Business Startup AR

Arkansas Entrepreneurs Merge Digital and Artistic in Building Brands

In a new weekly series, Matthew A. Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, examines the state of business in Arkansas. Catch him each week exclusively on Arkansas Money & Politics. 

In the early days of e-commerce, setting up a website that featured your product and accepted payments were enough for success. Over time, you needed more capabilities, including search engine optimization (SEO) to drive business to your website, pleasant photos, grammatically correct text, and well-formatted webpages. To win long term in today’s ecommerce, however, you need even more. You need to build brand equity.

Nice photos are insufficient; you need aesthetically appealing photos that engender an emotional response and complement your brand. Grammatically correct text is insufficient; you need creatively descriptive writing that ignites imagination and is consistent with your overall story. You also need video and sound that draws a shopper into the journey represented by your brand. And simply having a glitch-free order and payment process is insufficient; you need a seamless order and payment process where the brand story continues.

As a result, artistic competency now is a key part of a digitally oriented entrepreneurial ecosystem.

That is good news for Arkansas-based digital entrepreneurs, because we have one of the fastest growing artistic communities in the country thanks to things like Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, the new School of Art at the University of Arkansas (funded by a $120 million gift by the Walton Family Foundation), the Momentary in Bentonville, the Murphy Arts District in El Dorado, the Art + Design District in Fayetteville, and The Arts Center in Little Rock. The School of Art, in particular, will have a significant impact on bringing artistic competency to Arkansas and drawing artistic talent to Arkansas, because it dramatically increases the capacity and quality of Art education in Arkansas.  It will also have faculty who are forging the future and advancing knowledge in art history, ceramics, drawing, graphic design, painting, photography, printmaking, and sculpture.

I frequently hear new business ideas from Arkansans, meet Arkansas entrepreneurs who are starting businesses, and learn about Arkansas-based businesses that are relatively new. Sometimes this is because our students or alumni are the entrepreneurs or because they are part of our network of businesses, which is vast. I spend time meeting with businesses of all sizes in Arkansas and with alumni who own businesses in other states or countries. That is part of my job as Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business.

Of the many things I’m observing in Arkansas, one that is most striking is the creation of many new digitally oriented businesses. Entrepreneurial startups create more jobs and wealth in the United States than any other category of business, so this is good news for our economy. In Arkansas, we have an unusual confluence of entrepreneurial startups and growth in the art community. The artistic competency can enable the success of e-commerce companies by helping them build brand equity.  Brand equity is the value of a firm that is a result of perceptions of a product or service that is beyond the value of the product or service per se.

I recently interviewed Blake Puryear, co-founder of Engine, which is one of the Arkansas-based companies that’s part of this confluence. Engine, much like the e-commerce platform Shopify, makes it easy for a business to setup an online store, curate product, sell product and accept credit card payments. But Engine also helps you easily use content within your store in creative ways that build brand equity.

When people talk about content with respect to e-commerce, they typically are talking about things like blogs, text, photos, audio and video. So, with Engine, they recognize that it needs to be easy for entrepreneurs to incorporate blogs, photos, video and other forms of content within the online store. It allows entrepreneurs to tell the story of their brands, thus building long-term sales while also increasing the market value of their business.

It is interesting how they came up with the idea. John James, another University of Arkansas alumnus and the other co-founder of Engine, is also the founder of Hayseed Ventures, a seed funding company where Puryear also works as chief technology officer. They came up with the idea for Engine based on the questions and challenges they heard from the startup companies they were funding through Hayseed.

Engine will further generate demand for artistic competency because it provides a powerful channel to use such talent.

Whyte Spyder is another Arkansas-based digitally oriented company that creates demand for artistic competency. Whyte Spyder develops item pages for e-commerce. That includes photography, video, and optimization research on what shoppers are typing into Google while trying to find a product or a solution to a question they have. Their objective is to make sure the item appears in the top search results on Google, that it drives to a specific e-commerce company, and that once they’re on that specific item page, there’s proper photography, call-to-action content, convertible content, videos, comparison charts and everything else that’s needed from a user experience standpoint to convert that sale. All of this, properly and artistically orchestrated, builds brand equity.

Whyte Spyder CEO Eric Howerton is a professionally trained photographer and photojournalist with years of experience in building brand equity. He is an example of the confluence between ecommerce entrepreneurship and artistry that’s thriving in Arkansas.

Walton College alumnus John Collins founded OmniiX three years ago and is another example of this emerging industry dynamic. OmniiX is a full-service, e-commerce consultancy and distribution firm.

“It’s not about just listing on the platform,” John told me, “but it’s truly about thriving on the platform. There are so many people that are starting to get into e-commerce, and they feel that, ‘Hey, the job is done once I get my products listed.’ Really, we look at that (as) the start of the race. It’s everything that happens once the product is on the platform that’s going really determine your success.”

While the need for artistic competency is certainly vital in the digitally oriented ecommerce ecosystem, it is also a requirement of large consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. I discussed this with Ross Cully, co-founder and CEO of The Harvest Group. His agency assists CPG companies, from startups to Fortune 500s, in the areas of sales, marketing and advanced analytics. They’ve been around for 10 years, so they’ve had to adapt their offerings as technology has evolved.

“Certainly, the fundamentals of retail are the same whether it’s digital or physical commerce – price, product, promotion, and placement,” Cully told me. “But how those things happen in those two environments are completely different. We’ve had to grow in our expertise there.”

These trends are affecting all companies, and Arkansas’ growing competencies in the arts will give us an advantage in the future.


Matthew A. Waller is the Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair, and Professor of Supply Chain Management.  As Dean he leads the Walton College, which has over 6,000 undergraduates and about 500 graduate students.  He has been an active entrepreneur most of his life.  He was co-founder of a software company which had over 100 employees as well as a consulting firm.  He is an inventor on the following patent: Waller, M.A. and Dulaney, E.F. System, Method and Article of Manufacture to Optimize Inventory and Merchandising Shelf Space Utilization, Patent No. US 6,341,269 B1. Date of Patent: January 22, 2002. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.  Dr. Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow.  He is coauthor of The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain, published by Pearson Education. He received a B.S.B.A. summa cum laude from the University of Missouri, and a M.S. and Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University. He is the former Co-Editor-In-Chief of Journal of Business Logistics.  Matt is coauthoring a book with Kirk Thompson, Chairman of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. about strategy and how J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. applied various business strategies. 

Leave a Comment