In an unassuming set of warehouses just west of Interstate 49 (formerly I-540), a team of extremely intelligent people are quietly building an e-commerce empire in Fayetteville.
Built on boots, it is not your typical temple of technology. It’s more of a leather-smelling empire, served with a side of southern sweet tea and a gentle country twang.
Acumen Brands, the Fayetteville-based company founded by former doctor John James and ex-attorney Terry Turpin, has exploded recently, thanks to a meteoric rise in popularity of their southern lifestyle-themed brand, Country Outfitter.
In just under three years, Country Outfitter has grown from an upstart online seller of cowboy boots into a full-scale southern lifestyle magazine-come-to-life, with millions of fans (over 10 million across a handful of Facebook pages, actually), partnerships with some of the most established country music stars in Nashville, and a nine-figure sales goal in 2014 (a goal that they fully expect to meet and exceed, by the way.)
“We’re trying to be the fourth largest company in northwest Arkansas,” James said. “There’s Tyson, Walmart and JB Hunt, and we want to be next.”
As quickly as the company has grown, it’s clear James hasn’t had a lot of time to process Acumen’s place among the largest companies in the region. It occurs to him during our conversation that he may have already achieved his goal.
“I actually don’t know who’s fourth, but we’re making progress,” he said. “We may be getting close.”
The rise of Acumen Brands
Acumen began with a simple but brilliant idea. James and Turpin set out to find products that were underserved in the online marketplace through careful analysis of keyword data, and then to build a business around those deficiencies.
In other words, they figured out what products people were searching for but not finding, and then built easy-to-find online stores for those products.
Their growth was exponential after that, and investors took notice.
In 2010, Acumen raised $5 million from several investors around the country, lead by a $3.5 million investment from Noro-Moseley, a leading venture capital firm in the Southeast.
Two years later, the company caught the eye of Dillards, and secured a $4 million investment from the Arkansas-based retailer.
Last year, Acumen picked up an $83 million investment from New York’s General Atlantic, funds that gave them a firm foundation to build their business, and that ultimately lead to a move into their current facility.
They also moved into their first brick-and-mortar location last summer with their flagship Country Outfitter store, located inside the Old Post Office on the Fayetteville downtown square.
Moving on up. And up. And up.
Acumen is in its fourth home since it began in a 2,000-square-foot space just five years ago. The company quickly moved into a 10,000-square-foot facility on the top floor of Nelson’s Crossing, and from there into a 50,000-square-foot warehouse off Gregg Avenue in Fayetteville before settling into their current home at 1936 N Shiloh Drive.
The company actually operates out of a couple of facilities in Fayetteville; a roughly 220,000-square-foot warehouse on the west side of Shiloh Drive that serves as a fulfillment center for all of their merchandise, and an 80,000-square-foot open-concept, Silicon Valley-style office complex across the street.
The warehouse is run efficiently by just a handful of employees, and over 50 Kiva robots in a system designed by Acumen that automates the fulfillment process. The robots actually bring the shelves to the employees, and the employee simply “picks” the product, boxes it, and applies the label for shipping.
James recently acquired an additional warehouse space on the property to create room for more storage and offices – a space they’ve already begun expanding into – to make sure they’ll be able to stay put for a while.
“I don’t think we’re going to have to move again any time soon, which is good because it’s really annoying to have to move every year,” he said, pausing for a beat to contemplate that statement. “First world problems.”
Free flowing ideas
The kind of efficiency on display in Acumen’s warehouse permeates the culture of the company. James said that any of the nearly 200 employees at Acumen are welcome – and encouraged – to share their ideas on how to make things run more smoothly.
“We have a hierarchy in place, but there’s no real hierarchy of ideas,” James told us. “If someone has a good idea, it flows all the way up to me. They’ll walk in my office if they have to. I might walk straight to their desk.”
The key, James said, is to identify those good ideas and be able to put them into practice quickly.
“It’s a bit of a challenge to maintain that – it was easy with 15, 20, 30 people, but now with 200, we still try to do things fast,” he said. “Sometimes I think that’s our only advantage against big companies.”
Creating an culture of entrepreneurs
James said that one of the original goals for the company was to create a culture that empowers his employees, and ultimately creates a new crop of entrepreneurs in the northwest Arkansas region.
We got the impression he wasn’t blowing smoke, either.
“I want to build northwest Arkansas as a place for innovation and startups,” he said.
“We asked one of our first investors – ‘How do we build this culture?’ and he said, ‘It’s simple. Build your company, give your employees some equity in it and sell it for a quarter of a billion dollars one day,” James said.
“Now you’ve got people that know the core business – e-commerce, then you’ve just made 30, 40, or 50 millionaires that know how to run a startup,” he said. “So that’s the pitch to new people. We’ll teach you how to be an entrepreneur, we’ll teach you how to think differently, and 10 years from now, you could either be running a huge business here at Country Outfitter, or you could start your own company.”
New initiatives for growth
Despite the success of the company, James said he hopes Acumen is a long way from reaching its full potential.
This year, the company announced four new initiatives for growth – a new flash sale section of the website to offer deep discounts on close outs and overstocked items; a marketplace specialty shop within the site to encourage local businesses and give mom-and-pop brands access to Country Outfitter’s huge customer base; a private label business; and a focus on creating content to turn the site into even more of a destination for all things southern.
So far, it’s going gangbusters. The flash sale portion of the site is moving an unprecedented volume of product every day. When we visited on a random Tuesday in April, the company had already sold 2,500 units, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
The company has also secured some impressive partnerships with some major players in the country music world. The company recently partnered with country legend Ronnie Dunn of the band Brooks & Dunn to release his new solo album, and they’ve agreed to partnerships with some other major country stars that they’ll soon announce.
James said if things continue growing at the current frenetic pace, taking the company public in a few years isn’t out of the question.
“When you look at the companies that go public, they usually have a 30 percent annualized growth over 7-8 years,” he said. “So, so far so good. If we grew 30 percent compounded annually for three more years, yeah, we’d be ready to go public.”
All of this activity is pushing the company closer to their latest goal – to be the go-to place for all things South.
“The goal is to own southern lifestyle online, everything from boots to apparel and accessories, and content,” James said. “To bring the pages of Southern Living magazine to life, with content, commerce, and social all in one place.”
“There are 114 million southerners – that’s a third of the (American) population,” he said. “We can do a lot with that.”