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First Orion CEO Charles Morgan Talks Startups in NWA

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Charles Morgan, left, and Jeff Standridge

The former leader of Acxiom traveled up to Northwest Arkansas earlier in the week to discuss his new book and offer business advice.

Charles Morgan is author of Now What? The Biography Of A (Finally) Successful Startup and CEO of First Orion. After appearing on the Good Day NWA news program, he took center stage in the Pryor Center in downtown Fayetteville for a question-and-answer session. The interview was part of Startup Junkie’s NWA Venture Mashup event.

Morgan opened up his tale of business in the Natural State by emphasizing how great of a home and place for business Arkansas really is.

“My strong belief is Arkansas is one of the greatest places in the world,” Morgan said.

Morgan, originally from Fort Smith, said he graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in mechanical engineering. He eventually got a job with IBM and thought that’s where his career would stay.

In his final couple years of working for IBM, Morgan was actually stationed in Northwest Arkansas. After Morgan left IBM, he ended up in Conway at a company called Acxiom, a big name in Arkansas to this day.

“I’m a real tech geek kind of guy,” Morgan said.

He still writes software today. But while at Acxiom, he eventually took control of the company, and from 1990 to 1998, the company grew from $100 million in revenue to $1 billion, according to Morgan.

Data fueled Acxiom’s early growth, Morgan said. Early on, mass amounts of data were stored on tape. At the time, it was the only way to handle such a capacity, according to Morgan. But the company eventually discovered how much faster data access could be with disk storage.

The biggest hurdle to Acxiom at that time was getting skilled workers. Morgan said the company decided to hire around 500 database administrators, but there simply weren’t that many in the combined areas of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

So Morgan said the company started educational programs because it was hard to find people with the right skills.

The author said he retired in 2008 and put $1 million into a company called First Orion. In 2013 he took over as CEO.

“We are building solutions for the telecom industry,” he said.

Discussion after the NWA Venture Mashup event

Consumers may not be familiar with the name First Orion, but phone customers will recognize what it does. Morgan said one of the services First Orion provides is to detect robocalls. And when one is incoming on a smartphone, the words “scam likely” will appear on the screen.

In total, First Orion has 186 employees, and the CEO said it’s looking to hire 40 more right now.

One of the biggest things Morgan said he learned through his career is how important business culture is. Leadership is what causes companies to have great people in them, according to the CEO.

A big fan of Arkansas’ own Sam Walton, Morgan said, “Sam worked in a winning culture. Culture is how we work together.”

The author went on to explain that culture is the value employees see in each other.

At First Orion, Morgan said people first is a cultural cornerstone. And he works hard to show people first at the company.

First Orion has no vacation or sick leave policy, according to Morgan. People are simply expected to get their job done, or they’re fired.

“We don’t write rules,” Morgan said.

And his company works to offer benefits to employees like tuition reimbursement and student loan repayment, which can be a valuable tool in an age where more students are taking on debt to finish college as tuition prices climb.

Morgan has what he calls his “first rule of money.” It’s that having too little of it or too much of it, either personally or as a business, drives insanity in the world. Either of those extremes causes people to make weird decisions, according to the CEO.

His second rule of money is to know that creating a startup will take three to four times longer than one thinks and require four times as much money as one expects. 

“People have a real hard time being realistic,” Morgan said.

He urged those considering a startup to know when to pull the plug should it come to that. As for when that point is, it’s where a failing business will start to impact life. Morgan told people to stop before they lose their money and the money of friends and family.

“Don’t risk everything,” Morgan said.

When it comes to modern challenges the CEO faces, he admitted Arkansas still has problems.

Sometimes it’s difficult to get customers into the Natural State. According to Morgan, some still have the opinion that Arkansas is the end of the Earth.

But there’s a flip side to that. If people don’t expect much upon visiting Arkansas, they’re easier to wow.

Looking at his future, Morgan said, “I love to solve problems.”

He said he’s designed race cars and likes cool tech. “People say retire. I ask them, ‘What would I do?’” Morgan said.

Shifting back to First Orion, the CEO said the average annual salary at his company is $85,000. “This is a good place to work and play,” he said.

His final piece of advice for entrepreneurs? Don’t screw up.

READ MORE: Have You Heard About the Morgans?

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