Reality check: Is Atlanta a high-tech hub or a startup striver?

How those pitches to entrepreneurs actually stack up
Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

With its Fortune 500 companies and successful startups, metro Atlanta is like “a shaken-up Champagne bottle, ready to explode,” proclaimed AirWatch founder Alan Dabbiere, one of the area’s most successful entrepreneurs, at last fall’s Venture Atlanta gathering. Well, as we all know, if there’s one thing Atlanta’s good at, it’s self-promotion. But before we start pouring the bubbly, it would be prudent to recall the common startup-world mantra: “Hope is not a strategy.” Atlanta is busily pitching itself, yearning to be recognized as one of the nation’s top ecosystems for entrepreneurs. How do the pitches stack up?

The Pitch
Hey, entrepreneurs, we’re number one!
Move over, Austin, Boulder, Charlotte. Atlanta’s the best place to start a business—at least, according to the website Both Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and Georgia governor Nathan Deal like to quote Site Selection magazine, which crowned our state as having the nation’s best business climate (based on a survey of corporate executives and factors like tax rates and recent large projects). The Metro Atlanta Chamber likes to remind would-be Atlanta businesses that PCWorld called us the country’s second-most tech-friendly city.

The Reality
Other rankings tell different stories.
The problem with rankings is that they change based on the criteria you use. Atlanta didn’t even land in the top twenty-five in a ranking of high-tech startup density, while Cheyenne, Wyoming, was number ten.

The Pitch
Move here; it’s a great place to live. And cheap, too!
The Choose ATL campaign—launched in late 2013 by a group of digital marketers and backed by a task force of people in startups, major corporations, nonprofits, and the City of Atlanta—positions Atlanta as a hip, fun, friendly, and, most importantly, affordable place to live. And entrepreneurs do, in fact, move here for the lower cost, not to mention the friendlier vibe. “I wanted to relocate to a city where there was a need for new ideas and a willingness to grow from them,” says Donna Bogatin, who brought her executive networking startup, Tastopia, here from New York.

The Reality
Cheapness is not a selling point for everyone.
Sarah Lacy, a popular startups blogger, wrote a post on the influential PandoDaily blog titled, “Memo to non-Valley, non-NYC ecosystems: No one you want cares about the cost of living.” Such cities, she opined, only attract those “not aiming high enough . . . motivated by saving money, not making it, and not building something great.”

The Pitch
Georgia Tech churns out oodles of entrepreneurs.
Tech has produced some legends, such as Christopher Klaus, who hatched the idea for Internet Security Systems (ISS) while he was a student. He dropped out to work on the company and later sold it to IBM for more than $1 billion.

The Reality
Tech’s a relatively late convert to startup fervor.
Although Tech boasts the nation’s oldest university startup incubator, ATDC, the typical grad is an engineer looking for a comfortable gig with a good salary in an established company. The university only recently began to emphasize entrepreneurship for its undergrads. The first for-credit class on building a startup launched this semester.

The Takeaway
Atlanta should ignore other cities and get to work.
Atlanta’s self-promotional bluster has always been paradoxically accompanied by an obsession with comparing itself to other cities. Atlanta should promote its strengths and not fret about rankings, says Paul Judge, a cofounder of startups such as Purewire and Pindrop Security. “I don’t think it’s a city-by-city competition. You don’t go to Austin and hear them worrying about competition. They’re comfortable in their identity.”

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This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.