Are you ready for disruption? No, really.
Well, Atlanta is one example of a place doing things with a certain verve, a certain swing in its step, and a certain identity.
Within its roots lies reinvention. The city symbol, a phoenix, speaks soulfully to this.
Atlanta is a city famous for its tales of love, hip-hop, and housewives, but Atlanta is so much more. There is a rich ecosystem ablaze. Have you heard? It is the tale of more than 700 startups, 275,000 college students, and 100 tech acquisitions and IPOs.
It is the tale of successful entrepreneurs who have invested back into the same community that was the source of their success. It is the tale of entrepreneurs who share diverse backgrounds, race, gender, and ethnicity, but who all have the goal of building amazing companies that improve the lives of others.
It is the tale of a city considered an underdog in this space compared to major hubs such as Silicon Valley, New York City, and Boston, but one that has nonetheless found its voice and continues to find it. It is the tale of Atlanta, an emergent entrepreneurial hub.
Let’s begin with the end in mind. Stephen Covey.
Atlanta has seen the unicorn, many times actually. The fabled creature of lore has been sighted most often in Silicon Valley, but Atlanta, too, has had companies with exits valued at $1 billion+. According to a PandoDaily article from serial entrepreneur Paul Judge, notable Atlanta unicorns include AirWatch, acquired by VM Ware for $1.4 billion (2014), and Radiant Systems, acquired by NCR for $1.2 billion (2011). In 2015, Premier Global Services was also acquired by Siris Capital Group for $1 billion.
The city is also home to a number of startup success stories. MailChimp, of email marketing fame, bootstrapped their way to $400+ million by simplifying the process of email distribution. Kabbage, which provides direct lines of credit to small businesses, is a cauliflorous fintech unicorn currently valued at $1 billion+. Scoutmob, a rare B2C Atlanta success story, rose to prominence as a deals app that eliminated the cost for consumers, legitimately competing with sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial.
And these are just three examples of successful Atlanta startups. Maybe you’ve heard of them?
In addition, successful Atlanta-based entrepreneurs have started, scaled, and sold their own companies to invest back into the Atlanta community and nurture the next generation of startup founders. Reciprocity.
These groundbreaking entrepreneurs include David Cummings, who founded Atlanta Tech Village in 2012 after the acquisition of his bootstrapped marketing automation company, Pardot. After the $95 million exit, Cummings invested in Atlanta Tech Village, a 103,000 square foot hub for entrepreneurs. The space is the largest tech hub in the Southeast and the 4th largest in the United States. It boasts a roster of nearly 300 companies and more than 400 entrepreneur-focused events yearly.
“This opened the door so that people know that they don’t have to leave Atlanta to build a startup,” says Karen Haughton, Director of Atlanta Tech Village.
The next set of groundbreakers is Dr. Paul Judge and Allen Nance, who founded the hub TechSquare Labs after their success as serial entrepreneurs. Judge is a noted inventor with nearly 30 patents to his name and is the co-founder of Pindrop Security, as well as the founder of the wi-fi router company Luma. Judge was also named on the MIT Technology Review list of Top 100 young innovators worldwide in 2003. Allen Nance is the founder of WhatCounts, which he started from a rented room and grew into an international firm with targeted messages in more than 35 languages. He is also the co-founder of the e-commerce company Springbot.
TechSquare Labs serves as an incubator, co-working space, and seed to early stage fund. The studio prides itself on its inclusiveness and ability to “build something from nothing,” as its motto states. This Google for Entrepreneurs hub is a 25,000-square-foot space housed in a former Office Depot, a sign of the founders’ ability to disrupt a corporate entity with innovative ideas while building something from essentially nothing, a previously empty space.
“We take the companies that we invest in and constantly mentor, weekly or more in helping to create their businesses. We really want to strive to make sure they succeed,” says Daniel Sabio, Community Manager of TechSquare Labs, whose portfolio includes Ionic Security, Storj, Stackfolio, Fraudscope, and Insight Pool.
Michael Tavani is the lone B2C ranger of the group, but a visionary in terms of the nascent B2C movement in Atlanta. Tavani started the Switchyards Downtown Club after success with the digital deals site and app Scoutmob, which he founded along with fellow serial entrepreneur David Payne. Switchyards’ concept was borne of coffee shop talks with other local startup founders. “The original idea was if we could do a coffee shop where everyone was working on B2C startups so people could talk about brand or design,” says Tavani. The 19,000-square-foot space caters to B2C companies and houses designers, developers, founders, “all of the ingredients to produce really strong brands,” says Tavani.
Here are the benefits of starting a business in Atlanta:
Atlanta has also grown to include a number of coding schools which focus on a non-traditional educational path for programmers and developers. These schools include The Iron Yard, DigitalCrafts, and Tech Talent South.
“Our objective is to help figure out how these startups could win new corporate customers,” says Carie Davis, Executive Director of The Bridge Community: Atlanta. “We landed 9 pilots and proofs-of-concept. It required training on both sides. We helped corporations become more startup-friendly and we helped startups improve their enterprise sales approach including interviewing, storytelling and negotiations.”
“We were able to get our first large customer from The Bridge,” says Shawn Wilkinson, CEO of Storj, one of the participating startups in The Bridge Community: Atlanta. Storj improves how cloud storage is used through its community-driven, blockchain-as-a-service platform.
Mogean, which generates data from mobile phones using ambient geospatial technology, uses specialized predictive analytics to more accurately inform marketers about consumer preferences and lifestyle patterns. It was one of 10 startups selected for the Bridge program. “What an opportunity for an early stage tech startup,” says co-founder Nate Halsey, who once worked for Coke. “We got to work with executives with five global companies to jumpstart our business. Where else would we have gotten the opportunity?”
Well, definitely in Atlanta.
Additionally, the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a 15-month incubator for women entrepreneurs, was introduced by the now Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed. While on the campaign trail, he met a number of women entrepreneurs with home-based businesses and introduced this initiative, now as the city’s mayor, in support of these women. “When you have a local leader committed to that, the message that sends to entrepreneurs is that stewards of service are investing in what they’re doing. To have that level of commitment on a local level is not something that you see happen often,” says Theia Washington Smith, Executive Director of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative.
Atlanta has at least one more plus—diversity.
Atlanta is a city with many layers of a built-in diversity that makes for a multifaceted community of entrepreneurs. Let’s start with race.
“Atlanta is really leading the world in terms of inclusive innovation,” says Rodney Sampson, who leads Diversity & Inclusion at TechSquare Labs. He is also a Partner of TechSquare Labs, along with founders Paul Judge and Allen Nance.
The presence of minority-owned businesses is felt, seen, and heard in Atlanta with companies such as Techturized, founded by four black women engineers and graduates of Georgia Institute of Technology. Through the app Myavana, Techturized addresses the hair care needs of women of color.
Monsieur, whose CEO Barry Givens is also an alum of Georgia Tech, automates the bartending process. The automatic bartender can be found at Atlanta’s own SunTrust Park and other national arenas such as the home of the Indiana Pacers, Churchill Downs (of Kentucky Derby fame) and several Regal Cinemas locations across the United States.
Organizations such as TechLatino, with 15 chapters and 6,000 members across the United States and internationally, aim to develop tech professionals within the Hispanic community.
Atlanta is also home to The Big Innovation Center, a 12-week accelerator for black and Latina female startup founders. Another notable organization is Bantunium Labs, a non-profit accelerator focused on pre-revenue black-owned startups. Goodie Nation is a social impact pre-accelerator using an innovative process to help service underserved communities globally. And the VC firm Valor Ventures and young professionals club The Gathering Spot, together, host Startup Runway, a pitch series for minority founders.
Now for more diversity to the mix. Let’s just say, it’s what a girl wants, rather, what a girl needs—and that’s resources and opportunity.
Atlanta has a number of programs and initiatives focused primarily on women, who account for only 4% of business revenues in the United States.
Programs include LaunchPad 2X, a program founded by former military and corporate professional Bernie Dixon that works with women CEOs to provide the tools needed to succeed as business leaders. “We take them from everything from accounting to IP to learning about different business strategies such as negotiating,” says Sheyda Mehrara, Project Coordinator of LaunchPad2X and Executive Director of the angel investing organization Atlanta Technology Angels. Add to this list the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, mentioned previously, which, over the course of 15 months, provides guidance, mentorship, and educational workshops to 15 selected female entrepreneurs. And Ellevate Network is yet another resource. This international network of women aims to bring more women into the economic fold.
On another front, most likely warm, though sometimes with a chill, Atlanta is home to nearly 70 international consulates and trade organizations, from Albania to the United Kingdom.
Last but not least, Atlanta has also been named one of 15 TechHire cities by the White House. The initiative, through a partnership with TechSquare Labs, The Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, and The Iron Yard, aims to fill IT jobs with a qualified workforce through partnerships with community leaders and businesses. Ultimately, the initiative should bring many Atlanta residents from low income to the middle class, by way of tech.
Atlanta is a melting pot of individuals from different races, ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds, and a city which strives to improve the economic impact of women in entrepreneurship.
Atlanta is brimming with incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, and organizations with the goal of assisting entrepreneurs.
Both the major hubs of TechSquare Labs and Switchyards Downtown Club serve as incubators for a newer generation of entrepreneurs. Yet the incubator that brought the first wave of glory to Atlanta is Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC). It is about the age of the oldest Millennial. Founded in 1980, it is credited with being named in 2013 to Forbes’ list of Top 12 Incubators Changing the World. Also, 90% of startups that have graduated from the ATDC Signature program remain successful enterprises after five years. Obviously, this statistic bites its thumb at the general failure rate of 90% for technology startups. Why yes, it bites its thumb.
Accelerators include Atlanta Ventures, based at Atlanta Tech Village, through its partnership with Buckhead Investment Partners to provide portfolio companies access to the numerous resources of Atlanta Tech Village, such as co-working space, mentors, and educational programs.
Techstars Atlanta, which introduced its three-month accelerator program to Atlanta last year, is a standout program due to its global reach.
Out of over 1,000 applications across six continents, Techstars Atlanta, in partnership with Cox Enterprises, selected ten startups for the program. The program invested $120,000 into each company and provided mentorship opportunities, working with companies to help them scale quickly.
LaaSer, which provides location correction for 911 calls, was one of three Atlanta-based companies, four from Georgia total, to participate in the program. “Techstars has a motto of #GiveFirst, and all of the mentors embraced that, doing anything they could to help each of the companies out,” says LaaSer CEO Jon Harmer.
Tyler Scriven is the co-managing director of Techstars Atlanta. He previously worked for the data analytics company Palantir, based in Silicon Valley, before relocating to Atlanta. “Techstars’ presence in Atlanta probably has a very positive outside effect on the perception of the community and will hopefully get others to believe that this is a great place to build a company,” says Scriven, who spearheads the accelerator with managing director Michael Cohn.
SharedSpace, the presence of almost 30 co-working spaces suggests a need for workspace due to the demand for it.
“The Elevator Factory tries to hit home with wellness and the individual—work is better when you have all things considered,” says Christopher Wood, Partner and Director of the Elevator Factory, which also hosts regular events on a variety of topics from neuroscience to personality to art.
In addition, many organizations exist to further develop this community. Startup Atlanta is a membership-driven organization with the goal of growing and connecting Atlanta’s entrepreneurial community. ChooseATL promotes the city of Atlanta as a place to live, work, and start a company and is aimed primarily at Millennials. The Technology Association of Georgia (TAG), with over 30,000 members, unites the statewide technology community.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, a founding member of Startup Atlanta, connects Atlanta business leaders with one another and has also partnered with TAG on the annual business launch competition, called Biz Launch, for early-stage companies.
Venture capital funding is one area where Atlanta has room for improvement.
“There’s very little local funding, but it’s super easy to raise capital once the startup has traction,” notes entrepreneur David Cummings.
Traditionally, venture capital funding in Atlanta has been conservative, with a focus on later stage ventures or ideas that are considered immediate wins. And smaller industries such as life sciences lack established funds altogether.
“A great idea will get funded. A good idea might not get funded,” notes Sig Mosley regarding Atlanta’s venture capital landscape. Mosley is the Managing Partner of Atlanta-based Mosley Ventures and invests in early stage tech companies in the Southeast. A prolific investor, Mosley has invested in 122 startups.
Despite the wanting landscape, Atlanta has started to dance to a new beat as a new wave of entrepreneurs who have built successful companies are putting their money where the innovative ideas are.
“You’re seeing these pockets of people that have been successful and have been Atlanta-based. They want to make their returns, and they see that it’s here. Fast-forward a year, and we’re going to see this unfold as more and more companies getting funded,” says Lauren Weiniger, Founder and CEO of Growth City Partners, a partnership model which aims to connect Atlanta entrepreneurs, investors, and influencers.
Weiniger is referring to funds such as TechSquare Capital of TechSquare Labs and Judge Ventures developed by serial entrepreneur Paul Judge.
Valor Ventures, started by Lisa Calhoun after success with her Atlanta-based marketing agency Write2Market, is another example of an entrepreneur giving back to the Atlanta community. Entrepreneur David Cummings is an investor in this VC firm.
Other power players in venture capital include CTW Venture Partners, Fulcrum Equity Partners, Atlanta Technology Angels, Valor Ventures, Tech Operators, Noro-Moseley Partners, and the Georgia Research Alliance, for research-based entrepreneurship.
“We invest in the seed to Series A stage,” says Raj Palaniswamy, Founder and Managing Partner of CTW Venture Partners. “We like to be the first investor in the company and partner with the technologist.”
One of the highlights of the venture capital space is Venture Atlanta, an annual conference where 30 companies from hundreds of submissions are selected to pitch to investors. “They receive marketing, PR support, and invaluable coaching from CEOs and investors to help them refine their pitch and value proposition. Also, at the conference, we help facilitate one-on-one meetings between companies and investors,” says Allyson Eman, Executive Director of Venture Atlanta.
Venture Atlanta has helped to launch more than 350 startups and helped companies to secure more than $1.8 billion in funding.
Roadie is the first on-the-way delivery network, connecting people who have items to send with drivers already heading that way. The Atlanta-based startup pitched at Venture Atlanta in 2015 and most recently raised $15 million in Series B funding. Launched in 2015 by Marc Gorlin (also a co-founder of Kabbage), Roadie takes its namesake from Gorlin’s love of the music world, where “roadies” would safely deliver equipment for musicians from one gig to the next.
Senders can send anything big or small, even pets, through the company’s on-the-way network. For some, Gigs (aka deliveries) have been life-saving. This past Thanksgiving, for instance, Chau in Atlanta heard that a family friend had passed and the friend’s two Westies had been taken to a kill shelter in Florida. Desperate to rescue the dogs before they were put down, Chau posted a Gig on Roadie. Within two days, Roadie picked up and delivered the two Westies to Chau’s home in Atlanta safe and sound.
In sum, events such as Venture Atlanta and the emergence of Atlanta-based entrepreneurial success stories are helping to turn the tide of the landscape of venture capital funding, which has been more risk-averse relative to major entrepreneurial hubs.
Ten startups across sectors competed last February at the Atlanta TechCrunch Meetup+Pitchoff, and SwatchPop!, a B2C company with the goal of solving interior design problems in three days, rose victorious. As first place winners, they were awarded a booth in Startup Alley in TechCrunch Disrupt NY.
They carried the proverbial torch, from Atlanta to New York. “We were really proud to represent the Southeast, especially as a consumer based startup, which tends to get overlooked here in Atlanta. TechCrunch Disrupt was an incredible experience. We pitched non-stop to the press, investors, and other startups,” say Kristen Yonson and Jessica McRae, co-founders of SwatchPop!.
But the story doesn’t end there. Though only one first place winner was named, all of the companies that competed in the Atlanta TechCrunch Meetup+Pitchoff that evening are a part of Atlanta’s burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem and illustrate the variety of sectors within it.
Companies represented that night included those in fintech (Trust Stamp, MyLumper, Crash Calculator), health (Diascan, Spun Utensils), cybersecurity (Curricula), fashion (Fittery, reKindness), and media (NearbyNewz).
Take the fintech startup Trust Stamp, which belongs to the sector where Georgia ranks #1. Not only does Georgia process 70% of all credit card transactions worldwide, but the state’s top 50 financial technology companies are responsible for $72 billion in annual revenue, behind only New York and California. Georgia has earned the nickname “Transaction Alley” for the leading role it plays in fintech.
Trust Stamp CEO Andrew Gowaseck values the presence of so many fintech leaders in Georgia. “Even if they don’t become strategic partners,” he says, “they can become mentors and offer very valuable advice.”
Kabbage is a locally-based fintech leader that works with entrepreneurs such as Gowaseck with young startups, illustrating a community-driven ecosystem. “Rob and I are very active with other entrepreneurs, being involved in organizations such as Venture Atlanta and TAG [Technology Association of Georgia],” says Kabbage co-founder Kathryn Petralia, who along with co-founder Rob Frohwein, also served as mentors for Techstars Atlanta.
Georgia also leads in cyber security and produces 25% of worldwide revenue in the security market. Nearly 100 cyber security companies are based in Atlanta.
It is against this backdrop that Nick Santora founded Curricula, a cyber security education company. Curricula delivers short, animated stories with episodes portraying characters actually getting hacked. He used the knowledge gained from his experience at last year’s TechCrunch pitch-off to fine-tune the company’s mission. “We teach companies how to not get hacked,” he says.
Authomate, a cyber security company that is part of the start-up security ecosystem here in Atlanta and also participated in The Bridge by Coca-Cola, improves the password authentication process. “With the massive amount of mega breaches that have happened over the past two years, and nearly 2 billion passwords that sit on the darknet, Authomate brings a way to protect credentials and bring a massive amount of convenience that protects the end user,” says Jeff Schmidt, CEO.
Atlanta has a robust health sector which includes four research universities, medical schools such as the Emory School of Medicine and Morehouse School of Medicine, and hospitals including Emory University Hospital, Grady Memorial Hospital, and the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. It is also the headquarters for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“With Grady, Emory, cancer institutes, and the CDC, Georgia is huge for health,” says Sanjit Kumar, CEO of the health tech startup DiaScan, which competed in last year’s TechCrunch Pitch-off. The health tech startup Spun Utensils, founded by CEO Umar Bakhsh, pitched at the event as well.
It is against this health backdrop that Dr. Lucie Ide, CEO of Rimidi, was inspired to develop Rimidi’s proprietary diabetes management app Diabetes+Me. Of the 30 million children and adults in the United States living with diabetes, 1 million of them live in Georgia.
“I am from Atlanta, grew up here, went to medical school here. The impact and prevalence of diabetes in Georgia was a big part of my medical training at Grady and Emory. Seeing the impact that poorly managed diabetes has on people’s lives, and knowing that much of that suffering was avoidable, was impactful to me,” says Ide.
Fashion tech is one sector with “less of a network,” according to Catherine Iger, CEO of Fittery, but a sector that is growing. Companies include the e-thrifting-as-social enterprise app reKindness, founded by CEO Melanie Kovach, and Fittery, an e-commerce site that works with companies to find clothes that fit to a person’s size and shape. In addition, the ATL Fashion Tech Collective, started by fashion tech enthusiast Okey Nwoke, connects Atlanta’s fashion and technology communities through regular events.
Media and technology are also smitten with the startup NearbyNewz, which allows people to share and connect with news no matter where you are. “The problem we’re out to solve is how can we connect local information and local users using smartphones?” says Randy Davis, co-founder of NearbyNewz. The site will have its beta launch in the next week.
UrbanGeekz is an Atlanta-based video-centric African American, Latino, and multicultural digital news platform focused on technology, science, business, and entrepreneurship, according to the company’s literature. “The Atlanta tech scene is blossoming with vibrant entrepreneurial activity,” says UrbanGeekz founder and CEO, Kunbi Tinuoye.
Hypepotamus is the leading technology and startup publication in the city and connects entrepreneurs to local news and job openings within the Atlanta entrepreneurial community. “We aim to both highlight and grow the flourishing entrepreneur community here,” says Holly Beilin, Editor-in-Chief.
Atlanta is also a great city for social entrepreneurs with a budding support system that includes connector organizations like Center for Civic Innovation and Plywood People, and impact investing firms like Gray Ghost Ventures and ACE Loans.
“Social innovation is often the leading solution to Atlanta’s most pressing problems. From developing sustainable food systems to creating jobs for refugees, and lifting people out of chronic homelessness it’s social entrepreneurs who lead the way, and we hope to add to their numbers by exposing students to the entrepreneurial process in and outside the classroom,” says Dori Pap, Assistant Director of the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship in the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech.
Atlanta has a rich entrepreneurial ecosystem, and one can’t help but to think that it’s only the beginning. It is a city that sits on the brink of an entrepreneurial renaissance, perched and ready to fly.
And now, a few parting words.
M. Cole Jones, co-founder of covello, had this to say about the role Atlanta has played in building his collaborative growth startup:
“Atlanta has given me access to key decision makers and companies large and small to help understand what it means to define and implement corporate innovation and how to work with companies to create an economic impact larger than one’s self.”
covello’s clients include Harman Kardon, JBL Audio, and Snapchat.
Aaron Hillegass, CEO of Big Nerd Ranch, an Atlanta-based app development and design consultancy and training company, had this to say about the benefits of working in Atlanta’s tech scene:
“Silicon Valley does not have a monopoly on money or talent. Sustainable entrepreneurship requires people with a deep understanding of real problems, enough education to create a solution to that problem, and enough money to get that solution to market. Atlanta has all these things, while also offering a low cost of living and diversity in terms of race, income, and education.”
Clients of Big Nerd Ranch include Facebook, Spotify, and Airbnb.
Sam Adams is the Manager of Innovation for Invest Atlanta, which aims to strengthen Atlanta’s economy and competitiveness around the globe. He speaks of the revolution of sorts that simmers:
“There is an incredible buzz throughout the community about how much we are gaining momentum. The community is fairly tight knit and actively pulling for everyone to be successful, as a win for one of us is a win for all of us.”
In sum, there’s more than meets the eye for a city whose legacy is emblazoned by its Civil War history, key role played in the Civil Rights Movement, hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, and now leading role in the entertainment industry.
Entrepreneurship is next, and now, for this city of many faces. Welcome to Atlanta.
Main Image: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed at the TechSquare Labs and Google for Entrepreneurs VIP reception to celebrate the partnership between TSL and the tech giant
Obinna Morton is the Owner of Turns of Phrase, a writing services company. She works with the Technology Association of Georgia, Allied Logistics, Digital Ignition, covello, and Bantunium Labs. She has also been published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Women In Business, and Business.com.