Force of Harm?

Lance Weatherby of ATDC and Socialytics wrote a post today entitled Nobody Told Me where he ranted about how there are too many startup activities in Atlanta and not enough people "creating products, getting customers, and building companies."  After writing a long comment which his blog wouldn’t accept for some reason I decided now would be as good a time as any to start blogging again. What follows is the comment I originally wrote for Lance’s blog:

As someone who started a monthly Atlanta Web Entrepreneurs meetup back in Jan 2007 I feel like this post paints a target on my back. Hopefully that was not your intention?

What may not be obvious is I have been agonizing over the issues you described for over two years but not sure how my efforts could evolve to help. At the end of last year I finally realized how my efforts could positively affect execution and as such I made the changes to AWE that I did, i.e. renaming AWE to Atlanta Web Marketers and also launching Startup Atlanta.

First, one thing that I obviously wasn’t able to make clear to you (and others?) was that Atlanta Web Marketers is NOT targeted at Startups and listing it in this context is doing it a disserve. AWM is targeted at small and medium sized businesses, non-profits, government agencies and replicative entrepreneurs, NOT on innovative startup entrepreneurs with a goal of helping them market their products and services better on the web. FYI, there is a huge demonstrated need for people who are effectively operating their organizations to learn how to better market on the web and that’s the market need that AWM is targeting. AWM meetings is all about execution those people in those organizations, and by focusing on that target market it becomes a business itself and running the events are execution. So please take AWM off your list of Atlanta Startup events, as it’s not. 

Next, Ignition Alley events are for the most part not startup-specific events either. Some are but most of them are targeting the same market as AWM events. It’s as unfair to list Ignition Alley events as being part of the glut of startup events as it it is to blame people who live and work intown as being part of the metro Atlanta’s rush hour traffic problem.

Continuing, there is Startup Atlanta and it is NOT an event; it is a (soon-to-be) non-profit who mission is to study the ecosystem, identify how to grow it and as much as possible be a catalyst help others execute on on advancing the ecosystem. Yes Startup Atlanta will run the #OnStage event monthly (which I think you misnamed as "OnStartup" in your post), it will run roundtables, it will run task force meetings, and it will probably run other events. However, unlike the former Atlanta Web Entrepreneurs events all of Startup Atlanta’s activities will be measured by how well the activities focus startup entrepreneurs on executing and/or growing the ecosystem support needed by startup entrepreneurs to execute and not providing new ways to waste time.

Specifically let’s look at #OnStage. It’s modeled after the NY Tech meetups that according to those I’ve spoken with in New York has been very effective in driving startup execution in the New York area. It’s an event that can give some local entrepreneurs exposure for their startup rather than how most have toiled in obscurity. As a requirement for presenting at #OnStage startup entrepreneurs must demo their offerings somehow (NO powerpoint) so all those who haven’t executed well enough to have something to show won’t qualify. In addition #OnStage allows the audience 10 minutes of rude Q&A forcing presenting entrepreneurs to be well prepared with a viable business model or to come across looking rather foolish to the community. Finally #OnStage rewards startup entrepreneurs who are doing the best job of executing by selecting winners and getting those winners more exposure which hopefully will mean more customers, partners and/or investors.

Beyond that, Startup Atlanta will only be promoting events that have as a goal to either advance the ecosystem or help startups execute better, and we’ll be focusing on metrics as much as possible.

And while Ben Sabrin and those like him may know all they need to execute well without outside help not everyone who could otherwise execute successfully knows everything they need to succeed. And that’s where targeted, smaller events come in including some we plan for Startup Atlanta. I’ve also noticed that ATDC has a plethora of such events which you didn’t mention including "Circles", "Brown Bags", "Open Coffees", and more. While they too add to the glut of events I actually expect they are of the type that will help startups execute better (well, maybe the first two named and possibly others; though not sure about Open Coffees.)

But while I think while your criticism would have been very well placed about this time last year today it’s a little late because we as an ecosystem have evolved. For example, I understand that StartupChicks is doing some really fabulous events focused on execution for their constituents (but as I lack the requried chromosomes I can’t give a firsthand testamonial.) Capital Lounge has renamed to StartupLounge Atlanta to refocus, according to my memory of my discussion with Scott Burkett, on execution rather than on raising capital. And Startup Gauntlet is focused on perfecting a pitch; again, execution and not something you can repeatedly attend. StartupRiot is as I understand it in large part focused on both getting local attention for startups and gaining attention from investors outside of Atlanta who actually write checks, and that is something many local startups badly need to execute as well. I believe most of these evolved because their organizers identified a need to focus more on results and execution.

And some of the other events you mentioned are industry or technology specific too, not startup-specific. So you do Mobile Monday, AWsome Atlanta, SoCon, and ProductCamp all a disserve by listing them here. (As an aside, you didn’t mention ATLRUG; it’s inline with AWsome so why not? As for ATDC/TAG Entrepreneurs and Venture Pipeline I don’t have enough experience with them to comment.)

So Lance please do get to know the value each event and it’s associated organization has to local startup execution and learn which events are startup-related and which are not. Casting doubt on the value certain activities bring may end up harming the creation of products, the gaining of customers and the building of companies more than it helps. 

-Mike Schinkel
Executive Director; Startup Atlanta
Organizer; Atlanta Web Marketers
Partner; Ignition Alley Atlanta Coworking 

P.S. Personally speaking, I spent 2007 through 2009 getting to know people in the Atlanta startup community and to build relationships both as an event host and by attending as many related events as I could. I had never done this locally during my prior two decades and my ability to grow my business beyond $12 million annually greatly suffered because of it (and I expect others who rarely or don’t create relationships in the community suffer an inability to execute as well.) But my New Years resolution for 2010 is to focus my event hosting and attendance on only those events that will help achieve the execution goals I’ve set for Startup Atlanta, for AWM, and for myself. To your point Lance, I’d recommend startup entrepreneurs do the same. 

16 comments ↓

#1 Marna Friedman on 02.04.10 at 4:43pm

Mike,
I do agree that many of these events are not startup related. Atlanta has a large startup community, as well as a large entrepreneurial community, which are not the same. And as a member of both, I appreciate the variety of offerings. I have benefitted from many of the programs you have offered, as well as others. I see a big difference in the focus on startups in 2010 and think that the activity at Start Weekend (2009) as well as startupatlanta, startupchicks and startupriot will produce companies that ARE working towards creating products, getting customers and building companies. I think we all need to work together to continue to make this a focus and it will happen.
Marna

#2 Richard LeBer on 02.04.10 at 5:31pm

Mike,

Great post. As I pointed out on Lance’s blog and you emphasize here: a diversity of events targeted at different purposes and different audiences is a good thing. Lance likes vibrancy, and so do I. Vibrancy is born out of abundance, variety and diversity.

That’s not to say that fragmenting the community between warring factions is a good thing, but I don’t think that’s really what’s going on.

And sure, organizers like you, me, Jen Bonnett, Sanjay, and all the others could probably coordinate things a bit more. That would help our audiences understand how the events differ and would avoid unnecessary overlaps, which would make everyone’s events more valuable.

But “no more events”? Pshaw!

Richard

#3 Lance Weatherby on 02.04.10 at 5:54pm

I believe everyone is well intentioned and did not criticize you or anyone else’s efforts. I have actively helped ATLRUG, AWE, AWSome, ProductCamp, SoCon, StartupChicks, StartupLounge, StartupGauntlet, & Startup Riot. I have been to all these events and know the organizations (including yours) and understand their value.

I wrote the original article in about 5 minutes after Mr. Lennon sparked the thought. Please forgive the inaccuracies of the post. But there is no reason to personally attack me or my knowledge. I was not targeting anyone but merely putting a thought out for discussion. If it provokes this type of reaction my only conclusion is that you need to get laid more.

#4 MikeSchinkel on 02.04.10 at 6:18pm

Lance, thanks for the comment. I wasn’t trying to attack you, and I greatly appreciate your support in the past and I assume in the future. My wording may not have been chosen as well as it should have been, but I wrote my reply when I should have been doing other things.

That said I felt your post might spark a backlash against events and more importantly activities that are beneficial so I wanted to ensure there was another perspective presented.

Whatever the case, let’s focus on execution moving forward, right?

P.S. As for me needing to get laid more, no comment. ;-p

#5 Jason Brett on 02.04.10 at 7:17pm

Yeah…1,165 words. I’d say blogging instead of commenting was appropriate. :-)

That said, Lance’s post is accurate IMO. The 14 events he listed were “semi-startup focused events.” So these events might be beneficial to startup entrepreneurs, but are not necessarily targeted at them.

The difference in Lance and my own opinion (I think) is that the solution lies not in adding coordination, but in people being more discerning about which events they attend and which events are irrelevant to them.

Certainly, individual event organizers will serve their constituents well by trying to provide something unique, and should collaborate when they overlap. And, if the goal of an event is to serve the community, then that’s just good sense.

For the record, two of Lance’s companies have helped ProductCamp, and Lance was a panelist at the last ProductCamp, so I didn’t take his comments as intended to devalue or diminish any of the events he listed.

#6 MikeSchinkel on 02.04.10 at 7:35pm

@Jason At this point I realize I was reticent to have not mentioned that Lance has been extremely supportive of Atlanta Web Entrepreneurs over the past several years. Actually, without his help we wouldn’t have gotten it off the ground so I can’t thank him enough for that.

#7 Ben Sabrin on 02.04.10 at 10:10pm

Wow, what drams, can’t we all get along. I will restate what I wrote on Lance’s blog. Let’s start more companies, not groups about starting companies. During the JBoss years, I paid zero attention to what was going on in the Atlanta start up scene, I paid attention to what was going on in my industry. The face that we were a start-up was irrelevant, we were competing with giants, and that is where we spent our time and focus. People working in the start-up world should be way too busy building their businesses and spending time with family. If they get the time to attend a meeting it should be meaningful, and involve learning something that is directly relevant to growing their business or some form of community service. Having successful entrepreneurs share stories, or local VC’s talk about vision would be relevant IMHO.

Not sure why people take things so personal. Let’s all get out there and create some great companies, then use those great companies to build other companies, etc, etc. That is what is going to make Atlanta more like the valley and austin, not MORE GROUPS about start-ups.

Respectfully,
Ben Sabrin

#8 MikeSchinkel on 02.04.10 at 11:11pm

@Ben Wow, what drams, can’t we all get along.”

Who is not getting along? We are debating issues, we are not fighting.

@Ben “Let’s start more companies, not groups about starting companies.”

So I don’t make incorrect assumptions, what “groups” are you taking issue with?

@Ben “People working in the start-up world should be way too busy building their businesses and spending time with family.”

And my hat is off to you for your past success.

Honestly, I wish I had been as able to be successful as you in my prior business (VBxtras/Xtras.Net) but I didn’t have the same type of exit as you. I made many mistakes along the way in large part because I didn’t have any mentors or even any peers at that time. I did build a company that grew ~1750% over 5 years, but that wasn’t enough. I was flying blind and did the best I could.

But if I *had* paid more attention to what was going on in the Atlanta startup scene at the time (1994-2006) I’m certain I would have been much better able to make the right decisions at the right time when I needed help that I didn’t have. And I’m not alone; most entrepreneurs don’t themselves have all the answers and building relationships with potential mentors and other entrepreneurs to help them when the going gets tough will help them execute and succeed.

@Ben “If they get the time to attend a meeting it should be meaningful, and involve learning something that is directly relevant to growing their business or some form of community service.”

I’d like to know what “startup scene” meeting you’ve attended that has not been like that so I know whether to agree with you or debate?

@Ben “Not sure why people take things so personal.”

I assume you are implying I’m taking this personally? Far from it, I’m addressing an issue in hopes to keep from having group think take over and have a backlash against all startup activities, valuable or not. Me addressing this issue is no different than you taking issue with a blog post advocated that one only ever needs to use Craigslist for recruiting where lots of inhouse recruiters were echoing agreement in the comments.

@Ben “Let’s all get out there and create some great companies, then use those great companies to build other companies, etc, etc. That is what is going to make Atlanta more like the valley and austin, not MORE GROUPS about start-ups.”

The goal is of course to make great companies.

But entrepreneurs cannot always do it alone. Even in the Valley they have groups. In the Valley they have 51 groups on Meetup.com alone within 25 mile radius of Sunnyvale as well as SVASE:

http://bit.ly/startup-meetups-silicon-valley
http://www.svase.org/

What’s more, not all activities are merely groups.

So I’ll repeat the question, which “groups” do you take issue with?

#9 Ben Sabrin on 02.05.10 at 1:56pm

Mike,

I do not have an issue with you or any of the groups you propogate. I can go line by line and debate you, but I will take the higher groud. For the record, I would never comment on a blog about Craigslist being the only recruiting tool one needs as the mere idea is absolute nonsence if you are hiring highly skilled people.

Cheers,
Ben

#10 MikeSchinkel on 02.05.10 at 2:07pm

@Ben Thanks for the comments.

I do wish though you haven’t said you’d “take the higher ground” because that implies I wasn’t. I stand by what I wrote as I made no personal attacks in my comment, implied or otherwise. I was only discussing the issue.

#11 Ben Sabrin on 02.07.10 at 12:46pm

Mike,

I did not mean to imply you did anything wrong, so I stand corrected on the choice of the words I used. I am not getting personal in the commentary to follow, just speaking my mind.

I came to one of your meetings that was very well attended and was anything but impressed. I really wanted to engage myself into the startup community in Atlanta, but was soured by what I saw. The majority of the time was spent talking about a co-working space and not much was spent talking about anything that is going to enable people to start great companies. Granted I always enjoy listening to Scott Burkett talk as he is hysterical.

You mentioned that people need mentors, to which I agree. However, a true entrepreneur will break down any wall in order to achieve their goals. The best people figure things out on their own, or are not afraid to ask people of power and influence for help IMHO. If you are passionate and resourceful enough you can get to anyone, you just need to have a good pitch and understand how to network. This type of behavior is not learned it is innate. So we can have meetup after meetup trying to educate people that should be employees on how to be entrepreneurs, but at the end of the day we are going to have egg all over our face. You should not confine yourself to experts in Atlanta, you should reach out to people wherever they may be. The key is relevant knowledge is what is important, not the geographic proximity.

Therefore, I would rather see people get involved in meetups about their specific industry, learn from the people doing things you want to do. At JBoss, we attended and presented at almost every Java user group in the US, even in remote places like Tulsa, OK. We just got out amongst our users and potential customers.

If I could make one suggestion as a community, I would say it should be more doing and less organizing. If I was in your shoes, I would try and have one big event per quarter that has a panel of people like Chris Klaus, Marc Fleury, Peter Kight, Jeffrey Sprecher or Edwin Marcial from ICE, and many others around town who have been a part of a successful exit either through IPO or acquisition or both. People who know how to go form ZERO to millions, not from zero to 10.

Cheers,
Ben

#12 MikeSchinkel on 02.08.10 at 12:24am

@Ben: Thanks. I appreciate your response and clarity.

As for the meeting you attended, I agree 100%. It was not a great meeting (of course there were meeting that have been better, but still.)

Are you aware I concluded Atlanta Web Entrepreneurs because I felt after 3 years it had run it’s course for essentially the same reasons you were not impressed? (Do you know of any other local group that has done that as it’s membership was growing?) I did so in order to take what we learned and focus our efforts on something that could be much more effective.

I started AWE in Dec 2006 with no specific mission but instead a desire to get to know a dozen other startup entrepreneurs. At that time there were very few outlets for meet othering who were also interested in startups. There was such a vaccuum that we grew our member counts rapidly which included many people who were in a perpetual state of envisioning but never executing. After most meetings people praised our meetings but I always felt as if AWE was not making a difference. I’ve been told repeatedly AWE did make a difference but I haven’t seen any IPOs or $100 million exits related to AWE so I’ve never felt it was successful.

At the end of 2009 I was finally able to recognize why AWE wasn’t helping much and what to do instead. It’s from that recognition we spawned Startup Atlanta. Startup Atlanta is not an event, it’s a (future) not-profit whose mission is to be a catalyst to advance the startup ecosystem in Atlanta. It will have a monthly event named #OnStage but that event does not define Startup Atlanta, it is merely one small aspect. Further, #OnStage is designed to seperate the dreamers from executers as only the later will have something real to demo, it will have rude Q&A to embarrass those with foolish ideas, and it will showcase startups that are excelling for their benefit and hopefully get their peers to strive to a higher level.

So I ask you not to judge that which I have just sunsetted but instead evaluate that which we are launching anew. But please give us some time before you declare success for failure. Be aware our stated time horizon is 10 years, so judging us in 1 or even 3 months is not appropriate (note: Fred Wilson says “Startup Ecosystems Take Time”: http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2009/11/startup-ecosystems-take-time.html and when I emailed him my plans for Startup Atlanta he replied “I think you are doing exactly the right things.” I will forward you that email privately if you’d like to see it.)

As for there being a “true entrepreneur” I believe that is a mythical black & white. If it were true then we wouldn’t have a disparity between geographic regions; i.e. all regions would have roughly the same percentage of successful entrepreneurs instead of Silicon Valley, NYC, Boston, Seattle, Austin and Boulder so outpacing the rest of the country. Clearly there are some things that make some of the the grey area entrepreneurs successful and Startup Atlanta’s goal is to figure out what those are and then be catalyst to bring those advantages here.

What’s more, your comments focus on the existing “members” of the “startup community” and ignore the many very capable people in Atlanta who thus far have choosen to work at agencies or large companies rather than at startups. Our local culture does not encourage “startup” as an attractive career choice for most. That’s one of many things Startup Atlanta aims to see changed.

What’s more, many of those people you imply that are not “true” entrepreneurs might well be more capable if they are mentored by another successful startup entrepreneur by working for that entrepreneur as he or she becomes successful, i.e. by working for a startup that succeeds. That is another thing that Startup Atlanta plans to be a catlyst for, to encourage would-be startup entrepreneurs to join a promising startups first before trying to launch their own.

I’ve seen many people, myself included, go from seeing roadblocks to recognizing that walls are meant to be broken down because they learned to believe in themselves via the influence of mentors. For example, maybe some of the “not-yet-true-entrepreneurs” (my view) could work for eHire and learn from you during your future success? I fully expect you to be very successful, and I’d love to see others who want to be future entrepreneurs learn during your journey. A series of startup job fairs may be what’s needed for this (or maybe something else, we don’t know yet.)

As for confining myself to experts in Atlanta, I’m not sure where you extrapolated that or maybe I misunderstood. Can you clarify?

Regarding specific industries, in my former company (1994-2006) we presented/exhibited at probably 6 conferences a year. We kicked ass for five years. But then I made mistakes and missed opportunities that I would not have made had I had the startup community peer support group that we have now. Because of those mistakes my company slowly declined until I made a less than stellar exit in 2006. So I think the answer is not “all startup events” vs. “all industry events” I think it is both, in respective moderation.

As for your suggestion of a quarterly conference, thanks for your advice. I think what you discuss would be fanastic, but based on my 3 years of AWE I don’t think it would be enough. And I don’t mean not enough events, I mean not enough because such a quarterly effort would be hard to be focused on outcomes and that’s what our efforts beed to be focused on.

Regarding #OnStage, Startup Atlanta will continue to do a monthly event because we committed to it for 2010 and because it will allow us to showcase 40 more startups this year rather than 15. But startup entrepreneurs need not attend every month. As much as possibe we will be promoting outside the startup community in an effort to draw attention from would be employees, investors, and more We expect to generate excitement from people who have previously never considering becoming involved in a startup in Atlanta much like the NY Tech meetup did for New York.

As for a quarterly event, we’d love to see someone take that on, and we’d help them in whatever way they would need. To be clear, Startup Atlanta’s goal is to catalyze aspects of the ecosystem until they are able to stand on their own at which point we can focus elsewhere.

To be clear my efforts (and also those of several other local startup event organizers I’ve spoken to in 2010) will be focused on driving execution and not specifically on driving events. Fittingly, what I’m saying is our own execution should be judged based on the execution we are able to help spawn in the region and I hope that you’ll give us the benefit of the doubt early on. After all, every startup entrepreneur destined for success also needed others to give them the benefit of the doubt.

So I don’t think we are in much disagreement at all. I agree with you completely in our need collectively to focus on execution. I think, if you’ll permit me to conjecture, the only real difference is that you witnessed a snapshot of my efforts at a point in which I was about to undergo a metamorphosis but you haven’t really been privy to the evolution that has occurred since. I’m hoping that once you come to understand the changes you’ll be supportive and we can together all do good for the region.

P.S. Again, to be clear, I’m not arrogant enough to think I can affect these changes alone. But I can champion the cause and work with others to study what needs to be done and encourage many, many others to collectively to drive the needed improvements. And I do think I’m up for that task.

#13 Ben Sabrin on 02.08.10 at 5:15pm

Mike,

Who are the people who ask the rude Q&A at these events. One of the reasons Simon Cowell and Donald Trump get away with it, is they have been there and done that. If the people asking the questions have never done anything significant involving launching a business that has been successful, what is the value?

Just curious,
Ben

#14 MikeSchinkel on 02.08.10 at 5:41pm

@Ben thanks for the continued follow up, and great question.

As a preface when I said “Rude Q&A” I got the term from here:
http://blog.asmartbear.com/devils-advocate.html

The Q&A was open to the audience but I invited numerous people that have done things significant to be in the audience to vote on most viable (vs. crowd favorite) and it turns out those were the people who asked most of the questions: Richard LeBer, Urvaksh Karkaria, Keith McGreggor, Mike Blake, Scott Burkett, Sterling Wharton, Jeff McConnell, Dave Wright, and Ed Rieker (I invited several others but they all had prior engagements; I’ll email you the full list so you can see.)

Ed and Sterling ended up asking the most questions, and Ed started off every Q&A with a “How are you going to make money?” which was priceless!

Hopefully these rated as adding value? I’d actually love to have you being one of those people asking questions and I’m sure your hard questions would add great value.

Bottom line, we are trying to do things that will add value and minimize time wasted by entrepreneurs. We plan to focus on metrics to determine what does and what doesn’t add value, and plan to listen to those who have knowledgeable voices, such as yours, to help determine what those metrics should be. And while I’ll understand if you can’t or won’t provide at least moral support, I really hope that you will.

#15 Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made: Does it really matter? | MikeSchinkel.com on 02.28.10 at 8:47pm

[…] not saying that Mark is wrong (or that he is right) but it felt like he was being defensive (as I have been recently.) So if Mark was being defensive I’ll willingly give him a pass because it’s hard to […]

#16 Glen Williams on 03.04.10 at 7:23pm

Hey Mike,

Here’s my “way to go” comment with regard to your clarification of content in Lance’s blog post. Full disclosure - I’ve nothing against Lance W. He’s a good guy - and you are too.

I just wanted to give your efforts (with AWM and SUA) a big vote of confidence. Passion is my middle name (well, not actually … :-) so when I see it others, I believe it needs to be highlighted when appropriate.

You (and others) are putting forth a heck of an effort trying to make “StartUp” things happen is this slow-to-innovate town we love. And with that sweat offering, you’re within your right to opine about how you help others.

One day, and soon I hope, your efforts along with other locals will quicken ATL’s evolution into an entreprenuerial ecosystem comparable to Austin, Boston and NYC. Including Silicon Valley is a bit of a stretch here … LOL

Once StartUp Atlanta gets rolling on structure, process and policy, count me in.

P.S. I agree with Richard’s comments. Coordination of activities would be a good thing …. no, great thing. Hope to see more of that take place as well.

Glen

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