By Mark Scott
Joe White’s desk is a well-used round kitchen table, a stark difference from the polished furniture in other suites of his downtown Little Rock high-rise building. On this particular day, three take-out coffee cups sit on top of his desk in varying states of empty, and one unmistakably empty beer can lays on its side.
A 2004 Hendrix College graduate with a degree in biology, Joe is the top – and only – sales and marketing agent for Capsearch, an innovative company developed by fellow Hendrix alumni Katie Bodenhamer ’01 and Matt Price ’03. Three of Capsearch’s four-person team, the Hendrix trio incidentally weren’t close friends while at Hendrix, but they have now invested their time, money and energy in a company that started small but shows significant signs of prospering into a profitable nationwide political search corporation.
Their office is undoubtedly Hendrixesque – their conference table is of the foosball variety, and Joe is able to locate his dusty framed diploma with relative ease – leaning atop a built-in bookcase in his office. Gathering together in one office, Matt brings in an old metal lawn chair more fitting for a front porch, similar to the ones outside Martin Hall.
Specifically, Capsearch is a Web-based research utility providing lobbyists, legislators, educational institutions, businesses, and associations with real-time information and analysis on changes in state legislative and governmental activities. According to its Web site, Capsearch uses innovative technologies combined with an experienced staff to provide the most comprehensive service in the market. "Our analysts have the detailed knowledge that gives you the competitive edge," the site advertises. "Our technology provides you the most options to disseminate your message wherever it needs to go."
Pressed for a layman’s description of their business, however, Matt describes Capsearch as "Bloomberg for legislative data." Katie’s description is even clearer for members of their Millennial generation: "If Google and Facebook had a baby, and that baby had a knack for government data, that baby would be Capsearch."
Their service is much like Katie describes – a search engine of specific legislative bills, committee reports and agendas, along with a social media element that allows users to comment on posts, create personal coalition groups, and share information electronically. Each member of the Arkansas General Assembly receives a complimentary account, and users can interact directly within the service through a mechanism called "Chatter." It is especially useful to political observers when multiple meetings are occurring at the capitol – users can attend a committee hearing in one room while tracking a bill’s progress from a meeting across the hall through their computer, iPhone, or PDA device. Users can also create lists of topic-specific bills to utilize in more formal reports. Most lobbyists in Arkansas are clients; fitting, since Capsearch is the first step toward full-fledged digital lobbying.
A jump off the cliff moment
Matt and Katie’s resumes both traverse from Hendrix College to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and back to the Capitol in Little Rock, where both were working for Gov. Mike Beebe in 2008. Somewhere along that path, Matt envisioned Capsearch, noticing there was no real-time provider for legislators, lobbyists, and others interested in the fast-paced political world to track legislative activities. Information at the Capitol would sometimes take days to be reported, and businesses interested in legislative developments and outcomes were hiring two or three extra employees to simply track bills and activity throughout the legislative session. There are often more than 2,500 bills introduced into a three-month session of the legislature.
The two ultimately had a jump off the cliff moment, left the governor’s office to create Capsearch in September of 2008, and worked to have their product up and running for the Arkansas General Assembly’s regular session in 2009. What prompted the change from a steady paycheck to a risky self-started business?
"I guess you can call me a contrarian," Matt said. "Even since my Hendrix days, I’ve always wanted to have my own company like this, and to ultimately make lots of money. But I thought about owning my own company about like winning the lottery – it was nice to think about, but I never saw it as a reality. Starting this company was a measured risk that has really been a lot of fun."
"It really took a lot for us to do it," Katie added. "We really had good gigs at the time. But it came down to the fact that I wanted a challenge. This is probably something that Matt has always wanted to do, but I never really saw myself doing something like this.
"I don’t know why I did it some days," she continued. "I’m glad I did it, and at the time I saw it as an exciting opportunity. It was definitely a risk that paid off."
They worked to sell their new product, as their first clients, including lobbyists, the University of Arkansas System, the Municipal League, and the Association of Arkansas Counties grew from 50 initially to 100 throughout the first session. Now more than 250 people utilize Capsearch’s services. They added Karl Hills, a technical officer who has worked to make the product more user-friendly.
Following the legislative session, Matt and Katie regrouped and analyzed their business, from their client growth to the services provided. They decided to hire another employee, and Joe came on board to direct marketing and client growth efforts, leaving a job in financial services. Matt and Joe were old acquaintances from their high school football playing days at Little Rock Catholic High School, and remained acquaintances through college.
Joe’s decision to join this alumni entrepreneurial crusade was perhaps a little more personal.
"There’s no way I could live with myself if Matt went off and did something great and I wasn’t a part of it," he said. "Nothing would piss me off more."
Katie and Matt credit Joe’s enthusiasm for the growth of Capsearch throughout the U.S., relying on him to attract new users as the system develops in other states. Using the Arkansas model, Capsearch has developed similar programs that are being used in California, Alabama and Illinois. The company plans to expand to all 50 states by next year.
Ultimately, they say their Hendrix backgrounds give their business a base to work from: common friends, shared experiences, unique perspectives on government and the world. They are business professionals who didn’t take business courses while in college, but yet credit their college experiences for preparing themselves to be successful.
"I think it gives us a base to work from," Matt said. "We’ve hired Hendrix students as part-time workers – we know what to expect from Hendrix graduates. It’s kind of weird how these things just happened, but we owe a lot to Hendrix."
They insist their company’s growth and success won’t change them – Joe doesn’t plan on trading in his eclectic desk, blue jeans will remain the typical office dress code, and the occasional beer can isn’t frowned upon by the bosses. But they do anticipate one major change – "Perhaps we’ll get a better foosball table," Joe said.
Learn more about CapSearch at www.capsearch.com.