With sincerest apologies to John Mayer. It appears that I was perhaps a bit more optimistic than I should have been in my recent article on why 2006 would be a great year for doing business in Georgia. According to the latest “Money Tree” report published by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2005 was an atrocious year for the venture capital market in Georgia. I sat down with a handful of Atlanta venture capitalists and asked them the obvious question. Why?
Before we get started, it is important that I point out that the focus of this piece is on new venture growth, and not investments made by existing firms, or firms that are relocating to Atlanta. I should also point out that given the scope and length of this piece, I started writing it in early February, and am just getting around to publishing it (shame on me).
First, let’s examine the facts. For calendar year 2005, Georgia companies raised around $261M, which is roughly half of what was raised in the previous year (2004 – $584M). While to some, that may sound like a lot of money, it isn’t. To put this into perspective, The Coca Cola Company, one of Georgia’s largest firms, posted nearly $5B in profit during that same period. The Gartner Group does approximately $250M in events each year. Yes, that’s right, Virginia. The Gartner Group made more cash from their events last year than all of the venture money that flowed into Georgia startup companies combined. Disappointing, isn’t it?
Now, let’s see how Georgia fits into the larger, macro picture. Surely, with such poor results for 2005 in Georgia, the rest of the country must also be suffering in the venture capital famine, right? Wrong. Way wrong. According to VentureOne, a unit of Dow Jones, U.S. venture capital firms raised $22.16 billion in 2005, up 19% from 2004, when firms raised $18.6 billion. In fact, venture capitalists haven’t raised that much money since the $50.19 billion secured in 2001. So, by all accounts, 2005 was a decent year for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs – just not the ones in Georgia.
According to a recent report by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, patents awarded to Georgia based inventors and companies was down for a third straight year. Some folks, such as Bryan Bockhop, a patent attorney with Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, say they expected this, due to the roughly three year lag in the time it takes for a patent to be approved (according to a recent article by the Atlanta Business Chronicle). This would explain the horrible year we had in 2002 or so. However, the trend is still there. We’ll have to wait another full year to see if he’s right. He could be – I hope he is.
As much as I’d love to sit here and blame someone or something else, such as Alan Greenspan and the Fed, foreign players such as China and India, or the guy who does Arthur Blank’s dry cleaning, I’m gonna have to bring the argument a little closer to home.
Now, I could be passé, and throw out the now stale debate about the lack of local venture money. This certainly has historically been considered a detriment to local economy. However, when you also consider that the vast majority of the investments in Georgia-based startup companies actually comes from outside the state, this takes on a less important role.
Case in point, consider the announcement from a few days ago where Norcross, Georgia based Financial Asset Management Systems (FAMS), a provider of debt collection services, raised a tasty $98M round from American Capital, a Maryland-based investment firm. Here is a firm that is headquartered in Atlanta, has 500 employees, and plans to add another 200 employees over the next year, yet no Georgia-based capital was involved. Another point of perspective: American Capital has invested over $312M year-to-date (2 full months). This is $51M more than was invested in all of Georgia last year.
Sure, we’d all love for Georgia companies to raise capital from local investors, but in this day and age, it really isn’t important. What is important, however, is actually raising some capital to begin with, irrespective of where the money originates. Capital’s point of origin is merely a footnote in the ledger – what matters most is where it is deployed – as that is what stimulates local job growth.
Over the past few weeks, I spoke candidly with a handful of Atlanta-area venture capitalists about this issue. This article is largely based on the conversations that I had with them. Out of courtesy to them, and in order to obtain relatively unbiased opinions, I told them openly, up front, that their names would not be used (so the names mentioned below have been changed).
John: The Veteran
Eager to get to the bottom of things, I first sat down over a cup of coffee with John, a prominent Atlanta venture capitalist. He laid it out to me in no uncertain terms: “I am looking outside of Atlanta now for investment opportunities.” Naturally, I asked him “why?”
In his view, Atlanta has its head down still – its proverbial tail stuck betwixt its legs. Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past 4 or 5 years, you will recall that the Atlanta market was one of the hardest hit cities during the bursting of ye olde digital bubble. Atlanta was, in his view, and still is, a one trick pony. Investors here are still largely thinking about technology, although they aren’t really investing in much of that either. The investment community here seems to be all bunched up at the front of the line, staring endlessly on the horizon patiently looking for the next Google to come along. All the while, their collective financial resources are gathering dust down on Peachtree Street. This is inherently, and obviously, faulty logic, in his estimation. Since venture capitalists rarely dance alone, and seeing as how no one else feels much like dancing, he is taking his cash elsewhere.
Additionally, he added that if he were an Atlanta-based entrepreneur, he would not begin his search for capital in Atlanta. And before you entrepreneurs start jumping up and down for joy, according to John, you aren’t necessarily coming up with a flood of innovative, sustainable ideas to stoke the Georgia business fires either.
“So how do we fix this?”, I asked?
Education. We need to educate (or re-educate, as the case may be) the investor community, as well as the entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs need to get beyond just trying to focus on technology plays, and investors need to expand their views as well.
I met up with Richard, another Atlanta-area venture capitalist, at an evening event a few weeks back. Richard is relatively new to the Atlanta area, so I thought his views would be of particular interest, given that he has not been as close to this thing as some of the others. When I posed the same questions to him, he fired back with a flurry of responses. In his estimation, the Atlanta investment community hasn’t yet realized that venture is cyclical. When the dot com bust happened, the investors in places like Silicon Valley (California) and Silicon Alley (NYC) realized this, and managed to it. Atlanta investors, by and large, have withdrawn their resources, and are idling. This is helping no one.
Richard also characterized the Atlanta market as “underserved”. He believes that the number of great ideas, products and companies to be funded exceeds the funding dollars and sources. He also believes that a competitive yet collegial atmosphere will help “all boats rise”, although he did cite a lack of such an atmosphere here in Atlanta (whereas he felt it existed in other metro markets). According to Richard’s view of the world, investors here in Atlanta hoard their contacts more, and are less willing to work openly together. I found this interesting as a colleague and senior sales executive also stated the same thing to me over lunch last week.
After reading an early draft of this article, a colleague/friend of mine (also a venture capitalist) dug up an old article from the October 2000 issue of Red Herring magazine. In her article entitled “Regional VCs: Georgia; A strong sense of community creates a culture of trust”, Susanna Stromberg wrote:
It is a challenge for the unconnected entrepreneur to penetrate the thick walls of Atlanta’s investment community. Atlanta’s leading VCs know and trust one another in what can only be described as a clubby, coat-and-tie establishment. VCs often swap deals both to mitigate risk and to keep the wealth among friends.
Depending on your point of view, this strong community ethic either provides the ambition and sense of mission to propel Georgia to the national ranks of investing — or it seals the state’s fate as a small-time player. The reality is probably a complex mix of both.
Next, I pinged Michael, a veteran Atlanta venture capitalist and former entrepreneur. In his view, things aren’t going to change until there’s some sort of external threat, such as more out of town investors coming in and doing deals like JBOSS (Accel and Matrix flew in to do that deal, while the local guys passed). He has a point there, as evidenced by more than just the JBOSS deal – as I mentioned earlier, a substantial portion of the Georgia venture flow comes from out-of-state capital sources.
Also in Michael’s view, is the fact that the quality of the deals needs to improve, from being “best in region” to “best in world”. Fundamentally, he said, Atlanta is not a “technology creation” or “new venture creation” type of city, but rather more of a “regional office” and “wealth preservation” town. “Case in point,” Michael added, was the fact that “Nelson Chu of Kinetic Ventures put together a social media conference with the MIT Enterprise Forum and the speakers are all service providers and not actual product companies.”
Michael made the comparison to his old neighborhood (on the west coast) where $180M was raised in about a 6 block area last quarter, all targeting “Web 2.0” plays. In his view, the next shift is already occuring in internet technology, yet you don’t hear a peep in the Atlanta area about new product companies. He added:
Am I missing something here, or are there NO AJAX software companies in town, no RSS companies, no WIKI companies, etc? You don’t need venture to start these companies; you can do these on a shoestring, yet I don’t hear about them.
I also spoke about this issue with Chris Klaus, the founder of Internet Security Systems (ISS) and Kaneva, and he stated rather openly that he was surprised that we are not seeing more “web 2.0” and “media 3.0” startups here in Atlanta. I agree.
The other big issue that Michael brought up to me is that the State of Georgia has a prohibition against investing pension fund assets in venture capital. Quote:
So, any venture fund that wants to raise money has to pass up one of the largest local sources of capital. At the same time, the Business Development people at Georgia.gov have been yapping about creating “knowledge worker” jobs for 2 decades. Well, you can’t have the jobs if you don’t provide the capital at the source of the food chain. So, the State of Georgia invests in T-Bills while local venture capital firms and related deals go hungry.
I will say that I am slightly encouraged by some new developments in this area, as I know a lot of VCs around town are as well. A few brave state representatives banded together and proposed a bill that would allow the State of Georgia to own up to 30 percent of a startup company, and have those investments come from the state’s “seed capital” fund. Now, before both of you loyal readers start parading your business plans down in front of the state capital building, you should know that this “fund” has only infused a “whopping” $8M dollars into Georgia ventures thus far. This is a far cry from what is really needed, but I am glad to see a few government officials beginning to bubble this issue up to the legislative floor.
More importantly, I also see where Gov. Perdue is not only seeking to increase this fund (albeit ever so slightly with a $5M boost), but he is also lobbying to pass legislation allowing the state to invest up to 5% of its pension funds into private equity arenas. Now we’re talking. If I am doing my math right, this would represent an infusion of somewhere north of $200M into the state’s economy over time. Not bad.
There is also talk of a “superfund” that would be in the several hundred-million range. Sounds great, but to be honest with you, I’ll believe that when I see it. Let’s get back to Michael for a moment.
Of course, I asked Michael the proverbial followup question … “in your estimation, how do we fix this?”
I think the only thing [entrepreneurs] can do is either start new companies without venture, or do deals in other areas and potentially move them here if cost/benefit exists. I think talking about it only makes sense if you’re doing so from a successful company platform, else it’s wasted words.
Personally, I think all of these points shared with me by these investors have merit; some more than others, of course. However, I believe that the fault doesn’t lie solely within the Atlanta capital community. I personally believe that there also exists an innovation deficit within the Atlanta market. Where are the good ideas? I’m not saying that we haven’t had any good ideas – we have had a number of success stories – but as compared to other markets, Atlanta seems to be lagging in this department.
Now, of course, as a technologist, I am more concerned with the good technology ideas, but a good idea is a good idea irrespective of the market.
Web 2.0 is rife with opportunities, as are other aspects of the American economy, and Georgia technology entrepreneurs and investors are letting them slip right by. Many of you had terrible ideas during the dot com bust – but certain of you were simply ahead of your time (and you know who you are). Now is that time to get off the sidelines and reinvest in Georgia.
There are some bright spots, however. It isn’t all doom and gloom.
Organizations like TAG (Technology Association of Georgia) need to step up and lead the charge. The recently announced TAG business plan competition is all well and fine, but 100K in capital represents a drop in the bucket to what is really needed. I am glad, however, to see that TAG is finally beginning to evolve from being more of a “networking only” organization, and beginning to play a more active role in spurring economic growth.
While the ATDC (Advanced Technology Development Center) based out of Georgia Tech certainly has its issues, it seems to be evolving under the leadership of Stephen Fleming and Sandy Hoffman, so I am hopeful that they will become a bigger contributor to Georgia’s venture growth over the next few years.
If you haven’t seen the recent announcement, Carbon Motors, a new breed of American automotive manufacturer is launching their headquarters and operations here in Atlanta. I recently sat down with Bill Santana Li, CEO and Chairman, Trevor Rudderham, Chief Development Officer, and their investors to discuss their plans for Atlanta. I can say without reservation that I have a great deal of optimism about Carbon Motors and what they will do for the Atlanta market.
I have been personally tracking the Atlanta deal flows for 2006 (loosely, I might add), and things look a little better (this is over a 2 month period):
This comes to a grand total of $144.5M. These consist of a combination of seed, equity, debt, and private placements, and are restricted primarily to tech plays, so I am sure the actual deal flow number is higher than what I am reporting. As a footnote, the FAMS deal was essentially a buyout, so whether or not you wish to count it in this non-academic study is up to you. If you remove the FAMS deal, the numbers go south, although again, there are probably other deals that I have missed (non tech especially).
Some of you may find yourself sitting on a great innovation, but lack the desire to go off and create a new company around it. If this sounds like you, stay tuned. As some of you know, I am on the board of The Georgia Business and Technology Alliance (part of TAG). We are discussing an idea proposed by Ray Dicasali, which would be a fall 2006 event to bring some thought leaders together in a panel to focus on the commercialization of your ideas (i.e. you create a licensing platform for the innovation, and license it out to other companies, rather than going it alone). Stay tuned to this blog for more info as the BTA makes a little more progress around this.
Jeff Arnold – the wiz kid. Jeff made a cartload of cash when he founded and sold WebMD.com. Since then, he has formed a small company called The Convex Group. They have rolled up a number of small firms, including HowStuffWorks.com, LidRock, flexplay, ConsumerGuide, and Mobile Travel Guide. You can see their handiwork in theatres everywhere (Regal Cinemas, for starters).
Chris Klaus (the ISS veteran) is doing some good things with his venture at Kaneva. Chris gets the new iteration of the web, and specifically the continuing convergence with media. More importantly, even though Kaneva is still largely in stealth mode as far as their core product goes, Chris is out there pressing the flesh and getting the word out. This creates buzz. Buzz creates opportunity. Opportunity creates job growth. It will be interesting to see how Kaneva evolves over the next 12-18 months, but this is another good example of an entrepreneur who is getting back into the mix and spurring things on.
But, where are the other, storied atlanta technology entrepreneurs? Where are the other innovators?
I challenge some of you other successful Atlanta visionaries to get off the sidelines and step up. Now is the time to put your ideas (and your capital) to work.
What about you entrepreneurs out there that really should be raising capital and growing your businesses, but are not even trying? I know of at least 3 or 4 of you personally that fit this mold. You and I both know you want and need the capital to get to the next level. Stop mucking around and go after it! Good ideas will get funding – period. Good economy or otherwise. If you are a Georgia-based entrepreneur, and are “waiting around” for the Atlanta VC market to pick back up – please stop. There are plenty of investors outside of Georgia who are more than eager to invest in your innovative, sustainable businesses.
I still think Georgia can have a solid 2006, as far as new venture growth goes, but it will take a concerted effort on the part of entrepreneurs, and not just local investors.
What say you? I’d be curious to hear some other opinions out there. Feel free to use the comment form below to submit your comments on this issue!