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 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.

Playlists Will Not Save Your Music Business

My media business will not be saved by video, bots, newsletters, or Slack integration. That’s what Joshua Topolsky told me yesterday. And he’s right.

A still from High Fidelity (2000); Captures the sentiments pretty will I think

A still from High Fidelity (2000); Captures the sentiments pretty well I think

The New Thing that so often arrives just in time as the savior of the whole machine is many times bullshit. It’s a desired escape from an already challenging (dire?) situation that is causing headaches upon ulcers upon headaches. That’s why it seems so magical in the first place; it seems to appear out of nowhere like some miracle from a higher power. You prayed to the media gods for deliverance, and so they delivered unto you newsletters, bots, and Slack.

But Topolsky is right about the misleading nature of these new things: they have the potential to help, but none has the power to deliver us, to part the seas of stubbornness and ego.

While it appears to me that he sought to write about media in general, Topolsky could easily have been talking about any of the media industries in particular. Music, for example, fits right into his sardonic diatribe in a way that must chafe for the megalithic powers who used to control the industry. In music, it goes: yay for playlists, analytics, offline access, curation, and exclusives—build those in, and then we’ll be saved. No, these won’t save your (music) media business. And that’s painful for a lot of people.

More and more, the posts on changing media dynamics which garner shit-tons of feedback are the ones that are the truest. They are radically brilliant—radically poetic in a way—because of their sheer shunning of “conventional wisdom.” Such is more or less an oxymoron nowadays anyway.

I saw an earlier example of this back in November with Chris Dixon’s post on independent gaming, and was similarly moved to write my response on independent music, something he was also referring to (knowingly or not). Now with Topolsky doubling down on a similar idea, it’s becoming an even starker point.

“Because that [former media] system was built on the concept of scarcity and locality—the limits of what was physically possible—it was very easy to keep the gates and fill the coffers.”

And here we come to the prickly point that so many music businesses have trouble with now: scarcity is obsolete; democratization wins. I underscored this in my Dixon-response piece, but now it seems all the more palpable. What used to serve as a power play by music companies—the scarcity squeeze by the major label—has lost most of its bite, if not its bark as well. Maybe it’ll work if we call it “windowing” and stagger the release on multiple services! Nope, we all know that you simply changed the name of what you were doing instead of trying to actually change the action. And it’ll end up free somewhere anyway. Live with reality.

Wait, I’ve got it! We’ll tell people that we have the best playlist-making feature around! Great, so does everyone else. And, by the way, the people who really matter for your music business don’t care. The general consumer/listener might care (and I stress might), but the artists who actually produce the content you rely on for your lifeblood won’t give a shit. Why? Because it ultimately does little for them.

Ah, then we will give them the deepest, best set of analytics they can have! Awesome, so will everyone else. You can join the swaths of sites telling them they have a couple thousand streams, have made essentially no money, and then tell them they owe you $4.99/month for that wonderful data. The reality that you don’t want to hear is that the vastly growing demographic of artists—independents—are smart enough to know this already, and all you’re really doing is giving them numbers with no context. You’re giving them the numbers, the locations, the graphs— but with no real way to actually affect change in those numbers.

Offline access and exclusives then! Right! Except not, because exclusivity doesn’t help these artists long-term, it only helps you in the short term. It’s why artists immediately understand the opportunities before them now while other people struggle to see the big picture. Because they have long-term vision, and patience. Because exclusives are not where the long-term strategy is, either for the artists, or the music business.

It’s in the community cultivation and the relationship bridging. Social and messaging then! No, stop, that won’t be an easy save either. The reality that so few people want to hear is that community cultivation is a long-term process. It’s about knowing things about your content producers—in this case the artists you work with—that your competition doesn’t bother taking time to find out. Don’t ask me how many registered users I had yesterday. Ask me how many conversations I had yesterday with ten artists in seven different countries with fanbases numbering in the tens of thousands. Ask me what comes out of that. And then remember that was only ten artists.

Over the last few years, we were asked who we thought would win the streaming wars, because streaming is obviously the future of music. Except that’s too simple a magic potion because it’s going to take a lot more than that to reach the new horizon. It’s not about fixing the faulty component in the engine. They’re all faulty, and have been for near 40 years.

You have to rebuild the engine completely. Bottom up. You need to construct a music company that does everything that will change the reality for a new artist; after all, there are so many more of them than anything else. And they never stop creating and producing. You need to take your time to do all the sexy things—the playlist functionality, the radio, the streaming, downloading, profiles, social, live—and all the un-sexy things you never thought about—the legal stuff, the business stuff (more than just analytics!), the financial, and the marketing. Fixing the broken paradigm is a losing proposition; building a whole new one is (ironically) cheaper, better, and much, much more powerful long-term. That’s the strategy I’m committed to.

Topolsky was dead-on:

We’ll have to learn a thousand hard lessons, most of them centered around the idea that if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making is great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone. A lot of people, but not every person.

And that’s what’s missing from the music-business discussion right now. The “everyone” that most streaming services are targeting is already saturated with competition, high prices, and a lot of bad press (from artists and artist agencies like ASCAP and BMI). The “someone” that Topolsky refers to, though, is the independent demographic, clear as day. They’re underserved, undervalued, dismissed, marginalized, pissed off, and not tied to any major label contracts—just right to woo and capture with something as easy as a conversation and explanation of a better future.

I’m as shamelessly self-promotional as Topolsky admits he is because these are the people I love. I know they see what I see, and they’ll wait around as long as it takes to make it work. Because they’re not jaded or angry—they’re just waiting.

Waiting for something better to come along for them.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!