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Startup Atlanta attempts to find its footing after initial struggles

I'm confident they can have an impact... But they'll never become the hub for startups in Atlanta.'

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  • Courtesy Adam Harrell
  • Startup Atlanta Executive Director Adam Harrell

A city-backed nonprofit once tasked with boosting entrepreneurs has decided to take a new approach to promoting Atlanta’s startup scene.

Founded in 2013 as a funding mechanism for tech startups, Startup Atlanta re-launched last month with a focus on networking and tech-friendly policy-making. According to Adam Harrell, Startup Atlanta’s new executive director, the nonprofit “wasn’t executing in a way that drives impactful results.”

Two of the city’s top startup leaders — Atlanta Tech Village and Michael Tavani, co-founder of Scoutmob and Switchyards Downtown Club — tell Creative Loafing they never used Startup Atlanta’s services in the past. With the city's startup scene continuing to boom, they say the nonprofit could find a stronger role to play, but it would have to be more than what companies are already figuring out on their own.

Tavani says Startup Atlanta was “very ineffective” and worked on such dubious efforts as a startup map that “no one cares about.” Tavani says he knows Harrell, whom he describes as “solid,” and believes a more focused Startup Atlanta might work in some capacity.

“I’m confident they can have an impact,” Tavani says. “But they’ll never become the hub for startups in Atlanta. That was too lofty a goal.”

Harrell says Startup Atlanta has played a role in some successes such as the Atlanta City Council’s recent approval of tax and licensing breaks for certain types of startups. Tavani and Atlanta Tech Village Community Manager Karen Houghton say that proposal doesn’t mean much to company bottom lines, but represents an important symbolic welcome-mat to the startup industry.

“The dollar amount is not ground-breaking.” Houghton says. “It’s very encouraging to see.”

However, Harrell agrees that Startup Atlanta needs a leaner strategy that complements other startups' efforts. The main hurdles for local startups include finding business mentors and capital. Harrell says all of those ultimately involve networking and education. That's why Startup Atlanta is now hosting those kinds of events.

“The most important factor for success…is access to societal networks,” Harrell says.

At an upcoming event in May, Startup Atlanta will connect traditional corporations with startups — both as customers and as potential business mentors. Harrell sees this kind of networking as outreach to communities that might not have otherwise occurred. For another effort, Startup Atlanta is joining Councilman Kwanza Hall’s “Year of Boulevard” program to hold a business-pitch class and competition for kids.

Startup Atlanta will also continue its policy advocacy and launch a “Made in ATL” award program to highlight success stories. Perhaps those efforts will build upon the city’s startup progress. Houghton says Atlanta Tech Village, which houses more than 230 startups in its Buckhead building, has been completely full for over a year and has a wait list. Among the hit startups to “graduate” from its facility is BitPay, a Bitcoin payment service that opened its own headquarters just across the street.

“We’re legitimately now a top 10 city in terms of venture capital,” says Harrell, who notes that Atlanta's has grown by 32 percent in that kind of investment to more than $500 million in the last year. According to Harrell, investors have increasingly encouraged startups to remain in Atlanta, rather move to the typical Silicon Valley headquarters, which in turn helps to build a local startup scene.