Cars are parked on both sides of the street as I pull up to a nondescript building in the Riverdale neighborhood of Little Rock. I quickly find out why.
Not knowing what to expect, I walk into the offices of Apptegy, an educational technology company founded by Jeston George in April 2015. I struggle to describe what I thought was a warehouse. Let’s just say it’s like a giant playground for the kind of talented young people Arkansas needs to attract.
The walls are painted in bright colors. People are sitting on big beanbags. Others are sitting on sofas. Groups with their laptops open sip coffee and chat. It looks fun, like something you’d find in Silicon Valley or Austin rather than near the banks of the Arkansas River. There is a gym and showers. Lunch is served four days a week. I walk past what looks like an indoor amphitheater. They call it “the conversation staircase”.
I’m like, “This is what the new Arkansas looks like.”
The idea for Apptegy came to George because he wanted to know when a nephew’s school programs were taking place. He quickly realized that most school districts lacked a centralized tool to share information with families.
The business started in George’s bedroom with no outside investors and seven school districts as customers. As his client list grew, George rented space in downtown Little Rock Technology Park.
The company moved to Riverdale in October 2020 amid the pandemic. On the day of my visit, there are 293 employees, and more are added every week. Apptegy is the country’s fastest growing company in the industry known as ed-tech. There are now 2,700 customers. 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 potential clients.
“Thrillshare brings together everything you need for school marketing and school communications in one mobile app,” reads a post from Apptegy. “Write a story once and send it to your website, mobile app, Facebook, Twitter, SMS and voice calls. By making it easy to share stories, you can control the conversation around your brand.”
I’ve written extensively in recent months about attempts to attract highly educated people to Arkansas through a combination of outdoor recreation (think world-class biking and hiking trails as well as some of the best floating waterways of the country) and the kind of culture of opportunity you wouldn’t normally 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 do.
Institutions such as the aforementioned Little Rock Tech Park are essential. The first phase of the park, completed in 2017, included the renovation of two buildings on Main Street to serve as offices for tech-focused entrepreneurs and startups. The debt on this phase was repaid in January. The park was made possible by a three-eighths of a cent sales tax approved by Little Rock voters in September 2011.
“Debt-free allows the park to consider expansion opportunities and continue to grow as a destination for innovators and entrepreneurs who want to turn ideas into successful businesses,” said Jay Chesshir, President and CEO. of the executive of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The park plans to expand into an adjacent downtown building. It is already home to another key player in the growth of Arkansas’ technology sector, the Venture Center. The Venture Center was started in May 2014 by entrepreneurs and business leaders hoping to increase the number of tech-based startups in the state.
In 2013, Fast Company published a study ranking states by innovation. Arkansas was 37th. Around this time, a study by the State Science & Technology Institute ranked Arkansas 45th for entrepreneurship. The founders of the Venture Center wanted to put together a team of mentors who would provide intensive programming and introductions to the investment community.
In its first three years alone, the center has helped companies create nearly 450 jobs, generate $28 million in revenue and raise a combined capital of $39 million.
Since then, the center has become a leader in fintech. 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 be heading to Little Rock for the conference.
There will be classes taught by innovation experts, live product demonstrations by alumni of the center’s most successful fintech accelerators, and collaboration with industry leaders.
“The banking industry is driving growth and innovation through fintech partnerships and at a breakneck pace,” says Wayne Miller, executive director of the Venture Center. “That’s why we’ve created a place where bankers can learn from other bankers about the next steps in the industry and help shape the future of the industry.”
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 startup from Arkansas to make a name for itself nationally.
Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.