The Rockfish Way: NW Arkansas A Hotbed For Start-ups

by Jamie Smith ([email protected]) 85 views 

In 2005, Kenny Tomlin gave life to an entrepreneurial idea when he created Rockfish Interactive. Seven years later, the small company has grown from a handful of employees to workforce of roughly 200 with locations in various parts of the United States.

From day one Tomlin encouraged entrepreneurship among the employees he brought onboard which has become a unique corporate culture that benefits both staff and the clients they serve.

Rockfish Interactive is a digital innovation company that partners with its clients to provide service in four key areas: strategy, technology, design and interactive marketing.

“When companies come on board to partner with Rockfish, they are introduced to a team of intensely passionate and driven individuals that work extremely hard for their clients and their agency,” said Bill Akins, vice-president, client services.

“We strive to stand out as an employer of choice in everything we do and have a phenomenal culture where associates have the freedom and autonomy to produce top quality work without being micro-managed,” Akins added.

A culture of innovation, of entrepreneurship must be cultivated and it doesn’t grow overnight. It’s something that Rockfish Interactive has a strong commitment to fostering.

“I’d say any culture is not created by force as dictated by leadership, but rather organically by the people within the walls of the company,” Akins said. “The culture at Rockfish is no exception. We have many folks with an entrepreneurial spirit in the company and our clients reap the reward of having constant innovation against the work we do for them.”

The entrepreneurial concept is woven throughout three major initiatives at Rockfish Interactive: Rockfish Labs, Rockfish NEXT and Brand Ventures.

Besides working closely with clients to grow their businesses through the use of technology, Rockfish is also an incubator of sorts for ideas within its own company. Rockfish Labs has spawned nine new ventures in recent years:

An employee appreciation program that gives employers and employees the ability to use a point system as rewards for good work.

A digital couponing platform that creates customized coupons using branded assets and allows the user to track how much the coupon is being viewed and used.
An interactive recruiting platform for high school and junior college football players to showcase their skills to college coaches across the nation.
A real-time filtering and monitoring tool that gives companies the ability to syndicate their Twitter content without having inappropriate language, users or other content to show.

Silver Joe’s
A premier specialty coffee company that is now a national brand.
A web-based solution for corporations to send and receive files that are too large for email.

Akins said Rockfish NEXT is all about digital innovation within the company confines. He said the internal program allows employees to incubate, develop and launch ideas along with participating in their financial success.

These ideas must be worked on outside of the normal business hours, ensuring that business time is focused on client work. Beyond that, however, Rockfish provides the internal infrastructure support for the approved ideas including legal help, accounting and administrative services.

Akins said that Brand Ventures is a “new venture that brings emerging digital innovations together with agency capabilities and client relationships.” The goal, he said, is to get clients and startups to partner for accelerated innovation and shared success.

Brand Ventures provides chosen start-ups with funding, ad revenue and branding services through the agency. These startups are also partnered with Rockfish clients which has paid dividends to both parties.

The bread and butter for a start-up is often in the key partnerships it makes with established companies. In turn, the start-up can provide innovative insights and new energy for the more established partners.

“The investment committee for Brand Ventures is composed of six senior Rockfish executives, each of whom bring experience in marketing, venture capital, corporate finance and start-ups,” Akins said. “In addition, we leverage an Advisory Board comprised of industry veterans with backgrounds in technology, venture and marketing. These advisors provide deal sourcing, perspective on industry trends, and other support.”

Jeff Amerine, technology licensing officer and adjunct professor for entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas, said quite simply “Success breeds success.”

He said people look at what Rockfish was able to accomplish in a short amount of time in that they started small with five people, added some good talent, got some big accounts, built a solid company with national name recognition and were then acquired by a multinational.

“That is right out of the serial entrepreneur’s playbook — what they most hope for. When that happens to a local start-up it lifts everyone’s belief that other smart people can do it too.” Amerine said.

Northwest Arkansas is becoming a nesting place for entrepreneurial ventures with a critical mass of tech savvy talent out of the University of Arkansas.

Meet Ryan Frazier, co-founder and CEO of TTAGG, a Fayetteville-based start-up that mines real time social media data to predict stock performance in the retail sector. TTAGG uses a series of private and complex algorithms and has had highly competitive results against traditional stock modeling applications often used by major brokerage houses.

Frazier has attracted Wall Street suits and been offered a job in the Big Apple, but he and partners Kenny Cason and Britt Cagnina, run TTAGG out of their home just off the campus of the University of Arkansas, where they all obtained their undergraduate degrees.

Frazier said the financial backing TTAGG received from local angel networks and private individuals allowed them to keep the business in Northwest Arkansas.

He said TTAGG uses social media to track trends in purchases to provide investors with real-time insight into how specific companies are doing. With the real-time data, investors don’t have to wait for quarterly reports.

“We started this because the world has gone real-time, but the information and data on these publicly traded companies hasn’t,” Frazier said. “With the wealth of data about these companies online, we didn’t think investors should have to rely on or be satisfied obtaining progress reports only every quarter. … And it works.”

Not all of the successful start-ups in Northwest Arkansas are tech ventures.

James Smith and James Eldridge of James + James in Springdale are cutting path to success with skill saws and solid pine lumber. This furniture manufacturing business started when Smith, a recent graduate of John Brown University, couldn’t find a job last year and needed to make rent.

Down to his last $200 Smith said he took $40 and bought a skill saw and some pine to try his hand at building coffee tables.

“I was struggling to pay my rent at that point and I figured maybe I could make a few bucks off the table,” said Smith. “I had no idea in the beginning that it would turn into anything more than a glorified hobby. After (Eldridge) became a partner it got more serious and within a few months became a full-time obligation,” he added.

Eldridge’s wife saw the coffee table on Craigslist and wanted to purchase it. Smith and Eldridge had taken a couple of classes together at JBU and reconnected with the sale.

Eldridge came onboard and began marketing the furniture on FaceBook and Pinterest and sales began to explode.

The company which started in Smith’s garage has since relocated to a spacious workshop in Springdale and the James + James designs are showing up in living rooms all over the south. From coffee tables to lamps and headboards, the rustic designs of Smith and his crew are truly unique.

“When you order furniture online it is not always fairly priced and made from the best materials,” said Smith. “I think what sets us apart is that we hand-make every order and we hand pick our wood. We take the attention to detail that most people don’t have the time to do and we do our best to make sure the customer is getting their money’s worth.”

Since opening the company in last year, Smith has hired Rick Eldridge (the younger brother of James) as well as eight other part-time employees. Because James and James sell their items online as opposed to a retailer, they have been able to branch out to neighboring territories at a frantic rate. In fact, only 25% of the sales come from Arkansas.

“I think it helps that (Smith) is a marketing major because he is great about growing the company through the web,” said Eldridge. “Our biggest market at this point is probably Dallas. We have also done a ton of sales in Missouri among other states.”

Bill Fox, a small business consultant at the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center in Fayetteville, said  today’s college graduates on the whole possess more of an entrepreneurial aptitude than some past generations.

“Some of it might stem from a tougher job climate and I think educators at all levels are introducing entrepreneurship more today,” Fox said.

He adds that the younger generation seems to have figured out it is possible to make a living doing something they enjoy instead of settling for a 9 to 5 job in the corporate world.

Amerine and other entrepreneurial advocates say Northwest Arkansas is beginning to see a healthy churn of start-up activity from the 18 to 35 generation.

“This is buoyed by the belief they should be the CEO of their own destinies and a healthy impatience they posses in not wanting to wait their turn,” Amerine said.

He said seasoned alumni from Rockfish and other successful ventures provide a growing network of support for this “can-do generation”.

Five years ago, Amerine was running a start-up himself and said he felt someone alone in the venture. But the support networks and deal flows have increased 10 fold in that timeframe.

“We are still some 20 years behind Austin, Texas but making great strides to support the start-up efforts we see every week. In terms of capital funding, we are at the very beginning of where we need to be. While we have done a good job with very early seed money, there is still a lot of work to be to done in securing second stage capital that many of the local start-ups will need to tap in the next few years,” Amerine said.