In April 2017, I made my way across Sandy Springs in Atlanta to a house nearby the JCC (Jewish Community Center). It was an area of town I was more than a little familiar with; I’d grown up around there, my grandparents lived there, I’d gone to school around there, and holiday dinners were spent quite literally in the neighborhood. But it wasn’t a holiday get-together I was attending that afternoon—it was a small, intimate meeting with then-Congressional candidate Jon Ossoff.
There were about 40 people at the host’s house—some of them children who’d come with parents—so it wasn’t difficult to listen to Jon speak intimately about the issues which drove him; issues like healthcare, anti-corruption, job creation, equal rights, and renewable energy opportunities. After a short speech, he took whatever questions peppered the crowd, and in a unique twist of fate, ended on my question about what opportunities he saw in making Atlanta a tech-hub and destination city. He seemed to connect with my eagerness to see the city listed among Boston, San Francisco, Austin, New York, and Seattle as a major tech hub, and recognized the opportunities we had to make it so. Afterwards, we chatted a little further and exchanged numbers to continue the conversation.
Here, I need to give it up to my grandparents—and especially my grandmother—through whom I effectively met Jon and began our running discourse. She was instrumental in turning out Dunwoody residents for Jon’s 2017 campaign, a fact which he’s expressed gratitude for time and again. He even opened an email with such a sentiment later on (see below).
In June of that year, when Jon became the Democratic nominee for the special election in Georgia’s Sixth District, the energy was something we hadn’t felt since perhaps 2008. Ultimately, Jon would miss by a mere percentage point or two; perhaps meaningless to those living outside Georgia, but to those of us who grew up here, indicative of a larger change on the horizon.
The Out-of-the-Blue Email in 2018
One of the big questions thereafter was what Jon would do. Would he run for GA06 again? No—he came out as a vocal supporter of now-Congresswoman Lucy McBath. Would he run for Governor? No—he left that to Stacey Abrams and I think everyone would agree that was the right decision to make. Abrams has fundamentally changed the Georgia political landscape in ways previously unseen certainly in my lifetime. Jon seemed to step back from the spotlight a little at this time, focusing I would assume on more personal life events and future plans.
Nevertheless, he and I resumed a light dialogue after a minor time lapse. I received this email from him out of the blue in February of 2018 and subsequently scheduled a catch-up call.
The call wasn’t long; perhaps about 15-20 minutes. But then again, it didn’t need to be.
How Relationships Grow Through Long-Term Discourse
One of the key things I’ve learned through becoming an expert relationship-building and networking consultant is that it’s the substance that matters, not the time. So it doesn’t matter that our catch-up call was 15 minutes instead of two hours—and it didn’t matter that we don’t speak daily. One of the biggest misconceptions about great relationship-building is that you need to be in someone’s face 24/7 to see any long-term benefit. This is incorrect.
One of the key rules to understand in any relationship-building scenario is that people have a million things to do every day. Time is their most precious commodity followed closely by energy. Recognition of this is core to developing any sort of dialogue that is positive and authentic.
During our conversation, Jon and I discussed the normal things: his expression of gratitude for support in 2017, what my future goals might include, how I might be able to support him in the future, etc. No bombshell revelations, no hints at future runs for office. All I had on that level were my own theories. But the calls accomplished what they were supposed to; keeping the lines of communication open and indicating interest in future dialogue.
This would become our particular dance: running into and acknowledging each other, continuing our discourse, and then parting for some time until the next time.
Serendipitous Meeting in 2019 and Senate Candidacy
I would bump into Jon again in April of 2019—almost two years exactly since we first met—down at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta at another event. We stood again and spoke a bit about the developing political landscape in Georgia and I asked if he might run again. He demurred a little and returned our conversation to the current event, but I thought I saw a slight glimmer in his eye.
The next time I saw Jon wouldn’t be too far off, and there wouldn’t be any more question of what lay ahead. It was in September of 2019—at his official Senate campaign kickoff event. It included moving remarks from civil rights icon John Lewis, whom I was also humbled to meet before his passing last year.
Jon and I spoke only for a brief few minutes—he was swarmed by people wanting to shake his hand and take his picture (in the time before Covid)—and it was important to let him do so. But in those few minutes, our continued discourse was acknowledged, our mutual hope for Georgia articulated, and, again, an expression of gratitude on his part for support and positive words.
Throughout his 2020 Senate campaign, I saw Jon at a number of events, and watched the crowds grow larger and larger. It very quickly got to the point where the lines for pictures with him were longer than I’d ever seen them, and after he’d be whisked away on his bus to hit the next stop. But every time I was there on the side, watching him take pictures with new supporters, he never failed to acknowledge me and thank me for continued support:
“Adam, great to see you! Thank you so much for coming out. How’s your grandmother? Please give her my best. Shoot me a text and we’ll catch up when things calm down.”
2020 and Looking Forward
The friendship I’ve developed with Jon over the last few years has been unique because it must appear from the outside as arms-length, but on the inside feels—and is, I believe—much more genuine. Like I said before, you don’t need to spend hours on the phone with someone to develop a truly positive and authentic relationship. There just needs to be a mutual desire to pick up each other’s call or answer each other’s email and a mutual recognition of value. Mutual—that’s always the keyword. It’s what I tell my networking clients and associates.
Now, on the morning of Jon’s 2021 runoff election for the Senate, I find myself grateful for the somewhat unexpected way that our friendship has developed. It’s allowed me to watch his upwards trajectory and draw from it inspirational goals to emulate on my own journey.
I don’t know when next I will speak with Jon—certainly only in a moment of quiet for him after such an eventful year. But I know that it will most likely be as serendipitous as all of our previous meetings have been, a fact at which I can’t help but chuckle a little wryly.
As our friendship and dialogue continue to develop, though, I’ll always be glad I made that drive across Sandy Springs to that first intimate meeting in 2017.
This is the somewhat brief story of how a few tweets led to an incredible summer of helping to build and launch TechStars’ Atlanta inaugural Startup Week.
I’ve made it as short as possible without skimping on the details of the people who made this all doable. I included the other team captains as well, though to detail their respective speakers would certainly take a further article.
For me, though, I tried to give a full rundown and sampling of what the Tech/Fintech track put together for that week, including promo graphics and links to (most of!) the videos—the last few should be uploaded soon!
Sorry the TL;DR was still long anyway lol. 😆🚀
A Few Tweets
In October of last year, I found myself at OTT Fest here in Atlanta, tweeting about some of the great presentations and speakers I was seeing that week. It was before Covid turned our lives upside-down—hard to remember, I know—and at the time, I couldn’t have seen where it would lead. In fact, the biggest surprise at the time was that some of my tweets eventually led to winning a Roku by accident.
But one of the other happy side-effects of my tweets was running into Aly Merritt of SalesLoft in the same hashtag conversations of the event. Being a film-oriented event, most people were engaging with Instagram or Tik Tok as opposed to Twitter. We struck up a brief conversation first in the comments, and then via DM, discussing the things we enjoyed about the event from the techie angle. After the day was over, I mentioned we should keep the dialogue going. We did, meeting for coffee a couple weeks later—again, pre-Corona—discussing tech startups and whatnot. Then the year ended and we agreed to circle back in 2020.
Getting the Call
In February of this year, just as I was back from Colorado and before the pandemic would turn the world on its head, Aly and I hopped on a zoom call; I thought to talk more about the Atlanta tech scene. Aly, however, had a unique and totally unexpected proposition for me. Under the covers at the time, she was working with TechStars Atlanta to help launch their first Startup Week and lead the Tech/Fintech track. The work was definitely a two-person job, though, and she mentioned she wanted to bring me in as a co-captain to work together if I was interested.
So…was I interested?
I didn’t have to be asked twice—how could I pass up an opportunity like this? Especially one that seemed to come so out of the blue.
Later on in the conversation, she mentioned her reasoning:
“You have a massive network on Twitter and on LinkedIn—I told TechStars that could bring some incredible value.”
An hour later at dinner, I had to take a mental step back and reflect on where the hell I was compared to the start of the day and how the hell I’d gotten there.
That morning, I’d hoped that our scheduled zoom call would lead to another; one consistent conversation at a time is my networking philosophy. Methodical and consistent value creation and authenticity—that’s what had built prior relationships and what would build this one. Instead—or perhaps, in addition to..?—I was now working on a long-term project for TechStars, co-captaining with one of the best networkers in the Atlanta tech scene (which she still is!). All of which had seemingly dropped in my lap as a result of some tweets months ago and a reputation that I hoped was growing, but never thought at the time had expanded so far.
Why do I harp on this?
Because the proof is in the pudding, as my mom would say. Relationships take time and patience. And life is relationships.
Because even when Covid hit hard and required us—all the team captains, TechStars, sponsors, and potential speakers—to reevaluate and roll with the punches, we found a way to pull together and put on a phenomenal program. Sometimes unexpected things throw initial plans out the window, but when you’re working with talented and determined people, you find ways to create positive value all around.
Before I go any further, I want to make special mention of Kylan Kester (Lead Organizer), Eli Becerril (TechStars contact), De’Havia Stewart (Track Captain Lead), and Ronan Roche (TechStars contact) who were our conduits at TechStars and who all did an incredible job helping Aly & myself (and all the other track captains!) coordinate to put on a fantastic event.
So we—and all the other team captains and TechStars folks—worked through the summer against a new November deadline. To their credit, the behind-the-scenes people at TechStars reworked the entire backend of the program to go 100% virtual. So often we don’t think about the amount of work that goes into that reworking, but coming from the music world I know what it looks like behind the curtain to get a show done right, so kudos to the team there.
Goals & Breakdown
Working with Aly, we put together what I considered to be a truly exciting and bang-up list of speakers. Importantly, and absolutely worth mentioning, one key thing that Aly and I set out to do from day one was construct a speaker list that reflected what we both believe that tech should (and does) look like; that means we made a conscious effort to have a diverse set of panels and perspectives. I’m immensely proud to have had a hand in creating panels that heavily represented female founders/VCs as well as those who identify as POC. Next year I hope we can outdo ourselves and bring in even more diverse groups and perspectives.
Let me take a quick aside and mention that I’m no statistician, so there are numerous cross-demographics at play here which I’m frankly not gifted in statistics enough to properly record.
For the entire Tech/Fintech track, we broke down as:
50% male; 50% female (!)
70% white; 30% POC — This is clearly an area that we can & will do better on next year.
Interestingly enough, though, of the POC demographic, 62% were women of color.
Were we perfect? No. But will that dampen our drive to continue to do better? Also no; we’re more driven every day. Why am I spending time to break down some simple numbers? Because unless we have the conversations about our goals and where we are, we never get to where we should be.
Diversity builds better businesses.
For the Tech/Fintech track, we divided the week into daily themes: HR & Legal (Monday), Media & PR (Tuesday), Funding & Partnering (Wednesday), Design & Development (Thursday), and Branding & Marketing (Friday). And damn if I’m not proud of the programming blocks we were able to put together. TechStars was good enough to record all of the live panels & talks, and you can watch them below!
**(We’re still waiting for 3 more to be edited & uploaded, including the panel I ran on Tuesday, so I’ll be sure to update as soon as I have those too!)
What’s the Big Idea?: Navigating Common Intellectual Property Challenges
On Monday, November 9th, we kicked it off in the morning with Rusty Close of Troutman Pepper discussing intellectual property law and patents within the context of the startup world. He did a terrific job underscoring how IP should be handled from the outset. Often it’s the intellectual property factor which can lead to a dispute between cofounders and potentially lead to an implosion, and Rusty’s talk discussed great ways to try to preempt this headache.
Dead on Arrival: Avoiding Legal Mistakes That Could Kill Your Startup
Then we had Jack A. Donenfeld from Boomtown Accelerators discuss some of the common pitfalls that startups should be aware of and avoid. Jack gave an awesome & detailed powerpoint presentation on some of the legal mistakes that he sees daily in his work with startups. Some of Jack’s suggestions are so critical precisely because they are seemingly so common, and his guidance was a great addition to Monday’s schedule!
We wrapped up Monday with a killer panel which I heard got immensely positive feedback. Moderated by my good friend Stefanie Jewett—well-known here in Atlanta—and featuring LinkedIn influencer Elaine Jacques as well as my own Mom, Marx & Marx partner Jeannie Marx, this afternoon panel discussed the cost of good company culture, especially when the murky waters are difficult to navigate. Elaine and my Mom broke down some of the most common situations that often go unaddressed by HR and how to address them so you don’t end up on the opposite side of the table from my parents’ firm in a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit. We talk so much in tech about good company culture; this is how we ensure that we walk the talk.
Tuesday, November 10th was no less busy. We had a spirited discussion in the morning with some of the biggest names in tech journalism and I had an awesome time leading my own panel in the afternoon around networking & reputation-building.
Almost Famous: How Tech Journalists Determine the Companies on Their Radars
As a writer and sometimes-journalist myself, I always wonder how my peers determine the companies that they like to keep on their radars. Yes, there are always the big companies with their newest fundraises, but I wanted to know how a smaller company might creep onto a journalist’s radar—and how it could stay there. This panel began as a question in my mind as to how new founders might be able to approach tech journalists in more mutually beneficial ways.
Brick by Humble Brick: Building an Influential Network from Scratch
Featuring: Adam Marx (me 😄), moderator (The Zero to One Networker; formerly CEO at Glipple; Crunchbase News, Mattermark, & Startup Grind), Cory Warfield (ShedWool, CorryConnects, & LinkedIn influencer), Kate Atwood (LoCo+, Kate’s Club, & OTT Fest), & Jake Tital (Sproutways).
I hear so much discussion about how to properly (or not) develop a good network and if accelerators are necessary in doing so. For the record, I think accelerators are a fantastic resource and they certainly facilitate a number of the strategies. But for people who don’t have access to that option, there are indeed ways to construct a broad and influential network from scratch. In this panel, I talked with a number of influencers—and close friends!—about how strategies like patience, humility, and value creation can really build concrete networks seemingly out of nothing. In effect, this is how I built my network in tech and what the concept of the Zero to One Networker is all about!
(Link coming soon!)
Wednesday, November 11th began with a bang and we heard some amazing viewpoints from fundraising and IPO experts all day. Our panelists included some of the most well-known names in Atlanta tech, both on the funding side and the founder side!
The IPO Show
Featuring: Kunbi Tinuoye, moderator (UrbanGeekz; Advisory Board at CES and SXSW) & Barrett Daniels (IPO expert; formerly SoftBank & Next Step IPO)
Out of the gate we talked IPOs and pro/con assessments. Kunbi and Barrett had a killer discussion on the whole IPO process, breaking down some of the mystique and weighing if and when it’s actually a good idea. In startups we’re so often faced with news of impending IPOs that it behooves us to take a step back every once and a while and assess whether it really is the right strategy for our companies. Some of the perspectives dropped here are must-hear perspectives on the IPO reality.
Building a $1B+ Enterprise: The Story of SalesLoft
In the middle of the day, we were able to have an invaluable pre-lunch session with SalesLoft founder & CEO Kyle Porter and Holly Beilin (who for the record, is a killer tech writer here in Atlanta!). Kyle broke down the basic components of how Salesloft got off the ground and indicated some of the key tactics that could help other founders build a massively successful B2B SaaS company. It was great to hear some of the more nuanced portions of Kyle’s journey; full credit to Aly for setting this block up!
Show Me the Money: What to Know About Funding and How to Raise Capital
And we capped Wednesday with a killer discussion from some of the most well-known funding names in the Atlanta tech scene. Moderated by the incomparable Asia Orangio, the knowledge dropped by Karen, Jen and Charlton was almost a how-to regarding fundraising presented by a who’s who of Atlanta knowhow. Definitely one of the panels we were thrilled to have on-board, and again, credit due to Aly for taking the reins here to pull together a magnetic discussion.
(Link coming soon!)
Thursday, November 12th was one of the only times we ran into minor technical issues—pretty good for a virtual tech event! Initially, we had Ruben Harris and Erica Stanley scheduled in the morning, but technical glitches moved their talk on non-traditional paths to engineering to Friday (we were so grateful for their flexibility and understanding!). So we moved on to a phenomenal discussion later in the day on the no-code movement, hearing from two no-code influencers!
Speak in No-Code: The New Movement
Featuring: KP (Karthik Puvvada) (On Deck & No-Code influencer) & Lacey Kesler (Women in No-Code, No-Code community at IndieHackers & the Visual developers Podcast)
No-code is blowing up, especially here in Atlanta. That was my line of thinking when I worked with Aly to recruit KP and Lacey Kesler—two of the leading voices in no-code—to have a discussion about the new movement. Their discussion of the possibilities of new no-code applications, as well as the potential for growth of the no-code communities, made this dialogue immensely engaging. Having known KP for years now, it’s been especially intriguing to see the focus he’s helped bring to no-code in Atlanta!
(Link coming soon!)
Friday, November 13th was our wrap-up day for the event, but no less busy or engaging! Aly and I were immensely grateful that Ruben Harris and Erica Stanley took time out of their schedules (again!) to come back and have a chat about non-traditional engineering after some minor technical glitches on Thursday. Their talk seems especially timely given Career Karma’s new Series A raise! Then in the late morning we switched gears and focused on branding and marketing strategies that can expand your sales funnel. Not a bad way to end a week of great content!
The Code Less Traveled: Non-Traditional Paths to Being an Engineer
Despite some minor tech glitches, Ruben and Erica generously came back Friday morning to kick off our last day with a killer chat. They covered topics like education and non-traditional paths to landing an engineering job. Whether at a startup or large company, with the pandemic making distributed work especially necessary, more and more people are looking for ways to get their foot in the engineering door. Their talk seems especially timely given Career Karma’s new Series A raise!
Appetite for Construction: Building a Brand for Your Sales Funnel
Featuring: Judi Fox (Executive coach & LinkedIn influencer) & Dale Dupree (The Sales Rebellion, Selling Local Podcast, & LinkedIn influencer), &….surprisingly me haha! (See Tuesday’s details; I was able to hop into this conversation at the last minute and I’m glad I did!)
Then we switched gears and dove right into branding & marketing with Dale and Judi, two super well-known influencers and branding experts on LinkedIn. In a funny twist of serendipity, they invited me to join their live chat and we discussed the dynamics of great networking (see my previous Tuesday panel 😄) against the dynamics of positive branding and successful marketing. Couldn’t have asked for a better discussion to be a part of on the last day!
Brand + Go to Market Strategies: Your Most Valuable Asset
We wrapped up TechStars’ Atlanta Startup Week with a brilliant presentation from Tami McQueen, well-known in the Atlanta startup community. Her discussion around go-to-market strategies within one’s branding provided great, actionable content that guests hopefully came away with!
Looking Forward to the Next Atlanta Startup Week
Lastly, I want to give recognition to all the other amazing track captains that were doing work simultaneously as Aly & I put our own speaker list together.
And certainly to our corporate sponsor for the Tech/Fintech track, Invesco!
I’m excited to see what the long-term feedback will be on all of the speakers and panels; I definitely think that TechStars will continue to see engagement on the content in the coming months. As we speak, I’m drafting out some emails to send out to the TechStars people after the holiday season to see how we can continue to get these high-quality talks in front of new founders & VCs who would surely appreciate them. 2020 was a hard year indeed, but this was certainly one of the bright spots for me. I added numerous positive and inspirational people to my network, created some (hopefully) killer content, and learned a boatload from a variety of experts across an array of disciplines.
I’m looking forward to next year and hoping we can top it all in 2021.
If you’re looking to have more conversations around networking and building concrete relationships, ping me and let’s chat! I’m looking forward to picking up new clients and recording more podcasts in the new year. Anyone can be a powerhouse networker—that’s my philosophy behind the Zero To One Networker. 🚀
Almost two full years ago, in January of 2017, Ryan Hoover asked me what the tech scene in Atlanta was like. I was in San Francisco, and had flown across the country (on a very cheap ticket!) to attend Product Hunt’s celebration party following its AngelList acquisition. We were hanging out on the upper floor of the venue, me, trying to look like I belonged there, and he, casually leaning against a wall, gratefully shaking hands with everyone who wanted a picture with him.
I was actually caught off guard a bit because, frankly, I didn’t know too much about the Atlanta tech scene at the time. I’d grown up here, but left for college in Boston, and if I’m being honest, I only meandered back here after school because of family & the post-college reality of starting a company with essentially no money. As much as I enjoyed my childhood, I’ve never been much of an “Atlanta guy” — I’m a Mets & Red Sox fan (for the rare times I watch sports), I like the cold, and I yearn for the deadpan, brash humor of the Northeast. But I recognized financial reality and made the best of my situation.
The truth was that I hadn’t really invested much time or effort into exploring the Atlanta tech scene. I was head-down working on my music startup, so I was spending more time wiring myself up in the music industry than the startup world. Additionally, everything in 2014-2017 was (or seemed to be) San Francisco, New York, L.A., or Seattle, and that’s where my head was too. I figured it was only a matter of time until I left Atlanta.
From Bust to Boom
Part of the frustration I felt personally during this period was how the tech scene here felt & the tech press seemed to view Atlanta after Yik Yak’s failure: “well we tried, but Atlanta’s not ready for real tech investment yet,” despite our having TechStars, MailChimp, and Calendly, among others. This coupled with “go to California, that’s where all the money is” mentality.
But things change. Calendly has grown. MailChimp is a bona fide unicorn. Salesforce is building Salesforce Tower downtown. And now, Walker & Company Brands is moving here, following their sale to Procter & Gamble. And these are just the names many people are familiar with; there are others, blooming down at the Tech Village, scattered around Buckhead and Midtown, popping up around Tech Square, and nesting outside the Perimeter (OTP) in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.
On the Cusp
Atlanta is fast becoming a tech hub for crypto, SaaS, and media startups. Yet it’s still not mentioned in the same breath as Austin or Denver. Why this is could be a topic for debate, but what ultimately matters is that 2019 will bring a new sense of tech startup intrigue to Atlanta. Warm weather, affordable housing, and ready pools of talent from at least 5 major universities in town (Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Spelman, & Morehouse) — not to mentioned UGA just over an hour away — are some of the unavoidable perks of the city. And, we’ll begin the year on the tail of a major acquisition coup.
What’s missing — at the moment — is the same sort of starry-eyed, dare-to-dream-it dynamic which pervades tech in SF and NYC. Yes, we have SaaS meetups, startup chowdowns, and interesting groups which meet in the rooms of the Tech Village.
But what we really need to invest in are the more abstract, informal meetups, dinners, and coffee-shop interactions which don’t require reserving a room or having a planned discussion for each get-together. It’s these more abstract, informal dynamics which will generate some of the most exciting ideas, build reputations & relationships, and draw investment to the city in a way that’s more representative of the “dare to dream, go for broke” feel of Silicon Valley.
The Next Crop
As with everything, there will rise a set of core voices and personalities who help shape this new era of tech in Atlanta. They will be the people who just “seem to be everywhere,” seem to know everyone, and have a vision for how to transform the city in the next 5-10 years. It will be interesting to see who’s included on this short list.
I expect that we will soon be seeing more tech conferences here as this new mentality sets in. And while I may not start rooting for the Braves anytime soon, I will nonetheless have my eyes peeled for this group of individuals with the vision to make Atlanta the next great tech hub.