It may take a village to help a start-up company soar.
So say some entrepreneurs, asserting that young companies grow faster and better in a community of peers than they do on their own. As Atlanta struggles to pull away from hard economic times, they say, it needs to nurture its high-wage technology sector.
That was a key point that came out of a two-day conference intended to serve as a forum to jump-start discussions about improving Atlanta. The conference was organized by Leadership Atlanta and brought together about 1,400 business, education and civic leaders. Among the primary sponsors was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The state has great assets, but has underperformed in recent years — producing too few high-paying jobs, said Airwatch chairman Alan Dabbiere, speaking at the Collaborative Leadership Summit, often referred to as (co) lab, held last week in Atlanta.
“In the 1990s, we had a kind of swagger,” Dabbiere said. “We need to get it back.”
Conference speakers agreed that the region needs better primary education and more efficient transportation – challenges that mean political struggle. More capital for start-ups also is needed, an obstacle that mostly means buffing Atlanta’s image as a place where investments will pay off.
But when it comes to their own work in building the economy, some entrepreneurs said that, more than anything else, they need each other.
Atlanta Tech Village opened early this year in a 27-year-old Buckhead building purchased late last year by entrepreneur David Cummings. The five-floor building is now home to 106 companies – many of them one- and two-person firms and most of them software-centered.
The idea is to get an intense kind of interaction, collaboration and mutual support that is good for all the companies, Cummings said. “It’s really a community center for entrepreneurs.”
Why does proximity help?
Devon Wijesinghe, CEO of 15 employee-InsightPool, said part of the value is psychological – being around people with similar outlooks on risk.
“When you are inside the village, the crazy people are the ones who have regular jobs. The support system here is really great.”
As companies grow – or fail – they will be replaced by others, Cummings said. “The biggest threat would be a lack of entrepreneurship, which I don’t think is going to happen.”
Even though most of the businesses there will probably fail, he said he hopes the start-ups that pass through the village will add 10,000 jobs in the next decade.
InsightPool has software that helps companies find customers.
It helps to be around so many tech-savvy people, Wijesinghe said. “You can be trying to figure something out and say, ‘I heard somebody already did this,’ and then you go over and talk to them.”
Kyle Porter, CEO of SalesLoft, said in a phone interview that his six-person firm was the first to move into the village.
SalesLoft produces a kind of digital newspaper for sales people, using software that collects and targets information about potential customers. Porter said the company expects to have $1 million in revenue next year and that growth will be smoother and faster because of its surroundings.
“When we introduce a new feature, we just walk the halls and find users to test it out.”
It also helps for recruiting that the building has a good reputation in the local tech world, he said. “You ask people, ‘Do you want to work at the coolest place in Atlanta?’”
Atlanta already has other organizations meant to foster tech growth. This is different, Porter said. “The big thing is that it is run by entrepreneurs and not by government. Entrepreneurs get things done despite roadblocks and government manufactures roadblocks.”
Speaking at the conference, Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, said government should avoid creating those obstacles.
“I try to stay out of the way of entrepreneurs,” he said. “Government just bogs it down. More times than not, we are just looking backward not forward.”
Yet some entrepreneurs see government having a less laissez-faire role.
For instance, Sanjay Parekh, founder previously of Digital Envoy and now CEO of Startup Riot. “There are some things that we just can’t do. You and I are not going to get together and build a road. There are things that government should be doing.”
“Government needs to nudge things along.”
There is a place for both public and private, said Stephen Fleming, vice president of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, which operates the Advanced Technology Development Center.
The ATDC and the Atlanta Tech Village are not in conflict, he said. “We want to get to the same place. We want a growing entrepreneurial eco-system in Atlanta.”
The ATDC has about 300 members, including more than 40 technology companies that are located in its Midtown facility.
Another, older institution that aims to foster innovation is the Georgia Research Alliance, which has endowed 65 chairs for scientists and has a $20 million fund for investing in young firms in the area.
Atlanta and Georgia “always rank high in creating new entrepreneurial companies,” said Mike Cassidy, CEO. “So something is working. It’s an eco-system and there are a lot of different parts. A really healthy eco-system depends on all the pieces functioning in concert.”
Maria Meyers, director of the UMKC Innovation Center at the University of Missouri, endorses the idea of putting start-ups together.
“We like to say that entrepreneurship is a contact sport. When you are a small business, the social network is very important.”
The Collaborative Leadership Summit itself could be a good step for Atlanta, Meyers said. “It’s important to have a united agenda. Everybody needs to say, ‘We are going to support our entrepreneurs.’”