After a multitude of angel investor conversations over the last couple weeks (including Drinks On Fifth interviews with Sig Mosley and Vivek Wadhwa), I’ve come to one core question – and no one captures it better than Jay-Z: Who’s gonna run this town tonight? Between the economic downturn and Sig Mosley not issuing any new term sheets, there’s a vacuum a mile wide in Atlanta – a town that has all of the underpinnings necessary to be the next Boulder or New York. So who’s it gonna be? Someone we all know from inside 285? A shadow player who has local staff but that most entrepreneurs have never heard of? An East Coast outfit who has a stringer or EIR hanging around Atlanta? A complete outsider like Jason Calacanis with his Open Angel Forum? Or worst-case scenario of all: no one fills the void. Here’s my thought on what’s next…
First off, let’s be honest: Atlanta has the infrastructure needed to be a much bigger player than we are. Here are 10 truths I dare you to argue with:
- An airport that gets you almost anywhere in the world direct.
- An overall cost of living that embarrasses the West Coast or Northeast.
- A full-fledged research institution that churns out ninja engineers like crazy in Georgia Tech.
- One of the nation’s top technology-based incubators in ATDC.
- A design school that produces stunning visual artists and game designers in Savannah College of Art & Design.
- A vacancy rate in commercial real estate so high it drives insanely pro-startup prices and terms.
- A residential real estate market that’s always been ultra-competitive with other tech centers – and has taken an additional economy-driven haircut.
- Access to mid- and executive-level management talent from multiple Fortune 500 companies across industries like shipping, CPG, transportation, finance, etc.
- A no-brainer relocation spot for the future executive-level talent needed to drive the business.
- A thriving social life for young, single professionals.
Sure the traffic sucks and it’s hot in the summer, but get over it – every city has its issues. This town is ripe for the picking!
There’s another aspect of Atlanta you can’t ignore: in the absence of Sig, the rest of the angel class is a town of followers. While logic dictates this is a hindrance in growing an overall startup ecosystem, I would argue this might be our saving grace. If we can find the right minds to lead, the rest of this town will follow – that habit can’t be broken easily. What do you think would happen if a guy like Ron Conway or Chris Sacca funded in 2-3 Atlanta companies in the real-time data space? What if the Pied Piper changed the tune from B2B to something more of-the-now? You guessed it: the startup ecosystem would shift on a dime – and the angels would battle to the death to align themselves in deals alongside these heavy hitters. But I actually don’t think the solution is 100% external – I believe the new blood would only serve to shake the locals from a slumbering sleep (both investors and entrepreneurs).
I’m going to skip my “swing for the fences” speech on what types of companies entrepreneurs should be starting for one simple reason: natural selection. Once 3-4 new-style deals are done, I believe the transformation will be complete in less than six months. That’s a direct testament to how I think entrepreneurs have tried to build companies to be funded versus building what they really think users will love.
At the same time, entrepreneurs are not without blame here. I’m considering assembling a Crazy 88s-like band of ninjas to personally hunt down all startup people who ask investors and advisors for NDAs – you really gotta stop embarrassing yourself and our town. And secondly, quit asking for funding based on business plans – real investors fund URLs and working products.
But overall, I’m wildly optimistic about the quality and quantity of startups that can come from this town if there’s a clear path forward. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say startup folks have been beaten down. That bat’s been swung at me personally, and it’s not a Louisville Slugger – it tattooed B2B-SaaS on my arm for a week. But if we can break out of these shackles great things will happen. Imagine a Tech engineer, a SCAD designer and UGA journalism student joining forces to create a digital media company. Done…
At the end of the day, I think the major shift lies on the shoulders of outsiders – unless there’s some hidden individual or syndicate that’s ready to do 5-7 deals a year. (And honestly, I don’t care who you are as long as you’re in it for the love of the game.) We need someone like Jason Calacanis, Brad Feld, Ron Conway or Chris Sacca to wipe the slate clean. Someone with massive street cred, a solid track record and the resources necessary to take a company from a $25K seed round through a $5M Series C without getting crammed down. But those guys aren’t going to move here, they’re only going to delve into select deals that make sense for them. Think of them as the crowbar prying the door open so we can see the light.
So what does ‘owning this town’ really mean? As Vivek Wadhwa recently told me: “You don’t need billions of dollars, you need seasoned, successful, good human beings who are ready to help other human beings.” Let me boil that down even further: it really means an individual or small group doing 5-10 six-figure deals annually across a wider variety of startups. This gets the ball rolling, and other angels will follow suit – both regionally and nationwide.
So the real question is: when the revolution happens, will you help push it forward or will you defend the old school? What side of history will you be on? I ask the question equally of investors and entrepreneurs because it will be ours to live day-in and day-out. Will you mentor younger entrepreneurs? Will you make investments based on passion for an idea not an actuarial view of the world? Will you lead the community? Will you become an angel following a successful exit? Will you finally welcome the consumer Internet with open arms? Will you give away 10% more of your company to make it 70% larger? And most importantly, are you willing to celebrate failure enough times to have a real crack at creating the next Facebook or Google?
Ask yourself these hard questions, and let’s all recognize we’re at a seminal point in our ecosystem. We can reboot the entire thing and unlearn all our bad habits, or we can be lazy and let inertia rule the day.
So again I ask: who’s gonna run this town tonight?