As busy leaders of dynamic organizations, CEOs often lament how hard it is to find the time and environment to process challenges only they can understand. “It is lonely at the top,” as they say. To meet this need, Innovate Arkansas (IA) has developed a unique series of forums that bring together Arkansas startup founders in monthly peer-to-peer, closed-door sessions. In these off-the-record discussions, CEOs can process each other’s issues and growth challenges, while sharing deep insights about their businesses and the business climate in Arkansas, the region and the world.
Deep trust occurs. Bonds form. A strong network is built. “The CEO tech forum is an invaluable asset to any CEO,” says Josh Smith, CEO of Arkansas-based software firm Metova. “We are all running our business models and working hard to make sure we are supporting our teams in ways that help them be successful. Even though our businesses are very different, the rate of change around us is the same and makes our challenges very similar.”
The idea dates to 2017, when IA partnered with Fayetteville-based Elevate Performance to host its first CEO forum in central Arkansas. Building from Elevate’s existing model, which welcomes all types of companies regardless of size, development stage or type of business, IA tailored its forum specifically to its technology-based startup founders.
“We recognized the importance and power of peer-to-peer relationships and networking among grow-focused startup founders,” says IA Adviser Mike Smith, who directed and coordinated the inaugural forum. “Because younger companies typically face challenges unique from more established companies and because technology-based businesses also have unique challenges, Innovate Arkansas is able to put peers together that understand each other’s situations and can support each other in more constructive ways.”
In 2019, IA launched a second CEO tech forum for Northwest Arkansas IA clients. Clients meet once a month for three hours to discuss their challenges. Participants say they have seen a host of benefits, ranging from professional development, overcoming scaling challenges and business growth through contacts, to using the groups as a tactical soundboard for immediate problems.
“The group grounds me. It helps me realize that business is business and there will always be struggles and challenges,” says Kimberly Smith, CEO of Conway-based IP Launch Services. “It’s our job as CEOs to find the solution. The problems and challenges are not because we have failed. This is simply business.”
Mike McGibbony, CEO of Little Rock-based White Rock Technologies, recalls how he resolved a challenge he faced with one of his business relationships through advice he received from the group.
“I received a game-changing message from our group related to my decision to either pursue partnership/ownership on a product we created or bypass,” McGibbony says. “The group gave me excellent feedback, which turned out to be the right decisions.”
Meanwhile, Steve Bethel, former CEO of Little Rock-based AngelEye Health, says the forum helped fill gaps in his company.
“We were able to integrate a [customer relationship management (CRM) system], which we had had difficulty with in the past,” Bethel recalls. “One of the forum members does this specifically, so it made it easy to bring this integration into our company because of a personal relationship with the Innovate Arkansas CEO Forum. Another example of this is with a contract manufacturing situation. We needed to outsource our manufacturing operations and through the CEO forum, I was able to find a partner to help us do that.”
Other members highlight the comfort gained simply by sharing problems with people who understand, a rare experience in what can be a lonely job. Walter Burgess, CEO of Alexander-based Power Technology, says, “You can tell [forum participants] things you can’t tell your spouse. The wealth of experience in the room helps you when there are tough decisions to be made.
“The ROI of this half-day far exceeds the investment I make,” Burgess says. “Everyone thinks they don’t have time in the beginning. Ultimately you find yourself wishing for more than a half-day.”
By investing in executive development, the forums have helped Innovate Arkansas further its mission: to accelerate scalable, knowledge-based ventures.
“Our CEO tech forums have directly impacted our growth-focused startups as they work through barriers to scaling their businesses,” says IA Director David Sanders.