For starters: Mapping Atlanta’s startup scene

Like everything else here, the entrepreneurial culture is defined by sprawl
Photograph by Jeff Herr

One day last fall, aspiring entrepreneur Yoehzer Yeeftahk decided to check out Hypepotamus, the Midtown coworking space that touts its “connected awesomeness.” As he and two friends walked into the business incubator tucked in the lower level of the historic Biltmore Hotel, they inadvertently crashed a carefully choreographed PR campaign. The workspace was darkened, and all eyes were on a promotional video called “Choose ATL,” which depicts Atlanta as a green, friendly land of opportunity (and bike trails). This is a place where you can start from nothing and become a very large force to be reckoned with, designer Mark Montgomery said, addressing the camera as a cellist played in the background.

Rather than ushering the interlopers out, Hypepotamus executive director Scott Henderson pulled up extra chairs and asked them to stay. A week later, Yeeftahk was working in one of the spartan, closet-sized Hypepotamus offices, available on a first-come, first-served basis. A spoken-word poet sporting a trim beard and knit cap, Yeeftahk’s goal is lofty: to “spread artistic creation nationwide.” In the meeting room, he and his team tried to translate that vague objective into specifics.

On one whiteboard, Yeeftahk wrote “Glory to the CommonWealth” and listed the basic pieces of his plan to spread arts experiences: family-style dinners, performances, a newsletter, a clothing line, maybe even community housing where artists could live and work. Following the model suggested by Hypepotamus staff, he broke the CommonWealth team into four H’s that form the core of any startup: hustlers (CEO types), hacks (storytellers), hipsters (designers), and hackers (techies).

At first blush, a group of artists seems like an odd fit for a startup incubator near Georgia Tech, known for developing transformative devices and software. But the incubator’s users have a unifying trait: the drive to create. The best way to understand the ethos of Hypepotamus (pronounced “hype-uh-pot-a-mus”) is to consider it a “pickup basketball court for startups,” says director Henderson. No one has to pay to play. All comers are welcome. While a parks department and taxpayers provide maintenance and funds for public ball courts, at Hypepotamus the founders—and corporate sponsors such as National Builder Supply and Coca-Cola—pay the rent and provide the Wi-Fi.

There is little natural light in this mostly subterranean space. Fluorescent light from hanging lamps bounces off stark white walls, unfinished brick, exposed ductwork, and authentic herringbone wood floors. The space plays into startup stereotypes, from the foosball table in the corner by the kitchen to the wall decorated with photos shot using a digital Polaroid camera and scrawled with the Twitter handles of early inhabitants.

As companies grow, they progress within the Hypepotamus space, moving from the central open worktables to dedicated office space (still free). Eventually they go on to rental offices, allowing new startups to cycle through. Several of the graduates have decamped to the Biltmore’s top two floors, where digs are nicer but still rugged.

One company working its way through the cycle is eCommHub, which has graduated to primo glass-fronted Hypepotamus office space. Led by Kurt Heinrich, a twenty-one-year-old Georgia Tech dropout, this group of young coders and marketers has raised a seven-figure investment for a business that helps online retailers manage and track inventory from third-party suppliers.

“Every startup has an incubator space,” says Aswin Natarajan, eCommHub’s twenty-two-year-old head of “inbound marketing” (which he describes as “marketing focused on finding ways to earn the trust of your customers”). He says, “For us, the Hype has been really useful . . . It’s a gathering place. It’s like the middle ground where all the tribes come to meet. So it’s cool.”

The tribes are varied. On a recent day, Sig Mosley, known as the godfather of angel investing in Atlanta, held office hours and doled out advice to anyone who signed up. Later that week, Home Depot execs paid a visit, screening product ideas.

“The number of quality deals feels very good out there,” Mosley says. “People ask me if I’m worried about being able to find good deals. I’m not. I’ve got three to four good ones that I’m in due diligence on now.” Age is no barrier. Kurt Heinrich is the youngest entrepreneur Mosley has backed in his quarter century of investing.

Hypepotamus is a microcosm of metro Atlanta’s entrepreneurial community, which as a whole is much harder to catalog than, say, Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle. The metro area’s startup culture reflects the sensibilities of both Atlanta’s urban heart and its neighboring suburban edge cities. If one word defines startups here, it’s the same one that applies to so much about metro Atlanta: sprawl. Sure, there is a hub in Midtown and a big coworking space in Buckhead, but then entrepreneurial efforts scatter for miles. At the other end of a would-be tech corridor, Alpharetta is positioning itself as the “Technology City of the South.”

Another form of ITP/OTP competition? Perhaps. But each spot plays a role in the metro area’s quest to be a tech hub of the future. Invisible to the rest of us, a fiber-optic interstate of connectivity joins city and suburban entrepreneurs, who operate along “one of the largest Internet backbones in the world,” according to an assessment by Jones Lang LaSalle, a global commercial real estate firm. Rather than exacerbating the ITP/OTP divide, startups may create the ever-elusive common ground.

The scene is more sedate in the open workspace at Roam. Located above a med spa in an Alpharetta strip mall, Roam most resembles an independent coffee shop. Indeed, people sometimes wander in because Roam serves Land of a Thousand Hills, a specialty coffee created to benefit villages in Rwanda. The aspiring entrepreneurs hovering over computers at Roam are often people who have left the corporate world—willingly or not—and who prefer the cul-de-sac lifestyle near the suburban Big Creek Greenway to lofts on the Atlanta BeltLine.

Roam is where Alpharetta startup founders go when they emerge from their basement offices. It provides them space to hold meetings with clients or investors, along with the requisite whiteboard and oversized monitor. The long, natural wood table in the front is open to anyone who wants to pull up a chair and access the free Wi-Fi. Offices can be reserved at startup-friendly prices: For $139 a month, you can spend your days in the “cafe” and use a conference room for ten hours a month; $799 gets you a small dedicated office.

Entrepreneurs gather in Roam’s back conference room for weekly meetings with mentors from Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC). On the agenda for a session last November: intellectual property. KP Reddy, “lead catalyst” (or mentor) with ATDC, is telling startup founders that they shouldn’t be too secretive. “You should be able to shout from the mountaintops about what you’re doing,” he says, pointing out: “If your secret is so simple that you can give it away at a dinner party, is it really scalable?”

The session has something of a support-group vibe. Thad Oviatt, thirty-two, at work on a universal bike-locking system, acknowledges that he was initially afraid to tell anyone about his idea for fear it would be copied. But groups such as ATDC have given him much-needed advice. “If you can’t talk about it, maybe it’s something you can’t make a business out of,” Oviatt says.

When the meeting ends, the conversation spills out into the collaborative worktables. It beats going to Starbucks, says Oviatt. That sentiment is exactly what triggered the idea for Roam. Teleworking IBM employees, tired of meeting at a coffee shop, started Roam and later brought in former Marriott franchisee Peyton Day to develop the concept. With the same entrepreneurial spirit as his clients, Day opened a second Roam next to the Sandy Springs MARTA station and hopes to replicate the model throughout Atlanta—perhaps the country.

“There’s an emerging community,” says Wayne Utz, fifty-nine, a “parallel” entrepreneur who often serves as a mentor to people like Oviatt. “Two years ago, they wouldn’t have been networking and collaborating.”

A couple of miles away, on the west side of Georgia 400, bulldozers churn up dirt in a massive development that promises to be a bigger game-changer than a few suburban (or urban, for that matter) coworking spaces. Avalon, under construction by North American Properties (known for its revamp of Atlantic Station), calls itself Georgia’s first “fiberhood” because it will bring fiber-optic connectivity with one-gigabit-per-second Internet speed to every residence and business. To put that in perspective: That is the same “superfast connectivity” that Google Fiber is installing in Austin, Texas; Provo, Utah; and Kansas City, Missouri, and is 100 times faster than regular broadband.

Alpharetta’s existing fiber-optic network has been strong enough to attract a slew of technology companies—more than 600 within the city limits. They include some of the biggest names in the industry—Microsoft, McKesson, HP, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Lexis­Nexis—as well as newer companies such as Priority Payment Systems, an electronic payment processing company, and Jackson Healthcare, a healthcare staffing and technology company. Three hundred more tech companies are just beyond the city’s borders.

All of this activity inspired Mayor David Belle Isle to highlight Alpharetta as a technology hub in his first state-of-the-city speech. Belle Isle says Alpharetta has as many tech companies as the city of Austin.

The mayor’s friend, Mike Lowry, an entrepreneur who has had a long career in technology development, isn’t even waiting for the mayor’s initiative. He’s creating a nonprofit startup incubator appropriately called Tech City South. Lowry is developing an algorithm to assess early startups and will use it to guide a mentorship program. According to Lowry, Alpharetta and Midtown aren’t really in competition with each other. All the tech startups are focused outward, on much bigger prospects. “Can we all run fast enough to be relevant?” says Lowry. “I’d like to think that we’re going to grow at least a few world-class companies out of here.”

Take Georgia 400 due south until you reach Buckhead, and you’ll run right into Atlanta Tech Village, where David Cummings has built a coworking space that is five stories high. Fiber-optic cables from two different service providers bring 1.4 gigabits per second of lightning-fast Internet into this building. “The Village” contains large, corporate-style conference rooms, tiny rent-by-the-month offices, and an open work area with bright white desks, black office chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows.

When Cummings is done with renovations, the amenities at the Village will include an Octane coffee bar, Ping-Pong tables and a gaming room, a patio out front and one on the roof, a video production studio in the basement. And 150 startups and counting.

Cummings, who sold his marketing startup Pardot for $95 million in 2012, will have something more crucial than other local tech hot spots: density. He calls his scheme “engineered serendipity”: energy and collaboration that come from so many tech-savvy and creative people sharing the same space. At 103,000 square feet, Atlanta Tech Village is more than twice as large as ATDC in Midtown. Every Friday, hundreds of entrepreneurs attend Startup Chowdown, a networking lunch that Cummings claims is the largest weekly startup event in the Southeast.

“This event is a very good example of how things have evolved at the Village and how there’s such a need for what they’re doing here,” says Kashi Sehgal, thirty-four, cofounder and CEO of Gigabark, which helps businesses streamline phone, text, and survey interactions with customers. Sehgal has been at the Village for about a year but also attends events at Hypepotamus and, occasionally, at Roam.

Cummings sees the Village as ideally located between the Midtown tech scene and Alpharetta. “We help bridge the gap [for] the professional who lives in the northern suburbs while still being accessible to the creative who wants to live in Midtown and the millennials who want to have an urban environment,” he says. Techies talk about connectivity, but it’s really all about connectedness. It will take connecting all of these far-flung nodes for Atlanta to become the startup world it longs to be.

Startup Successes
These startups grew in Atlanta and are now changing their worlds.

AirWatch helps companies manage and secure the mobile devices used by employees. Founded in 2003, Sandy Springs–based Air Watch raised $200 million in 2013 and announced plans to add 800 new jobs—400 here.

Cardlytics creates marketing based on clients’ purchasing histories. Founded in 2008, it also has offices in San Francisco, New York, and London; partners with about 400 financial institutions; and raised $40 million in 2013.

Cloud Sherpas helps firms use cloud-computing to become more efficient. Founded in 2007, it now has about $100 million in annual revenue and fifteen global offices.

JouleX helps firms manage the energy use of computers and other devices. Founded in 2009, it was acquired by Cisco in 2013 for $107 million.

Kabbage provides quick cash advances to small businesses, online or through a mobile app. Founded in 2008, it has a satellite office in San Francisco and has expanded to the United Kingdom.

MailChimp is an email marketing service. Founded in 2001, it has more than 4 million users.

Priority Payment Systems is an electronic payment processing company. Founded in 2005 in Alpharetta, it now processes about $7 billion in transactions a year and has been named one of the fastest-growing companies in Georgia.


Startups to Watch
These local ventures are beginning to break new ground.

Badgy helps companies get better results from social media. Hypepotamus and Georgia Tech Flashpoint accelerator

BitPay enables online merchants to accept Bitcoin, a digital currency. Atlanta Tech Village

Insightpool helps companies identify their most promising social marketing connections. Atlanta Tech Village

Lumense creates biological and chemical sensors that can be used to test products. Georgia Tech Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC)

Merlin Mobility brings augmented reality to commercial products. ATDC

N4MD helps companies filter and publish info culled from the Internet. Hypepotamus and Georgia Tech Flashpoint graduate

Patientco helps patients manage (and pay) their healthcare bills. ATDC

Pindrop Security helps banks and financial institutions identify fraudulent callers. ATDC and Georgia Tech Flashpoint

Pipefish is building a new social network. Hypepotamus

REACH Health links doctors and patients through a telemedicine network. Alpharetta

ROAR creates apps for churches, schools, and nonprofits. Alpharetta

SimplifyMD provides cloud-based health records. Alpharetta

Must-Bookmark Sites
If you follow one tech blog in Atlanta, make it this one by Stephen Fleming, who runs the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute and is an indefatigable promoter of Atlanta startups.
Click on the “work here” tab for hundreds of job openings at tech and startup companies.
The comprehensive calendar keeps would-be entrepreneurs in the loop.
The Technology Association of Georgia site is a great starting point for tracking down associations, meetings, and event information

This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.