Atlanta: Signs of the Next Major Tech Hub

Atlanta, Georgia, USA downtown skyline.

The Question

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 a homegrown IPO and 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.

Takeaways from AngelList Radio’s Podcast with Tyler Willis and Jason Calacanis

Yesterday I listened to Tyler Willis have Jason Calacanis on the AngelList Radio podcast. Despite the fact that the episode was recorded a couple of months ago, I couldn’t stop listening to it. In fact, I was about halfway through it the second time when it occurred to me that I should take a few notes on it to summarize the incredible amount of information that Tyler and Jason discussed (it is an hour and a half long, after all).

Jason Calacanis; image courtesy of the AngelList Radio podcast

Jason Calacanis; image courtesy of the AngelList Radio podcast

The sheer amount of important information covered makes summarizing all of it challenging, but I’ll give it a try. I should note, though, before delving in, that some of the most poignant things covered were in the form of life stories and philosophies from Jason, a summarized transcription of which does not do them justice. To really soak up the underlying meaning of what’s listed below, you really need to listen to it for yourself. Possibly multiple times.

Moving along though. The points which Tyler and Jason hit can most aptly be placed within a number of areas of thought and consideration.  

These are:

  • People
  • Mentalities
  • Entrepreneurs and Founders
  • (Angel) Investing
  • Democratization

I’ll do my best to tackle each one of these, but keep in mind that these are just a few of the points which struck me as the most powerful. I will discuss some in more depth than others, as a number of them are self-explanatory.

People

Jason’s view of people in my mind basically splits into three main veins: human calculation, relationships, and arguably the most important one, empathy.

Human Calculation

This goes to “Jason’s Law of Angel Investing,” which according to Jason is: “I don’t need to know if the idea’s going to win, I [just] need to know if the person’s a winner.”

Jason looks for and reads the things that other people might miss: body language, personality, and interactive cues. As he mentions, he will talk about the [founder’s] idea through the lens of trying to figure out if [s/he’s] a winner or not. This sort of human calculation sets Jason up for the long game, something which he discusses as being a part of his overall strategy.

Relationships

Jason is extremely bullish on his relationships, wanting to be the first call a founder makes when things are going wrong, when the situation looks dire, or just when founders are having a hard time. He discusses understanding that being a founder is lonely, and sometimes all one needs is an ear to vent to; someone to “shoot the shit” with. Perhaps this goes back to Jason’s major in psychology; certainly his ability to read people and situations benefits from such a thought process. 

Life is relationships, pure and simple. Everything else is secondary, and Jason aspires to (almost obsessively) cultivate his relationships. (That’s a good thing, by the way).

This however, leads into what I consider to be one of the central theses of the discussion: empathy.

Empathy

Startups are hard. Actually, that’s a lie; startups are fucking hard. And sometimes the best thing is when someone will just sit and listen while you vent and fume for a little while. Loneliness kills, and having a friendly ear can make all the difference on those tough nights.

One quote seems to capture what Jason’s mentality would be during those nights on the phone with a founder having a hard time: “When I invested in you, I knew the odds were against you, and I still believed in you.” That pretty much sums up all that needs to be said.

Jason’s philosophy of accomplishing close relationships simply by being a nice human being—“buying [the founder] a cup of coffee, buying them dinner, or just saying ‘I believe in you’”—is exactly how I see the world as well. Cultivating relationships means doing what you can for other people because you can do it, not because you see some reward at the end of the tunnel. In the long run, good relationships do tend to reward people in often unexpected ways, but that should never be the crux of the relationships. Relationships are empathy and positivity. It’s about being magnetic.

Mentalities

Within the context of mentalities, Jason hits on a number of notions, though the one that sticks out to me the most is his focus on the “journalistic mentality.” Clearly a holdover from his time as a journalist, Jason discusses how he looks for people who exhibit great journalistic skills: an inquisitive mind, good communication skills, and being able to read situations well. In many ways, this connects with a lot of his poker metaphors. (There are lots of poker metaphors).

As he points out: “What happens when you interview [people] for a long time is you start to understand when they’re full of shit and you start to tell…who’s full of greatness…” Bluntly put, this is very true. I experienced it a lot during my time as a music journalist, speaking with artists and other industry professionals. Being a journalist is one of the best ways you can get to know the industry you want to be in.

“[A journalist] equals an inquisitive person who can communicate well.”

Entrepreneurs and Founders

Jason spends a lot of time talking about how he identifies great founders and what anyone should be doing and/or thinking about if they want to be an entrepreneur.

Know “Why”

First and foremost, know “why.” Why are you doing this, what is the underlying reason?

For Jason, answers like “the market seems open” or “I wanted to try being a founder” don’t cut it. It speaks to the authenticity if a founder is doing it for a larger reason than just trying to take advantage of a particular market situation. There needs to be a certain inevitability to what they’re doing, and how they see the world (something which Chris Sacca has also touched on).

As Jason sees it, there needs to be a real sense of purpose in the founder(s), a mission: “The world needs to evolve in this way, and we have the solution, and we NEED to implement our solution to change the way the world works.”

Jason: “Really talented people tell you where the world is going, and then you get to be part of it. And then you get to help them launch the rocket.”

Don’t Screw Your Supporters

They need to have the integrity not to screw the people who supported them early on. This is exactly in line with a well-known adage in the music industry which I always quote: “For those who forget us on the way up, we’ll see you on the way down.” Don’t forget the people who made your rise possible.

Be a Punk

Founders need to be punks.

Ok so Jason didn’t actually use this word, but as I explained in my post here, that’s really the type of mentality he is describing when he articulates what he looks for in people.

Additionally founders need:

  • To have an armor; a relentless drive, and be relentlessly resourceful
  • Have maniacal execution skills
  • Unstoppable determination

(Angel) Investing

Jason relayed a lot of information about investing and investment strategy. He discussed a lot of his personal strategy as well as how new investors can get in the game and start to learn the ropes.

For the sake of time (and because a lot of this is fairly self-explanatory), here’s a rundown of what he discussed:

  • Tips (for Angel Investing)
    • Spread your bets
    • Start by making investments slowly over a year
    • Even if you lose money, you’ll learn something
    • Always try to learn before diving in head first
    • Join syndicates
    • Get in the game and start
    • Double and triple down on your best bets
    • Meet with founders as much as you possibly can
    • Play the cars of the best investor at the table if you’re new to investing
    • Do the work, be proactive
    • Play the long game
    • Be patient and learn
    • Financial performance will come; focus on a portfolio strategy
    • Investing is a fight/struggle
    • Don’t ever discount anybody
    • Make a 5-year plan
    • Pro-rata rights
    • You want the “difficult” people; these people “mix it up”
    • Focus on being the most valuable and helpful person to the founder
  • Need to Have
    • A comfort losing a lot of your money (which you invested)
    • A comfort with the “shitshow” realities of investing
  • Don’t Be an Investor If
    • You’re annoying
    • You’re a control freak/obsessive person
    • You can’t remain cool and calm
    • You can’t remain classy in the face of defeat
    • You can’t deal with bad news
    • You can’t be a mensch

As Jason articulated: “I have to be the most valuable [person] to the founders. [I ask myself,] ‘Am I doing the most for that person?’”

How did Jason get to this thought process? When he started investing he made a list of all the things he could do for founders to provide value to them. Then he did them.

Democratization

The last major point which Jason discusses is democratization. In this case, he’s referring to the democratization of knowledge and power, and how dynamics have totally shifted in the last 10 years, allowing for entrance into entrepreneurship for tons of people who previously had very little recourse.

Interestingly enough, as he’s discussing the democratization of knowledge which can be used for growth, development of new skills sets, and other such things, I’m just reminded of an article I wrote a few months ago on the democratization of music. True, Jason is describing a different type of democratization process, but the parallel works. In the same way that scarcity has become an obsolete mentality for music, so too has scarcity of startup and entrepreneurial knowledge become obsolete in the worlds of business and tech.

I said it once and I’ll say it again: scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins.

“[Entrepreneurship is] stumbling around in the dark room, fumbling around, until your hand hits the wall, and flicks on the light switch.” – Jason 

Jason also briefly touched on the differences he sees between his LAUNCH incubator and Y Combinator, but that’s a whole other discussion for another time.

All in all, the podcast was intriguing enough for me to listen to it twice all the way through, and then take notes on it for a post. I give it up to Tyler Willis for conducting a great interview, and look forward to a hopeful follow-up with Jason again.


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Cold Emails Are an Opportunity, Not a Chore

Last week, Hunter Walk posted a short piece detailing a few calendar experiments he’d be trying this autumn. Amongst the challenges was a point which stuck out to me: his commitment to replying to any cold email at least once. This started a reflective thought process in my head on the heavy benefits of cold emailing.

I’ve Sent More Cold Emails Than I Could Ever Count

In my time and experiences within the music business, I’ve sent more cold emails than I could ever count; they’re virtually required if you want to start any sort of dialogue. In many industries (tech included), introductions through peers and contacts account for a large percentage of successful business relationships. Cold emails, however, work less often (excluding famous stories which have since become startup lore, like Box’s Aaron Levie cold emailing Mark Cuban and getting an investment). Many times, startup founders are lucky if they gain a response anywhere near Walk’s commitment to answer them at least once.

But in the music world, cold emailing is the norm; you better become very comfortable with it (and very good at it) if you want to get anywhere. You end up cold emailing artists, managers, promoters, bloggers/journalists, DJ’s, venues…the list goes on and on. You learn how to craft just the right sort of message that is equal parts fan and prospective business contact (and if you forget the fan part, you’ve majorly screwed up). Cold emailing becomes such a normal part of the overall flow that if you’re not sending at least a couple per day, you’re losing out.

The Benefits Far Outweigh the Drawbacks

Yet Walk’s piece reminded me of something different. We’re so used to reading posts about cold emailing written by the senders that many times the recipient’s perspective might go unnoticed. I’ve been on that end too.

I’ve had artists email me out of the blue asking for any number of things: a review of their new album, play on my radio show, feedback on their new single, advice about local venues, etc. And this is where Walk’s point hit home for me: it’s so easy to ignore cold emails (especially when there are mountains of them) that sometimes we can forget the opportunities which they can contain. Some of my best and longest lasting business relationships germinated from cold emails. It’s those solid, long-lasting relationships that have led to further opportunities in both the music and entrepreneurial spaces.

(It is of course relevant to note that cold emailing isn’t the only way to broach an initially unsolicited conversation. In my experience, there are any number of indirect methods that work just as well, if not better, than the cold emailing avenue. These, however, I think will provide fodder for a subsequent piece.)

Perhaps cold emailing in the music world is less overwhelming than it can be for tech angels or investors (which is both highly probable and understandable), but experience has taught me that Walk’s approach has benefits which far outweigh the drawbacks, so far as I can see. In opening his mind and palate up to what could be out there, Walk greatly increases his chances of striking upon a beneficial new contact and/or relationship. He does this because cold emails tend to go unnoticed or unanswered by some, and thus provide fertile ground for Walk to mine out new opportunities in an area all his own.

Where Some of the Greatest Opportunities Lie

Time-consuming though it may be, I think Walk’s proposed solution of setting aside 60-minute windows in which to go through these emails is precisely the right course forward. He is upfront about his limits (simply as a human with a life and a job) and does not set out to promise responses within a 24-hour period; everyone has a limited amount of time in the day and that’s just life.

Yet, when the opportunities are literally on your (digital) doorstep, I think the worst thing one can do is simply ignore them. In the music industry at least, one of the first things you learn is to look where no one else is looking. Taking the time to do so usually ends up being the best decision you can make; that’s where some of the greatest opportunities lie. I would be surprised if the same couldn’t be said for at least some level of the tech/investing space as well.  

Fred Wilson Believes in Things That Everyone Else Thinks Are Wrong (But Are Actually Right)

A couple of weeks ago I attended the LAUNCH Festival in San Francisco, where I saw a number of amazing speakers over a three-day period. Needless to say the cross-country trip from Atlanta was worth it. However, despite the fact that there were numerous speakers whose points have stuck in my head since then (particular favorites of mine were Yancey Strickler (Kickstarter), Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn), Chris Sacca (VC) and Tony Hawk (yes I’m a huge fan of skating and the Brown Brigade)), the speaker whose comments were most easily accessible to me was Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures).

Since the wrap-up of the festival, Jason Calacanis has published a couple of posts and tweets noting the fact that his fireside chat with Wilson was one of the most popular interviews of the whole event. This I readily believe, as I sat with rapt attention as Wilson discussed a number of topics. Actually, Wilson made so many good points during his chat that I need to dissect it through a number of posts rather than in just one.

Of particular interest to me though was one thing that Wilson said. It clearly demonstrated to me his line of thinking when it came to identifying new companies that he liked to become (or was likely to become) involved in: “Believe in something that everyone thinks is wrong (but actually turns out to be right).”

That terse statement, which Wilson actually attributes as something Bill Gurley once wrote, underscored his thinking when it comes to herd-mentality and how he identifies opportunities. While I’m sure there are certainly other factors at play, the qualifier word “wrong” is an interesting choice for his (Gurley’s) adage; it implies quite clearly that he identifies opportunities not only in areas or with companies that might be viewed as rare or unconventional, but ones which may be entirely against the grain of “logical” thinking at the time. This by extension highlights the fact that one can expect Wilson’s current and future investments to be in areas or companies wherein others might not dare even entertain the notion of involvement. He benefits from the fear factor that clears the road in front of him to make it an open highway while others see the words “do not enter.” [1]

Though I’ve followed Wilson’s blog for some time now, since LAUNCH I’ve been reading his posts with this new thought in mind. With each new post I read, there’s now that nagging question in the back of my mind: “what’s the thing in this post that Wilson has identified that others think is flat-out wrong (but is actually right)?” There isn’t always a phrase with a blinking sign screaming “it’s me!” but the point remains that with each subsequent post comes a learning opportunity to go back and reexamine a possibility that I might have dismissed earlier as a “do not enter” sign.

I’m interested to see Wilson’s posts over the next month or so. I’m curious to see what piques his interest enough to blog about it that others may have already dismissed or avoided. I suspect that Wilson’s thought process might very well be as alternative as his Egon Schiele-esque Twitter profile pic (by the way Fred, kudos on that; art-history nerds like me rejoice in the fact that so many within the tech industry use so much modern art imagery). I believe that’s precisely how he’s able to identify opportunities that others miss, or dismiss altogether.

 

Thanks to Dad for reading drafts of this.

 

Notes


[1] Wilson also stated that he had been on the board of a non-profit called DonorsChoose for a few years, which, as he put it, “does exactly, exactly what Kickstarter does” for teachers and public schools. As a result of his involvement with this previous venture, which was raising between $30-40M at the time, Wilson notes that he had a bit of an inside look at the very sort of mechanism upon which Kickstarter was building.