Atlanta Startups & Economic Development

This week I was interviewed for an upcoming article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on the subject of how innovation is driving economic development (job growth in layman’s terms) and what needs to be done to continue to attract and foster startup companies. This led me to think about the subject a bit and this is what I scratched down on a bunch of post-it notes in about 10 minutes.

First and foremost successful entrepreneurs are taking a leadership role. Notably Tom Noonan has been at it for quite some time and more recently David Cummings and Paul Judge are two younger successful entrepreneurs that are staying in the game and fostering new startups. The noise of successful entrepreneurs retiring and not giving back is fading. I expect to see this trend continue and it needs to. Healthy startup ecosystems are entrepreneur led.

Second we have seen a proliferation of startup seed funds. Atlanta Ventures, BIP Early Stage Fund, BLH Ventures, Tech Square Labs, and Tech Square Ventures are all active seed stage funds that were not around eight years ago. When you lay this on top of the older more established seed stage investment community it seems to me that there is money to be had for the right team and concept.

Third there has been a huge increase in the number of accelerators/incubators in town. We have gone from just ATDC back in 2006 to 4Athens, Atlanta Tech Village, Collider, Flashpoint, Founders’ Institute, Maverick House, NeuroLaunch, Startup Chicks, and Switchyards to name a few. Yes we are in a bit of a technology bubble. We might even have a technology accelerator bubble in Atlanta. More is good. Budding entrepreneurs have a lot of places to turn for help.

Fourth we are seeing cluster development. It used to be just information security. Now we have healthy infosec, financial technology, healthcare technology, and marketing technology clusters.

Finally local and state government have become more supportive of startups. These entities have come to realize how new jobs are generated by innovative new companies and are eager to help. The mayor, the chamber, and the state legislature all seem to have a big interest and are taking action towards helping startups. There have been several laws passed to encourage investment in startups. Great progress. There is one more thing that I believe that our government can do to further foster the growth of startups and economic development.

The number one thing that startups need are customers. Nothing is worse than a local startup with good technology losing a deal with a local company to a better funded, better known out of state startup. While governmental focus on encouraging investment is a great step, governmental focus that would help startups get more customers may prove more fruitful. I believe our local and state government should encourage, even offer an incentive, for larger Georgia companies to do business with Georgia startup companies. In my mind a modified Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act geared toward providing a tax incentive for larger Georgia companies to do business with Georgia startups would be jet fuel to grow innovative technology startups and a winning economic development strategy.

If you throw such an economic development strategy on top of the progress the Georgia startup ecosystem has made in the past decade I believe that you would see exponential growth in the system. Regardless of government action for the reasons outlined above I firmly believe there will be healthy growth in Atlanta startups and innovation over the coming years.

October 23, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in atdc, Business, Film, Politics, Startups

The Best Advice Ever

For about a dozen years off and on during my career I had a boss that was pretty much on the same thought plane as me. We got along well. Thought the same way about business and typically could get things done.

From time to time I would walk into his office with some new idea that typically had to do with business strategy or some new way to grow our business as well as your general run of the mill managing an organization stuff. And from time to time, put not very often, the response that I got was “that is an absolutely horrible idea.” If that was the reaction my normal response was to drop it.

Well the other day I was having a meeting with an entrepreneur that is by any measure successful. During the early stages of his last startup I advised him a bit and we developed what would be called a mutual respect for each other. I floated an idea by him on a market that he knows a bit more about than me. His feedback. “That is an absolutely horrible idea.”  We both laughed. I am not going to waste any more time on it.

Whether it is your career, your organization, or your startup find someone that you respect that will give you direct and honest feedback. Be willing to accept it. That is the best advice ever.

October 17, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Entrepreneurship, Management, Personal

Build A Real Business Now

Highly respected venture capitalist Bill Gurley sounded the alarm about a month ago in an interview in the Wall Street Journal about the amount of risk VCs and startup employees are taking on these days. Very specifically he is worried about burn rates. To quote:

And I guarantee you two things: One, the average burn rate at the average venture-backed company in Silicon Valley is at an all-time high since ’99 and maybe in many industries higher than in ’99. And two, more humans in Silicon Valley are working for money-losing companies than have been in 15 years, and that’s a form of discounted risk.

Fred Wilson, another uber respected VC piled on. Fred had one of the startup money quotes of all time in his article.

At some point you have to build a real business, generate real profits, sustain the company without the largess of investor’s capital, and start producing value the old fashioned way. 

We are going to get to that point again. There has been a bit of talk about today’s entrepreneurs not having any muscle memory from the first internet boom or the Great Recession. I happen to have some. This is how this is going to play out.

Companies are going to continue to raise a lot of money at very high valuations and people are going to continue to debate if we are in a tech bubble or not. We are. The good news is that it is still a great environment to go out and raise as much money as you reasonably can at a not out of this world valuation. While there are exceptions if you do not pay heed to the reasonable valuation part of the last sentence it will come back to bite you as this unfolds.

At some point in the future, it could happen tomorrow, it could happen two years from now, there is going to be a macro event that changes everything.  I can’t tell you what it is but something is going to happen. We get in a war with Russia. Ebola spreads. Something that we never even dreamed of like a plane hitting a skyscraper or a major institution going bankrupt. Something is going to happen to shake confidence and when that something happens the money is going to dry up throughout the economy including funding for startups. The cash burn fire will be dampened. And once the flame of the burn goes away it is going to get very dark.

After the event investors are going to tell their portfolio companies to batten down the hatches. The mode is going to change from growth at all cost to survival. Survival means getting to cash flow positive. Getting to cash flow positive will require swift and decisive action. Hordes of people that that are currently working for money losing companies will get laid off. The huge sales and marketing spend will need to be turned off. I know this sounds crazy but effectively spending a lot of money is incredibly difficult. The only thing more difficult is to stop spending a lot of money. It takes time to turn it off. Regardless, frugal management creating a real business will become vogue.

There will be a large percentage of entrepreneurs that think none of this applies to them. That they can go out and raise more money. Most of them will be wrong. And even if they are right it will be a painful down round that pretty much kills them or their company anyway. The entrepreneurs that do not heed the advice of their investors will step off a cliff in the dark. Their startups never to be seen when the light returns.

I have seen this play out twice. I am confident that some version of it will happen again. So what’s a startup to do?

  1. Have a moderate financial strategy. Don’t take on too much money. Don’t spend what you have like there is more. When the badness happens you do not want a high burn rate.
  2. Hire thoughtfully. You don’t want to someday fire all those people that put their trust in you. Doing so will remain with you forever.
  3. Listen to your investors. Or don’t. If they are telling you to spend at all costs now either ask them to pony up or resist the temptation. When they tell you the good times are dead take immediate action. The same day.
  4. Build a real business now. The old fashioned way. Through paying customers that generate profits.

Startup companies that do these four things have a much better chance of making it through the valley of a downturn. Work on building a real business now. When it gets cold and dark you will be glad to have that as security.

October 9, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Business, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Startups

Have A Mission, Values, & Goals

Very early this morning I made my way to the 23rd annual High Tech Prayer Breakfast at the invite of Kyle Porter. Billing itself as the “earliest networking event on the planet” networking began at 5:59am without me.

As always the program was very uplifting. And it reminded me of the event that I went to back in 2004 when Pat Gelsinger, then CTO of Intel, now CEO of VMware, motivated me to read his book and make the time to write down a personal mission, values, and goal statement. Upon reflection today I highly recommend that everyone do the same.

I have never written my vision and purpose publicly. Here they are.

I believe in a world of authentic leadership where stated values do an excellent job of serving customers, providing meaningful work, delivering exceptional returns, and being a force of good (hence the name of the blog) in the community. This is heavily influenced by my time at MindSpring and I am sure if Charles Brewer ever reads this he will smile.

My purpose in life is to be a loving husband, attentive father, and values based business leader. I intend to lead the growth of organizations and communities so that others may have opportunities to enrich their lives. Sometimes I fall short at doing these things, but it serves as a compass for me.

I have written about my personal values and life goals previously.

With all that said what I learned two things today from from Dr. Christopher Kersey, whose background is so perfect it almost makes you laugh in disbelief. One is that I can not control everything, and I am going to stop trying to do that in areas where my control freakness is not helpful at all. Two is that it’s not about me. So back to the point at hand.

I highly recommend that you create your own personal mission, values, and goal statement. Pat’s book has a great outline for doing so. The one I read, Balancing Your Family, Faith and Work seems to be out of print but is available used for less then $4 on Amazon.

Invest the time to create a your own personal mission, values, and goal statement. You will be glad that you did.

October 3, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Personal

My PI

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today about the rise in the use of personality tests by employers. It seems that their use has grown to somewhere in the 60 – 70% range from 30% to 40% just five years ago. Personality testing is now a $500 million a year industry growing at a 10% – 15% rate annually. There also seems to be some debate about their effectiveness.

It just so happens that next week I am going to talk with someone about a job. An interview even, though I prefer to think of it as a meeting. As part of the process they asked that I take something called the Predictive Index, or PI for short.

So I took it. It took less than five minutes. I really had not put much credence in these types of tools so I was shocked how accurate the results were. They are below.

Lance is a distinctly independent and individualistic person, strong-minded and determined. Venturesome, he will “stick his neck out” and take responsibility for risks when he believes he is right. He finds the challenge of new problems and new ventures stimulating and responds to them with action. He has a lot of confidence in himself, his own knowledge, ability and decisions.

Lance is an ingenious and innovative problem-solver and troubleshooter. He has an actively inquiring mind, a lively interest in the technical aspects of his work, and a need to know and learn more about the systems, techniques, facts, and concepts involved in it. He will drive hard to get things done his own way, and quickly. A self-starter, he initiates, makes decisions, and assumes responsibility for them. He has a strong competitive drive, is ambitious, and will drive himself hard to achieve his goals. His sense of urgency and impatience for results will put pressure on others as well as on himself.

In expressing himself, he is direct, factual, outspoken, and frank. His approach to others is authoritative,telling, and, if he encounters resistance or competition, aggressive. Always concerned with timely results, he deals with ambiguous situations briskly and firmly.

Because Lance has a broad focus on goals and results, he prefers to delegate details to others. Quick and fairly accurate in handling details himself, he becomes very impatient and less accurate in doing work which requires routine and repetitive handling of details at a slow or systematic pace.

While never a big user of personality tests in hiring practices my perception of the accuracy of this assessment has me thinking perhaps they could be quite useful and provides a little insight into why their use is growing so rapidly. Would be interested to know what hiring assessment tools you find valuable.

September 30, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Uncategorized

Freshtix

One of the ways that I have been spending a bit of my time for the past few months is with a company called Freshtix. Freshtix provides event registration and ticketing for organizers to promote and sell tickets.

Freshtix is part of Ticket Alternative. Ticket Alternative was formed back in 2003 by Iain Bluett and Jamie Dwyer who made it their mission to provide tickets for events without the huge fees charged by the 800 pound guerialla in the space that everyone loves to hate. Having a competitor like that makes it a bit easier to grow. And grown they have.

Over the years Ticket Alternative has become one of the largest sellers of custom printed tickets and event wristbands in the country. Ticket Alternative can ticket almost every type of event, large or small, including concerts, sporting events, theater productions, festivals, and parties. Along the way the company also morphed into a fully staffed call center that sells tickets for high profile clients such as Atlanta Botanical Garden, The Fox Theatre, Atlanta Silverbacks, and the College Football Hall of Fame. The company has made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing private U.S. companies every year since 2009. Pretty impressive streak.

Iain and I first meet sometime around 2009 when that streak started. Freshtix seems to be a vehicle that might enable them to continue on a strong growth trajectory. Freshtix ticket sales have grown from literally nothing at the beginning of the year to well in the six figures now. Sales have been mostly to current Ticket Alternative customers that want the convenience of do it yourself ticketing.

With this traction and the maturation of the product it is time to open things up a bit. If you run events we would love for you to give Freshtix a whirl. You can sign up here. If your event is free there is no charge for the service. If you charge for your event the normal cost of Freshtix is $.99 per ticket plus 2% of the ticket price and credit card processing fees. Friends of FoG that sign up and create a paid event will get that $.99 per ticket waived. If you are an event organizer using another self service ticketing system that could but quite a chunk of change in your pocket.

Give Freshtix a try and let me know about your experience.

September 23, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Startups

Beach Ball Marketing

MindSpring Beach Ball
I live within easy walking distance of Piedmont Park. With Atlanta Music Midtown once again upon us I am reminded of a little guerrilla marketing ploy that we used 15 years ago at the event.

Bought a bunch of branded bunch balls, handed them out to employees going to the event, and had them blow them up and start punching them around while waiting for the next act to come on.

When people are trying to hit a beach ball they tend to remember what is written on it. If you have a fun consumer brand, a little traction, and a few hundred dollars to spend on marketing it’s not a bad way to get your brand in front of an young forward thinking crowd.

September 19, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Marketing

The Internet Slowdown

Tomorrow is the Internet Slowdown. Essentially an awareness raising day in support of Net Neutrality.

My thoughts on Net Neutrality are pretty straightforward. I worked for an ISP (the one that Tom Wheeler of the FCC was on board of directors for 10 years) at an executive level for seven years so have some interesting insights into the matter from a business perspective. What is being proposed is that ISPs can charge Internet application companies fees to deliver their services to consumers at a faster rate. What is being proposed is that bits that move around the Internet can be treated in a discriminatory manner. One of the core foundations of the Internet is non-discrimination. I believe making this policy move would be a mistake. 

As a consumer I am already paying for last mile Internet service that is more than adequate to deliver any content me or the rest of my household might use. In my mind to go to an app provider and make them pay to ensure the level of service that I am already paying the ISP for is nothing more than selling the same bandwidth twice. ISPs want to do this because the ISP business model is based on overselling bandwidth to users. As consumer’s appetite for content has increased that bandwidth is no longer oversold. For ISPs to deliver the level of service they have sold requires more infrastructure which costs money and reduces earnings. The core of the ISP side of the Net Neutrality argument is about profits.

In the world of IP content and carriage are being separated which is not good for a company that is used to providing both. Not good for companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Carriage is a commodity and in the future companies that provide it will only earn commodity type profits. So they are fighting it in every way they can, including the use of discriminatory practices and introduction of new regulations. I believe this is backward monopolistic thinking that is not good for the consumer, technology startups, or the development of our national technology infrastructure.

If you are of like mind please consider joining the Internet Slowdown campaign now.

September 9, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Internet

Back To Blogging

I had to take a bit of a blogging break. Somewhere or the other I lost the desire to write or perhaps had run out of things to say.

I have been blogging now for over eight years. When I started blogging here at FoG I would write about lots of different subjects. Then over time it became all about tech startups and entrepreneurship. It’s actually gotten to the point where I use FoG in the manner that web blogs are intended. As a place to keep things of interest so that I can go back and find them.

Entrepreneurs reach out to me on a regular basis with questions about this or that. More often then not I come here and do a search on the question and send them a link. So in some ways I feel that I have said it all. I am sure that feeling is I wrong.

With that said perhaps it once again time to broaden my horizon and not only write about entrepreneurship and technology startups but include other things that I find interesting right now. We’ll see now that goes.

September 8, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Personal

Balanced Teams

Last week Fred Wilson posted about this great interview of Marc Andreesson at Stanford Business School. Being a business school there were a lot of soon to be minted MBAs in the room and the interview is conducted by one of them. The whole interview is quite entertaining.

At about the 4:30 mark Marc gets asked about MBAs flocking to the tech sector. Marc has a five minute long and insightful answer about the history of business people and tech people working together. He talks about how now “a lot of entrepreneurs are engineers but not business people” and the “what has been lost is the art of building a business and in particular what has been lost is the art of sales and marketing.”

Marc’s logic is worth five minutes if you can’t listen to the whole hour. He has identified an early trend, the tech industry management pendulum is swinging to more balanced business/tech leadership teams.

August 13, 2014  |  Comments  |  Tweet  |  Posted in Entrepreneurship, Management