Straight outta Fayetteville: Thoughts from a startup tour through “NWA”
About the author: Geoff Wood is the COO and main connection point in Iowa for Silicon Prairie News, the co-founder of VolunteerLocal and founder of Eggcrates. For more on Wood, see the note that follows this post.
Josh Clemence (center) celebrates at the opening of The Iceberg, a Fayetteville coworking space, in March.
One of the most underappreciated aspects of working online is that fact that you can set up anywhere. I choose to work from downtown Des Moines most of the time, but for a few days last week I found myself in Northwest Arkansas (colloquially “NWA”).
While there visiting my parents, I took the chance to get a glimpse of the Natural State's startup community. I started by picking what looked like a cool local coffee shop in Fayetteville (which I found out later happened to be the place a lot of entrepreneurs hang out) and started Googling. I quickly found the ARK Challenge (incubator program), The IceBerg (coworking facility) and Josh Clemence (unofficial startup community ambassador). I tweeted Clemence, and he invited me out to see what they’re working on with Acumen Brands.
At that point, my knowledge of the business community was limited to things I’d read about, like Walmart having some connections to folks at Rockfish Interactive, and to what I learned having Andy Murray from Saatchi & Saatchi X/Mercury 11 speak at last year’s Thinc Iowa.
After showing me some really sweet robots, Clemence gave me his take on the local ecosystem, where they’d come from and the challenges they still had in front of them. He also connected me with a couple other folks who were available on short notice: Joey Nelson, whose startup MobileFWD recently launched its first app, Trivi.al, and Joe Murphy, a local tinkerer, technologist and entrepreneur doing some cool things in Bentonville. I worked the next morning from The IceBerg and chatted with Jeannette Balleza, the director of the ARK Challenge who, unbeknownst to me, had joined us a few months ago for Big Omaha 2012.
The Walmart effect, and parallels to the Prairie
When I describe the Des Moines to new people I meet, I always start by pointing out the impact that finance and insurance sector have had not only on local startups but the entire business community. In NWA, the equivalent is Walmart, which is headquartered in Bentonville. Most of us think of Walmart as a retail discount superstore with a not-so-great reputation in small communities. In Arkansas, however, it’s a huge positive economic force. Its influence is obvious in Bentonville where it employs a lot people. What’s less obvious — until someone quickly points it out — is the influence the company provides through vendor relationships. Many companies who sell through Walmart have offices and staff here. Companies, like Rockfish, who do work for Walmart have grown here, and some entrepreneurs, like Murphy, are building their businesses explicitly around helping companies work with Walmart. While the retail giant's influence brings new people, with new voices and ideas, to the region, it has the potential to keep someone away. As one person mentioned to me, “everyone everywhere has an opinion about Walmart.”
The folks I met in Northwest Arkansas have a tremendous amount of local pride. Like those of us in the Silicon Prairie, they’ve chosen a part of the country that doesn’t get a lot of attention and probably hear “why Arkansas?” just as often as I field the question “why Iowa?" However, they are there by choice and are happy to share the reasons why. Clemence recently launched a grassroots ‘Made in Fayetteville’ campaign, which brings to mind What Cheer’s “I live in Omaha” project, to get startups and the creative class to claim their locale.
A pleasant surprise
The people of Northwest Arkansas are quick to share their successes, like Acumen Brands, which has grown from four employees to 70 in three years and recently raised a $5M Series B led by Dillards (the department store chain), and the Rockfish Interactive acquisition. They're also quick to share their struggles. I didn’t get the feeling that the community had a startup that was bringing the national headlines to the area the way AgLocal is to Kansas City and Dwolla is to Des Moines — at least not yet.
Another success is The IceBerg. This coworking facility launched this past Spring, is located in a hip area of Fayetteville near the University of Arkansas campus and looks to be a centralized clubhouse for the startup community. Similar to what we’ve seen with coworking in Des Moines and Omaha, they’re having more success as an event space than they are as a traditional coworking spot, but when the ARK Challenge incubator launches in a few months there will be more activity during the day.
Overall, I was impressed. I didn’t come in with any set opinion on their startup community — Arkansas was just the place my parents lived — and I was pleasantly surprised by the companies I was introduced to and the people I met. Fayetteville in particular is a vibrant and active city. While it’s just outside the region that we cover here at Silicon Prairie News (three hours from southern Kansas City), I’m excited to keep an eye on the whole region as it continues to push forward.
About the author: Geoff Wood is the COO and main connection point in Iowa for Silicon Prairie News, an organization working to increase the notability of the Silicon Prairie region – Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City and surrounding area – as an innovation center and startup hub. In addition to a daily news blog, the Silicon Prairie News team also produces events like Thinc Iowa and Big Omaha. Wood helps organize Barcamp Des Moines and DSM Startup Drinks.