A high-tech future

Cars are parked along both sides of the street as I pull up in front of a nondescript building in the Riverdale neighborhood of Little Rock. I quickly discover why.

Not knowing what to expect, I walk into the offices of Apptegy, an education technology company founded by Jeston George in April 2015. I have a hard time describing what I thought was a warehouse. Let’s just say it’s like a giant playground for the kind of young, talented people Arkansas needs to attract.

The walls are painted in bright colors. People sit on big bean bags. Others sit on couches. Groups with their laptop computers open are sipping coffee and talking. It looks fun, like something you would find in the Silicon Valley or Austin rather than near the banks of the Arkansas River. There’s a gym and showers. Lunch is provided four days a week. I pass what looks like an indoor amphitheater. They call it the “conversation stairs.”

I think to myself: “This is what the new Arkansas looks like.”

The idea of Apptegy came to George because he wanted to know when a nephew’s school programs were being held. He soon realized that most school districts lacked a centralized tool for sharing information with families.

The company started in George’s bedroom with no outside investors and seven school districts as customers. As his client list grew, George leased space in the Little Rock Technology Park downtown.

The company moved to Riverdale in October 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. On the day I visit, there are 293 employees, with more being added each week. Apptegy is the fastest-growing company in the country in the sector known as ed-tech. There are now 2,700 clients. Apptegy serves school districts in all 50 states and may soon go international.

I walk through the sales department, where employees are on the phone reaching out to every school district in the country. I also pass studios where employees shoot individual videos to send to prospective clients.

“Thrillshare brings everything you need for school marketing and school communications together in a single mobile app,” an Apptegy publication reads. “Write a story once and send it across your website, mobile app, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and voice calls. By making it easy to share stories, you can control the conversation around your brand.”

I’ve written a lot in recent months about attempts to attract highly educated people to Arkansas through a combination of outdoor recreation (think world-class cycling and hiking trails along with some of the best float streams in the country) and the type of cultural opportunities one normally wouldn’t expect to find in a small Southern state (think Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, The Momentary and the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts). What I see at Apptegy represents the type of jobs these people will fill.

Institutions such as the aforementoned Little Rock Technology Park are essential. The park’s first phase, completed in 2017, included renovation of two buildings on Main Street to serve as office space for tech-focused entrepreneurs and startup companies. The debt on that phase was paid off in January. The park was made possible by a three-eighths-cent sales tax approved by Little Rock voters in September 2011.

“Being debt-free positions the park to consider expansion opportunities and continue its growth as a destination for innovators and entrepreneurs who want to transform ideas into successful companies,” says Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The park is considering expansion into an adjoining downtown building. It’s already home to another key player in the growth of the Arkansas technology sector, the Venture Center. The Venture Center was launched in May 2014 by entrepreneurs and business leaders hoping to increase the number of technology-based startup companies in the state.

In 2013, Fast Company released a study ranking states by innovation. Arkansas was 37th. About that time, a study by the State Science & Technology Institute ranked Arkansas 45th for entrepreneurship. Founders of the Venture Center wanted to put together a team of mentors who would provide intensive programming and introductions to the investor community.

In just its first three years, the center helped companies create almost 450 jobs, generate $28 million in revenue and raise a combined $39 million in capital.

Since then, the center has become a leader in the area of financial technology. In addition to its so-called accelerator programs that attract people from across the country, the Venture Center will hold its inaugural fintech conference in August. Many of the banking industry’s biggest influencers will travel to Little Rock for the conference.

There will be courses taught by innovation experts, live product demonstrations by the center’s most successful fintech accelerator alumni, and collaboration with industry leaders.

“The banking industry is spurring growth and innovation through fintech partnerships and at a breakneck pace,” says Venture Center executive director Wayne Miller. “That’s why we created a place for bankers to learn from other bankers about what’s next in the industry and be a part of shaping the industry’s future.”

Well-known Arkansas business leaders such as Millie Ward, Ray Dillon, James Hendren, Collins Andrews and John Haley are involved with the Venture Center. With its continued success, Apptegy won’t be the last high-tech Arkansas startup to make its mark nationally.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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