“I’LL START BY saying that it was my fault,” David Hudson, co-founder of Few, says without a hint of hesitation. His tone is frank, and he seems eager to get this part of the story off his chest.
We’re sitting in Few’s lounge in downtown Little Rock, surrounded by all the necessary tech-company trappings—hoodie-sporting coders, a pingpong table, a drum set and guitars, a hammock slung from the rafters—and until now, the conversation has mostly consisted of the company’s successes. We’ve talked about how he and co-founder (and chief creative officer) Arlton Lowry, the man behind the tech and web design conference Made by Few, were tired of working as guns for hire and decided to found their own design and development firm. How they planned for it to be a sort of startup for startups by taking the money they’d make building apps and websites for others to fund their own projects. How they are making a name for themselves around the country as developers capable of beautiful, leading-edge work.
But no tech startup—no business venture—is without its challenges, and when I say as much, David is ready to dive right in.
The trouble started with Tagless, their first fully fledged, in-house startup, he tells me. Tagless is one of those companies that delivers a box of clothes tailored to your style preferences to your door each month—only here, all those clothes come from Goodwill. The idea is that if Tagless picks only the best—something like one item out of thousands—and packages them like new, consumers won’t care about getting used clothes. They’ll only care about getting a great deal. But with the explosion of e-commerce companies like Warby Parker and Toms that work charity into their business plans, David figured those still wary of buying used clothes would at least feel good that Tagless is green and creates work for the needy through Goodwill’s jobs program.
And it’s worked. Nearly two years after founding Few and a year after officially launching Tagless, they’re only 500 monthly orders short of their goal of 2,000. But despite their best efforts to self-fund the project—to the tune of some $75,000—it still wasn’t enough. About two-thirds of that sum went to paying salaries, and after the expenses that came with setting up the operation (such as a $4,000 industrial washer and dryer), both Tagless and Few were on the ragged edge. For nearly two months, David and Arlton forewent their wages to make sure they made payroll for their employees. The darkest days were the ones when they wondered if it all hadn’t been a mistake. David called all the clients who’d hired them— whether their payments were late, on time or even early—and asked them to pay him as soon possible. Many of them did, and it was enough to stave off disaster. But it still wasn’t enough to get Tagless where it needed to be.
With their backs against the wall, they decided to take on outside money from a local investor. This is the move David feels so guilty about. He now thinks accepting that money was a mistake caused by their own naivety. Though he doesn’t get into specifics, he says it’s something his whole team has had to overcome. (“Right now, the answer is: Suck it up, work harder, and hope it doesn’t fail,” he says.) It’s made him hesitant to enter into contracts with new local investors, and he’s not just nervous about what that means for his company.
“What does that mean for [Arkansas’] economy if there are people out there like me that feel this way?” he says. He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
The answer, he’s decided, is more competition—not just more money—because the investors will have to offer the best terms they can to compete with their rivals. And with the current rate of economic growth in the state, especially in Northwest Arkansas, he thinks it is only a matter of time until that happens. But until then, he’s going to seek funding outside of the state if he can’t avoid it entirely.
The whole episode weighs on him. He’d led teams of developers in the past, but before founding Few, he never had worried if they were being paid, if their home life was good. He’d understood the responsibilities of being the boss, but he hadn’t understood them.
He and Arlton are older now, though, and hopefully wiser. They’d intended to launch more of their own startups by this point, but Tagless taught them a lot of lessons. None more so than realizing how many people depend on them and how that means the next one has to be “The One.” And as much as they’re committed to building a thriving ecosystem in Arkansas, if that means they have to head to Silicon Valley, at least in part, it’s something they’ll consider.
As the interview draws to a close, I ask him if Few is everything he’d hoped it would be. From the look on his face, for all the thought he’s clearly given to this business and Arkansas’ startup culture as a whole, it seems this is one thing he’s never had the time to consider.
“It’s not exactly where I thought it would be,” he says after a while. “But it’s pretty damn close.”