I first met Misti and Will Staley last summer during the kickoff weekend of the Delta I-Fund accelerator, a program supporting early-stage entrepreneurs in Arkansas and across the Mississippi Delta region.
Something about this young couple from Helena – serious, poised, attentive – reminded me that starting a venture can be a profound decision. The adventure, joy, and allure of startup life might entertain a listener of “How I Built This” or a fan of Shark Tank, but at its heart, entrepreneurship is about solving a problem. And problems, by definition, are painful.
Three years earlier, I learned, Misti and Will had become parents. Their son, Freeman, was born with a condition that required him to be tube fed. Misti and Will spent months in the NICU before bringing Freeman home.
At home, Misti and Will had to hold Freeman’s feeding apparatus at a certain height and introduce medicine to his feed, all while holding Freeman. Sometimes they would tie a string over Freeman’s crib to hold the equipment; this is how his feeds were rigged in the hospital. The string created scary situations, for example, when Freeman would spit up and aspirate the fluid; they knew they needed to create something to make feeding him safer. They made a hinged hanger for Freeman’s feeds that attached to his crib and could be moved out of the way quickly – a prototype – that simplified the feeding process. Their invention allowed Misti and Will to spend less time thinking about Freeman’s medical condition and more time being together as a family, doing the things most families take for granted. Freeman lived for only ten months, but Misti and Will were determined to honor his life by helping other parents of “tubies” who had faced similar challenges.
Misti and Will sought out the I-Fund to meet mentors and medical professionals who had walked the path from idea to market and to gain the tools necessary to forge their own. During the Delta I-Fund customer interviews, Misti and Will’s original prototype changed to fit the needs of every person with a feeding tube, not just babies. Their product now clamps to tables, beds, wheelchairs and more. Today, their company, Staley House LLC, distributes an FDA-registered, Class-One medical device known as the FreeArm Tube Feeding Assistant to parents and hospitals around the world.
At the University of Arkansas, I tell Misti and Will’s story to students as a way of challenging assumptions about what it means to be an entrepreneur. Yes, entrepreneurs often start companies and create value for shareholders, inventors, and management teams. Yes, entrepreneurs often need to understand what a pro forma statement is and be interested in – even excited about – sales.
But before we get to those things, I want them to hear stories like Misti and Will’s, which makes apparent that if you care about a problem, entrepreneurship can be a vehicle for getting new solutions into the world. It can also be a path for innovation within the industry, the nonprofit sector, or academia, as many executives now acknowledge. Having an eye trained on the problems in your chosen industry or community, and the people who are affected by them is a powerful tool. It is accessible to everyone but too rarely wielded.
Tool number two is a process for testing your own assumptions, early and on the regular. You may think you know how to solve a problem, and you may have invented something special, but you don’t really know if you have a viable plan until you start testing those ideas in the real world. This is harder than it sounds, but it gets easier with practice. Our students are out the door and interviewing customers, or demonstrating prototypes, much earlier than they feel ready. They go in pairs, at least, as a check on each other’s openness to unexpected information, because this tool is rendered useless by confirmation bias.
The third tool is teambuilding – including cofounders and the necessary extended support system (mentors, coaches, instructors, partners, etc.). It takes many hard skills to build a business or to introduce new ideas and products within existing organizations. The good news is that entrepreneurship is a team sport, and the tool is the network of people who might join you in the pursuit. An essential part of entrepreneurship education is to connect students to each other and to connect them with a robust and relevant network. We are lucky in Arkansas to have a mentor pool that is experienced, willing, and growing at lightning pace.
I, myself, will forever be a student of UA associate vice chancellor Carol Reeves, although I confess that I have never paid a dollar in tuition. As her other students know, she begins every lecture with a question – “Where is the pain?” (To avoid overkill, she repeats this phrase in a different language every week.) Becoming an entrepreneur, to me, is less about the act of starting a business and more about fully absorbing this message. It is like turning on a light that will never go dark, as long as there are problems in the world to be solved. The question then becomes, which one is most worthy of you? Imagine if we all followed Misti and Will’s example.
Learn more about the FreeArm Tube Feeding Assistant at freearmcare.com.
Sarah Goforth joined the University of Arkansas Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation as its Director of Outreach in 2017. In that role, she serves as an instructor for New Venture Development and the UA’s NSF I-Corps site, designs programs for the Brewer Family Hub for Entrepreneurship, develops collaborations between OEI and partners on campus and off, and partners with research faculty to support STEM graduate students with an interest in entrepreneurship. Prior to returning to her native Northwest Arkansas, Goforth served as Chief Communications Officer for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where she oversaw communications, media partnerships, and digital strategy. She is a board member of the Montana State University Center for the Communication of Science. Goforth graduated with honors and distinction in biology from Hendrix College and has a master’s degree in science journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.