Lee Watson on Supporting Startups Taking First Steps at Venture Center

Lee Watson on Supporting Startups Taking First Steps at Venture Center
Lee Watson, chief innovator and former CEO of the Venture Center of Little Rock (Jason Burt)

(Editor's Note: The Venture Center of Little Rock announced Tuesday that CEO Lee Watson would move into a newly created position, "chief innovator.")

Lee Watson served as CEO of the Venture Center, a nonprofit in Little Rock, from its formation in 2013 through Tuesday. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He previously was co-founder and managing partner of Southern Coding, a software investment group, and the founding CEO of Clarovista LLC, a consulting company focusing on the intersection of marketing and data.

Watson and the Venture Center will be holding a demonstration day July 18, in which financial technology companies present to investors and bank executives. More information can be found at VentureCenter.co.

What does the Venture Center do?
We help entrepreneurs learn how to scale their ideas by focusing on customer validation and building traction through sales. Our programs are very experiential, meaning that entrepreneurs learn as they build their companies. Our program focuses on delivering the right content at the right time, making the appropriate connections or introductions when needed and facilitating capital introductions to investors.

We’re especially proud of our fintech accelerator program with FIS and the state of Arkansas. Together, we’ve been able to build perhaps the most impactful and successful fintech innovation program in the world.

What are some tangible results from Venture Center efforts?
In three and a half years, the Venture Center has helped our member startups raise $57 million in growth capital, generate tens of millions in revenue and create 637 jobs. We have conducted over 1,822 mentor sessions, screened over 902 ideas, trained 92 mentors and conducted two cycles of the highly successful fintech accelerator program. Our third fintech program is underway with 10 incredible early stage financial technology companies.

Our greatest success story is Apptegy. The company’s founder and CEO, Jeston George, was our first startup member. Today he’s growing a wonderful company with customers in nearly every state.

Does the Venture Center have anything to offer established businesses?
We have several companies that benefit from our mentor program, and others look to the Venture Center to spur corporate innovation.

How did you get involved in this line of work?
After college, I created the first mobile application development company in the region. We had built several software products but didn’t know they could have become high-growth potential companies. After visiting technology and startup conferences around the country, I knew we had to create the place with the right people and programs that could help entrepreneurs advance their ideas and build great companies.

It continues to be a privilege and honor to be part of such an amazing team, building one of the best performing entrepreneur centers in the country. I’m especially thankful to have a great co-founder, board chairman and mentor with James Hendren, who gives countless hours, along with all our mentors, to help our entrepreneurs succeed.

What was your biggest career mistake and what did you learn from it?
The thing about being an entrepreneur is you learn by doing. That means you get lots of bruises and hopefully you learn from your mistakes. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that software can do anything, but that doesn’t mean it should. When I first started, I wanted to build the best software, and we focused on product more than sales. Today, the emphasis is on sales, and we focus on that in every program and every mentor session.