The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

Every few months or so, various Atlanta startup thought leaders are corralled together on a panel or round-table to discuss what can be done to improve our startup ecosystem.  Invariably, the outcome is the same: a regurgitated list of things we already know all too well.

Examples:

Undoubtedly, we all want the Atlanta startup ecosystem to improve (or continue to improve, as I believe is the case).   But for the past few years,  there have been two distinct threads running in parallel.

The first thread is what I described above:  the onslaught of panels, round-table discussions, and speaker events where we continue to beat dead horses. Everyone is searching for the answer – the silver bullet.  And as should be evident by now to all of us – that doesn’t exist.  There is no panacea.  There is no succinct list of things that “if we only did this or that”, we’d be in business.  Lists don’t move the needle.

The second thread, is a veritable tidal wave of radical ideas and new ways of thinking.  And just as history repeatedly tells us, those things move the needle. And that is what I want to talk about in this post.

What I am about to say is going to run counter to many of the things I’ve said or published in the past.  I don’t have a problem with this – I think it  is very healthy, in fact.  As with many startups, here at StarPound, we challenge the ideas of our colleagues each and every day – none of us is the smartest person in the room.  I’d like to think that is a valuable trait of any initiative (startup or otherwise).

When I sold my last business a few years ago (2005) and came up for air, I fell into the trap of saying “hey, there isn’t enough venture capital money in Atlanta.”  That progressed to the position that for some reason or another, it was the fault of the venture capital firms here.   Thankfully, I’ve evolved beyond that narrow thinking.

About 7 or 8 months ago, Mike Blake and I presented our concept of the Atlanta Startup Cloud during a special session of the Atlanta Web Entrepreneurs meetup.  In that presentation, we put forth several ideas.  Chief among them was that we went from a deafening silence to a cacophony of shouts here in the startup community.  In our view, there was too much noise in the community, and we proposed some ways to provide an umbrella for all of it.  I shelved that idea a few weeks later – not because I thought it was a bad idea at the time, but because it seemed to me, at least, that the rebirth of the ATDC was attempting to do a similar thing, so why duplicate effort?

But my thinking has evolved again.  A single umbrella organization or launchpad isn’t the right answer either.  So what is?

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

The answer …. is right in front of us.  And if you don’t see it, you are quite possibly part of the problem, and not the solution.

What follows in this post is a fairly unfiltered series of thoughts that I’ve had for the past few weeks.

A Marketplace of Ideas – the Social Media Revolution

Silver bullets do not exist for many challenges in life.  The evolution of any community, startup or otherwise,  requires a marketplace of ideas.  No single idea, group, or cause can move the needle alone. But things have changed – and continue to evolve.  Why?

I’ve said this a hundred times before, and I’ll say it again.  Without the advent and adoption of social media, we likely wouldn’t have any sort of tangible startup ecosystem here at all.  The social media revolution empowered the Atlanta startup community and gave us a much-needed “collective voice.”  In the immortal words of Margaret Mead:

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Blogs gave us the ability to not only play the role of citizen journalists, but also the ability to facilitate an ongoing dialog.  Twitter, a tool that I once shat all over, gave us the power to communicate in real-time, overcoming geography and time.    We could now participate in our own marketplace of ideas, unimpeded by legacy stakeholders, traditional media, and bits of stale culture that kept us back.

Social media gave us something that we desperately needed – a vehicle for the conveyance of new ideas, and a way to challenge those ideas.  The end result is a powerful example of group think.  Things like Startuplounge, Startup Riot, Startup Chicks, Shotput Ventures, Startup Gauntlet, Techdrawl, Startup Drinks, and the newly reborn ATDC, would simply not exist had it not been for the mass adoption of social media by the startup community here.  We wouldn’t have cool startup co-working facilities like Ignition Alley, 151 Locust, and others popping up all over town.  We wouldn’t have much of anything.

Remember WifiCat from Startup Riot 2009?  Remember what I said at the end of that presentation?  It was the prolific use of social media that enabled us to pull off that joke.  The fact that we were able to do so told me, at least, that we actually had a startup community in Atlanta now. We couldn’t have done it otherwise.

Even Urvaksh, the technology & startup beat writer for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, is engaged through social media.  And whether you like his ideas or approach, or loathe them, it is a cool thing.  Everyone has, and should have, a voice.  And we do. And voices move the needle.

In fact, there is a great story that you may recall about fifty six men that sat around and bantered about what freedom meant, and what it would take to attain it.  Radical ideas combined with passion gets the needle moving.

“Washing the Mountain into the Sea …”

The flow of water in a stream can be a powerful force.  Simple physics, really, but powerful nonetheless.  If a rock lies in the stream, water will simply flow around it.  Eventually, the rock will erode until it no longer impedes the flow of water at all.

There were certain individuals and groups in Atlanta that missed the boat when it came to becoming engaged within the social media discussion.  By not engaging (for the right reasons, or not at all), they made themselves largely irrelevant.

Case in point, and I’ll go ahead and say it here, because no one else will, despite everyone of you agreeing with me in private.  Look at the Atlanta Technology Angels.  The prior administration did not seemingly truly engage in this new movement, or the social dialog.  Sorry, but sitting on panels, while no doubt informative, doesn’t constitute engagement within the community.  It got to the point where many entrepreneurs simply did not view them as a relevant stakeholder within the community (hindering deal flow).  In many cases, the ATA became the “funder of last resort” in the eyes of many entrepreneurs here.  And no, this does not come just from companies that got rejected by the ATA.  The end result, was that the water learned to flow around the rock.

But that has changed – there is redemption.  Gordon Rogers, the new incoming ATA President, has done an amazing job in a very short period of time in engaging the community – listening, and reacting.  And contributing unique ideas himself.  And giving his time to those that can benefit from it.  The ATA is relevant again, and that’s a very good thing. The ATA has helped moved the needle.

And speaking of giving time …

One of the issues that we have historically lamented here in Atlanta is the fact that many successful entrepreneurs don’t “give back” to the community by serving as mentors and advisors to the next generation of entrepreneurs.  In my view, while this hasn’t completely been turned around, I think we are well on our way.

Case in point.  A few months back, Chris Hanks and I were fiddling around with the idea of having a “pitch-off” competition between UGA and Georgia Tech.  The first event was held a week before the UGA/Georgia Tech football game – fitting!  We were very diligent in trying to identify judges that would not be biased either way – which proved to be a very difficult challenge.

I reached out to two guys in particular that I thought fit the bill – Warren Bare (Headhunter/Careerbuilder) and Mitch Free (MFG.com).  Within minutes of sending the email, both of them not only agreed to do it, but also let me know why they were doing it.   These two (and they aren’t the only ones) embodied the sense of community spirit that we need.  In fact, just before the first pitch started, I leaned over to Mitch and said “hey, thanks for coming and helping out with this, I really appreciate it.”  His response?  “Hey man, the community calls and I come!”  What’s not to love?

Gangs of Five are cropping up all over town.  Investors are becoming more engaged (@Unblakeable is working on a companion post that will go into this in more detail).  More and more successful entrepreneurs are getting back in (e.g. Shotput Ventures).  There is a veritable army of people within the Atlanta startup community that are ready to advise, mentor, coach,  and help an entrepreneur make critical connections.  Bingo.

Yes, we need more folks like Mitch and Warren, but this problem has been diminished greatly over the past couple of years.  Why?  Social media.  They are engaged within the larger dialog – they are plugged in – and they want to help make a difference.  The needle moves again.

Event overload?  I don’t think so.

There was a lot of hubbub recently (here and here) about so-called “event overload” in Atlanta.  Yes, there are now cool meetups, events, and groups popping up all over town. And yes, at times, it can seem to be a bit much.  But guess what, folks?   That’s a good thing.  You don’t go from dying of thirst to drinking from a firehose without saying “WTF?”  But I would call that progress.

Why is it a good thing? These meetups, groups, and events spawn new ideas and new ways of thinking.  And those ideas will eventually get challenged.  And the needle will move again. Rinse and repeat – the needle will keep moving.

Can I go to every event that I am either invited to attend, or want to attend?  Absolutely not.  I have a day job, several non-profit efforts that I’m involved in, oh, and my wife and two kids.  But … cluebell here.  I don’t have to go to every event.  But I like having options. It wasn’t so awful long ago that the only events in town for entrepreneurs were held by service providers and the establishment.   Some of these were (and still are) good intentioned – but again, there was no moving of the needle.

We wanted a vibrant ecosystem here in Atlanta, and guess what, folks?  It’s here now.

There has been a seismic shift in the nature of these social opportunities in Atlanta.

Most of the new organizations that have sprung up are non-profit, all-volunteer, grass-roots organizations where the organizers not only do not get paid, they do well not to lose money.  Most of the new opportunities do not have speakers (remember how much we hated speaker-driven events?)

Most of the new social opportunities vigilantly exclude or limit service provider involvement so that meaningful conversations can take place.  There are real competitors to the service-provider-dry-hump-fests of old (nod to @Unblakeable for that one).

As a result, real entrepreneurs and real investors are attending and that flow has increased steadily over time.  Institutional investors, notably the ATA and Noro-Moseley, are actively reaching out.  You may argue with the methods by which they do so at this point, but the fact they give a damn is incredibly encouraging.  And we need that.

All these things indicate that the new ecosystem is here.  It’s not fully baked yet – that’s years away.  But it’s in the oven and cooking along quite nicely, thank you.

A year from now, many of the things we see now will have fallen by the wayside.  And new ones will have taken their place.  That’s a good thing.  But ideas need to have an opportunity to flourish.  That’s called innovating.  Iteration is important. The only thing that moves the needle is the community – and in this case, the community is the market – not a group, person, or single idea.  Listen to the market – it will tell you everything you want to know.

Improvise, adapt, & overcome

We had a saying in the military – one that predated my service, and one that still exists today.  Improvise, adapt, overcome. In the face of a dynamically changing battle space, military leaders on the ground have no choice but to evaluate their assets constantly, and make critical decisions not necessarily knowing what the next milestone or outcome will be.  Smart entrepreneurs do the same thing.  It’s called bootstrapping.  It’s called being nimble.  It’s called … well, being entrepreneurial!

So, you think there isn’t enough true early-stage venture capital money in Atlanta?  So what? Who gives a shit?  Stop whining and start executing for the love of Pete (whoever that is). Good deals, should they require it, can get funded. We all know this – this isn’t profound news.

Let me lead you through a concise version of the evolution of our StartupLounge philosophy over the past nearly four years:

Again, it’s not about the money.  As an illustration, consider our upcoming StartupLounge event on March 4th.  We are making a ton of changes.  “CapitalLounge” is being renamed to simply “StartupLounge Atlanta”. There will be fewer attendees, but higher quality deals – ones that show traction, passion, and commitment on the part of the founders.  No more colored name badges – who cares who you are talking to at the event?  You aren’t there to get funding – you are there to hang out with like-minded people who care about early-stage companies (for a variety of reasons).  To make connections.  To help each other. To have fun with startups.  To consume copious amounts of adult beverages. And so on.  That’s what it is all about.

All of us, whether in our entrepreneurial endeavors or non-profit/community activities, have to be open to change, and open to being challenged (one of the many reasons I love things like PitchCamp and Startup Gauntlet).  And if you become irrelevant in the process, so what?  Evolve.  Re-invent yourself.  Find another way to contribute, or try and solve a different problem. Do your part to keep the needle moving.

Sig is retiring!! OMFG! What are we going to do?!?!?!?

Nothing.  Sig Mosley’s financial presence will no doubt be missed by us all.  Besides being a great guy, Sig is a legend, as is John Imlay.  But guess what?  The market will fill the void, just as it always has.  It isn’t the end of the world, because as I’ve said already here, it isn’t about one guy, one idea, etc.  Think Shotput Ventures & Tech Operators.  Ashish Mistry announced last night to a roomful of people that he was involved in a new fund.  There will be others.

Build successful companies and have some exits, and everything else will  just happen.  Trust me.

The needle is moving.

But all of our smart people are leaving!!!! OMFG!!

Whatever.

Sorry, but at this point, I have to question the alleged brilliance of “smart” people that leave Atlanta because they couldn’t get their idea off the ground here.

If you are a guy like Jeff Haynie (Appcelerator), and you raise a round of capital outside the state, and move the company thereafter – great!  I’m not talking about situations like that. Appcelerator had close to (if not more than) $1M in revenues before they raised their round and relocated.  That’s called execution.  That example is a perfect template of how to execute.  Traction. Traction. Traction.  And whatever happens, happens.

And I’m not talking about folks like Russell Jurney, who moved to Silicon Valley to expand his views on startups.  Again, different story – Russel took a great opportunity with Ning – he didn’t go there because he “couldn’t raise money here and everything in Atlanta sucks, and I’m sure they will love my idea in California.”

But, if your business plan is basically “I need to raise money for my idea”, you are most likely going to fail anyway, and spending the money to relocate is simply going to get you to your point of failure faster.  Frankly, if that is your path, and your advisors can’t convince you otherwise – I’d actually prefer that you move away from Atlanta.  That way, you can be a burden to some other city’s ecosystem.

If you execute, and do whatever it takes to get your company off the ground (drive value – financial or otherwise), you don’t have to leave Atlanta.  It’s as simple as that.  Atlanta is full of successful companies that didn’t have to leave to get off the ground – the founders just dug in and kept chopping wood (e.g. MFG.com).  Was it hard?  Sure.  But it’s hard everywhere – trust me.

So ….

This is more of a personal statement than anything else, but I am done sitting on panels to talk about what is wrong with Atlanta.  No more task forces, panels, and round-tables for me.  I fundamentally don’t believe anything is wrong at this point – we have gotten what we asked for. I am out of the “lists of things we can do better” and “10 step plans” business.  No more talking about how we get more investors to open up offices here, how we close the funding gap, and how do we get successful entrepreneurs re-engaged.  Those things will either happen on their own, as a by product of the movement, or they won’t.

Instead, I want to talk about innovation, startup strategies, business models, bootstrapping tactics, and ways to help others succeed.  And you should, too.

After all, that’s how we’ve already moved the needle. And that’s how we’ll continue to do so – together as a community.  Anything beyond that is gravy.

Cheers.

9 Comments

  1. Preach it brother! Well said. It’s time to get our skin in the game and get junk done. Many of the concepts of the Startup Cloud need to happen and there are lots of smart folks around to pull it off. We are all going to ruffle some feathers, make some enemies and make some great friends along the way. If people don’t like what they are seeing, do something about it. Enough whining, talking and moping around. The real proof is in the pudding. Let’s spend our time making great businesses and demonstrating success. No better way to squelch out the noise.

  2. a long read but worth it. i could not agree more with what was said in the post and in randys comment. i will add though that there are still some scattered groups and people that are hanging on to the old ways of being a silo and not really being a part of the new community here, but as you said it doesnt matter if they come around or not at this point.

  3. Thanks Scott for the great post. Part of creating a startup culture is helping each other succeed and actually build great businesses. I propose that those of us who create events and mentor the community should shift our focus to more of the nuts-and-bolts of building startups in 2010.

  4. amen, Burkett. amen.

  5. Excellent! (nothing more to say.)

  6. Pingback: Sustaining Start-Ups: How the Local Business Structure Impacts Growing Companies « Rambling Tech

  7. I believe that the best part of all of this is the number of conversations that have started and continued. Some may say/think that all of this chatter is keeping us from getting ‘real work’ done, but I would not agree.

    Whether you’re a Fortune 1000 company or a couple of guys in a garage, or basement or down at Ignition Alley – the business of business is relationships. Those relationships do not happen in a vacuum. They happen when like minded people meet, dialog, and connect (find a common interest or purpose).

    With the exception of a few people, groups and organizations, I have found that Atlanta’s technology and startup communities are not very well connected – not as well connected as they could/should be. And I am not alone in that opinion.
    Last year Dan Breznitz presented the results of his study the ‘communal roots of entrepreneurial-technological growth’. The study showed that the leaders (board members and C-level/SPV exces) of the Atlanta’s technology companies are not well connected. The leaders had few, if any, significant business, personal, fraternal relationships with leaders in other organizations. And this included local ‘technology’ law firms/lawyers and venture/angle capital firms.
    The key premise of the study/presentation (and much of the questions and discussions) was that ‘unless a local high-technology industry develops rich multiple, locally centered social networks (which embed companies in the region) [technology] cluster development will stagnate’. Furthermore, those factors are more important to the development and growth of technology clusters than ‘factor availability’ such as the supply of highly educated labor, availability of capital, infrastructures and environment.
    You may not completely agree with the conclusions of Dan’s work, but his premise and argumentation were compelling.

    I do agree with the observations that have been made by Lance, Paul and others that we need to focus on “things like creating products, getting customers, and building companies” and on “the nuts and bolts of building startups”.
    However, when we have our sleeves rolled up, our heads down and are burning the midnight oil we need to bear in mind that the success of our endeavors depends as much on the wise cultivation and utilization of our personal and business relationship as it does on our own creativity, ingenuity and industriousness.

  8. I believe that the best part of all of this is the number of conversations that have started and continued. Some may say/think that all of this chatter is keeping us from getting ‘real work’ done, but I would not agree.

    Whether you’re a Fortune 1000 company or a couple of guys in a garage, or basement or down at Ignition Alley – the business of business is relationships. Those relationships do not happen in a vacuum. They happen when like minded people meet, dialog, and connect (find a common interest or purpose).

    With the exception of a few people, groups and organizations, I have found that Atlanta’s technology and startup communities are not very well connected – not as well connected as they could/should be. And I am not alone in that opinion.
    Last year Dan Breznitz presented the results of his study the ‘communal roots of entrepreneurial-technological growth’. The study showed that the leaders (board members and C-level/SPV exces) of the Atlanta’s technology companies are not well connected. The leaders had few, if any, significant business, personal, fraternal relationships with leaders in other organizations. And this included local ‘technology’ law firms/lawyers and venture/angle capital firms.
    The key premise of the study/presentation (and much of the questions and discussions) was that ‘unless a local high-technology industry develops rich multiple, locally centered social networks (which embed companies in the region) [technology] cluster development will stagnate’. Furthermore, those factors are more important to the development and growth of technology clusters than ‘factor availability’ such as the supply of highly educated labor, availability of capital, infrastructures and environment.
    You may not completely agree with the conclusions of Dan’s work, but his premise and argumentation were compelling.

    I do agree with the observations that have been made by Lance, Paul and others that we need to focus on “things like creating products, getting customers, and building companies” and on “the nuts and bolts of building startups”.
    However, when we have our sleeves rolled up, our heads down and are burning the midnight oil we need to bear in mind that the success of our endeavors depends as much on the wise cultivation and utilization of our personal and business relationship as it does on our own creativity, ingenuity and industriousness.

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