Episode 63: Sarah Goforth, Jon Johnson, Canon Reeves and Kyle Sadler
Sarah Goforth is the Executive Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation
at the University of Arkansas. Read More
More About This Episode
Sarah Goforth is the Executive Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Arkansas. In addition to this, she is also an adjunct professor in the Sam M. Walton College of Business.
Jon Johnson is the Founder and Chairman of the Board of The Sustainability Consortium. Jon is also a professor and was just named Chair of the Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Venture Innovation department in the Walton College.
Canon Reeves is a Computer Science major at the University of Arkansas and the CEO and Co-Founder of MORE Technologies.
Kyle Sadler is a Computer Science major at the University of Arkansas. He is also the Managing Director of Startup Village.
00:07 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education, and your life today.
00:27 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Sarah Goforth, who is the Executive Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Arkansas and she's also an adjunct professor in the Walton College of Business. I also have Jon Johnson, who is the founder and chairman of the board of The Sustainability Consortium, a professor, and chair of our new department, the Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Venture Innovation in the Walton College. I have Kyle Sadler, who is majoring in Computer Science at the University of Arkansas and he's also the Managing Director of Startup Village. And I have Canon Reeves, who is the CEO and co-founder of MORE Technologies. And Kyle, and Sarah, and Jon were talking, and a new business emerged. A business that really already had, we already had the seeds of this business, but we felt like it was worth capturing. So Sarah or Jon, would you mind starting and just telling a little bit about the background of this?
01:42 Sarah Goforth: Sure. So in the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, we always try to be demand-driven and responsive to the needs of the student community, students that are trying to solve problems, create things, start new ventures, do meaningful work, and...
01:56 Matt Waller: Do you mean you practice what you preach?
02:00 Sarah Goforth: We do our best.
02:01 Sarah Goforth: We do our best. And the students push us in that direction when we forget, which this is a great example of, for sure. And we'd been planning this Mixer event, Co-founder Forum, is that we were calling it, Kyle? Yeah, and the idea was students in one discipline need teammates from other disciplines to get their venture off the ground or their project off the ground. And so, we do these social events where we get just students together, in the room together, and allow them to pitch their ideas, and their needs to each other. And we were collaborating with the College of Engineering on this particular one and it was gonna be a big event. Well, with the COVID-19 situation, those big events are being cancelled. And so, last Friday, Kyle and Canon stopped by my office and they said, "Hey, we don't need to have a big event, we just need a tool to do this job."
02:44 Sarah Goforth: And they were all excited, which I'm really used to about their new idea. I'm used to that too. I put together a pitch deck, and a prototype, and a demo, and said, "Why don't we just do an app and get this off the ground really quickly and meet the needs in an even better way than an event?" And I said, "Let's do it."
03:00 Matt Waller: Entrepreneurship is so much about solving problems and I thought, "Well, this is solving a clear problem using capabilities and skills that we have." And I also like it, because Sarah and Jon, who are in charge of entrepreneurship in different ways were collaborating actually are helping to start a business, and that's just really exciting to hear about. So, thank you all for calling me.
03:32 Jon Johnson: It was exciting in a lot of different ways for me. Our new department, which is brand new, is forming right now. We're trying to figure out what kind of department we wanna be. But one thing we all agree on is we want to be entrepreneurial and innovative ourselves.
03:48 Matt Waller: Well, and Jon, who's speaking right now, he's been quite an entrepreneur, maybe one of the most impressive entrepreneurs at the University of Arkansas, but he's also done a lot of research as a professor in the area of strategy. So we've got a department that combines both of those things. And so, he's the perfect... If you don't know about The Sustainability Consortium, I actually have a podcast recording with him about that, but there's lots of information online about it. If you just Google the Sustainability Consortium and Jon Johnson, you'll see it, but that is a very successful organization that Jon created to solve the problem. And not only has it solved the problem, but it's brought in millions of dollars to the University of Arkansas. So...
04:39 Jon Johnson: But what was really exciting about yesterday is we had a problem [chuckle] that was ironically or is ironically being solved by a tool that was being developed for the problem we were trying to solve.
04:55 Matt Waller: It's recursive.
04:55 Jon Johnson: It's recursive. And so Sarah, and Kyle, and I were talking about, "Well, can we, working in a university environment, make this happen in a timely manner?" And any time you talk about a university and timely manner, you become depressed.
05:15 Jon Johnson: And so we were talking through all the different options. Sarah is very strategic in thinking about how to work at our university. And it occurred to me, "Matt Waller needs to be in on this conversation." So one of the things that listeners of this podcast probably know is Matt is very action-oriented. And so we were talking about setting up a meeting with you to see if we could pitch this idea to you. And it occurred to me why not just give you a call? And by happenstance, you had the time to pick up and talk. And this was just the funnest thing I've done in the last month. By the end of probably a five-minute telephone call, we were on our way. And I think we kind of blew Kyle's mind.
06:00 Kyle Sadler: It made my heart race.
06:01 Matt Waller: Did you feel like you were the dog that caught the bus?
06:05 Kyle Sadler: I guess so. [chuckle] I wasn't expecting to go into that meeting and get on a phone call with Matt Waller. It just wasn't the thing I had in my mind.
06:13 Matt Waller: Well, I'm glad you did.
06:14 Kyle Sadler: Yeah, it worked out.
06:16 Matt Waller: So, Kyle, where are you from?
06:17 Kyle Sadler: I'm from Little Rock originally.
06:19 Matt Waller: Little Rock, okay. What year are you?
06:20 Kyle Sadler: I'm a sophomore.
06:21 Matt Waller: Sophomore.
06:22 Kyle Sadler: Yeah, in computer science and mathematics.
06:25 Matt Waller: Wow. First of all, tell us a little bit about Startup Village and how you got involved with that.
06:30 Kyle Sadler: Yeah, so, Startup Village is an office space for U of A startups and non-profits. And so, Sarah... I was working for Sarah doing interviews for a lookbook over the summer. And she said, "Kyle, do you wanna help run this office space?" And I was like, "Yeah. [chuckle] Of course." And so yeah, it happened.
06:51 Sarah Goforth: Little did you know that by help run it, I meant run it.
06:53 Kyle Sadler: Yeah, yeah.
06:54 Kyle Sadler: I ended up doing all of it.
06:56 Matt Waller: Sarah's a good salesperson.
07:00 Kyle Sadler: No, it was awesome. Just. I was given this empty building, and Sarah just told me go and it was amazing because I just felt like it was mine and I could own it and develop it on my own.
07:14 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, and now, who's there?
07:16 Kyle Sadler: So we have a ton of companies including MORE Technologies Canon's company, we have a non-profit that's focused on diversifying mountain biking in North Los Arkansas, we have a couple of 3D manufacturing companies, AMBOTS the 3D printing company and Lapovations, the medical device company. Where are we?
07:36 Sarah Goforth: One special shout out to Kyle as we did an open call for applications for Ventures to be part of the village and we got our first cohort that way, but there were still open space, and there were still options to fit people in. And Kyle has sort of personally not sort of, he has personally recruited companies that I haven't even met them yet to join the village, and it really has a sense of community thanks to what you've built. And Canon too, just by virtue of being the first company to move into the village and being a champion and a cheerleader, and somebody who is on the lookout for how we can meet the needs of the other companies in the space. It just would not have happened without the two of you.
08:17 Matt Waller: Of course, I met Canon, I don't know, a couple of years ago, but I could tell right away. Well, I think you made an appointment to come to my office, didn't you? I can't remember. I think that's what happened.
08:30 Canon Reeves: Yeah, I think ran into you at some event, and Clint introduced us.
08:32 Matt Waller: Oh, that's right, that's right. But you eventually came and explained to me what you were doing and I was of course super impressed. Would you tell us just a brief out about MORE Technologies?
08:44 Canon Reeves: Yeah, so basically, I build robots. I've been doing it quite a while, and when my little sister wanted to build a robot with me I couldn't find a robot kit that I felt like was adequate for her. So we developed our own robotics platform it super module it's all 3D printed, and the idea is that we can start anybody, whether they're a fourth-grader or somebody in college teaching the basic skills of things like programming, 3D printing, and design. But then scale it up so they can build bigger and bigger things as they learn more. It's all about getting kids excited about STEM, excited about creating things. And so we started that two years ago, it's been a wild journey, and just being in the Startup Village has been such a game-changer, because we're able to be around other companies who are in similar positions and thinking through similar things. So just this morning before I came over here, I was talking with AMBOTS about how they set up their CRM and inventory management platform. And it's those quick 10 minute conversations that make the world of difference because those conversations wouldn't happen without the work of Kyle and Sarah to like set this up.
09:39 Matt Waller: Canon, say something about your market penetration at this point?
09:44 Canon Reeves: Yeah, so we've been in the business for two years. So far I went 23 countries and 25 states, and so were in top private schools everywhere from California, then New York, and Arkansas, and so we're really focused on K-12 education and penetrating all the schools.
09:58 Matt Waller: Where are you from originally?
10:00 Canon Reeves: Searcy.
10:00 Matt Waller: Searcy, oh wow. There's a... First Security Bank is out of there and the CEO and founder, who is an alumni of our college just got inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of fame, Reynie Rutledge.
10:17 Canon Reeves: Awesome.
10:17 Matt Waller: And soon a podcast with him is gonna be published. Do you know him?
10:23 Canon Reeves: I think my dad knows him, but I don't know it personally.
10:25 Matt Waller: Okay.
10:25 Canon Reeves: Yeah.
10:26 Matt Waller: Well, thank you all for joining us. I appreciate it. Kyle, would you tell us just a little bit more about the idea for the business?
10:34 Kyle Sadler: Yeah, so Canon and I are very entrepreneurial people. And we saw it... OEI and we saw that it's hard to connect to other people who might be interested in starting a company. And so, we came up with this idea, we're calling it Co-finder, basically you log on to the app and you can see other people who are in the ecosystem, and you can star them and start messaging them and form teams and ultimately companies out of it.
11:01 Canon Reeves: And I can show you a walk-through if you'd like.
11:03 Matt Waller: Yeah that'd be great.
11:04 Canon Reeves: Explain it as we go. So like Kyle was talking about, you can come here and see other people. So what we're looking at is basically questions that that other person answered, so maybe there are answering questions, like what time of the day do you work best, or what are the ideas you're working on? And so it's kind of this way to get a feel for the person without actually being there in person. So I can just go there and message them and actually just start that conversation. And what's really cool about this is one, the conversation starts, but two: We can provide insights into the entrepreneur ecosystem in the area, so we can actually just tell you how many engineering students are talking to business students? And so we can provide these connections across the colleges and get much more hard data about what's happening in the ecosystem. Because Kyle and I are like hackers. We started doing this because we were like, we wanna do some technical project, and so our sphere of connections is like it doesn't really get into the other colleges as much so our hope with this is that we can start to track and make an impact on those inter-college connections. So that's just we know we're highly part of it.
12:04 Sarah Goforth: I have to say they're a good business. You say you're hackers, and you're coders, your developers, yes, but you're also good business people because you knew that for OEI, one of our key metrics is tracking our students getting together across disciplines, that's just our primary goal. We try to make that happen, but it's really hard to track. So when you pitch this idea to me that was the first thing you said, you said "We can give you analytics on how many students are connecting with each other across different disciplines." And I said, "Okay tell me more."
12:30 Jon Johnson: It was an inside job.
12:31 Sarah Goforth: Yeah. [laughter]
12:32 Matt Waller: Well, entrepreneurship is a growing phenomena throughout universities, most universities are trying to do something with it so your solution will probably be appealing to other executive directors like Sarah.
12:50 Sarah Goforth: I think so too.
12:51 Jon Johnson: The thing about it that appeals to me most is it's such an elegant solution, it's a simple solution. It's a dating service for entrepreneurs, basically. And there are actually other solutions out there that are just... They're over-engineered, and clumsy, and expensive, and all of the things you don't want if you're an entrepreneur. So this is, I'm really, really excited about this app.
13:17 Matt Waller: And the other thing about it is I agree. I mean, a lot of times these kinds of things get overly engineered and makes them harder to use and it really doesn't, it makes it harder to solve the problem actually. But the other thing is, it allows them to get their product out more quickly. They're not holding it back as long, and so they'll be able to get feedback. Canon, you've got a lot of feedback over the years you've done lots of pivoting and morphing. Can you say anything to that?
13:49 Canon Reeves: Yeah. What's so cool about this is the people we're building for are our friends, and we're so deeply connected to the outcome of this that we approach it in a very will this actually help mindset, if that makes sense. So, and we just moved so quickly on this. So, to give you a more tangible example, we were talking with Robert Saunders about what does the engineering college need for this kind of thing. And their mindset right now is how do we get capstone projects set up for next year? How do we get those students connected? So he really wanted a way for students to create videos, upload those videos of them pitching their idea to this platform, and then other students could connect and say, "Oh, I wanna work on that. That sounds really cool." So, actually, last night, I built that. And so what we've got right here is a system where you can see, here's all these pitch videos, and basically you can click on it, learn more. You can see the person that created that, and from right there, you can message it. And we're actually tracking how many times are people clicking on that and what are they interested in. So, this is just the start of that.
14:51 Jon Johnson: One of the things that's really exciting to me in this new department, but also just being part of the Walton College family is that you Matt, are really working hard to build a culture and in an environment that enables these kinds of projects, but everyone really to become more entrepreneurial. It's hard to be entrepreneurial in a university. Every instinct universities have is the opposite of entrepreneurial. And it's just really exciting for me, as a faculty member, to be in an environment like this.
15:27 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. In fact, just yesterday, I called up Drew Stephens, who's the Walton College director of digital services and manages all the websites, which is a big job, to talk to him about how we might integrate this app into the college's web environment. And I've worked at a lot of big organizations, and big organizations, the enterprise web systems, there are a lot of rules that bind them and a lot of complexities. And normally, the web team's first job is to say no, [chuckle] because of all those rules and boundaries. And Drew his first instinct was, "Well, let me hear what this is about." So I told him. And his second instinct was to respond as a human, which was, "Wow, that's cool. I can definitely see the need that meets." And then his third response was, "How can I help? What can I do? Let's figure out how we can get this off the ground quickly." And he moved on from there to talk me through some of the features that might be more technically challenging, and so maybe we do those in phase two. Phase one are the things that we know that we can do quickly. But he saw his role as an enabler rather than a gatekeeper, which everybody in the college I think shares that point of view.
16:37 Matt Waller: And we've given them a lot more work recently [chuckle] in the past couple of years. But yeah, we're fortunate to have him.
16:44 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, he's a star. And he's really actually tuned in to the needs of the student community too.
16:51 Matt Waller: Sarah, you have a huge job, and of course, your job running OEI spans the whole university. It's not just the business school, even though you're an adjunct professor in the business school, your scope is very broad. I feel like you've brought a lot of vision and strategy to OEI. But I wonder, you have people coming to you from so many different disciplines on campus, how do you decide what to say yes to and what to say no to?
17:24 Sarah Goforth: You're right, we're surrounded by idea people. And the people on the OEI team ourselves are idea people. So probably the thing that's hardest for us is setting boundaries around what we do. But we've made some decisions, I think some pretty strategic decisions around what we'll focus on and what we won't. And a year ago, as a team, we agreed that we would focus very intentionally on our North Star, which is what are the needs of the student community? We have a lot of other things we have to think about. We have to think about the faculty we partner with, the other colleges we partner with, the external community, our mentors. But the thing that helps us make decisions is: Does this meet the needs of a student innovator or entrepreneur?
18:11 Sarah Goforth: And if so, we're gonna try to make it happen and we will try not to be constrained by the resources that are directly under our control. So this was a pretty easy one, because it was an immediate need, not only for the students that we were seeing, but an immediate need for our office to figure out how do we pivot some of the events that we were planning to do in person and make them online? A lot of other instances, it's more complex. It's a big initiative, a new program, a new... Like the Startup Village, for example. But we did an assessment, was the need real? We decided to pilot it. And in the pilot phase, if we had learned, yes, there's a moderate need, but it's not a deep need, and this isn't really the right solution, we would kill that experiment. We do that all the time. We have the freedom and we are given the freedom by our leadership, thank you very much, to conduct experiments, and to be honest about them, if if they don't succeed, and move onto something more impactful.
19:07 Matt Waller: I am so pleased that you practice entrepreneurship within the university. I don't think it's always the case actually that entrepreneurial divisions in universities do that. So thank you for doing that.
19:21 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, you're right, I think. I think we had the luxury of being programmatic and sitting for the large part outside the curriculum. It's much harder to be entrepreneurial, I think, as an academic department. And it's amazing to be part of the birth and growth of SEVI, and what Jon is trying to do is really, hard but really important.
19:34 Matt Waller: SEVI, by the way stands for Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Venture Innovation. And that's the name of the new department that Jon is the chair of. One thing I wanted to also mention about Jon, if you look at all of the professors of the University of Arkansas and you rank them based on citations, that is how many times their published articles have been cited, Jon is in the top 10 of all the faculty at the University of Arkansas, not just in the College of Business. So that's quite a feat.
20:16 Matt Waller: So you know the academic side really well Jon, you're starting a department that is about strategy and entrepreneurship, on the academic side it is, it's a little more difficult to innovate, how are you dealing with that and also if you wouldn't mind saying just a little bit about the department that would be great?
20:36 Jon Johnson: Well, sure and thank you. First of all it's not me it's a bunch of people who are starting the new department and the most attractive thing about the job offer for department chair was just how good the people are. The Department is we're in the process right now of envisioning what our curriculum should be, what we should be offering to our students. We pretty quickly ended up with a focus on a minor actually not a major and a graduate certificate. One of the things that's really nice about this department is, everyone in the department realizes that dogs should wag tails and the dog in this case is what do our students need not just in the Walton College but at the University of Arkansas and in my mind and I think most of my colleagues share this vision is entrepreneurship is innovation to your perfect adjunct educations to content, so a computer scientist who has deep knowledge in how to write code and what problems should be solved, doesn't necessarily have deep knowledge in how you actually commercialize that or start the business and there are lots of students with great ideas in the non-profit world who don't really know how to create an organization and manage an organization so we wanna be there for those students first and I think the potential to partner with departments across the entire university is just extraordinary.
22:07 Jon Johnson: I think we can have thousands of minors in fairly short order because so many students have good ideas that need to be made real so that's really what we're focusing on right now is trying to figure out how to do that and how to do it in a way that removes obstacles. Again, universities with good intentions create lots of obstacles in terms of prerequisites, in terms of trying to make sure that we're delivering education in a cost-effective way that those all involve trade-offs and so we're trying to be as creative as we possibly can and ensuring rigor but removing barriers.
22:45 Matt Waller: So my next question is to either one of the co-founders of Co-finder, what are your next steps?
22:53 Canon Reeves: Pretty much we've mapped out of the MVP how this would look like and we've finished a lot of...
22:57 Matt Waller: MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product?
23:00 Canon Reeves: Yes, that so we've pretty much got most of these features done so now we're trying to actually launch it within the next week or two. So Sarah can tell you guys a bit more about where you can sign up for that and how you can get involved.
23:11 Sarah Goforth: Yeah, you can go to entrepreneurship.uark.edu and today you can sign up for our email newsletter and the minute this product is available we'll send an email out to that list notifying them but thereafter it will be available on that domain.
23:27 Matt Waller: Well, again one of the things that's amazing about this is, we have the Executive Director of OEI and the chair of the new department SEVI with some students have come together and voila we have a new company solving a real problem, it's imminent so this is really exciting. Thank you all for joining me today.
23:52 Sarah Goforth: Thank you Matt.
23:52 Kyle Sadler: Thank you Matt.
23:53 Canon Reeves: Thanks for having us.
23:56 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The BeEPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching the BeEPIC podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast and now BeEPIC.