. In fact, Grainster was the first American company to win this award. Woohoo for Arkansas.
We are interested in Grainster because it promises to change the way grain is traded across the world and can provide huge benefits to Arkansas farmers. Their technology provides a digital trading platform for farmers and buyers – basically an eCommerce platform for agriculture producers which could easily be the perfect avenue for Arkansas crops to break into new markets. Grainster even has a solution for the logistics problems.
But ultimately Grainster’s technology can enhance global food security and small farm strength by giving farmers a chance to sell directly to buyers. It could even eliminate the speculator driven commodities market.
Considering all of this, we wanted to tap into Layne’s startup expertise and share it with our audiences. The title of this post is “Six Proven Strategies.” They are proven in the sense that Layne has utilized each one with successful results for Grainster. But we are also pretty certain that you can find examples of other entrepreneurs utilizing these same strategies or their similar versions with successful results.
If you are following along with the podcast you will notice these points do not go in order of the conversation. Conversations tend to be more organic but for the sake of this article, we have re-arranged them for a more structured presentation. To hear Layne’s take on each one, click the link in the heading and it will take you to that portion of the podcast – just press the play button.
Lastly, this is not meant to be an exhaustive guide, but our hope is that it will help give you a starting point when you consider the needs and direction of your startup. Many of these points will direct you to more in-depth resources. It may be easy to get overwhelmed, but as usual consider what is best for you and take things one step at a time.
Now that’s enough from us. We know what you are here for, so let’s get into Six Proven Strategies for A Successful Startup.
Once you have completed some serious self-reflection and determined that you are committed to going all-in with your idea, you need to prioritize building a great team. This point will be most valuable for those in the idea phase of their startup, but it’s still worth hearing Layne’s insight. He even goes so far as to say that the team may even be more important than the idea itself.
“You can’t do it by yourself,” he says. “So behind the idea, team is absolutely the next biggest thing. You have to put together that world class team.”
World class, indeed. The Grainster team includes a CEO with a proven track record and even a former U.S. Ambassador.
Though it may be hard to secure people with this type of background, if the idea shows promise you should be able to attract those with the expertise and talent necessary to bring the idea to life.
Also, one thing to keep in mind according to Layne is that a good team is necessary to attract funding.
“Investors look so hard not at just the idea but at the team,” he said. “They have to really feel that it’s the right team to get the job done.”
So in addition to relying on their expertise to execute the parts of the business that you can’t, the team is going to influence your chances of obtaining funding from investors. So make sure it is a team that investors will trust.
There is not much more we can add to the team building aspect since it really falls into the entrepreneur’s hands and there’s already plenty of resources on this topic out there. So let’s move on.
In this day and age, a company’s digital brand is how most consumers experience their first impression of that company. Many business leaders, especially from the pre-Internet days, will underestimate the need for a strong digital brand and an engaging communications strategy. Yet, the first impression of a website is so critical in a user’s (and therefore a potential customer’s) mind that it only takes 50 milliseconds for them to form an opinion, choosing whether to stay or leave. Our brains work fast, which means you have to work fast, too.
Now apart from websites and other digital media, the selling point for social media is that you get to engage directly with users – its customer service for the 21st Century. The bigger your brand, the more exciting it is for a user when your official account interacts with them. It makes them feel like you are listening and that their thoughts matter.
Social media offers a relatively low cost of entry for businesses – just make an account and assuming you have already put in the money for graphics and logos all that remains is to start posting. (Though it really pays off to put some serious thought into your strategy).
However after recent algorithm changes and new developments, user exposure to organic content (i.e. non-paid for content) from businesses is now a lot lower. There are strategies to overcome this, but typically the only organic content that engages people is content that adds value to their experience.
So you now basically need to put money into social media for ads and content production to see successful outcomes. Or dedicate serious time and energy into developing an amazing content strategy. Both can be out of reach for a startup.
But there is one alternative that Layne has discovered: LinkedIn. LinkedIn has been vital for Grainster because it has allowed them to reach out and make connections with people all over the world. The bonus is that LinkedIn has a professional atmosphere without the politics and negativity of other networks.
Layne suggests using it as a reach out tool to connect with the people you are trying to engage. In the case of Grainster, it has been grain buyers and investors.
So in addition to the company page, we suggest that you get your whole team on LinkedIn, get their profiles up to date and seriously consider having each one of them produce some type of value content at least once a week. Usually how-to articles or posts that share their expertise in their field are a good starting point. This establishes trust and authority.
Then start reaching out to the people you need to talk to. Layne says people on LinkedIn are almost always receptive – in fact that’s the reason for being on LinkedIn: to be available to other professionals. When you start reaching out to funding networks, they will know you mean business when they look at your team’s content and activity.
Not pursuing investors may at first seem counter-intuitive, but let’s explore what we really mean. This advice comes from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist investor that Layne had the chance to meet with as a result of winning the Talent award. So it’s worth hearing what he has to say.
Obviously, getting connected with investors is a critical goal. But there may be more effective ways than just cold calling. In the case of Grainster, it has been more effective for them to increase the top of mind awareness in an investor or funding network by courting the first degree connections of that network’s decision makers.
By networking with an investor’s colleagues and associates your startup has a strong chance of generating interest in the mind of this investor. According to Layne, the idea is that these investors will hear about your company multiple times from the people they trust. Which means they are more likely to be interested in your start-up and more trusting of you.
So how do you approach these colleagues and associates? Well, with all this talk about connections, your mind may have already arrived at the natural conclusion. “Back to LinkedIn,” says Layne.
So reach out to them like you would any other person that you haven’t met. Be professional and respectful. Your mutual connections can build trust, and if your publishing value content on your profile, it will make you that much more legitimate. Then when the time is right, request that the individual mention your company to their investor colleague.
This is one of those areas that is both an art and a science and it may be best to adopt an email marketer’s mindset on this one. However, all the material that has been written on the subject could fill a library so instead of reinventing the wheel, we are going to focus on why this is should be a priority and let Layne tell you what the Silicon Valley investor had to share.
“Basically, these investors, whether VC or private-equity, are human people,” he said. “They get a lot of offers. So something as small as the subject line on your email really needs to reach out and grab that person and say “Hey! Pay attention to what we’re doing” because they may have gotten two hundred emails that day and your subject line is the only thing that you have going for you.”
Layne is right and the more successful the investor you are trying to contact is, the greater the likelihood that they are not even reading their own email. Many investors or venture capitalists have a secretary to filter their emails and the huge company executives have even been known to employ entire teams to handle their email volume.
It all depends on who specifically you are trying to get into touch with and how much you can learn through research. This is going to be where those LinkedIn connections will be valuable. If you can ask an investor’s associate what the investor’s email habits are like, then you will already have a huge advantage.
It may also help to read about the email habits of successful people to help anticipate their thought processes as it relates to email.
One of the most empowering things about winning the Talent Unleashed awards for Grainster was that it was a huge validation and proof of concept for their team.
Not only is that great for your team’s morale, but it is also a great indicator to investors that you have a strong idea. It proves the authority and legitimacy of your startup to people who might not otherwise consider your team for funding.
For any startup, not just Grainster, to have been validated by huge icons of success like Steve Wozniak and Richard Branson is going to be very valuable.
“It really is empowerment and validation that you can compete on a world stage – and not only compete, but win on a world stage,” Layne says.
Some of you may be thinking the Talent awards are out of your reach, but don’t sell yourself short. Also, a quick Google search on startup competitions will yield plenty of results that you can consider. For a more familiar source, read this article by Forbes for a good starting point. Or consider something like this competition which was hosted by Startup Junkie earlier this year.
Now winning is great, but there are also other benefits to these competitions.
Submitting your company through an application will force you to evaluate your company through the eyes of judges, and therefore future investors. This may help you discover weaknesses in your model or your approach to funding. Be hungry for the criticism. The most important thing is to consider it a learning experience and to apply what you learn.
There are also other benefits to competitions like brand exposure, media exposure, sharing ideas with other entrepreneurs and talking to the winners, or even the judges, about successful strategies.
Strategy #6: Utilize Local Resources for Startups and Entrepreneurs
Wherever you are reading this from, it might pay off to research your state’s local business development resources. Many of you have probably done this already.
One of the great things about Arkansas is that the spirit of Sam Walton lives on in our business communities. It has bred a vibrant atmosphere for entrepreneurship and innovation in our state. Arkansas has great resources for startups and entrepreneurs and is proving to be one of the best locations for tech startups in the country.
Startup Junkie in Fayetteville has more expertise and resources than we could ever provide on this topic, let alone provide in a single blog post. Their services range from consulting, talent recruitment, venture capital expertise, programs and workshops. In fact, if you are reading this, it’s probably a good idea to subscribe to their newsletter right now if you haven’t already. Also consider joining the Startup Crawl later this year.
Another great resource is the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The AEDC has been responsible for some of the state’s largest economic growth efforts under the leadership of Governor Asa Hutchinson and has offices in Little Rock filled with staff dedicated to business development. It’s worth a visit to their website to explore all the resources available for businesses.
A third great resource is the Venture Center in Little Rock. The Venture Center is an incredible entrepreneurship resource for the central part of Arkansas. They specialize in mentorship, investor introductions, and provide intensive programming like the 12 week Pre-Accelerator business bootcamp or the VC Fintech Accelerator. The Venture Center offers an annual membership for $150 and discounts for students and veterans are available.
A fourth resource is the University of Arkansas. The University’s newly formed Office of Economic Development, made up of different units like the World Trade Center Arkansas and the nationally acclaimed Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, is very passionate about growing businesses in Arkansas. The Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub in Fayetteville also has programming not just for students, but for any member of the University of Arkansas community interested in entrepreneurship.
A fifth resource for those in Northwest Arkansas is Grit Studios in Bentonville. Grit has four key focus areas: startup business acceleration, enterprise innovation, strategic networking and partnerships and coworking office and event space. Our friend and partner Angela Grayson is giving a series of talks for Grit’s Table Talk Tuesdays on intellectual property for entrepreneurs. The series is called The 9 Legal Secrets Every Entrepreneur Should Know for A More Bodacious Business and takes place once a month on a Tuesday. If you can’t make the talks, we recommend you listen to Angela give a crash course of the series on our podcast below.