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ATDC Startup Showcase – Just Go

ATDC’s Startup Showcase will take place this Monday, May 9th, 2011. At $10 for a ticket, I recommend you take the afternoon and figure out a way to attend. I’ve enjoyed this event the past 2 years, and if I weren’t travelling next week, would absolutely be there. Some of the great reasons to attend:

  • Affordable – At $10/ticket ($15 walk up), it’s a lot easier buy than many conferences. Not only do you not need your company to pay for your ticket, you can actually pay for a ticket from cash in your waller.
  • Great Graduate Companies – A great class of companies is being recognized. I’ve had contact with graduates PlayOn Sports, BLiNQ Media, and Solohealth, and think very highly of them. Great startups, great momentum, and I expect the other graduates hold to a similar standard.
  • The Showcase – want to see what several dozen awesome Georgia startups are working on, and get the chance to actually talk to them instead of just staring at press releases and web sites? Lots of companies will have tables set up to show off and talk to you. If you want a startup job, this can be a good place to find a company that’s hiring.
  • Community – If you’re working on a startup, you need help, and you probably haven’t met everyone who could help you, or whom you could help with their company. Spend a few hours meeting other entrepreneurs, get some feedback on your ideas, pitch, strategies. Find someone to help. Good chance you’ll find someone you can help too.
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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?

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Georgia’s Amendment 1 – A Tale of Six Jobs #voteNoOn1

I’ve been concerned about the wording of the ballot initiative known as Amendment One since the first time I read it.  Political candidates aren’t allowed to campaign within hundreds of feet of polling places, but this wording campaigns for itself right there on the ballot.  Who wouldn’t want to “make Georgia more economically competitive”.  The situation smells fishy, and I want to highlight some of the fishiness through some of my recent experience.

I recently finished spending over 2 years as CTO of  Elf Island (and then Xeko after a merger).  We hired several key artists from a Rezilio, another local gaming company.  The company couldn’t pay its employees, but they hoped to turn the company around.  If they had enforceable non-compete agreements with these employees, they probably would have enforced them against us.  That’s not a judgement against Rezilio, just a logical move.  It’s much easier to turn a company around if the key employees haven’t been hired by someone else.  We would have spent much more time looking for excellent artists familiar with building flash games, and those employees would have waited for courts to sort out the non-competes or abandoned their game skills to start from scratch in another industry.

More recently, Xeko itself closed, leaving myself and several key employees without job or salary.  The company hopes to take on more funding and reopen the game.  While I also hope that happens, I have a family, a mortgage, and many other financial obligations.  Waiting around for funding was not an option.  Fortunately, we knew some people at Menue Americas, who were looking to add a development team to make a new Facebook game.  7 days after Xeko let us go, 6 of us had new jobs with competitive pay, great benefits, and exciting work.  We moved as a functioning team, which has allowed us to produce MUCH faster than a newly formed team could possibly have produced.

While I trust that Xeko’s founders would have treated us fairly, we had taken on several rounds of funding that could have left the decision of how to handle our employment agreements in the hands of investors.  The best interest of these investors is to ensure that key employees would be available to resume company operations in the event that new funding was secured.  I am fairly certain that folks like our team – CTOs, creative directors, art directors, lead developers, etc, are exactly the sort of people that Amendment 1 would seek to constrain under non-compete agreements.  If amendment 1 were in place, I have serious doubts that such a peaceful and quick transition could have been made.  Menue might have hesitated to hire us, fearing that Xeko’s investors would invoke their non-compete rights.  If they did hire us, they could have been tied up in legal disputes for months for the crime of hiring people who had lost their jobs.

Simply put, if you are an employee, or ever expect to be an employee, Amendment 1 is very bad for you in that it WILL limit your ability to use the expertise used in one job to find another job.  Critics suggest that employees should merely read and negotiate their employment agreements as they enter a job.  In the past decade, every single job I have taken has required a non-compete agreement which I have been told is non-negotiable.  This is with small companies – imagine trying to tell AT&T, UPS, Turner, etc. that you, as a staff employee, wish to negotiate your non-compete agreement.  They’ll tell you to go find another job, and the issue is that under Amendment 1, every company’s lawyers will tell them to construct the most restrictive employment agreements possible and let the courts sort it out.  Especially in a time of 10% unemployment (but really any time), people need jobs FAR more than the hiring firms need specific people for specific jobs.  There is an imbalance of negotiating power that current Georgia law addresses, while the proposed law leaves employees with very little power.

Consider the 6 of us who needed a job post-Xeko.  Imagine that we showed up for work on day 1 and had non-compete agreements thrust at us precluding us from working on games for 2 years after our employment with Menue (they did not, but note that the 1st day of work is typically when this sort of agreement is dumped on an employee).  We’re then faced with a choice – extend our period of zero income, or put a major constraint on our future job prospects – most would choose the former, and this does NOT “make Georgia more economically competitive”.  Are we to go home and tell our family that we quit the job on the first day because they threw a document at us that we didn’t like, that the next employer is equally likely to throw at us?  The lack of enforceable non-competes allowed 6 employees and 1 company to reach a mutually beneficial agreement quickly.

There are cases where the government needs to step in to address power imbalances in the free market.  Lawyers and their paranoid advice to companies create a power imbalance in employment that Georgia’s government has, to this point, addressed.  This misleading amendment throws employees to the wolves, where employees will not be able to accept most interesting jobs without compromising their future employability.  This amendment asks voters to vote themselves into handcuffs.  There is no evidence suggesting that Georgia’s economic competitiveness has been harmed.  Newell-Rubbermaid and NCR moved here quite recently, and there’s little evidence that our existing Fortune 500 companies are looking for an escape route because non-competes are harming their business.  There is plenty of research and obvious logical evidence that this will harm early-stage technology firms in Georgia.

Please strongly consider voting “No” on Georgia’s amendment 1.

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Who are Silicon Valley & San Francisco Startups Hiring?

I just returned from a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, and although it was mostly for vacation, I had enough interactions with the startup community there that I’d like to share some observations in the days ahead.

I wasn’t looking for a job out there, and don’t plan on joining Atlanta’s apparent westward migration, but I did have some interesting interactions with startups at all funding phases – seed funding, $1 million+ Series A rounds, and companies funded even better than that.  An interesting trend emerged – all of them had very similar hiring goals.

What was the common role that they were ALL hiring for?  Steve Ballmer knows:

Yes, developers, developers, developers.  One company was at 11 people, all developers, and still hiring for more.

This is VERY contrary to the pattern I’ve seen in my Atlanta startup experience.  The Atlanta norm seems to be starting with a developer or two, filling out the team at the seed or Series A stage, and then minimal developer hires after that.  I’ve seen several entire funding rounds dedicated to building out sales teams, marketing teams, biz dev, etc. with zero additional developer hires.  As a CTO/developer type myself, I’ve often felt like this is a stage where organizational vapor lock begins and progress toward the original, ambitious idea slows dramatically.  (Don’t get me wrong, I like revenue a LOT.)

So what’s the difference?  Of course I don’t KNOW, but I have some ideas.  First, I’d characterize Bay Area startups as somewhat more ambitious, risky ideas on average (more on this at a later date).  When your goal is bigger, you don’t have time to slow the organization down.  Any round of funding is an opportunity to get even further ahead of the competition, and you do that by building product.  Paul Graham has recently written about the importance of a hacker-centric culture – hiring more developers helps with that.  Mark Zuckerberg often hired developers for non-developer roles at Facebook – marketing and more.

I’m honestly a bit jealous, because I can imagine the sorts of awesome companies Atlanta could build if we could concentrate our entrepreneurial developer talent in some big ideas.

So you might ask how these startups set product direction?  I suspect they get great feedback from their users, board, advisors, and peers, and the founders remain heavily involved in setting the product direction.

What do you think?  Does Atlanta hire fewer developers at each stage of funding?  Why or why not?  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

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Apple and iPhone Developers – Caught in a Bad Romance

One of the great philosophers of our time, Lady Gaga, sings about being “caught in a bad romance”, and that’s exactly where iPhone developers find themselves today.

Today, while announcing a batch of nice updates coming in iPhone OS 4, Apple also snuck a nasty change into their Developer Agreement that prohibits the use of certain development toolkits including Flash, Unity 3D, and Appcelerator Titanium.  The developer community is crying foul with a bloody lip over this change, but will heal and probably forget about it again until the next time Apple punches them in the face.  As Ms. Gaga puts it, “I want your love and all your lovers’ revenge”.

It’s time to acknowledge that the Apple/iPhone developer is an abusive relationship.  You’ve probably heard of girls who love some guy, very controlling, that beats her up, but she ‘loves him so much she could never leave him’, and ‘deep down, he really loves me’.  Apple is that guy.  Or perhaps you knew some guy in college who dated some hot girl who was totally psycho?  She’d drag him through the dirt, but she was fun to show off at parties and the fringe benefits were nice.  Yeah, the App Store can keep you warm at night too, but at what cost?

Let’s look at a history of Apple’s psychosis:

  • “Duplicated” Features – VoiceCentral, and MailWrangler were both approved apps for sale in the App Store that Apple arbitrarily removed one fine day because they “duplicated features that the iPhone comes with” and “confused” users.  How hard do you want to work in building and maintaining an app, only to have Apple decide your app is now illegal?
  • Personal Vendettas – Apple regularly screws over developers and users to vindicate their own private feuds.  Google makes Android phones.  They also make iPhone apps, but Apple forced them to make both Latitude and Google Voice as web apps rather than native apps.  The developer is forced to make less powerful apps.  The user gets less powerful apps. It’s also widely suspected that Apple’s ongoing refusal to integrate the hugely popular Adobe Flash plugin into iPhones because of a standing feud between Apple and Adobe.  Apple willfully breaks most video and game sites on the iPhone because they have a grudge.  iPhone owners pay the price.
  • Private APIs – in typical bipolar Apple fashion, they approved tons of apps that used private APIs, then began automatically rejecting apps that use private APIs, and now is beginning to open up use of some private APIs again.  Ever been in a job or relationship where the ground rules change regularly and nobody tells you?  Yeah.  fun stuff.
  • Censorship – Apple has rejected apps for “providing access to vulgar words”“consuming too much bandwidth”, being “offensive”, and even “ridiculing public officials”.  Somehow, Apple has crowned itself some sort of moral authority, and it’s anybody’s guess what they will choose to find immoral.
  • “Sexy” Apps – in the theme of censorship, Apple recently pulled down a bunch of apps with “overt sexual content”, except they left the Playboy, Victoria’s Secret, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit apps up.  Who needs standards when you can have double standards?
  • Objective-C – I hear it’s a very nice language and all, but with numerous, more widely accepted programming languages out there, forcing developers to program in a language only used on Apple’s platforms reeks of an attempt to lock in apps and developers on their platform.

Now to the issue at hand.  Flash, Unity 3D, Appcelerator Titanium, and the numerous other toolkits that Apple effectively banned today have one thing in common – they make it easier to write applications that run on both iPhones and other phones.  Apparently Apple can’t stand the idea of actual competition, and is willing to harm these companies that were following all of their prior rules verbatim. If Apple is truly committed to this course of action, they may well destroy companies that are betting on supporting multiple mobile platforms but don’t have the resources to build separate, native applications for iPhone, Android, Palm, Blackberry, etc.  Nobody saw this coming.  Apple made this compulsive, drastic move that affects hundreds if not thousands of companies that support them in the name of defending Apple’s profit margins.

Committing significant resources to developing for iPhone and iPad is now very much like adopting a pet tiger.  It’s cool and it’s fun, but it’s only a matter of time before Apple mauls you in your sleep.  If you had a girlfriend who you found really attractive, except she made you speak Latin, told you what you could and couldn’t think, changed the ground rules of the relationship on a daily basis, insisted you believe her definition of “sexy”, randomly attacked your friends, and freaked out the moment you thought about going out to dinner with your friends, I’d hope you would get out of that relationship. I hope iPhone developers will see that Apple is just using them for their apps and will turn on them compulsively and without notice.

In the 90’s, technophiles railed against Microsoft for having a semi-closed platform with apps that used undocumented APIs to gain a competitive advantage against their competition, which was any app a user chose to install.  Now, we have a more closed platform that chooses what apps a user can install, rejects apps that compete with its own or attempt to use undocumented APIs, actively opposes a plugin architecture that can spur innovation, prohibits users from installing apps that they want, and developers defend this system because it’s pretty and runs on nice hardware?  Wake up.  It’s time for a break up.

And now, the musical entertainment:

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Jimmy Fallon crashed Twitter (Twitter is mainstream)

I’ve been using Twitter as @rkischuk for the past 16 months.  Twitter is growing.  Fast.

@jimmyfallon has taken the late night show slot on NBC formerly occupied by Conan O’Brien, with moderate viewer ratings thus far.  Interestingly, this evening, Jimmy and guests @kevinrose (Digg.com), @alexalbrecht (Digg.com), and @rustyrockets (Russell Brand, Forgetting Sarah Marshall funny guy) asked their Twitter followers and TV viewers to follow @bryanbrinkman, with the goal of unseating @BarackObama as the most followed person in Twitter.  Bryan’s a New York City based creative dude focused on video and animation.  He started today with 7 followers on Twitter.  For the uninitiated, Twitter is a “micro-blogging” service where users can post what they’re doing in 140 characters or less. Unlike Facebook or MySpace, you don’t have to be “friends” with someone.  I can follow your status updates even if you don’t care what I’m doing, and vice-versa.

I started following Bryan on Twitter earlier on Wednesday, after Jimmy twittered about it, but before the show aired – his follower count was still 4 digits at the time.  When he appeared on the show on the East coast, Bryan had over 11,000 followers due only to the “tweets” (twitter updates) of Jimmy and his guests.  As of the time I’m submitting this post, Bryan has over 18,600 followers, and this is even before Jimmy’s show airs on the Twitter-heavy West coast. In doing so, he passes the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company Magazine to become one of the 10 most popular Twitter users in New York City and in the Top 300 out of 1.3+ million twitter users.  Tuesday, Ellen DeGeneres created Twitter account @TheEllenShow, after guest @iamdiddy (P Diddy) demonstrated Twitter to her, and already has almost 50,000 followers in just 2 days, placing her among the 200 most popular twitterers.  Twitter has also been heavily talked about on the major news networks – it is everywhere.

As I was updating stats for this post, Twitter showed me a fail whale several times, as it does then they’re getting more traffic than they can handle.  Twitter Search‘s trending topics at the time were Jimmy Fallon, Google Voice, Bryan Brinkman, #SxSW, Late Night, South Park, Watchmen, Russell Brand, #melo, and GrandCentral – with 4 of these 9 topics related to Fallon’s gag, I have to believe that the fail whale was caused by Jimmy Fallon sending a ton of curious viewers to Twitter in a burst.

Twitter is everywhere on TV now, so much that I am inclined to call it mainstream.  I see not just technophiles on Twitter now – I see people I know from all disciplines – PhD chemists, real estate agents, entertainers, churches, you name it – joining Twitter.  Twitter’s been pretty stable lately, but with 33% growth in just the past month, and the ability of a single mainstream media hit to induce fail-whale’s, I think we’re in for a whole new era of growth as Twitter is embraced by a mainstream audience, and a whole new era of odd Twitter behavior as a flood of new users enters faster than the existing users can educate them about Twitter’s social norms.