(Downtown Atlanta, Georgia by Sean Pavone via Shutterstock)
If your city has developed a cultural export with a national reputation before, then your local entrepreneurship community ought to take some lessons.
In Chicago, founders speak of the Second City movement in comedy, a pipeline that has recast a perceived coastal bias into a brand of stick-to-itiveness and process. In Miami, they point to their unrivaled exchange with Latin America and beyond.
So too the conversation is going in Atlanta, a city of cultural importance that has created enough meme videos and musical acts, alongside a brand of Southern-style corporate HQ, that many there feel its startup cluster ought to follow suit.
“Atlanta is a deconstructed pie,” said James Andrews, the music producer-turned-tech founder behind True Story Labs. “We come together in places like music but can it happen other places, too?”
Atlanta, after all, wants to know what its future holds.
“I don’t think any great city has stayed great by only focusing on what already makes it great,” said Azim Barodawala, the CEO and cofounder of travel data startup Volantio. And Barodawala has a story worth hearing. He’s angling to convince his cofounders that their small, globally distributed workforce should consolidate its first headquarters in Atlanta.
“We considered Atlanta only because I was aware of it,” he said, mentioning that a consulting job first brought him here. So though Barodawala fell in love with Atlanta and sold his cofounders on why, more need the same understanding.
The city’s corporate community (read: prospective customers and acquirers) is impressive, with 15 Fortune 500 company headquarters, including Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Rubbermaid, UPS and Delta. That last company contributes mightily to making Atlanta the world’s busiest airport — even if Barodawala makes a convincing case that Delta also contributes to more expensive flights for locals (a “near monopoly,” he said). And Atlanta’s mix of big-city urbanism and quaint Southern charm has helped lead to a growing population of talent, including those coming from places like highly regarded Georgia Tech.
“I’m from Atlanta and want to welcome the other 5.9 million of you who have come and are making us better,” said Michelle Morgan, the founder of the NEX Atlanta coworking space. “The entrepreneurial class needs to build institutional credibility and personal credibility and then tell our corporate class something crazy.”
That interplay between Atlanta’s underground strengths (be it music or startups) actively selling industry leaders was the heart of our daylong conversation during the Atlanta stop of the Tomorrow Tour, a multi-city event and reporting produced by Technical.ly with Comcast NBCUniversal. Atlanta was the final stop on this first leg of the tour. Find our other stops at tomorrowtour.com.
One of Tech Village’s proudest alumni is Yik Yak, the anonymous, geolocation-based social sharing app that raised $62 million in 2014 led by Sequoia Capital. It’s exactly the kind of high-growth, consumer-facing startup that Silicon Valley fanboys covet, and given its torrid media coverage, you can understand why it’s mentioned more often by startup Atlantans than, say, MailChimp, a widely celebrated email marketing company with a truly national profile and revenue to boot — and with pretty badass Atlanta headquarters.
“We are taking what we have for granted,” said Joey Womack, the founder of social good consultancy Amplify 4 Good. Put him in the camp of knowing, like its long-established music scene, that the startup conversation doesn’t get its due. Others agree.
“There is a lot working in Atlanta,” said Derek Woodgate, a futurist behind The Futures Lab. “But we need a clearer, single narrative.”
Like in other cities, there are those working on it. The #ChooseATL campaign is a classic economic development marketing strategy, aiming at bringing together the message of why Atlanta is a special place. It started in 2013 and has grown to include a weeklong party at Austin’s SXSW.
Others have been at similar work, like the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG), which approaches the puzzle of Atlanta’s economic future with a focused lens on IT sectors like cybersecurity, health IT and fintech.
“We’re good at pecans, pine trees, pine nuts, peaches, poultry and peanuts. How about payments?” asked Tino Mantella, the tanned longtime head of TAG, who will step down later this year. Atlanta is home to sleepy companies with expertise in global financial payments like First Data, Global Payments, TSYS and Equifax. Healthcare company Kaiser Permanente moved 900 jobs to Midtown last year.
Big outfits like that love the airport and internet infrastructure, said Mantella. Comcast just announced last month its rollout of gigabit broadband for Atlanta that the company says will outpace existing offerings from AT&T and Google Fiber.
There are other infrastructure concerns, though. Atlanta is still scrambling to develop its urbanist bona fides, as it aims to retain its new cohort of knowledge workers being gobbled up by a fledging tech sector and its corporate customers.
“We talk about transit plenty but still vote it down,” said Michael Clay, the local Startup Grind organizer and one of Atlanta’s startup leaders. “We’re talking out of both sides of our neck.”
That goes for both inside and “outside the perimeter,” as many Atlantans refer to inner-ring suburbs.
“Where is our literal connection between Pinewood Studios and the city’s startups?” said Scott Graham, the CEO of community activism platform Mimmer, of Georgia’s celebrated movie production facility.
“We have a lot of personal space in Atlanta. We’re very house-proud,” said Morgan of NEX Atlanta. “So when you shove people into collocation facilities and hackathons and political rallies, people get uncomfortable. We need to get more kinetic for those serendipitous connections.”
“We don’t have a culture of eavesdroppers,” she added.
Atlanta’s desire to be better connected as a region comes to be challenged politically for lots of reasons — not least of all most recently with the introduction of legislation in the Georgia state house for religious freedom, part of a slew of such state laws seen as an affront to equality, particularly for LGBTQ communities and their supporters. The Georgia bill was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal, but there’s the fear among creative-class Atlantans that this isn’t the end of the legislation.
“We can’t have viable tech, film, music communities if we we’re discriminating against gay, lesbian or transgender communities,” said Mimmer CEO Graham. An outpouring of companies rallied against the legislation, including Disney and Salesforce. Add Mimmer to the list: “We can’t be about a company on open political freedom and be in a state like that.”
“This is being done to us,” said one founder of the state’s more conservative politicians and Atlanta. But the people of Atlanta have had to assert their voices before — whether that be in their own State Capitol or in the music industry.
“Like Dre said, ‘The South has something to say,'” said Bem Joiner, the community manager at the Center for Civic Innovation. The lesson from Atlanta’s ascendancy from hip-hop afterthought to club-music mecca is bringing together enough great talent locally that it can’t be ignored.
That means getting Atlanta’s “urban youth culture” connected to the coworking and incubator spaces that anchor the entrepreneurship and innovation communities. The city’s current musical flag-bearer is named Future.
“Your natural ingredient is your youth from the soil,” said Joiner. “Atlanta will always be a place to launch. But we only win when we all win.”