by Mark Carter
Posted 1/7/2013 12:00 am
When Sooligan co-founders Nikka Umil and Natasia Malaihollo graduated from Cal-Berkeley last spring, the former was headed to Brazil to study economics, the latter to law school at Georgetown.
But as in any good story, twists and turns awaited.
They admit their California friends and family thought they were crazy to relocate their startup venture to Fayetteville last fall to participate in the inaugural Ark Challenge startup accelerator.
“Yes, they did; most people did,” Umil said. “Actually, there was an article written about us on a startup blog, and it was advertised as ‘What were these girls thinking?’ But we believe it was a beneficial move for us and Sooligan.”
Sooligan is a social media app that makes it easy to find and share information about any city in the world. The name is derived from the concept of a positive, social “hooligan.”
“The typical Sooligan user is someone who likes to share information about what he or she likes or doesn’t like in a city,” Malaihollo said. “It can be about anything, from local restaurants and shops to weather, traffic and even school-related issues. The other Sooligan user is someone who just moved or traveled to a new area and is looking for local information. Sooligan uses several tools that generate conversation between these locals and newcomers, and others who are seeking information about a city.”
Those tools rely on “unique keyword algorithms” that make it faster and easier to find and share local information. Think of a localized, more interactive Facebook or Twitter.
The Sooligan girls, or N-Squared as they came to be known among the northwest Arkansas startup community, will officially launch their product to the world as part of the Super Bowl’s social media setup for the big game on Feb. 3. But before that big, official launch, they’re making Sooligan available this month to hundreds of University of Arkansas students who signed up in the fall.
For now, Sooligan remains officially based out of the Iceberg co-working space in Fayetteville, but after the Super Bowl, Umil and Malaihollo expect to be even more mobile, taking their product to 20 of the “largest and more socially active” universities in the U.S.
So, why Arkansas? Umil said they researched startup accelerators and discovered not only the Ark Challenge but other factors that helped recruit them to Arkansas and convince them that Fayetteville was the best place to grow.
Those factors included a booming startup scene, a state commitment to growing startups and, of course, access to a cluster of Fortune 500 companies and all the orbital startup activity surrounding them.
The high expectations born of that research were met and even exceeded, she said.
“We actually had no expectations of Arkansas before coming in,” Umil said. “We are full-fledged California girls, so before the Ark Challenge, we never really thought of Arkansas much. We thought it would be more rural than it turned out to be, but were pleasantly surprised by the booming northwest Arkansas community and its history of housing the greatest in retail and transportation.
“Fayetteville kind of reminds us of Berkeley in that it’s socially active with a vibrant university atmosphere. We love the people, community and culture.”
In terms of developing into a regional entrepreneurial hub, the Sooligan girls think northwest Arkansas legitimately is on its way.
“Northwest Arkansas is on the right track,” Malaihollo said. “There is no doubt that it will be a hub for entrepreneurship and tech in the next few years. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship activity here.”
Northwest Arkansas has an “endless supply” of selfless, progressive people who embrace innovation, are willing to take risks and put the interests of community first, she said.
“For a region to grow, it needs leaders and people who want to see growth for the simple reason that they care about their community, not for personal gain.”
Umil said Fayetteville enabled Sooligan to grow in a way it probably couldn’t have in the San Francisco Bay area, where the concept was hatched.
“We were able to focus more in a small city like Fayetteville,” she said. “Silicon Valley is already saturated with so many startups that receive minimal notice despite their amazing products and services. As we were researching different accelerators, the Ark Challenge proved to be an unconventional yet smart choice for us.”
The Ark Challenge would go all out for its first round of startups, the Sooligan girls reasoned, and they were right.
“We figured they would expend all their resources to make their first group awesome, which is exactly what they did,” Malaihollo said. “It helps that this area has the most billionaires per capita in the nation, too.”
Also, the girls figured their product could get off the ground quicker here.
“A small, tight-knit community like Fayetteville allows us to test our product at a small scale and gain community support and recognition for our brand, something we wouldn’t get in a place like Silicon Valley since people encounter so much startup noise daily,” Umil said. Sooligan currently is raising $50,000 of a larger $500,000 seed stage round and is about halfway there, Malaihollo said.
Innovate Arkansas adviser Mike Smith worked closely with Umil and Malaihollo, mentoring them through the Ark Challenge, which amounted to a startup boot camp. He’s a former Stephens Inc. executive who engineered private investments for the Stephens family. He knows a good investment when he sees one, and believes Sooligan is a good investment.
“Everyone that met this team recognized their tenacious enthusiasm and wanted to help with their progress,” he said.
Sooligan’s planned end game, fittingly, is big. Umil said the Super Bowl momentum will help establish
Sooligan in those 20 prominent college towns. One of them is College Station, Texas, and Sooligan will launch there the same time the famed South by Southwest festival kicks off this spring in nearby Austin.
“We expect to grow this way and get acquired by a major tech company like Yahoo or Google,” she said. “This may be far-fetched to many, but it’s a very realistic and natural route for someone in our space — mobile, social search and location. These tech giants are largely focused on these aspects and are in an arms race to dominate in this space.”