When Every City in America Zigged for Amazon HQ2, Little Rock Zagged. It's Worked Out Quite Well.
Arkansas' capitol city quite publicly skipped the competition for Amazon's HQ2 and found the right partners to drive growth instead.
18 months of travel and over 40 cities later, I've learned a lot about the entrepreneurial landscape of America. What you learn is that there are far more similarities than differences.
Perspective, comes with travel. That thing we think our city does better than any other? It's probably done just as well in a dozen places, but there are cities inside the coasts doing incredible things. It's the ones that lean into their assets the most and don't try to be the next "Silicon ______" that do the best.
Zig when everyone else zags.
When every city in America in 2017 decided to go all-in on Amazon's HQ2, one city defied the trend and said "no." Little Rock broke up with Amazon in a well-timed Washington Post ad. The truth, is that Little Rock was never going to make the final cut. While most cities talked themselves into being contenders, Jay Chesshir saw an opportunity.
Chesshir, the President & CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber, is now a legend in economic development circles for having the courage to lean in to what his city and region wasn't. It makes perfect sense now that we have seen the entire scenario play out but two years ago every city was playing its best hand.
At the time, the move was crazy. But what it did was put Little Rock on the map. Too often we try our hardest to sell ourselves, our business, our city at all possible times. And the copy was clever enough to make sure it sold Little Rock to other potential businesses and entrepreneurs that would be a good fit.
It got my attention. So, I visited Little Rock earlier this year to see what impact a simple breakup letter had created eighteen months later. And more importantly, what the landscape was for people looking to start a business there.
If your city isn't big, get specific.
Scale is incredibly important for a city. Little Rock is the 57th largest media market in the country. That's not small but it also means it has a lot of competition. For context, Little Rock is slightly smaller than Providence and slightly bigger than Tulsa.
The last time I had been to Little Rock was in 2005 working with Alltel, which at one time before the Verizon acquisition it had 13 million subscribers. And while it, Nextel and others have slowly been forgotten through mergers, Alltel was a substantial employer in the region. It's a loss most cities wouldn't recover from.
But Little Rock is where FIS was founded in 1968. If you don't know the name, they are the largest fintech company in the world now with annual revenue exceeding $9 billion. Though they are now a division of Fidelity National Financial, their largest presence is still in Little Rock.
That's a tremendous asset if leveraged properly and Little Rock is a case study in taking one great asset and maximizing it. While most cities try jumping on biotech, 3D printers or a collection of other trendy startups, Little Rock has been laser-focused on driving fintech startup growth.
Little Rock is helping the financial industry rather than disrupting it.
The FIS Accelerator is less about disruption and more about mass distribution. Because FIS works with all of the large banking and finanicial institutions in the world, it is a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs to get their product/service seen by all of their largest potential clients. That's incredibly valuable for an entrepreneur. A lot of accelerators provide capital and advice, few can guarantee large client intros.
This, coupled with a longer window to test because of low-cost living, has attracted top global financial talent to Little Rock. I met with Maf Sonko (Gambia) and Uday Akkaraju (India) while I was there to understand the appeal first-hand. Sonko's company, LumoXchange, finds the best possible exchange rates for sending money abroad -- a pain point he discovered himself when coming to the United States.
Akkaraju's Bond.AI is human centered AI for banks. The conversational platform learns about users and helps provide faster experiences with less friction. And in that space, or any space with mass customer service requests, it is sorely needed.
These are just two examples of people who would have never considered the area without the large, career-making presence FIS has but now they make it home. This influx of talent has also led to a strong uptick in the food scene and other amenities to keep people in Little Rock.
Over time, as Little Rock attracts more fintech entrepreneurs, other industries will grow as natural offshoots. But if you're looking to create something in fintech, Little Rock ranks right up there with Charlotte, San Francisco and New York as a top destination.
Navigating Little Rock in three steps.
Talk to fellow entrepreneurs to get a good idea if it's a fit. Then talk to these three people below to get connected quickly. That's the benefit of Little Rock. It won't take long. Everyone is incredibly accessible. I met with both Mayor Scott and Governor Hutchinson in the same day and both were incredibly gracious with their time.
1. Wayne Miller, Executive Director of the Venture Center is the first person you should meet. Incredibly sharp, manages the Fintech accelerator and is your go-to source for introductions.
2. Ben France, VP of the Little Rock Chamber, is the name that comes up every time I mention I've been to Little Rock. Very forward-thinking, he'll be able to guide you through everything you need to know about the city itself and give great food recommendations.
3. Kristie Flynn, Senior Public Relations Manager, Stone Ward. Stone Ward is the team behind promoting Little Rock and crafting the copy of that awesome Washington Post letter. Kristie is an amazing dot connector who can get you in touch with anyone you need to know.
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