Northwest Arkansas isn’t California’s Silicon Valley and has a long way to go before it can be considered remotely comparable, but technology industry leaders say the area is proving to be on the short list of best places in the field.
The concentration of huge, profitable companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville, Tyson Foods of Springdale and J.B. Hunt Transport Services of Lowell naturally attracts suppliers and secondary businesses. With the world quickly turning to online business in all manners and forms, information technology has become a vital component of any industry.
Mike Harvey of the Northwest Arkansas Council said the technology sector is one of the fastest growing in the area. New companies are starting up, older companies are expanding, and all are more than dipping their toe into the technology pool.
Bill Akins said he took the plunge years ago, and now he is trying to help others come to the same realization.
Akins is the senior vice president of business innovation at Rockfish Interactive of Rogers, a digital marketing and advertising company. Before that, Akins worked the other side as a supplier for Wal-Mart.
“I saw the writing on the wall many years ago and made that leap into the tech sector,” said Akins, 41, who has been with Rockfish for five years. “You really had this whole collision of physical and digital commerce that was beginning to happen with these thousands of Wal-Mart suppliers that are all within a 3-mile radius here.”
Akins is also the chairman of the NWA Technology Council, an organization that is trying to pump up the area’s technology sector through education and networking. A year ago, it held its first Tech Summit at the Hammons Center in Rogers. Akins, who expected maybe 150 people to attend, was surprised by a standing-room-only crowd of 400.
“We are definitely in a transition year in northwest Arkansas,” Akins said. “You are seeing a major shift in this area becoming a tech hub. The appetite is definitely here.”
Harvey said the technology sector is growing so fast that the demand for workers far outstrips the current supply. Northwest Arkansas has to commit to developing a local pipeline to produce “hundreds if not thousands” of technology workers annually.
“We’re about the see the next wave of information technology growth because the Internet is connected to everything,” Harvey said. “There’s going to be so much more opportunity for those types of people. At this point, everybody is scrambling. I can only imagine what it will look like in 10 years.”
Wanted: Tech Talent
Jeff Amerine, the founder of Startup Junkie of Fayetteville, said the tech revolution is already well underway in northwest Arkansas. Amerine left his position as director of technology ventures at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to start his consulting company. (For more on Amerine, see this week's Executive Q&A.)
Northwest Arkansas’ challenge is filling the need. Companies moving to or expanding in the region — one developer who handles office leases said he has been contacted by six IT companies looking for space — need talent.
“This place is ripe to be a leader in that industry,” Amerine said. “It is a good tech ecosystem. Five years ago, it would have felt like we were in the wilderness. Now we’re hitting on all cylinders. It’s something that gets talked about every day.”
Justin Urso and Jason Kohrig formed Skosay of Fayetteville this past summer and went active in March with clients such as the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and Harps Food Stores. The tech startup, one in a long line that have popped up in northwest Arkansas, uses private two-way communication to connect consumers with businesses.
“In terms of the IT world in northwest Arkansas, it’s a real budding economy,” Urso said. “There are entrepreneurs who are coming out of the woodwork. They’re finding a lot of opportunity, and not only with the investment crowd.
“You have a lot of focus around engineers, computer science people and people coming out of the university. It’s an ecosystem that’s evolving with all the right ingredients coming together that’s creating a sustainable environment for companies to come about.”
Akins said the tech-based startup culture originated in Fayetteville, not surprising with the influence of the University of Arkansas. The seed has sprouted, though, and the main cities on the Interstate 49 corridor are putting together incentive packages to attract tech companies.
“Northwest Arkansas has truly become an incubator,” Akins said. “That was difficult five years ago. Now you have this entire tech culture around that.”
‘Feeding the Beast’
The influence of the tech culture is one reason many cities in northwest Arkansas have gone heavy into trail systems and downtown revitalizations, the experts said, in order to attract talent away from San Francisco and Austin. It’s why Harvey brings up the state creating its own pipeline.
“We see a lot of growth with startups, and it’s a tremendous opportunity but, at the same time, it’s a tremendous challenge,” Harvey said. “They can’t grow without talent. Our challenge is feeding the beast.
“Wal-Mart has to go to Silicon Valley and do certain things, but we’d like to see more of that here. It’s a matter of time. Importing talent has helped fuel this thing, and creating our own talent pipeline is how we make our mark in the long run.”
Amerine said the only way northwest Arkansas will be able to keep up with the growth of the tech industry is through teamwork involving community and political leaders, private industry and the schools.
“This area could be world-class if we work together,” Amerine said. “It has to be a coalition of the willing.”
Brent Robinson, who co-founded the social media marketing company Modthink of Fayetteville in 2012, said the area has seen remarkable companies such as Collective Bias, RevUnit and DataRank thrive in the tech industry. Robinson said Modthink has partnered with titan Wal-Mart on special projects, and Modthink is also open to partnering with other startups when the need arises.
“The big companies are trying anything and everything when they can find it,” Robinson said. “You see the big companies, the primary vendors, have been plugged into agencies who are trying all kinds of stuff. We’re definitely seeing the secondary and tertiary vendors who are reaching out to small companies like ours and others.
“There are places where we can’t do that internally as we’re growing so it makes more sense for us to partner with one of these guys who specialize in stuff like that. I’m always blown away by how much amazing talent there is in northwest Arkansas. There’s just something about this part of the state.”