It was typical Atlanta mid-November morning in 2004 when I drove down 400 to my first real job at Vocalocity. I pulled into the parking filled with excitement and nerves over entering the unknown. I took the elevator up, walked through the doors, and jumped head-first into Atlanta's startup scene. It been almost exactly a decade and so much has changed. What follows are my observations from the last 10 years.
Ten years is 30% of my life. The period has been one of tremendous personal growth. I went from being a somewhat overconfident but green engineer at a cool company to my current position as a probably overconfident and somewhat green CTO at a very cool company. I made a lot of great friends in the process and learned an incredible amount about technology.
When I started, I knew the basics of Java, a little C++, and what a version control system was. Since then, I learned about ORM, database scaling, application containers, messaging systems, development processes, and application frameworks. That was just the first year. One of the major upsides of working for a string of startups was that I always got to use modern and new tools and only worried about a few years of accumulated technical debt. The amount one can learn after a few years of being heads down and being forced to punch outside one's weight class is the most worthwhile experience of such an environment.
There were two really important lessons that I learned during this period that had nothing to do with technology. The first was the lesson of failure. Of course I had failed before, but in school it was all on me. It was because I didn't practice or study enough. In a startup everybody could do everything right but failure still happens. Learning how to deal with impending doom is an important skill to develop quickly.
The other is the importance of business functions. As technical person from a technical background, I had a sizable bias against the business side of the house. At least until I started paying attention to what was going on over there. Even "products that sell themselves" require great marketing campaigns, streamlined support, and coherent billing processes. Otherwise the company will fail to reach its potential. If you are a technical person thinking about moving out of a pure technical role, the best piece of advice I have is to pay attention and learn about what happens on the other side of the house.
Atlanta Startups: The Positives
The last 10 years have also seen marked changes in the Atlanta Startup scene. I obviously can't speak to anything pre-2004, but the 2004 era seemed a little like the dark ages. Most of the incubators had collapsed. Most of the VC funds had been hurt by the boom. ATDC was pretty much the only game in town. User groups were popular, but the communities were mostly disjointed and were run at the behest of large companies or universities.
The rise of social networking, especially the early days of Twitter started pulling the community together. Then came the events really starting in 2007 with, Atlanta Startup Weekend, Startup Riot, and Barcamp, to name a few. Then came the backlash against all the events. Around the same area there were a few prominent Atlantians who moved out west. Each of these events caused a lot of concern amongst those involved that the community might collapse. However, the the startups scene in Atlanta kept going and is bigger today than it probably ever has been.
The most critical factor in improving Atlanta's startup scene has been the passage of time. 2004 Atlanta did not have sufficient previous wins to sustain an Silicon Valley like environment. Not every successful entrepreneur wants to get back in the games. It just took more time to get enough wins so that there were sufficient numbers of those that did. There are now more recently exited founders putting their wealth back to work in building more startups. I even know a few employees of successful startups that have become LP's of local technology focused VC funds.
We still have ATDC, but that's been supplemented with new incubators and early stage funds. The Atlanta entrepreneur of today has choice in investment thesis as well as funds. Different competing options are moving Atlanta away from the previous one size fits all model.
Along with there being more investment money, more community and more co-working space, 2014's Atlanta startup scene is a lot more positive. I remember when I started work there were lots of talk about the times that had been. Today's generation of young entrepreneur has come of age in a recession and knows the grass is greener in the future. This has been a great change to witness.
Atlanta Startups: The Negatives
Atlanta could get better on a few fronts. I think the money in this town favors operators over visionaries and technologists. For the community to be sustainable, we need to do a better job of surrounding inexperienced founders with experienced business builders.
I'm a little worried that there has not been another company like JBoss. JBoss had a technical product that attracted very technical talent. The few that have sprung up in that mold have either been acqui-hired relatively early, like GWT and MaaSive, or been compelled to move out to areas that are more willing to invest in those ideas. This is troubling because these are the types of companies really smart engineers want to work at, and we are losing some of our best talent because of the lack of opportunity.
I still think that our environment does a bad job of mixing business talent with engineering talent. There does not appear to be much cross over and the founding teams are often heavily weighted one way. Not having all the necessary skills covered on the founding team make the monumental task of building a company even harder.
I've been seriously drawn out to the valley twice in the last ten years. Each time I doubled down on my bet in Atlanta. I like the lower capital requirements. I like the laid back feel and the diversity. Most of all, I like the positive changes that I've seen. The future is always uncertain, but I think the quality of opportunities is only going to improve. Last generation's winners are starting do amazing things in the communities. This generation's will top that. I'm looking forward to growing with (and growing!) Atlanta's Startup community for the next 10 years and beyond.
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