The most successful entrepreneurial products are those that meet a consumer’s need, solve a problem or eliminate a pain. In the world of mobile applications, these products are shaking up entire industries by connecting consumers with a quicker, more efficient and more cost-effective way of doing things.
In 2010, Apple trademarked the phrase: “There’s an app for that.” That buzz-worthy phrase is more accurate today than it was eight years ago, as tech entrepreneurs continue to develop mobile applications that change the way cell phone users go through their day-to-day life – from catching a ride to ordering food, from planning a meeting to taking a break from work.
Though nearly 2,000 miles from Silicon Valley, Arkansas is no stranger to innovation in the field of mobile applications. The following are some of the most interesting Arkansas-based apps today.
RAFTUP / LITTLE ROCK
One of the hottest mobile applications in Arkansas is looking to change the way users take on outdoor recreations RaftUp, according to founder and CEO Corey Boelkens, is an all-in-one recreational tool designed for outdoor lovers by outdoor lovers.
“It’s an outdoor mobile application that you can use to socially communicate where you are, what you’re doing and where you want to go,” Boelkens says from the company’s office inside the Little Rock Technology Park. “It’s essentially Facebook for the outdoors. Another way to put it is, if you’re tired of playing phone tag and want to plan a trip outdoors, you can share your location with friends.”
RaftUp was conceived as an application for recreational boating. The idea came to Boelkens while participating in a Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend, a weekend where entrepreneurial-minded Arkansans have the opportunity to develop ideas put them to the test with the help of peers and mentors.
“Three years ago, my wife and I went to a startup weekend,” he says. “We are passionate about recreational boating. We were talking about how, at times, we’ve been stranded out on the water. We thought, ‘It’s 2015, no one has really solved this.’ We took that idea to a Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend, pitched it – it was originally called TOAD, Towing Assistant and Delivery – and we took second place. That’s where the idea started.”
Using the money they earned for placing second at the startup weekend, Boelkens and his wife began to reaching out to members of the community to help develop their application, including marina owners and first responders.
“We started questioning marina owners, trying to find out if they struggled to connect with customers, find out where they are and where they’re going,” he says. “They were continuously giving away paper maps. So, we thought we could solve that. It’s not just where you are; it’s where you’re going.
“We raised some friends and family funds, used some of our personal savings, and we built our first app,” he adds. “It was really crappy, to be honest. We took it to Lake of the Ozarks to vet it. I met with first responders. I showed them that it was an app for boating, but that you could help someone if they were stuck. He told us we could take it further by adding a dashboard for 911. We built it. We’ve now expanded to twelve 911s using this service.”
Growth for RaftUp has been rapid, and the company is adding users from across the globe. Approximately 15,000 users engage with fellow outdoor enthusiasts on RaftUp from South America to Australia to Japan. “And a lot of Canadians,” Boelkens says.
To support continued growth, Boelkens and his team at RaftUp are planning to expand from their initial offerings to include rental reservation software for marinas and outfitters. Not only can users visualize water levels, find drop off points and fishing spots, call 911 and connect with other boaters, but they can also use RaftUp to reserve, rent and pay for their boats, as well. Likewise, marina owners and outfitters can keep track of their customers.
“Consider it Hotels.com for boat rentals and outfitting,” he says. “We already have several marinas and outfitters lined up. It will also provide a service for fleet tracking, that helps track boats. That’s good for the marinas who use our service. It’s a good way to keep in touch.”
One of the most significant setbacks in getting RaftUp where it is today, according to Boelkens, was finding a way to monetize their services.
“I think the biggest setback has been going in with the idea in mind that this is a solution that people want,” he says. “At the end of the day, we have to find a way to monetize. And people don’t like to pay for apps these days.”
According to Lukas Deem, RaftUp operations manager, finding a business model and raising funds has been an essential chapter in the company’s success story. That, and helping outdoor enthusiasts do what they enjoy safely.
“We’ve helped four families this year in emergency situations, including a boat fire,” Boelkens says. “I think that’s tremendous when we highlight our successes. I believe what we’re doing is fantastic … We’re going to help you get on the water and know where to go. That is huge. We’re about changing the way people enjoy the outdoors. We will educate you on where to go, what to do, how to prepare for the rental, and where they are. We’ll help you plan.”
Boelkens benefited from the advice given to him by mentors during the 2015 Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend, so he is quick to pay it forward by helping young entrepreneurs along the way. This spring, he returned to Fayetteville for another startup weekend to serve as an advisor to participants. A second Northwest Arkansas Startup Weekend was held during the first weekend of December, dedicated to makers.
His advice to entrepreneurs looking to turn a dream into a reality is to sell.
“Depending on the person’s goals… That would then determine how they should sell and make revenue,” he says. “Pre-selling before they ever have something is a must. Sell it more than 10 times. Nobody funds ideas. If you have an idea, see if someone will buy it and see if it scales.”
Boelkens has successfully sold his mobile application to a number of companies and organizations that are helping him and his team turn the dream into a reality.
RaftUp recently signed a licensing agreement with Farmers Insurance, which will allow users to get a discount on insurance just for having the app. The company has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Army Corps of Engineers and will be event app for the 2019 Progressive Insurance Miami Boat Show.
Some of the best entrepreneurs are those who shake up an industry by making it more customer-centric, especially those who use technology as a disruptor. Uber disrupted the taxi business by providing their customers with greater accessibility to rides and more flexible fares. Airbnb did the same to the hotel industry, creating wider availability and better pricing options.
FanSpotz, an application-based company in Northwest Arkansas, is looking to do the same thing to parking. This fast-growing startup is helping connect drivers to valuable parking spots through their cell phones.
“Think of us as a mashup of Uber and Airbnb for parking,” says Matt Martin, chief product officer and one of four founders of FanSpotz. “FanSpotz connects local property owners living near popular event venues – who have spare space for parking (yards, lots, driveways) – and event attendees looking for parking. We are the solution for games, concerts, festivals and other live events where the surge in parking demand overwhelms traditional parking infrastructure.”
Northwest Arkansas has experienced robust growth in recent decades. The region has added approximately 28 people a day since 2010, and more than 33 people a day since 2017, putting it among the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country.
With such rapid growth, it’s not hard to understand why parking infrastructure is struggling to catch up to the population swell. And with a number of large event venues and big-ticket sporting events occurring regularly, parking can quickly become difficult. FanSpotz was created to meet that growing need.
“We’re huge Razorback football fans. So, we experience the same parking woes that everyone else does on game day,” says Steven Zapata, chief customer officer and co-founder of FanSpotz. “Traffic is chaotic; roads are closed and traditional parking is limited. We thought, ‘If it’s this tough for us, as University of Arkansas alumni, what is the experience like for those unfamiliar with the area?’ If only we could create an app that helped fans navigate directly to a parking spot. And with that, FanSpotz was born.”
According to Tony Lee, chief technology officer and fellow co-founder, the crew hit the ground running to turn their idea into a reality.
“We were working long nights and weekends, in addition to our 60-hour-per-week day jobs,” he says. “All of the app development was done by us, and we leveraged our professional networks for everything from marketing to legal advice. From there, we tested, learned and iterated to create a product that matched the needs of our users.”
The technology utilized by FanSpotz users is available anywhere there is Wifi or cell service. However, the team is focusing its efforts to grow the company in the Northwest Arkansas region, for now.
“We’ve focused our efforts on Northwest Arkansas in the initial stages,” says Toni Gemper, chief strategy officer. “We are currently finalizing our launch plan for new markets, but I can tell you we are heavily considering some of the larger metropolitan areas within driving distance of Northwest Arkansas.”
And though the company is still young, having released just before the 2017 Razorback football season, they’ve seen plenty to validate their idea.
“In early October, there was a large concert in Bentonville and a Razorback football game in Fayetteville on the same day,” says Hunt Nosari, product manager. “It was inspiring to see more than 50 available parking spots for these two events. This made it clear to us that the app was catching on and that users could see the value.”
But as is the case with any growing startup, the company has seen its fair share of challenges.
“Our team is composed of professionals with Fortune 1 experience,” says Shauna Bowen, CEO and fellow co-founder. “Sounds like a positive, right? Well, in the startup world, it’s all about moving with speed, adapting quickly and taking risks. So, it’s sometimes hard for us to shake our slower, more methodical instincts and instead think like entrepreneurs.”
Those challenges have helped forge FanSpotz into one of the most promising application-based companies to call Arkansas home. According to Bowen, the entire team has learned a lot during the process.
“Take chances, fail fast and learn from your mistakes,” she says. “Then, do it all over again. Stagnation is failure.”
It’s said that two heads are better than one. That’s especially true in the case of Brooke and David Condolora.
The Condoloras are the two halves of Brain&Brain, a game development company nestled in the northwest corner of Arkansas. This husband-and-wife team is developing indie games, or “quiet adventures” as they call them.
Originally a Star Trek reference, the name Brain&Brain has come to stand for the teamwork necessary to create their games. Brooke calls David the “logical left half” of the brain, while she is the creative right side. She’s quick to admit, though, that there’s a lot of overlap between the two.
This brain-melding started when David moved from upstate New York to Searcy to attend Harding University, where he met Brooke an Arkansas native who grew up on a farm near Searcy.
After college, David and Brooke took off west for California, where both worked in creative industries. David became an assistant editor at Disney and Pixar, a job he credits for helping him absorb the renown storytelling processes that are used to create both studios’ films. Meanwhile, Brooke studied graphic design and became a freelance designer and web developer.
The Condoloras lived and worked in California for seven years, in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. During this time, they wanted to work on an artistic project together, but they never found one that hit the sweet spot of something that interested them both. “We tried a number of things, but they always leaned too far toward either film or graphic design instead of being something that interested us both,” David says.
The breakthrough idea to go into video game development came one day when David saw a screening of Indie Game: The Movie, which chronicles the development processes of three independent video games. Each of the three games –Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy – were created by one developer or a team of two. Watching the documentary was a “Eureka” moment, and after the movie ended, David raced to his desk to send Brooke a message that they were going to make a game together. Brooke replied, “Okay!” and they started their new chapter.
“Games provided a perfect combination of her artistry and my technical background, and we’ve been making them ever since,” David says.
Deciding to become game developers meant they would have to “go rogue,” Brooke says. It was no longer feasible for them to live in one of the most expensive areas of the country, so they said goodbye to the life they had built over the years. They sold most of their belongings, and for 18 months, they were nomads, traveling from place to place, absorbing new experiences and cultures. This nomadic period, Brooke says, allowed the couple to travel to many of the places they were interested in and temporarily live there.
Once the pair was ready to settle down again, they decided to move to Northwest Arkansas. The move was a practical one, as the area was close to family and – crucially – more affordable than California.
“Northwest Arkansas checked most of the boxes: near family, affordable, good adventure potential,” Brooke says. “We expected to like it here, but we’ve come to love it.”
Brain&Brain’s first project was Doggins, a point-and-click adventure game inspired by the Condoloras’ cairn terrier. What started out as a quick two-week project morphed into a two-year marathon. Eventually, they released the game on iOS and showed it at the South by Southwest festival. Despite the long development time, both David and Brooke were eager to get back to the grind. That’s when they started developing what has become their best-known game, Burly Men at Sea.
Before they began developing Doggins, Brooke was already formulating the ideas that would lead to Burly Men at Sea. Inspired by Scandinavian folklore and illustration, the game puts the player in control of three bearded seamen as they sail out of their small fishing village to have adventures. Along the way, they encounter creatures from folklore and find the adventures for which they were searching. One play-through is brief – approximately 30 minutes – but the game has multiple branching storylines that reveal more secrets and adventures each time the player returns.
Burly Men at Sea, which took the Condoloras another two years to develop, was released in 2016 to critical acclaim. The game was released on multiple platforms, including iOS, Android, PC/Mac, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. TIME Magazine named it one of the top 10 games of 2016 and it received accolades from gaming and traditional publications, from The Guardian to Polygon to Paste Magazine.
With two games under their belts, David and Brooke are looking to their future. Brain&Brain has a number of projects in the works. Currently, the team is focusing on an interactive comic and a “sprawling Western adventure.”
Success hasn’t made them want to move back to the center of the video game industry. Economic factors have made living in Northwest Arkansas more business friendly for the couple as they work on their new projects. Lower costs of living allow them to stretch their income further than they would be able to in California. It’s a benefit that they know is increasingly rare in an industry that is often based in cost-prohibitive areas.
But the cost of living isn’t the only advantage that they’ve found in Arkansas. Ample business resources, from organizations such as Startup Junkie, have been critical for young companies, including Brain&Brain.
“Coming from California, Arkansas has been a welcome change in terms of business-friendliness. The costs and complication of starting and running a business here are far less, and there are a lot of resources available,” David says. “Great organizations like Startup Junkie and events like 1 Million Cups encourage the development of the tech community and promote camaraderie.”
“There’s an energy to this place that we hadn’t found elsewhere: like we’re part of something that’s just emerging. We’ve met some really talented artists and makers here, and it’s exciting to see the community continue to develop,” Brooke says.
While Arkansas isn’t a traditional hotbed for game creation, this husband-and-wife team has found the elements they need to fuel their endeavors. Along with the startup- and small business-friendly environment and the creative atmosphere, David and Brooke have the two things that energize their work – adventure and passion.
Adventure is easily found in the Ozarks with its mountains and abundant space, and the passion comes from like-minded creative people and designers in the area.
“One of the great things about creating games in a place not known for them is the level of excitement. People are doing it because they really love it,” David says. “We’ve found that, while the developer community here is small, it’s passionate, and invested in growing right here in Northwest Arkansas. We’re excited to be part of that and to see where it leads.”