#VCThoughts | Want Strong Work Ethic? Come to Arkansas.
By Jim Womble, Former COO of Acxiom + The Venture Center Board Member
When I earned my civil engineering degree, I left school and right out of college went to work for IBM – not using my civil engineering degree. I arrived at IBM at a great time, which now seems like a million years ago. IBM had just released a new series of cost-effective business computers, and was hiring a lot of new people. We were absolutely swamped in those days with many new customers. I was a technology guy, a systems engineer, and helped get those machines up in those days. Believe it or not, there were no client programmers then. Programmers were the people at IBM. You couldn’t buy a computer, you rented it. And when you did, you got all the programming and service work, maintenance work, everything, but supplies.
I spent eight years doing that, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the future. One day, when I was 30, three of my old buddies, Charles Morgan, Alex Dietz and Roger Kline, who had all gone to work for Acxiom, called me and said, “Womble, why don’t you come to work up here with us in Conway?” So, I did. At that time, we had 25 employees. I stayed at Acxiom for 35 years, driving the sales and account management side of the business. Including all international work, we grew to about $1.3 billion in revenue, up from $900,000 when I got there.
Now, I’m at First Orion, working with telecommunication carriers; our biggest account is T-Mobile. T-Mobile works to block scams, including spam, nefarious phone calls, and telemarketers. Our system is installed in their 14 data centers, and we use data and analytics to decide if someone calling you is a spammer or a scammer or a debt collector. We’re right there in the call flow. We call it “call protection.” We’re trying to help you love your phone again. First Orion is another Arkansas-based tech company with huge global potential. We have additional offices in Seattle, London and Dubai, and we’re just getting started.
As you can see, Arkansas is home to huge global tech companies, and it’s due in large part to our history and our workforce. Much of the genesis for these tech advancements coming out of Arkansas is the people who worked for IBM and then left IBM to start new companies. Walter Smiley is a great example, as he started Systematics post-IBM. Systematics later became Alltel Information Services, which eventually became FIS. Another example is Arkansas Systems, which Venture Center Chairman James Hendren started in Little Rock. People my age who started a lot of these businesses got in on the very ground floor; they knew a lot of people, understood the technology, and were from Arkansas.
The business climate in Arkansas was and remains conducive to hiring and keeping competent people. All businesses need good, hard-working people, but that work ethic is essential to computer service businesses like FIS and Acxiom. And it’s just not possible to imagine moving those kinds of businesses to Silicon Valley or New York and paying double the overhead.
If I started a business today, particularly a tech-focused company, I’d take advantage of the knowledge and resources at The Venture Center. Little Rock and Central Arkansas are a bastion of knowledge and experience in these areas. The Venture Center successfully harnesses the collective energy of the people with experience and expertise to affect change for up and coming business leaders.
We’re constantly bringing new tech companies into the ICBA ThinkTECH and FIS Fintech Accelerators, and many of them have stayed right here to keep growing their business. It’s a testament to the “old guard” who started some of the world’s biggest tech companies, but also to the “new guard” who know the value of mentorship and the expertise of those who paved new paths. I’m excited about Arkansas’ future, particularly where technology is concerned. There’s a lot of new work happening out there, and much of it has footprints right here. Now’s the time to get involved, if you aren’t already. Follow The Venture Center on social media and get active. If you have an idea, or if you’re already an expert, there are folks waiting to talk wIth you!