A review of the Atlanta startup ecosystem

Me (center) in 2007 before leaving Atlanta.

In 2008, after starting two venture backed startups over a decade, I decided to move from Atlanta to Silicon Valley. I had been a very vocal and active participant in the Atlanta startup ecosystem since the mid-90s. I had become extremely frustrated and dismayed during 2007 while launching Appcelerator in Atlanta. By early 2008, Nolan and I had decided that maybe moving West was the best course of action. I penned a blog post on the “way out of town” that discussed many of my issues with the Atlanta startup scene and my recommendations with how to fix them. This blog post was titled “What’s wrong with the Atlanta and how to fix it”. (It has since been taken offline as I tired of the constant attention and request for comment many years later). Needless to say, it generated a lot of agreement and resentment and general discussion — all good in the end. If you’re interested still you can see some discussion here, and here, and here and here.

It’s been almost eight years since we signed that first term sheet for the startup funding for Appcelerator from a firm on Sand Hill Road. Jennifer Bonnett, one of my good friends, asked me to come back to Atlanta and share my story. Jennifer is currently the Acting General Manager for the Georgia Tech ATDC (Advanced Technology Development Center) in Atlanta — which Forbes named as one of the top 12 business incubators in the World. Jennifer has spent over a decade working with startups (including her own) and trying to help build the startup ecosystem in Atlanta. Very few people are more passionate about startups in Atlanta.

Even though I did leave Atlanta back in 2008, I have continued to stay very involved over the years with my home town. I’ve helped numerous startup entrepreneurs in Atlanta as well as one’s that wanted to make a similar journey as I did to the Bay Area. I’ve continued to participate and hold events in Atlanta as well as advise and angel invest in Atlanta startups.

A lot has changed in Atlanta since 2008 — and almost all of it for the better (with the exception of the transportation situation, which seems to have only gotten worse). I thought I’d share my own observations about my trip and how Atlanta has grown. I’m proud of my home town. I’m proud of all the civic and business leaders and investors and entreprenuers — a lot of whom I still consider friends. While Atlanta will never be Silicon Valley (and nor should it try), it is a good place to start and grow a business and it’s getting easier and better every single day. Many people took it upon themselves to solve some of the problems I outlined in my original post. They did all of this and they deserve all the credit.

Lots of places to go

Atlanta and Real-estate have always seemed to go hand-in-hand. Just looking at the landscape since 2008 — heck since 2014 — and you can see numerous new buildings that have been built or are being built around town. This, of course, has only compounded the traffic issues — but entrepreneurs certainly have more places to go to start their startup. There are no shortages of places to hang out and be with other like minded people across the greater Atlanta metropolitan area. Here’s just a few I visited:

ATDC — this location is the oldest and still probably at the top of the stack when it comes to premiere startup real estate and great startup advisors. ATDC is built in an area called TechSquare and is now fully matured as “the location” in mid-town for startups. It’s become the location by which a lot of businesses — both startups and large companies — have dropped anchor. In fact, recently NCR broke ground on a new global headquarters which they are building right next door to the ATDC building. ATDC currently also houses not only startups but has partnered with several large public companies such as Home Depot, Coca-Cola and Aetna to host their corporate innovation centers in their building and collaborate with ATDC. There are numerous programs around Georgia Tech such as Flashpoint that can help startups get going as well.

Anthem Innovation Studio at ATDC

Atlanta Tech Village (ATV) — ATV is certainly the “cool kid in town” and I mean that with all respect to David Cummings, the founder, and the ATV crew. It’s a combination of office space, event center and community space. There are literally like 2,000 startups in this 103K square foot place (nah, it just feels like that — it’s more like 250 or something like that). It feels the closest to an average startup building in Silicon Valley. You just feel like you’re building the next Pied Piper while you’re hanging out sipping latte at the Octane coffee bar.

Dude — scotter parking in the lobby? Whaaaat?
A quick side story about David. I met him when he was very young and just out of college and by then he already had a successful company named Hannon Hill, which he created Pardot out of. After a successful $100M exit with Pardot, David decided to take matters into his own hands and plowed millions of dollars of his own wealth and time into ATV and the resulting startup community around it. This is the “giving back” that I talked about in my first blog post — something that is not so rare here in Silicon Valley, but not as common in Atlanta. David is someone I admire and respect alot — and many people in Atlanta I’m sure do as well. David is following in the footsteps of many others such as John Imlay (RIP), Jeff Arnold and Chris Klaus. What’s great is that he’s young — so he should be around for a very long time.

The Flatiron — Did you know Atlanta created the first Flatiron building, not New York? (yeah, me neither). This place is one of the the coolest looking buildings in Atlanta — but a little impractical for real offices with it’s odd shapes and corners. But hey, who cares, it’s just a place to start a startup, right? The Flatiron building is probably the only building I toured that’s actually not owned by people entirely focused on startups — it’s owned by a real estate company. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s different. Nonetheless, it’s a great place to hang if you are in downtown Atlanta and want a hip place to work.

You too can share a desk made for lawyers with 6 other founders.

TechSquare Labs — OK, I gotta admit — my buds Allen Nance and Paul Judge are doing cool stuff at the Labs. Right across the street from ATDC (well played), they bought an old Office Depot building and renovated the 25k building to create an incubator, co-working space and seed fund. And both Allen and Paul know how to build companies — so not only can they help with space and funding, they have the connections and the experience to help shepherd their companies through the startup journey.

TechSquare Labs — it looks like a lab

And not only that, I gotta give props to Allen and Paul for partnering with Rodney Sampson and the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency to launch the Nation’s first one-year innovative coding and founders school for inner-city youth. This is a pretty exciting program and I’ve talked about it before (on twitter). Wanna do something about tech and diversity? Help support this program and one’s like it.

Learning to code Java at Techsquare Labs

Switchyard Downtown Club— My friends Michael Tavani and Dave Payne are behind the ‘yard — another cool space located in downtown Atlanta. These dudes went out an bought a 19K sq ft building (sound familiar?) and turned it in to consumer focused co-working space. If anyone can help with consumer and design-focused startups, it’s these two dudes. Dave and Michael were the co-founders of ScoutMob — definitely one of the coolest consumer app companies that came out of Atlanta.

How cool is it to be part of a Downtown Club? Sounds exclusive.
The tag line for Switchyards. And you can feel it.

So, there are other cool spaces like Strongbox West and NEX Atlanta and Prototype Prime which will launch soon in Peachtree Corners (and probably others I’m just not aware of, sorry) but we didn’t have a chance to tour them this trip. Heck, even Tech Stars has partnered with Cox to launch a new program.

My take away from visiting the various spaces and hearing from various startup founders is that Atlanta has definitely solved the problem of finding great places to co-work with other people and working with like-minded people on new ideas. Check.

The second thing that is really obvious is that there’s way more money flowing for early stage startups — from Chris Klaus and all his great work to the various programs in the city to entreprenuers like David Cummings, Paul Judge, Allen Nance, Sig Mosley and many many others. Check.

And Atlanta has continued to develop its deep sector expertise — continuing of course to go deeper in Security with companies like Ionic, Bastille Networks and Pindrop (not to mention Airwatch acquired by VMWare). As well as building out a large Marketing Tech sector with companies such as Mailchimp, Terminus, SalesLoft, CallRail, Silverpop (acquired by IBM), Pardot (acquired by ExactTarget and then Salesforce), Vitrue (acquired by Oracle) and more recent startups such as Springbot, Synapp.io, Social123 and Sideqik (just to name a few). Check.

So what’s missing?

Well, not much really. Atlanta will continue to need to hit more singles and doubles and a home run with the startups that are up to the plate. There’s plenty of quantity now — hopefully we’ll continue to see more quality as more startups start and fail and as some eventually continue to succeed.

At this point, Atlanta just needs to keep doing what it’s doing.

As we’ve seen with Ionic, Luma and others — great companies will continue to attract great (mostly out of town) investors and plenty of money.

Carry on. Heads down. Make sure you’re not “playing startup” — but you’re actually building something to last. Atlanta, ya’ll gonna be just fine.

Radiohead and Beyonce All Week Long. LOL

For my talk, I spoke about my startup lessons and a little bit about my journey. I’ve embedded the slides below. My talk with a heavily reduced version of my “Five things I will do different for my next startup” medium post.

Slides from my talk.