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Losing the Talent War

Make no mistake about it. When it comes to entrepreneurial technical talent, Atlanta is losing the talent war on a daily basis.

Buried in an article about booming tech jobs is a mention of Brian Gorby. Brian’s a Georgia Tech grad who was working for Modosports, an Atlanta gaming company that folded due to funding issues, when I met him. He was pretty well versed in Adobe Flash & Flex development, and digging into iPhone development – he had the intellectual curiosity and internal drive that startups need & crave. I was at Xeko Elf Island – we liked Brian a lot, but because of our own funding challenges, couldn’t move fast enough to offer him a job before he was snapped up by Moxie, a prominent marketing agency (and he may or may not have joined us either way). He spent a brief turn after that in consulting, then built up iOS experience at Sapient before his apparent move to San Francisco – he’s now a Senior Mobile Developer at EventBrite, a pretty darn hot startup focused around event registration.

There are MASSIVE startup opportunities right now in the area of mobile and social. Now ask yourself… what hot Atlanta startup should a talented, entrepreneurial iOS developer have joined? Pretty limited options. After a couple of years at EventBrite, a solid senior engineer will probably be well-positioned to start their own company. What comparable opportunity is there in Atlanta?

Let’s look at the criteria many investors apply to startups – Stanford provides a nice framework of team, product, and market. Momentum is often a 4th criteria. Startup uber-incubator YCombinator focuses primarily on team, presumably because if you have a great team that handles feedback well, an investor can help a great team build the right product for the right market. So what is the crisis of conscience in Atlanta? There is NO lack of talent. We have founder-quality talent moving across the country to accept lesser roles than they would have as Silicon Valley natives. Do our investors lack the confidence that they can help companies find the right market and product? Perhaps.

At Xeko, we lost any chance we had of hiring Brian Gorby because our funding was in flux, and no other social gaming startup in Atlanta was ready to hire a developer with all of the right skills at a time when social gaming was a prime market opportunity (mid-2009).

Atlanta startup founders are often faced with the question of “Are you working on the business full time?” For technical founders, this question is a joke. Any technical founder with 2+ years of experience can pull down $80-120k per year, easy. Suggesting they should go for broke before their startup finds product-market fit is insane and makes no sense from an opportunity-cost perspective, especially when they start families and need insurance and the ability to provide for their family in a town where seed-stage cash is scarce. Once a startup finds traction, they should be able to find funding without being disqualified because they still have a day job they want to quit.

This isn’t a small problem. Atlanta has founder-quality entrepreneurs moving across the country to take staff-level jobs because we can’t recognize the OBVIOUS market opportunities. Mobile, social, gaming – HUGE opportunities. How many investor-driven startups are in Atlanta in this space? Do investors believe our teams aren’t equal to the task? Are investors uncertain in their ability to help great teams find the right market and product? Many investors seem to just want financial projections that imply a guarantee of success. That attitude leads to more brain drain. I hope we can do better, and retain more “Brians”.

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Tent Poles

Growing communities need rallying points, and Atlanta’s startup community is no exception. 

I joined the Atlanta startup community a little over 10 years ago as a developer at Air2Web.  I missed most of the dot-com free-flowing cash, but my experience at the TechJournal Deck Party in 2007 was that a lot of people flooded into startups in Atlanta and washed out when the money dried up.

Things were pretty quiet until around 2007, when events like Atlanta Startup Weekend (which spawned Skribit) and a couple of other events helped us all realize that we weren’t alone in wanting to build great new companies. I’ve hired 2 people I met that weekend, have worked with many more people, and keep in touch with many more people that that from 2007. Before this, I didn’t know of Atlanta startup events, and this was a great awakening.

A couple of years ago, there was a great debate over whether there were “too many” events. We had multiple startup events every week, and nobody knew which ones were important enough to go to. We still have numerous events each week. Some people go to most events, some people go to zero events, nobody knows which events they “should” go to.

I am suggesting that some events should be “can’t miss” events, but they need to be big enough that “important” people can blend in. Some friends we visited this past weekend attend a huge church in Nashville. Several fairly major celebrities such as country music star Brad Paisley attend this church because the event is big enough that they can blend in and not be noticed. Until we outgrow it, I’m suggesting that Atlanta needs some “tent pole” events that form the basis of our community, where successful and aspiring entrepreneurs, VCs, angel investors, and anyone else interesting can mingle without the event being so small that they feel like a target.

I am suggesting that Atlanta Startup Drinks and ATDC Entrepreneur’s Night should be “can’t miss” events each month. I think Startup Drinks needs to grow up a bit, but is up to the task. It needs to look more like the Mashable/Regator mixer, every month. Sponsored, big, in an event space. At this month’s Startup Drinks, we were kicked out at 8 pm – the hospitality and free food/drink were great, but the early ending was just too… early. $5k/month in sponsorships would give sponsors great exposure to some of the smartest, most innovative people in Atlanta and make for a KILLER monthly event.

I give great credit to ATDC for starting Entrepreneurs’ Night, apparently on the 3rd Thursday of each month. I’ve been to 2 of the 3 meetings so far, and assuming Cloud Sherpas doesn’t announce they are leaving town on April 21st, it should be a great event. If your startup isn’t willing to pony up $50/year for some of the best advice and networking in Atlanta, I question how serious you are about your startup. I don’t know if ATDC opens this event to angels and VCs, but I hope they do.

A tent without poles looks like a messy blanket. Atlanta needs some tent pole events to move our community forward. We have too many struggling one-person startups, too many people who NEVER show up to ANY event, too many existing entrepreneurs with “FU Money” working on vanity projects, too many investors afraid of attending an event for fear of spending  an hour talking to a biz dev guy who wants to build a daily deal site but can’t find a developer to build it for them for 1% of the company.

What do YOU think? Could a couple of highly intentional monthly events plus a few annual/quarterly events do a better job of building community and success among Atlanta startups? Are there better monthly events to anchor community? What annual/quarterly events are key to the community?