Phoenix: A Bird of a Different Feather

Whether it was a great coach who saw something special in you, that one teacher who knew you were capable of greatness, or the mentor who gave you that little nudge you needed to reach new heights, you — like everyone else out there achieving their ambitions — probably wouldn’t have gotten to where you are without some type of support system. Because regardless of how talented or determined we are individually, to reach our full potential, we all need someone or something to help propel us forward.

For my husband, Brad, and me — and our company, WebPT — that support was the downtown Phoenix community.

Humble Beginnings

Just eight years ago, Brad and I were in the “bootstrap” stages of building our company. We were operating out of the back storage room of a downtown Phoenix coffee shop — with one employee and one big idea. At that point, WebPT — like many startups — was still more of an innovative solution than an actual company. But, that would soon change.

It wasn’t long before we hired employee number two — and then number three. Suddenly, the walls of that tiny storage room began to close in. It was time to find more square footage. As alluring as the cheaper real estate — and the opportunity for lush, new digs — on the fringes of the city was, we were passionate about downtown Phoenix. For us, it was home: where we lived, where we started our business, and where we wanted to plant our roots. We loved being surrounded by such a collaborative community, and we felt compelled to help seed future business growth and innovation in the area.

We found our next home — which is now the Lisa Sette Gallery — in an architecturally significant building in Midtown Phoenix. We quickly outgrew that space, and after an extensive search, we landed in the Warehouse District. There, we set up shop in one of the iconic Levine Machine buildings on Grant — an early 1900s structure that is now home to the art program at ASU. We leased a 5,000 square-foot space — an amount of real estate that initially seemed overwhelmingly huge. At the time, we were the pioneers of that area; there weren’t any other tech businesses in our neighborhood — let alone fast-growth startups. But as the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.”

Phoenix Rising

In WebPT’s early days, Phoenix lacked cachet and readily available capital for technology development and deployment — and honestly, we’re still starved for tech talent. Historically, the city certainly hasn’t been a top destination for early-stage companies. Still, credit goes to Brad for seeing the enormous potential in this diamond in the rough. While Phoenix once wanted for many of the things that make a community attractive to startups, it made up for its shortcomings with an abundance of great dreamers, innovators, and doers who routinely joined forces, collaborated, and fed the fire of growth for the entire startup community. And this still exists today. In fact, that is one thing that sets Phoenix apart from the so-called “unicorn cities” around the US.

That’s why, even when we found ourselves bursting at the seams in the Levine building, we never once considered venturing outside of downtown. Yes, it was a bit of a gamble. Tech was nascent, and the innovation ecosystem in Phoenix was very local. At the time, most of the major technology companies in the Valley were in Chandler and Tempe. And even in those cities, the resources, programs, and investors didn’t exist like they do today — especially compared to tech hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston, or New York City. But for us, leaving town was not an option; we could feel the groundswell percolating, and we knew we had to help urge that along.

Lucky for us, the building across the railroad tracks became available. So, we jumped on it and moved our ever-expanding team into our current 30,000-square-foot headquarters. And we’re proud to say we’ve already invested in our in next home — a 60,000-square-foot warehouse just south of our current location.

Brick by Brick

For us, the Warehouse District is a piece of history; it’s a monument to the real estate entrepreneurs who were here a century before us — the ones who built this town. And it needs to be preserved. So, now it’s up to us — Phoenix’s new generation of entrepreneurs — to revitalize it back to greatness.

And isn’t that what entrepreneurism is all about — starting from the ashes and rising up with a brilliant idea? Over time — and with lots of hard work, a steadfast vision, the right support, and a spirit of collaboration — a thriving, beautiful new Phoenix will emerge. In many respects, it already has. All it takes is a few visionaries to see opportunity where others don’t, and then execute on it.

Brad and I saw that opportunity, and in the years since we first decided to make this neighborhood our home, he has led the charge in building up the Warehouse District as a new center of innovation and vitality — working tirelessly to keep the conversation going and get the right people involved. That’s evidenced in the formation of the “Innovation District,” which Mayor Greg Stanton announced just last month, citing the Warehouse District as a cornerstone of Phoenix’s blossoming tech economy.

Tech Transformation

Indeed, entrepreneurial opportunities come in many shapes and sizes. WebPT certainly wasn’t in my immediate plans back when I was working in the physical therapy space. I always considered myself a physical therapist at my core, and prior to WebPT, I was a clinic director for a large multi-site PT practice, focusing on patient care and business operations. But that focus — along with a glaring efficiency gap in the PT industry and the guidance of a brilliant technologist (Brad) to help lead the path — is ultimately what led me to becoming a tech entrepreneur.

Fast forward to 2016: WebPT has grown to more than 300 employees, and we plan to double that over the next few years. As a testament to this growth, WebPT has been recognized twice as an Inc. 500 company and once as an Inc. 5000 company. The amazing growth of our company — along with many others in the community — has helped establish and fuel the Phoenix tech ecosystem. Thanks to an uprising of collaboration among business and community leaders, the disparate tech community has come together to form a more unified voice and vision — and that movement has breathed new life into Arizona’s job market and economic development.

That’s evident not only in the success of WebPT and other homegrown businesses like GoDaddy, Infusionsoft, Pure Chat, Pagely, Axosoft, Tallwave, Picmonic, Allbound, Tuft & Needle, and CampusLogic (to name a few), but also in Arizona’s newfound recognition as one of the top states for entrepreneurism. In fact, Arizona topped Fast Company’s 2013 list of states with the most entrepreneurial activity. And in 2015, Forbes reported that Moody’s Analytics named the Grand Canyon State as the top state for future job growth.

In recent years, Arizona has also become home to expansion locations for major brands like Apple, Garmin, Gainsight, DoubleDutch, and Weebly. This earned our beautiful state a reputation as one of the top states in the country for companies to not only start, but also expand and relocate.

Cultivating Community

While a lot of this activity has happened organically, it’s been supplemented by events like Phoenix Startup Week and Startup Grind as well as organizations and movements like #yesphx, StartupAZ Foundation, and the Phoenix software founders group. Furthermore, competitions like the Arizona Commerce Authority’s Arizona Innovation Challenge and Venture Madness — along with the countless collaborations that have emerged from local co-working spaces like GangPlank, and Co+Hoots and incubators like Seed Spot— have all coalesced to contribute tremendously to Arizona’s growth.

The drive to advance the Valley as the place to be for technology and business is palpable. There are many great minds — from private business owners and passionate entrepreneurs, to government officials at the city and state levels, to university leaders and venture capitalists — working together to make that happen. And that is one thing that sets our town apart from the rest. We will never be a Silicon Valley, but that’s a good thing — it’s not our style.

Shared success — along with emphasis on a “rising tide” mentality — forms the fabric of the Phoenix entrepreneurial community. Now that we’ve become a hotspot (literally) for technological growth, we’ve turned our sights to attracting and, most importantly, retaining a solid talent pool. And with the collective effort that persists here, I truly believe it will happen. To get there, more local, fast-growth technology companies must unite to create an incubator environment in the community — one where other tech up-and-comers can access mentorship, resources, and intellectual capital. Only then can we keep our talent — and our state’s incredible educational institutions are certainly producing plenty of it — here and ensure they carry on the technology torch.

Ten years ago, urban sprawl trumped downtown growth. But now, people — and businesses — are coming back to central Phoenix, giving this city the opportunity to morph into a true innovation and technology hub. We’re on the brink of greatness; just look at the numerous disruptors that have planted roots and sprouted in the Valley. The community has played a huge role in their successes, just as it has certainly supported ours. We never would have become the fastest-growing electronic medical record software company in the country without the support of our hometown. Phoenix is a rare bird; let’s flock together and make sure the new innovation-based economy takes flight.


Dr. Heidi Jannenga is president and co-founder of Phoenix-based software company WebPT, the leading practice management solution for physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists, with more than 50,000 members and 8,000 clinics as customers.

Follow Heidi on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Originally published at www.webpt.com on June 2, 2016.