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.

Empathy, and Creating Value for Others Before Yourself

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 7.31.46 PM

Speaking with Chris Sacca and Erik Torenberg on Product Hunt LIVE

Empathy and Humility Are Disarming

Earlier this weekend, there was a great Medium post on Chris Sacca, and how he asks questions in a particular way. Phrasing it as “people-hacking,” a term which I found as quirky as it was vague, the post described the Q&A session which Sacca held following his most recent appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank, and which was moderated by Matt Mazzeo.

What I found most intriguing about the whole post was the ease with which it captured Sacca’s approach to not only answering questions, but asking them. The post itself seemed modeled on Sacca’s “ask vague, unloaded questions” approach, getting right to the heart of how and why someone in Sacca’s shoes (as a well-known investor) still seems approachable and down to earth. Humility is disarming and positivity is magnetic, whether you’re a founder, VC, employee, or customer.

Empathy—for other founders and everyone around you—seems to be a key trait which Sacca looks for. The focus on empathy falls directly in line with the thesis of Sacca’s earlier posts and Periscopes: karma, and creating value for others before asking for value for yourself. Last summer, I examined this focus on empathy and creating value for others within the greater context of relationships.

Creating Value for Others Before Yourself

I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Sacca on these concepts a few months ago during a Product Hunt LIVE discussion he did. During the course of our short back-and-forth, he mentioned as an example how Mazzeo appeared on his radar simply because he created value for what Sacca was doing.

It was this initial value-for-nothing that then coalesced into a working relationship between the two (sans any formal interview); an example that underscored (at last for me) how important it is to continue to be a positive force for others even if the benefit for yourself is not yet clear. Good karma begets more good karma.    

Asking intentionally open-ended questions like “What does success look like?” and “How do you envision success with this product?” (from the original post) enable Sacca to do two things:

  1. He is able to maneuver the conversation away from stock answers and see how the founders really relate to their products, and
  2. He allows an element of freedom to flow through the process which eases the pressure and arguably allows him to see how a founder thinks when not completely flustered.

Relationships → Communities → Identities

The real takeaway from both the Medium post and Sacca’s initial Periscopes and articles is a focus on, and underscoring of, people. Understanding how people think, and being able to relate to those thoughts and emotions are what build relationships, which then turn into communities, and then into identities. Great companies cannot be built without these things, no matter how well everything else might work. Life is relationships, and there’s no substitute for knowing how to relate to people in empathetic and positive ways. These emotions in turn inspire trust and loyalty.

As they continue to build great things, I would encourage other founders to take these things to heart. They ring true regardless of whichever industry or walk of life you come from.

Thanks to Chris Sacca for taking time to answer my question, and to Erik Torenberg from Product Hunt for making it possible to do so!

Continuing to Build with Product Hunt

It’s 3:00 AM here on the east coast, and I would normally draft something like this a few times over the course of a week to get it just right. I’d rewrite it over numerous cups of coffee, but tonight it’s just one glass of seltzer water until the job is done. Tonight, it’s less important that it be a perfect piece than that it goes out by dawn.

I’ve written extensively on Product Hunt over the past few months. I’ve discussed why their main sale isn’t tech products at all, but rather community. I’ve discussed how their sophomore effort could be has been arguably their greatest triumph yet. I’ve argued that the team which has assembled under the Product Hunt banner, and the community it’s built around itself, is something special that should be recognized and emulated. Ryan Hoover’s post a few hours ago convinced me of why that’s true.

The Medium article to which Hoover’s first couple of sentences refer becomes almost completely irrelevant because of the way in which he opens his own piece: he’s not aggressive, defensive, or combative. He’s much more approachable than that. His verbal acknowledgment at his (and his team members’ hurt) over the post, and subsequent chin-up response of taking all feedback with a positive hand, might very well go unnoticed as readers try to figure out and/or find the post that stirred up this whole range of emotions. It shouldn’t.

Where so many might jump to a defensive tone, or a dismissive air, Hoover sets himself, his team members, and their company head and shoulders above by opening (and then closing) the piece with a dynamic of measured grace. It’s very easy to be graceful in your writing when you’re responding to praise. It’s very, very hard to do so when you’re responding to criticism, especially when that criticism is critical for criticism’s sake, with no discernable constructive overtures.

It’s been my pleasure to have numerous, daily interactions with numerous members of the Product Hunt team, and so I’m personally not surprised at such an honest, well-written piece. For those who are really paying attention, they know that this is precisely the reason why PH has shot up in popularity and virality. This is the reason why it’s growth and positive reputation seem to be stupidly big and expanding: because the community which they’ve built inspires people like me to come to their aid at 3:00 AM without batting an eye. It’s because they’ve engendered in their users a desire to see the most positive parts of the community grow, and to help work on the parts that need a little elbow-grease.

In the music business, there’s an adage I hear a lot: for those of you who forget us on the way up, we’ll see you on the way down. It means that for those artists who forget their early fans, and their initial community when they “get big,” there’s no guarantee that those same fans/early community members will be there when the lights come on; don’t take people for granted.

In writing this post (among others), the PH team has proved why it doesn’t take anyone for granted, and why they want to build a place where no one feels taken for granted or forgotten. If nothing else, this is why they win. The tech products, the guest chats, the games, the growth metrics…all of these stem from how they’ve constructed their community. It’s the reason why their community will continue to build with them, regardless of whatever critical responses they might receive in the future. If you want to emulate something, emulate that. I know that my team members and I are. Emulate how to build a damn good community with strong ties. Everything else can come after.

Why Product Hunt’s Sophomore Effort Could Be Its Greatest Triumph

In an insightful post yesterday, David Berkowitz postulated that Product Hunt might be suffering from startup fatigue as 2015 draws to a close. His presented graphs and statistics are all on point, and the analysis of said metrics is fairly fleshed out, and I’d say quite accurate.

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 10.24.53 AM

However, though I agree with Berkowitz on a number of points, I stand apart in questioning whether Product Hunt has fallen victim to ennui and achieved the “Mad Men” effect. While the metrics point to a decrease in overall activity (which you can see in Berkowitz’s original post), I’m not so sure that the postulation of trouble for Product Hunt is exactly right. Let me tell you why.

The Debut Album

Product Hunt debuted halfway through 2014, and I came to it late in that summer, somewhere between July and August. I had just enough time to familiarize myself with the site (and app) before the windfall from the 6+ million a16z-led A round really enabled them to start expanding rapidly on their product and offerings. This summer alone PH has released 3 betas (that I’m aware of), Games, Books, and Podcasts, along with its LIVE feature (which I quite enjoy). I’ve heard murmurs that some people think PH is throwing anything at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one specific vision. Not only is this a fairly correct observation, but it’s exactly the right thing for Product Hunt to do.

As I discussed in this twitter thread, I think that from ~June 2014 till now (~October 2015), we’ve seen Product Hunt’s first act; its debut album as it were. That’s the album that is either overlooked except by the core fans (Nirvana’s 1989 album, Bleach) or gets all the attention (Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, Ten).

The data implies that Product Hunt is of the latter, and that the coming months will most likely continue to be somewhat challenging for the company. The fact that PH might well be a necessary utility for some (as Berkowitz now identified it as for himself) as opposed to a quirky, fun new thing is arguably irrelevant. The fanaticism that Product Hunt enjoyed over the last year may not last in its current form, but it does signal something greater, I think.

The Sophomore Effort

Continuing the music analogy, Product Hunt now finds itself in the studio after its debut success. The tour’s been completed, and as such, self-avowed PH fans wait for the next release, many hoping to see a redo of the initial popular effort. But PH has outgrown its debut skin, and is looking for something to keep its creative juices fresh. What the metrics really tell us is that PH is going through growing pains, trying to figure out just how many new instruments and styles it wants to try on its new album. Product Hunt’s sophomore effort will do two things: 1) it will likely alienate a demographic of general users who “like the old stuff, but not the new vibe,” and 2) solidify those of us who want to see PH keep growing and cultivating its community.

I discussed Product Hunt’s winning in community earlier this summer, and since then have only furthered my beliefs in such. This signifies one of the main distinctions that I think will come to play out over Product Hunt’s ecosystem: certain users will use it mainly as a necessary utility, while others aren’t exactly sure what to use it as, but are drawn to the intriguing dynamic nonetheless. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being either kind of user; different strokes for different folks. But to be equally as clear, Product Hunt continues to succeed brilliantly because it attracts people like me; people who were not (are not) self-avowed die-hard tech product enthusiasts, but find it enticing anyway. I was never as much into new tech products and beta testing until I started using Product Hunt, and that’s exactly why it wins: it turns outsiders into insiders.

Some have begun to criticize PH for its commenting invites, and the exclusivity factor which they arguably perpetuate. But I think the minor exclusivity factor actually distracts from a much bigger inclusive factor. Product Hunt has succeeded in building the backbone of a community that is magnetic; it’s engaged, positive, and exciting for people who are open to new things.

Points of Discussion

In all this, Berkowitz makes a number of statements which I agree with, but analyze differently.

  1. Upvotes may not be the best measure of activity: This may in fact be true, but I’m not sure it matters as much as one might think. I see Product Hunt’s upvotes as proof of concept; people did want to see new products and share their impressions of them. But the upvote (and downvote, additionally) is a fairly one-dimensional interaction, and one I can see becoming less important to Product Hunt in the grand scheme. I don’t necessarily think they’ll get rid of it, but now that the PH team has planted the seeds of a truly interested and engaging community, those seeds are now germinating, and thus simple upvote metrics might not even be enough to truly capture the meaning behind those interactions.
  2. There could be a long tail effect: The prospect that lesser known products are doing better is possibly the best thing that could happen to PH in my opinion. What we could be seeing is the beginning of a democratization in the PH community, one where you don’t necessarily have to know someone influential to get your product some real traction. If I were part of the PH team, I would try to capitalize on this and figure out how to focus this dynamic; keep pushing the democratization without losing the high standard of quality.
  3. Perhaps Product Hunt is too slow in letting new people participate: I can see the validity of this point, and can see how it plays right into the “Product Hunt is about exclusivity” argument. There’s no quick and easy fix here, and I don’t think there should be. PH needs to retain its values and vision, even if that means it remains partially closed to prospective new users for a time.

    Notice, however, that I said partially closed; my best thought would be to let new users trickle in by giving them some access, a little at a time. Give them perhaps 5 comments every month until they gain full access. This could hopefully encourage them to use their comments wisely, and thus dissuade them from posting drivel or offensive material, while simultaneously allowing PH team members the necessary control to guide these new users.   
  4. Product Hunt is expanding into new categories such as games, books, and podcasts: This I don’t think is a problem at all; I think it’s an opportunity. Not every sub-category will be gold, but that doesn’t make it lead either. I quite like Books, and use it way more than Games (I’m not much a gamer). And though I’ve never been huge into podcasts, the new channel is making me rethink that. People will get different things from different channels, and there will be no way to see what’s really a success until a few more months pass.

    I do, however, think that PH has enough new things to keep its hands full (especially with the addition of the LIVE channel as well), and think it should focus on the irons it already has in the fire rather than continuing to add new ones.        

Berkowitz’s focus on the overall trends present in the graphs, though, is just one part of the story I think. Metrics are necessary things, but they can sometimes distract from possibilities on the horizon otherwise overshadowed by more dour trends. I think that’s the case here, where PH’s recent trends forecast a much more problematic stance than is actually there.

Cultivate the Community, Ignore the Noise

In the coming months, I can see Product Hunt becoming one of the popular contemporary examples of a company that arguably lost its “special sauce” after a great first year and successful Series A round. I anticipate articles to follow on TechCrunch, Re/Code, and to pop up all over Medium, as PH gets picked apart over its somewhat plateauing (if not declining) metrics. However, I caution against counting out PH too soon, and not focusing thoroughly on where they have situated themselves over the past year. Observers would do well to remember that PH is much more than metrics and trends; in fact, it’s mostly more than that. It’s community.

Keep throwing things at the wall, and experimenting with new instruments on the next album, and see what works. PH has already succeeded because their core fanbase is coalescing. Now they just need to nurture that base. Cultivate the community that any band or startup would kill for; that’s where the real power rests. When you leverage the power of your fanbase, the trends can go any way you want them to. All the rest is just noise. 

As for the Product Hunt team, my best advice to them were I to be asked would be to keep their heads down and just work. Acknowledge that this is the sophomore effort, and thus may irritate some of its debut supporters. However, this is the nature of the sophomore album, and could signal Product Hunt’s move towards the release of something even bigger than before. Whereas 2014-15 was Bleach, 2016 could be Nevermind. 

Their Response Was Not a Fuckup; It Was Exactly Right

Just a few minutes ago, Product Hunt CEO Ryan Hoover posted a tweet and article on Medium acknowledging what he called a terrible fuckup; Product Hunt’s validation programming had made the erroneous assumption that all founders are male by using the article “his” when discussing validated identity.

Screenshot of tweet to Product Hunt, earlier today 2/19/15

Screenshot of the tweet to Product Hunt, earlier today 2/19/15

The reaction from Hoover and Product Hunt to the tweet was exactly what it should have been: mortification at such a presumptuous error, speedy rectification of the problem, a personal apology to Allyson (the tweeter), and an immediate blog post owning up to the misstep for others to be mindful of. Frankly I would have been impressed by the first two things; but to see all this unfold in sequence in an expedited manner reaffirmed the reasons I use PH, and why I consider them an example of a company to emulate.

Response tweet by Ryan Hoover to the discovered problem

Response tweet by Ryan Hoover to the discovered problem

 

The corrected response on Product Hunt

Screenshot of the corrected response on Product Hunt

I have to give it up to the whole PH team; it’s not easy to admit a mistake, particularly when it’s brought to one’s attention in such a public arena. But they really went above and beyond in their response, and the subsequent Medium piece by Hoover really underscored their commitment to gender equality that I very much respect them for.

Well done PH, take a bow. We should all strive to be as good as this.

 

Notes

[1] The images used in this post were taken from Ryan Hoover’s original Medium blog post.