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Acorn Growth Companies
Written by: Dennis Spielman
Rick Nagel is the Managing Partner of Acorn Growth Companies. This small middle-market private equity firm focuses exclusively on ladder stage and growth investments in the aerospace, defense, and intelligence sectors. The company has been around since 2000, starting as the first privately certified incubator in the state of Oklahoma. After 30 deals and on their fifth fund, the firm seeks opportunities to add value as an operating team.
“We look at 250 deals a year,” said Rick Nagel. “We do about two or three. So, we’re very picky. We invest mostly in North America and Europe.”
To boil down the selection process, Nagel explained that they focus on their strengths. Some deals are fast nos, and they get to a no quicker than they get to a yes. One of the critical filters is that they have to add value to the company.
“For us, and not every firm is like this, but for us, we want one plus one to equal seven,” said Nagel. “We’ve been driving historical performance since our internal rate of return really kind of, since the beginning on all of our platform exits, is track more than 30%.”
To maintain their high-performance level, they do this by not overpaying for anything and adding value after the close. This philosophy helps mitigate risk and drive more organic growth opportunities.
“We’ve got a lot to say grace over, so we don’t have that problem,” said Nagel. “It doesn’t mean we always get it right, but we have a pretty good batting average so far.”
Nagel advised those looking for funding to have their head screwed on straight on value and terms when making themselves look suitable for potential investors. People also need to be realistic going in on a deal. There’s a lot of great technology that never gets the funding behind it because the entrepreneurs are just too proud of it. Rick made the analogy of having a big percentage of a small pie or having a small percentage of a massive pie, which leads to having more pie on your plate.
“As much as we looked at bringing on value-added partners, I think it’s important that entrepreneurs looking for capital equally go out and find value-added partners,” said Nagel. “It’s amazing to me what they’ll do and give up to people to get a deal done. They have no value at all in helping them drive to their end results. So, you want investors that are not just passive. Typically, the younger the company is, you want more hands-on deck. I always encourage people to do value-added capital.”
Rick Nagel will be speaking at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, October 13, 2021. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM. Nagel said OVF is great for entrepreneurs and potential investors.
“My advice to anybody that might be reading this that’s not currently engaged would be to get engaged,” said Nagel. “If you’re an early-stage investor, whether you do a deal or not, you’ll see things that will make you smarter in that process by listening to these presentations.”
Register now for the event to learn more from Rick Nagel and to connect with other Oklahoma entrepreneurs.
Watkins-Conti Products, Inc.
Allison Watkins-Conti is a recognized leader, advisor and speaker. Raised in an entrepreneurial environment, she witnessed the formation and creation of sustainable businesses and has experience in many facets of business management. In 2015, Allison conceived the solution for an issue that affects an estimated ONE in THREE women, worldwide. She designed, patented, engineered and manufactured a solution that is entering the FDA approval process. Allison has secured roughly $5M to date, created a quality management system, a contract manufacturing facility, conducted a feasibility study validating efficacy, and employs some of the top industry leaders in the United States. Allison is dedicated to the innovation and development of affordable, effective solutions for common life-altering difficulties faced in today’s environment. She was recently named among the top 20 under 40 in Business Times magazine, was recognized as a 20th Century Woman in Innovation, selected as a Top Ten Inspirational Woman in Disrupt Magazine and been named the Journal Records Achievers under 40. Her company, Watkins-Conti Products, Inc was recognized as "Most Promising New Venture" award w/ Oklahoma Venture Forum for 2021. Most recently, Allison is being recognized Oct 2021 as one of 50 women leaders making a difference.
Attend OVF Power Lunch: OCT
Moore Norman Technology Center
Workforce & Economic Development Coordinator and OVF Chairman
Hello & welcome, we are preparing for our second Power Lunch meeting of the 2021-2022 Year.
Aerospace is currently the second leading industry in Oklahoma with a 44-billion-dollar economic impact.
Oklahoma ranks #10 in the nation when combining both public & private sector aviation and aerospace employment.
Our main speaker, Rick Nagel, managing partner of Acorn Growth Companies has spent 10 plus years investing in this space.
You will not want to miss Rick’s perspective on the current state of Aerospace in Oklahoma as well as what is unfolding!
James Millaway with Zero Health is our pitch presenter & was one of the OVF Awards finalist last year. He has developed proprietary software, is generating revenue, growing, with a unique business model. This will be very useful information!
Please check your personal contacts, invite a Founder, Funder or Associated Service provider who would make a great OVF member to be your guest at the next power lunch.
Let’s Grow this Thing!
Melissa Houston, Making Legislation Work for Businesses
by Dennis Spielman
With over 20 years of experience, Melissa Huston has made a career in public service in various roles. She has recently served as the Oklahoma Labor Commissioner, Secretary for Education and Workforce Development, and previously as Chief of Staff for the Oklahoma Attorney General and the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security. She’s worked under four governors, both Democrat and Republican, and has been referred to as the Swiss army knife of public policy.
“I’ve had some really interesting positions,” said Melissa Huston, founder and principal for 929 Strategies. “And everyone, I didn’t know anything about when I walked into it. It’s not like you go to law school to go into Homeland Security. It didn’t exist then. So as I was finishing my term as labor commissioner, I was trying to figure out what I was doing next. I knew I wanted to stay in public policy. I really enjoy finding solutions to complex public policy issues that are facing the state of Oklahoma. Ended up starting at 929 Strategies.”
The mission of 929 Strategies is to help businesses and governments navigate complex public policy issues. Houston elaborated her job ranges to finding growth opportunities, solving a regulatory environment challenge, or consulting in a major project. One of the projects Huston is currently assisting the legislature is on The American Rescue Plan funds and how to set up a process in the state for the legislature to assess the needs of the state following the pandemic. She has learned that it's about bringing the right people around the table and discussing and brainstorming solutions.
"You'll find that we have a lot more in common than we have differences," said Houston. "And that's what our company does. We try and bring together different sides of the equation, brainstorm some solutions, and then hopefully help to make those solutions a reality. That's what we're doing in the entrepreneurship space and for several other of our clients."
An example Houston shared was during her time as labor commissioner, and they regulated amusement rides. To do this, she sat down with members of the business community and the state's inspectors, and learned how the regulation worked for them. Both the parties had a common goal of providing a safe experience. They were able to come together to find a solution to protect the public without having unnecessary or burdensome regulation in a way that made sense. Oklahoma became a model for the rest of the country on how to regulate amusement rides. Houston said when you have practical solutions and you can get bureaucracy out of the way, you can really unleash the creativity in Oklahoma to address some of the challenges that we have as a state.
“As far as entrepreneurship is concerned, I am very passionate about entrepreneurship in Oklahoma,” said Houston. “People in Oklahoma are very resilient. They’re very innovative. They’re pioneering. They’re let’s figure it out, let’s roll up our sleeves and figure it out and let’s help one another to get there. Those skills are the same skills of an entrepreneur, of a successful entrepreneur. So how is it in the state of Oklahoma that we aren’t leading the country in startups?”
Houston has been trying to solve that problem for the department of commerce. To have a thriving entrepreneur ecosystem, Huston said two things are needed simultaneously: founders and funders.
“If you talk to the funders, they will say, there’s not enough deal flow,” said Houston. “But if you talk to the founders, they will say, there’s not enough capital. You’ve got to be addressing both sides of that equation simultaneously, and both of them have different issues. From a founder’s standpoint, it’s about creating an environment in the state of Oklahoma that encourages innovation, that supports mentorship. Oklahomans are always willing to help their neighbor and willing to help one another, but how do you make those connections? Especially if that’s not the world that you’re living in.”
On the funder side of things, Houston said it’s a similar situation with issues like connecting funders with the founders that have an idea that’s ready for investment and educating funders in the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“We have a lot of investors in energy and in oil and gas, which is a very risky investment, but those investors understand that market,” Houston said. “They understand if you invest in a well, how many times the well isn’t going to hit and that’s okay, that’s part of the market. Houston compared technology startups. For every ten you invest in, maybe there are three that will take off and hit. And so, they have that risk tolerance, but how do you educate them and translate that skill set into something like technology startups?”
Houston noted that Oklahoma already has an incredible network of resource providers across Oklahoma, with more to come. The state has several accelerators across the metros, both in Oklahoma City and in Tulsa. The pandemic has also pushed to make tools and resources more accessible by bringing them online.
“Our universities are doing a great job of nurturing those ideas and helping our founders to start thinking about how to take those ideas to market,” said Houston. “We have a very robust SBDC network across the state of Oklahoma for businesses who are first starting and need help with business 101. So it’s a really exciting time to be in Oklahoma. I think that resource provider network is strong and getting stronger every day.”
Melissa Houston will be speaking at the Oklahoma Venture Forum Power Lunch on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. The event will be open to guests both in-person and virtually via ZOOM. Houston said organizations like the Venture Forum create opportunities for like-minded people committed to growing this ecosystem to find ways to connect and network. Be sure to register for the event to learn what legislation and programs are in the works to help founders and funders and connect with other Oklahoma entrepreneurs.
Want to know more about significant legislative and funding decisions that positively impact the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
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Tom Leydorf, Chief Strategy Officer, Chickasaw Nation Industries, Inc.
Mr. Leydorf is an experienced executive who has successfully led diverse teams for the federal government and private companies. As Chief Strategy Officer at Chickasaw Nation Industries, Inc, he is responsible for overall corporate strategy, mergers and acquisitions, and CNI’s market intelligence program. Previously, he served for 15 years in the U.S. intelligence community and later as the executive director and research director of a private research institution. Mr. Leydorf graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and political science. He also holds Masters of Arts degrees in theology and international relations and is all-but-dissertation (ABD) toward a PhD in world affairs.
Henry Dumas, Moore Norman Technology Center Workforce & Economic Development Coordinator and OVF Chairman.
I am so happy & excited for our first OVF power lunch – “Face to Face”, which will also include digital coverage to honor our OVF members outside of the Oklahoma City metro area!
Outgoing OVF Chairman Danny Slusarchuk, Che' and the OVF board did a wonderful job – of shifting from Face to Face to digital format when the world turned upside down on us last year amidst the Covid pandemic. One great positive in the quick shift to digital was to allow us to recruit Funders, Founders, and associated Service Providers outside the Oklahoma City Area – A long term goal of OVF. This year, we will operate in a hybrid format where we are face to face as well as digital for our members outside the Oklahoma City Metro Area.
Che’ has done a wonderful job of completing our roster of Main Speakers for the entire year (please check this out on the OVF website, so you know what is coming – OVF.org). In addition, we have made request and have high hopes for Governor Stitt to join us as Guest Speaker for our Annual Awards Banquet at the Oklahoma History Center on May 18th, 2022, from 11 am to 1pm!
Our first main speaker for the Sept 8th meeting is Melissa Houston with 929 Strategies who has been instrumental in crafting and implements the Governor Stitt’s Agenda to strengthen the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Oklahoma. In conjunction with the Legislators, they have already completed amazing work and legislation with more good news in process. If you are a Founder, Funder, or associated Service Provider – You totally do not want to miss this presentation!
My goal as Chairman this year, along with Che’ and the board of directors – is to focus on membership retention, the recruitment of new members statewide, find partners to fully fund our sponsorship & awards celebrations – provide outstanding content though our Speaker Selection, exceptionally great food, focused networking time – and start and stop the meeting on time!
I encourage each of you to help us spread the good word about OVF, encourage all current members to renew and to assist us in the recruitment of excellent new members by inviting them as your guest to one of our power lunches, letting them meet the people and feel the experience! If you have questions about how to ask a guest or how to fund their lunch ticket – reach out to our Executive Director Che’ Loessberg – we are committed to helping you to make this a very easy and pain free process!
And finally, I wish to thank the Executive Committee Members, Board Members and Che’ Loessberg for helping me this year to make the 2021-2022 year a great & healthy one for OVF and all of our stakeholders?
I am honored and humbled to be your chairman this year – with the help of all of you – I will work very hard to make our commitments happen in a Great Way!
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2020-2021 OVF Chairman
Danny Slusarchuk, CEO, Standards IT
Oklahoma Venture Forum for me personally has lived up to the hype. Being a part of an economic and entrepreneurial ecosystem, with the membership and depth OVF carries, has offered my young company tremendous value. Relationships with members of OVF brought me to the Francis Tuttle Business Incubator program. It has allowed me to interact and sign up for services from companies like Resolution Legal Group and Insperity. OVF offered up talent from OU, OSU, and Moore Norman Technology. It surrounded me and my business with leading edge organizations like the Golding Group and Insurica providing invaluable insights.
This organization provides Entrepreneurship support, connects the dots for State and Local services, meaningful exclusive networking, funding opportunities, professional service providers, and lifelong relationships. OVF has continued to foster new and existing small business ventures since 1987. It’s where you go to start, grow, exit, learn, invest, and give back. Oklahoma needs organizations that rally the kind of people that make up OVF if it is going to truly diversify and accelerate economic growth.
2020 was an intense year for everyone, OVF included, however OVF was able to convert monthly events to a digital format complete with main speakers, pitch presentations, and networking breakouts, very similar to normal in-person events. The product has been successful in allowing OVF to expand statewide allowing access to the many new members who are outside the OKC Metro. This puts us one step closer to making Oklahoma a greater entrepreneurial hub.
Having the opportunity to Chair OVF has been a delight. I can’t say enough about how hard the Executive Committee works and how important the Board of Directors is to make it all possible. I would be remis if I didn’t mention that the single most impressive part of OVF is Ché Loessberg’s ability to will her way through the multitude of challenges faced by a non-profit. Executive Directors are special people and she is among the very best.
Danny J. Slusarchuk
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OVF Awards Keynote Speaker: Sean Kouplen, Growing Business in Oklahoma
Written by Dennis Spielman
For over two years, Sean Kouplen was the Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development under Governor Kevin Stitt. Under this position, Kouplen was in charge of economic development for Oklahoma, which involved bringing new businesses and helping the existing businesses grow. During his tenure, he brought in 100 new companies.
“We had some really high profile recruitment efforts,” said Sean Kouplen. “You may have seen the Tesla effort. I led that effort and initially recruited them here.”
Although in the end, Tesla went to Austin, Texas, Kouplen learned Oklahoma could compete in the electric vehicle manufacturing world. He began to market to electric vehicle manufacturers and said there are “some big, big, big ones that are looking at this state now.”
While recruitment efforts were one aspect of Kouplen’s job, he learned Oklahoma’s major companies were founded and grew here, and so he began asking, “What programs can we use to help our businesses grow?” One of the projects Kouplen put together was a venture capital advisory council, which includes people like Rick Nagel with Acorn Group and Erica Lucas with Thunder LaunchPad, to name a few. They would put together monthly investment calls, where they would feature companies and have investors calling in.
One of the surprising facts Kouplen learned as Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development was that Oklahoma could compete with anybody on a global scale in business.
“We are a very low-cost state. We have excellent educational institutions, excellent training,” said Kouplen. “We have excellent incentives for businesses that are either growing or wanting to move into the state. We’ve got a great location, great abundant natural resources, very flat organizational structure. I could get a company that was going to bring a hundred jobs to Oklahoma, in to visit with the governor in a matter of days. And you go to Texas, and they wouldn’t even talk to you if you don’t have a thousand jobs. And so I think that was a tremendous advantage.”
Kouplen believes one of the challenges the state faces in helping businesses is getting the word out about the available resources. He’s worked to centralize all those in one place at okcommerce.gov. The website features both incentive and non-cash programs to help entrepreneurs. Some of the tools for entrepreneurs in Oklahoma Kouplen mentioned include 36 Degrees North, Love’s Innovation Group, Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance, and Thunder LaunchPad.
“I visited with a company in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, in my banking role, and they are expanding, building a big building. And they mentioned having a manufacturing plant in California, where they were very frustrated,” said Kouplen. “I laid out some of the things that the state could do to help them relocate to Oklahoma, and they had no idea. And I think they’re going to move hundreds of jobs here based upon one conversation. So that’s what I’m saying, in my opinion, we have the ingredients. We just have to continue doing a better job of packaging those and getting the word out through avenues like this.”
Sean Kouplen will be the featured keynote speaker for Oklahoma Venture Forum Annual Award Event on Wednesday, May 12th, 2021. Kouplen said he is excited to come to speak to Oklahoma Venture Forum about what he’s learned and what he sees in Oklahoma’s future.
The 2021 OVF Awards will be a hybrid ceremony hosted online on May 12th from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. The live ceremony will be held at the OU Health Science PHF Conference Center. The live portion of the event is open to OVF members and sponsors, with limited capacity. Guests are asked to view the event online via Zoom. Please register online through the website: www.ovf.org to receive the Zoom link and please invite a guest. For inquiries about the awards event, please contact Che’ Loessberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Henry Dumas
Business Coach, Moore Norman Technology Center
An elevator pitch is a conversation, or an ice breaker, that will (hopefully) lead into a deeper dialogue about what you and your company can offer. A good elevator pitch should last no longer than a short elevator ride of 20-30 seconds—hence the name—and focuses on what are you doing now. It should be simple enough that someone could reel it off at any time—and memorable enough that people will listen. To improve, or create, an elevator speech follow these tips:
• Answer the right question. The typical starting point for giving your elevator pitch is the question, “What do you do?” Don’t answer that question, at least not directly. Instead, assume you have been asked the question “Tell me what you do for your customers.” That’s what they really want to know, and it’s the best way to show what you do, vs. describing how you do it.
• Be conversational. The goal is not to talk at someone but with someone. Pause after the first few sentences for the other person to comment or ask questions. A successful pitch is where the other person relaxes and says, “Interesting. Tell me more.”
• Use simple, everyday language. The goal is to have the listener understand your company. Avoid jargon and industry-specific terms. A good exercise when you think you have the perfect elevator speech is to re-read and cross out every word that sounds remotely like a buzz word and replace it with a more simple, direct word.
• Start with an introduction of the company and then talk about what it can mean for the listener. Avoid starting the conversation with bragging points or product features -- “We are the leading provider with 54 offices in 29 countries.” Reserve that information for the end of the elevator speech, after the customer is interested in the conversation.
• Provide relevant examples. Have at least two or three different examples of a current or past customers and what you achieved for them in quantifiable terms. Choose one example that would be the most meaningful to the listener. This will bring your value proposition to life and make it real.
• Practice, practice and then practice some more. Test it on someone who is not intimate with the company and will give your honest feedback. Remember the goal is to make someone else understand your company.
• Make eye contact, smile, be energetic and be engaged. Pull them in with your words, as well as your physical reaction and emotions as you tell your story. (This is where practice pays off.)
• Follow the golden rule. An easy way to test your elevator speech is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Would you enjoy talking to someone if they used the same approach about a different company, or would you push the button for the closest floor? Better yet, recall when this has happened to you and be determined not to repeat the same mistake.
• Make your elevator speech evolve. Modify the speech based on feedback, verbal and nonverbal, and engagement. If the listener’s eyes glaze over or they walk away, your elevator speech needs work. Evaluate if it was the introduction, explanation, example or delivery and continue to modify your speech. You will see and feel it when your customer is engaged and know that you have created a great elevator speech.
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