Entrepreneur Offers Space and Ideas To Grow Brands


Tucked away in Atlanta’s Telephone Factory Lofts is an industrial office space where the biggest brands come to life and creativity is ignited. You won’t find any white fluorescent lights or cubicle walls.

“It’s very open, no desks, no offices,” said Richard Leslie. “I might work in that chair today or at that table the next. It’s nice.”

Leslie is a serial entrepreneur. He’s owned a magazine, a nightclub and an ad agency. His former agency, Trend Influence, grew to a point where overhead was a constant burden, which often had a negative effect on the time and human resources available to create real craftsmanship. After running the agency for more than a decade, Leslie realized that only one part of the ad business sparked his inner flame.

“I wasn’t thrilled with shooting TV commercials or building websites, but I was always very interested in human motivation and brand strategy,” he said.

A new idea – a new business – was born.

Culture is Leslie’s brand intelligence firm. Along with partners Oliver Perrin and Brandon Sutton, he launched it a year ago and they earned their first dollar in January. While the traditional focus of advertising is to tell a story to stimulate a transaction or a purchase response, Culture helps brands align with what their core customers care about and believe.

“We’re a relationship counselor between brands and their constituents,” Leslie said. “We help brands become less subjective, which helps them act in a way that resonates with the core beliefs of their customers.”

So far this year, he’s helped Captain D’s, Arby’s, Coca-Cola and Reebok to improve their connections with their consumers. For example, Culture has helped Reebok understand the core motivation for why people around the world make the decision to be physically fit.

Leslie has a distinct point of view about brands and what motivates people. That’s one reason he works for himself.

“I have control to do what I think is the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s not about financial freedom or making more money because for me that’s secondary. It’s definitely about finding a better way.”

Big, bold ideas can happen anywhere, but there’s something to be said for the right space for ideation. Leslie’s second business, illuminarium, is all about space to think. It’s a collaborative workshop facility he leases to teams to work together to solve problems in a unique environment. Extensive dry erase walls are available in multiple areas of the facility . Unlike when you were a kid, it’s okay to write on the walls there. Culture uses the illuminarium facility extensively because it was purpose-built for exactly the kind of insight and ideation sessions that have become a signature of Leslie’s style, but clients such as Delta Airlines, AKQA, Campbell’s, Coca-Cola, Northstar Research Partners and Atlanta Community Food bank have all taken advantage of the availability of the space. This was a part of Leslie’s original plan. “When we started we intentionally designed Culture and Illuminarium to be mutually-supporting,” he said. “The two businesses reinforce one another and set each other apart. When you’re just getting started it’s important to get the most out of every investment.”

Leslie has the following advice for those thinking about starting a business:

  1. Keep your overhead low.
  2. Be ready to not make money. It may take a while so make sure you have support systems in place so the money stress does not drive your business strategy.
  3. Be flexible and willing to change your strategy as circumstances change.
  4. Manage your cash flow well, a credit facility can be your best friend.
  5. Be likable. People usually have to like you to work with you.

Startup Roundup 11.19.13

We know you’re busy running your startup. You don’t have time to search for all of the relevant content out there for entrepreneurs and small businesses. But we do. Each Tuesday, in Startup Roundup, we compile smart stuff we’ve seen. If we leave out something good, post a link at the bottom for others. This is a community, and Atlanta will keep thriving if we keep sharing. 

Govathon II: Civic hackers come back to City Hall for more techno troubleshooting For 24 hours this weekend, an army of programmers, designers, and students took over City Hall for the second time in nine months for Govathon. The 24-hour City Hall-sponsored hackathon brings together Atlanta’s tech-savvy set and tasks them with finding modern solutions to the city’s woes. Read the story here. 

Sensor startup Lumense raises $2.65M in Coca-Cola led Series B Atlanta-based sensor technology startup Lumense has raised a reported $2.65 million from the GRA Venture Fund and The Coca-Cola Company.
Formed in June 2011, Lumense offers chemical and biological sensors targeted for use in the poultry, food and beverage, and water quality industry. Read the story here. 

BofA: Atlanta small biz owners optimistic, but concerned about ’14  Small business owners in Atlanta feel optimistic about the future of their business, but Washington bickering and gridlock have them a bit spooked about 2014, according to Bank of America Corp.’s fall 2013 Small Business Owner Report. Read the story here.

How One Small Business Got Big  At the most recent She Owns It business group meeting, the owners were joined by a guest, Rebecca Cenni, who founded Atrium Staffing in 1995. Atrium is a staffing and payroll firm with about 130 employees, $140 million in annual sales, and offices in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and four cities in New Jersey. Ms. Cenni talked about the challenges of growing and managing her business, offering insights she has gained since starting Atrium at age 23. Read the full New York Times story here. 

Kabbage Brings Its Small Business Lending Service To Mobile  Kabbage, the Atlanta-based company offering working capital to online merchants and sellers on marketplaces like Etsy, eBay and Amazon who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get a bank loan, is today expanding its business to mobile. The company is officially introducing its new apps for both iOS and Android, which will enable Kabbage users to quickly add funds to their associated bank or PayPal account while on the go. Read the story here.


Entrepreneur Charges Ahead with Atlanta-Based Electric Car Company

It started with a movie.

While watching Chris Paine’s award-winning documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” Mike McQuary, CEO of Wheego Electric Cars, recognized a familiar voice. It was a voice of passion.

“What surprised me was the passion of the people who had been driving electric cars,” says McQuery. “They said things like, ‘I loved that car’ and ‘I’d buy another one tomorrow.’”

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard the outcry of such a passionate consumer base. The former president and COO of Atlanta-based MindSpring remembered those voices from the early days of providing Internet service.

“In the early days (of MindSpring), people would say things like ‘I got two of my coworkers to sign up’ and ‘I’m sending an extra $10 because I don’t want you to go out of business,’” he says. “I recognized that voice and said it looks like they need an electric car—I wonder if I can make one.”


More than five years later, McQuary and his Atlanta-based company, Wheego Electric Cars, did exactly that. The business has sold 400 of its two-seat, North American-assembled, all-electric Wheego LiFe vehicles.

He credits the success of Wheego to the people he has surrounded himself with in Atlanta.

“One of the most attractive things about Atlanta is the universities like Georgia Tech and Emory — top academic institutions — that are cranking out smart, really qualified college grads,” he says. “I’ve always tried to tap into that sort of intellectual capital, both in terms of interns and hiring young, smart people. I was comfortable that I wouldn’t have to leave Atlanta to get this venture up and running.”

The road to 400 vehicles was not reached without sweat. High profile failures like Coda Automotive and Fisker Automotive along with the shuttering of a series of smaller startups highlight the challenges of creating a new product for a new market.

Initially, the cars were built as low-speed vehicles and had to meet very few requirements to be roadworthy. When Wheego decided to build a highway-ready version, it faced major regulatory hurdles.

“My biggest surprise was how difficult it is to get a car through crash testing. The NHTSA requirements… it is spectacularly detailed,” he says. “Getting through all of those regulations is a very difficult process. It’s a gauntlet, definitely.”

McQuary was also surprised by the challenge of raising capital — a common concern among startups — particularly after the success of MindSpring. Wheego was created in the depths of the recession and has had slower growth than he envisioned.

“I thought it would be a lot easier… it’s surprising to me that you can have a lot of success and still have trouble convincing people that you’re on the right track,” he says.

Still, the company continues to grow and is looking to expand into new markets. Plans for a larger, five-seat SUV are currently in the works, as well as a goal of expanding in the Asian and European markets.

His advice to potential entrepreneurs: be resilient.

“Sometimes the plan isn’t going to go the way you envision it,” he says. “You have to realize that it’s going to be a tough road. If you have a failure in one venture you look upon that as a learning experience. People who have even the greatest successes can point to things that didn’t go their way.”



Panel Highlights Strengths, Needs of Atlanta-Based Tech Startups


On Wednesday, October 30, Hines Atlanta hosted a venture capital session of its “Catalysts for Growth: a Game Changing Conversation” speaker series. During the hour-long session, panelists spoke about Atlanta’s positive qualities for technology startups and how the city compares to others with booming technology sectors.

Moderated by John Heagy of Hines Atlanta, participants included Alan Taetle, general partner, Noro-Moseley Partners; Bernice P. Dixon, president and chairman, Atlanta Technology Angels; and John C. Yates, partner-in-charge of technology practice, Morris, Manning and Martin LLP.

“When I lived in DC, the notion of Atlanta was, well, they talk a little slower, they do business a little slower and you have to talk about their parents before you do any business,” said Dixon. “When I moved here I learned that these were not stereotypes merited to the new Atlanta.”

Among many positive attributes, panelists agreed that the quality of Atlanta’s workforce makes the city a prime location for tech startups.

“We’ve got fantastic universities from a technology perspective, and surprisingly good management,” said Taetle. “We have a long DNA of high growth companies in the tech software world that we draw and will continue to draw on and those are the core attributes.”

Yates added that highly educated, talented individuals tend to draw more talented people to a region, creating a concentrated population that promotes entrepreneurial activity.

The city’s low cost of living also enables young professionals to comfortably live in the city.

“I spend a lot of time in San Francisco and one thing I found is that it’s really expensive,” said Yates. “I think the ability to have affordable housing and affordable rental opportunities for young people really is key and you have that in Atlanta.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was highlighted as a key asset to the city, not only enabling financiers to travel in and out of the city with ease, but also providing the logistical backbone for future growth.

“Atlanta is in a great position as a transportation hub and as a logistics center, with UPS here, spawning a lot of businesses,” said Dixon.

Panelists noted that other entrepreneurial “hotbeds” like Silicon Valley, Boston, and Northern Virginia areas are crowded with investors. Conversely, the Atlanta community was described as underserved and undercapitalized.

According to Taetle, 90 percent of capital for startup businesses in Atlanta is from out-of-state. He conceded that more local capital is needed to bolster the startup community. “It sure would be nice to have a bit more local capital, because it tends to be earlier and you know the people a little bit better,” he said. “Also the local corporations provide some connectivity which makes it frictionless. It would be great for it to be less than 90 percent.”

While it is easy to draw parallels to Silicon Valley, panelists cautioned the desire to emulate the region famous for technology.

“There is a certain alchemy there that people haven’t come close to replicating,” said Taetle. “From a talent, capital and education perspective, so much is concentrated. It’s been working for 30+ years. For us to say ‘hey, we need to be that’ is kind of quixotic.”

New opportunities like crowd funding also provide companies with additional avenues for bringing in capital. The state is just one of two in the union to allow residents to invest up to $10 thousand a year in Georgia companies.

Still, there is more work to do to bolster the technology startup community.

“I do think we have a PR image we have to improve on,” said Yates. “We’re a unique community but I think we can do a lot by looking at the PR side and push a lot more about folks like David Cummings and the Atlanta tech village. That’s’ what our state should focus on.”

A recording of the panel can be viewed at www.hinesatlanta.com.


Startup Roundup 11.5.13

We know you’re busy running your startup. You don’t have time to search for all of the relevant content out there for entrepreneurs and small businesses. But we do. Each Tuesday, in Startup Roundup, we compile smart stuff we’ve seen. If we leave out something good, post a link at the bottom for others. This is a community, and Atlanta will keep thriving if we keep sharing. 

Brooks Robinson: Why choosing the entrepreneurial path can lead to happiness
A rather gruesome quote has been attributed to Sean Parker, entrepreneur and Facebook’s first president: “Running a startup is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.” Read the rest at Smart Business.

Synapp.io might be unsexy, but their success sure isn’t
They are a 500 Startups company, an ATDC Selects company, and they recently won the title of unsexiest startup at the Unsexy Conference. Who are they? This is Synapp.io, a startup dedicated to working with email senders and service providers to keep their email lists compliant with deliverability best practices. Oh, and their team consists of five women, three males, and one literal rocket scientist. Find out about Synapp.io’s success here.

3 Ways Cisco and JouleX are pushing the envelope on green IT
Earlier this year, Cisco announced it was spending $107 million to buy JouleX, a startup with technology to reach out and measure, monitor and manage energy use for all manner of IT equipment. That’s a pretty hefty premium on the $17.2 million in VC raised by the Atlanta-based startup with big corporate clients including Sony, Coca-Cola, Equifax, Nestle Water, Schneider Electric, Danske Bank, and Deutsche Telekom — and it raises a couple of key questions for industry observers. Read the story here.

Survey: small businesses frustrated with congress
While the latest Kauffman/LegalZoom Startup Confidence Index showed that newly minted entrepreneurs aren’t taking Washington’s troubles to heart, SurePayroll’s latest Small Business Scorecard shows a different picture when it comes to the nation’s smallest companies. Get the details here. 

Gilt Founder’s New Wedding Registry Startup Zola Raises $3.25M From Thrive Capital
Zola, the new wedding registry startup emerging from Gilt And AlleyCorp founder Kevin Ryan and a group of former Gilt employees, has raised $3.25 million in Series A funding led by Thrive Capital. Joshua Kushner, founder and managing partner of Thrive Capital, will join Zola’s Board of Directors. Ryan, who led the seed funding for the startup, is also contributing to the A round, we are told. Tech Crunch article here.


Restaurateur Brings Atlantans to His Grandma’s Kitchen


When Matt Ruppert opened his restaurant in Atlanta, his Italian grandmother or “Noni” was his muse. She’s 92, sips a blended whiskey cocktail every evening and smokes long, skinny Capris. She lives in Maine, but she’s an icon at the Old Fourth Ward restaurant that honors her legacy.

“She’s this little old lady who still cooks to this day,” said Ruppert. “She’s feisty and opinionated, sometimes hard to be around. But she’s always the life of the party.”


Ruppert opened this trattoria on Edgewood Avenue in 2008 after working many years in Atlanta’s restaurant business. “I wanted my own place,” he said. “I’d been in the industry as a server and bartender, but I was tired of working for other people.”

He named his new restaurant “Noni’s” after his grandmother.

“She’s the matriarch,” said Ruppert. “She and her cooking inspired me, my mom and my aunts. She’s also good at throwing dinner parties.”

Noni’s offers Italian comfort food like fries tossed in garlic, parmesan and parsley, homemade noodles, and meatballs and mozzarella cheese made from scratch. His Noni taught him how to make fresh, flavorful meals, but starting a business was something he had to figure out on his own.

“I was inexperienced as a business owner,” he said. “The fact that I could come in the game and start something like this says something good about this city.”

His restaurant sits just blocks from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Sweet Auburn area of the city. Ruppert started the Old Fourth Ward Business Association to help other entrepreneurs who want to open businesses on Edgewood Avenue.

“This is a very diverse and energetic place,” he said. “We get imaginative, creative people on this street who want to be here.”

And when they eat at Noni’s, they can indulge in nostalgia, reflecting on memories created around the dinner table with their own nonis.

Startup Roundup 10.29.13

We know you’re busy running your startup. You don’t have time to search for all of the relevant content out there for entrepreneurs and small businesses. But we do. Each Tuesday, in Startup Roundup, we compile smart stuff we’ve seen. If we leave out something good, post a link at the bottom for others. This is a community, and Atlanta will keep thriving if we keep sharing. 

Atlanta NEXT scheduled for next month. The NEXT program helps startup founders build successful startups. The NEXT program consists of three-hour weekly working sessions with other attendees and mentors, and is being brought to Atlanta by Google. For more info check here.

Prominent Tech Investor Says Atlanta a Top 5 Market For Startups. AJC Tech Biz writer, Rick Hancock reviews his first visit to Venture Atlanta. The rest of the story here.

2013 set to be best year for VC since recession. This should be the strongest year for venture investments in Georgia since the end of the Great Recession. About $374 million has been invested in Georgia companies in the first nine months of 2013, versus $262 million for all of 2012, according to the MoneyTree report, published by Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP and the National Venture Capital Association, based on data from Thomson Reuters. Get the rest of story in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Raising start-up cash in the 21st century. A report on new potential uses of ‘crowdfunding’ – raising a large pool of money from many small contributions online. Thanks to the bipartisan JOBS Act entrepreneurs will soon be able to use this method. Supporters think the it could be a key to spurring economic growth and job creation. But is it a good idea for investors? PBS story here.

The Ingredients of a Great Entrepreneur: Inside the Mind of Fran Tarkenton
Fran Tarkenton knows better than most what it takes to succeed in a competitive arena. As one of the NFL’s all-time great competitors, he was inducted into the National Football League and Collegiate Football Halls of Fame and was an All- American athlete at the University of Georgia. Since 1996, Fran has been a trusted advocate for small business as the founder and CEO of Tarkenton Companies, whose offerings include small business consulting, coaching and software, telecommunications services and insurance-based retirement planning. Read the full Q&A on Huffington Post.

Alan Dabbiere on building and sticking with your startup

One of the biggest lessons Airwatch co-founder and chairman Alan Dabbiere has learned is the importance of people — who you work with, what their passions are and how they can help a startup grow.

“People really make the difference,” said Dabbiere. “One of the secrets of recruiting is finding people who are passionate about what they do. People are really great at doing what they love to do.”

Aside from finding the perfect people to build your startup team, Dabbiere says the most important quality an entrepreneur must have is tenacity and patience.

Before he saw success at Manhattan Associates, his first Atlanta company, it took him five years to grow from a startup to a company of 30—and from there, three years to get to a staff of 800.

“Your first idea doesn’t have to be your only or your last idea, you just stick with it,” he said.

Startup Roundup 10.22.13

We know you’re busy running your startup. You don’t have time to search for all of the relevant content out there for entrepreneurs and small businesses. But we do. Each Tuesday, in Startup Roundup, we compile smart stuff we’ve seen. If we leave out something good, post a link at the bottom for others. This is a community, and Atlanta will keep thriving if we keep sharing.

Points of Light Civic Accelerator Invests in 15 Startups Working to Improve Communities. The Points of Light Civic Accelerator announced today the 15 startups selected to participate in its third round. The innovative program and investment fund, with founding support from PwC Charitable Foundation and Starbucks Foundation, and in partnership with Village Capital, includes 50 percent more participants and double the number of mentors than the accelerator’s first round a year ago. Find out more here.

Top 5 Lessons From Startup School As an entrepreneur building a company, you should always be focused on learning from those who came before you. With that goal in mind, here are five lessons from five entrepreneurs who shared their wisdom at Startup School. Find all five lessons at Huffington Post. 

How I Did It: From 15 Years In Corporate To Startup CEO Not every startup CEO is 21 years old, fresh out of college, and eating ramen. There are those who spend years – even decades – biding their time in the corporate world, before at last taking a leap of faith and founding their own company. Forbes has the rest of the story.

8 Startup Events and News to Watch This Week. Get the 411 on crowdfunding from General Assembly. Denver’s Galvanize wants you to code for a cause. Get educated at Business Insider’s Startup University. Nashville gets KEEN on entrepreneurship. TechCrunch brings the Startup Battlefield to Berlin at Disrupt Europe. Get all of the details from Entrepreneur.

Prescription lens tech maker QSpex raises $8M Prescription lens technology company QSpex Technologies Inc. has raised $8 million, according to a Securities & Exchange Commission filing. Alpharetta-based QSpex has developed a process that involves a liquid plastic that, when exposed to certain wavelengths of light, is converted into a hard plastic lens. Using its technology, QSpex claims eye-care specialists can make high-quality lenses in about 35 minutes, versus the typical three- to seven-day turnaround. Find out more here. 


David Cummings on the importance of a corporate culture in startups

Despite the challenges entrepreneurs can face, such as an economic downturn, one of the best ways to stay positive and forward-moving in a startup is to develop a great corporate culture.

“Everybody encounters challenges in life,” said David Cummings, Atlanta entrepreneur. “And, some of those challenges are potentially really good business opportunities.”

Cummings’ experience building websites presented an opportunity for him to create a website management company. He then went on to create a marketing software company to better position those sites — Pardot, which sold to ExactTarget for a reported $95 million.

And, Cummings says one of the most important factors of the company’s success was supporting its employees.

“Our one and only sustainable competitive advantage was determining, choosing and nurturing the people we worked with day-in and day-out,” said Cummings. “We really focused in on the corporate culture. The performance and success of the company is really a testament to how great the people are.”