From successful startups PrivacyStar and Inuvo downtown to major tech companies HP and Acxiom, Conway has seen a shift toward a more innovative and technological business atmosphere.
In March, Hendrix hosted the launch of Startup Arkansas, a new alliance of Arkansas entrepreneurs working toward an entrepreneurship/startup ecosystem for the state, leaving many wondering if Conway had the potential to become a thriving startup community.
Soon after the launch of Startup Arkansas, a group in the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce was established to meet once a month to try to encourage more startup activity in the city.
Last month, the Locals was established downtown to celebrate local vendors and community partnerships, and University of Central Arkansas President Tom Courtway delivered a vision statement with entrepreneurship as one of the primary goals.
Of the 18 publicly traded, locally grown Arkansas businesses, two, Acxiom and Inuvo, have a significant presence here in Conway.
Certainly, these companies are stocked with plenty of developer talent.
But in order to have a vibrant startup community, said David Hinson, EVP and CIO of Hendrix College, you need a multitude of talents to bring together — not simply to come up with a great idea or product, but to be able to execute on the vision.
Kristian Andersen, founder of Kristian Andersen and Associates, works with and in the national startup community with a home in Conway and a business in Indianapolis.
Andersen says Conway is indeed seeing the very, very beginnings of an emergent startup ecosystem.
“We don’t have a very large number of active startups, but we are as well, if not better positioned as any city in the state to grow that ecosystem due to the constructs of a large, highly educated and well connected population, the preponderance of higher eduction institutions and what I believe is a very progressive and entrepreneurial culture,” he said.
Brad Lacy, president and CEO of Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corporation said with our city's demographics, Conway is getting a reputation in the state and the region for having a young, well-educated population, but it would be a stretch to say we are a hotbed of young, tech talent.
Lacy says Conway has to play to its strengths, and our city lends itself to this young, tech culture with a young, educated population.
According to the US Census Bureau, Conway’s median age is 27.3. Significantly younger than the state’s at 37.4, and 35.1 percent of Conway’s population has at least four years of higher education.
Two decades ago, professionals got a job, then moved to wherever that job required them to live. Today, many young professionals decide first where they want to live, then worry about finding a job in that location.
“The cities that are going to compete and win in the startup economy do the best job of attracting and obtaining talent, and Conway is a place that young, bright, ambitious people want to live,” Andersen said.
The City of Conway has spent the last several years investing in quality of place, working to revitalize its downtown, improve connectivity and create places of interest with varies development projects.
“It really does matter what your community looks like,” Lacy said. “As you’re building the culture you need to continue to build the place where [businesses] are going to operate.”
Lacy said the chamber will continue to encourage growth by sponsoring events like BarCamp, an “un-conference” event where innovative people come together to collaborate about the tech industry and pitch competition Gone in 60 Seconds.
Lee Watson, founder and CEO of Conway media agency startup Clarovista and Startup Arkansas Champion, said government officials and service providers are important parts that help feed the startup ecosystem, but it ultimately needs to be the entrepreneurs who take the lead in developing the culture.
Dan Fisher, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at UCA, says Conway needs to develop a sense of identity.
“Austin needed something to hang their hat on so they said they were the live music capital of the world, and they started to live up to that, so in some sense i think we need to start calling ourselves innovation specialists and entrepreneurs and more of us will start living up to it,” he said.
Don Bradley, executive director of UCA’s Small Business Advancement National Center, said traditionally Arkansans don’t want to “show out.”
Sam Walton for example, drove the same pick up truck and lived in the same house, even though he developed one of the biggest companies in the world.
“It’s ingrained in a lot of Arkansans,” Bradley said. “For some reasons they don’t like to brag unless it’s about athletics.”
Michael Hargis, interim dean of the college of business and director of EPIC or Entrepreneurship, Public scholarship, Innovation and Community engagement said Conway companies don’t have to brag because they demonstrate results, and results are the true model of success.
“But the model has changed. It’s more important to tell the story, and there are more ways to do it,” he said. “We just haven’t been early adopters of those models.”
Watson says risks are part of entrepreneurship, and our community will have to learn how to accept that part of the industry in order to establish a startup ecosystem.
“We need a radical shift in the acceptance of risks in the community. Culturally we need to learn to take and accept risks because that is how we will create an innovative culture,” he said.
Luke Irvin, a local iOS App developer, Startup Arkansas Champion and founder of Irvin Media, said if local companies want to hire the talent they're looking for, they need to do a better job of sharing their successes.
“One of the biggest things Arkansas struggles with is retaining its tech talent, and the best way to do that is with more startups,” he said.
But Andersen says it's not always a bad thing for our talent to leave.
“If we continue to keep our talent to ourselves, the world’s view of our community will never grow,” he said.
The perfect scenario is for our talent to go to Silicon Valley, broaden their skill sets and come back, he said, and some of them won’t, but that’s okay too.
Watson said it’s important for Arkansas to participate in the national and global startup ecosystem.
“There’s a lot we can do to grow the Conway startup community, but it is critical that we participate in other communities too whether it’s the Central Arkansas community, the state’s community, the region’s community . . . ,” he said.
Hargis said when students graduate from the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at UCA, many start their own business, but others take their skills and work for a large company.
“When they walk out [of college] they are ready to launch their business, which many of them do, or walk into an Inuvo or an Acxiom or an HP or a Conway Regional, and utilize those skills in a way that we call intrapreneurship - taking those entrepreneurial skills, but taking them into a small or large enterprise and helping them grow or change,” he said.
Watson said Conway has some momentum going with the launch of Startup Arkansas, government recognizing a need for startups, higher education involvement and the talk of co-working spaces, but the city needs to hang on to that momentum and accelerate it.
“People need to be aware that the community exists and if they have any interest — jump in,” he said. “Anybody in the community will be happy to talk to you. There’s no barrier to entry. It doesn’t cost any money to shoot someone a LinkedIn message or an email, so if you have any interest, your kids have interests or you friends in startup, technology, mobile — jump in, ask questions and meet people. It’s a catalyst for everything else.”
(Staff writer Michelle Corbet can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1215. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)