Entrepreneur Offers Space and Ideas To Grow Brands

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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.

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.”

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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

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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.

 

Restaurateur Brings Atlantans to His Grandma’s Kitchen

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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.”

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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.

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.

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.”

 

Atlanta startup Give to Win puts new spin on daily deals, gives back to community

Give to Win is an Atlanta-based startup that is putting a new spin on the daily deal industry. It all started with a single idea — give to those that are brightening the community. The platform offers purchases from partnering businesses that support socially-minded organizations working in the community.

Co-founded in 2010 by president and CEO Max Ruppersburg, Give to Win began as a nonprofit but re-launched as a for-profit social enterprise in 2012. Ruppersburg felt the company could achieve larger growth and impact with the ability to accept outside investment.

The Give to Win team poses in front of Atlanta's Java Vino, one of its business partners.  From left to right: TJ Harrison, Ralston Medouze, Max Ruppersburg

The Give to Win team poses in front of Atlanta’s Java Vino, one of its business partners.
From left to right: TJ Harrison, Ralston Medouze, Max Ruppersburg

“After seeing the Groupon boom I decided there was potential for a more community conscious solution that would support nonprofit organizations and provide a healthier marketing relationship for the businesses involved,” said Ruppersburg. “We’re creating a platform for cause-marketing. It’s very rewarding.”

After explaining the charitable nature of the organization, many Atlanta businesses loved the idea. However, convincing potential partners has been no easy feat.

“While nonprofits are more receptive to the idea, convincing small businesses of this new idea has proven challenging at times,” said Ruppersburg.

45 percent of each purchase goes to the participating company and another 45 percent goes to the chosen nonprofit. The remaining 10 percent goes towards Give to Win’s expansion and marketing efforts. While the organization isn’t seeing much revenue from the deals it offers yet, it all goes toward furthering the platform.

Among Give to Win’s nonprofit partners are the Empty Stocking Fund, WonderRoot, PAWS Atlanta and the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta.

Give to Win is currently growing its online presence so that it can one day expand to other cities. “Our main social media goal has been to build engagement, and we hope to further connect Atlanta’s volunteer, nonprofit and small business community,” said Ralston Medouze, Give to Win social media marketing manager.

A website redesign is also in the works. TJ Harrison, Give to Win CTO, believes the key to expansion is through connecting online.

“The new Give to Win website will help us effectively extend our brand and continue to benefit more organizations.” The Give to Win team hopes these efforts will help build a strong core of local business and nonprofit partners.

“Atlanta’s human capital and dedicated communities both provide great support for startups,” said Give to Win COO, Jacob Parnell. “We’re expanding in this great city organically. It takes time, but making the biggest impact is worth the wait.”

Give to Win, in partnership with Trees Atlanta, will be planting trees in Adams Park Oct. 26 as part of its #ATLove campaign. Click here for more information.

Terry Allen on marketing, design and civic projects in the tech space

A twenty-year veteran of the design, development and marketing industries, Terry Allen recently joined Atlanta-based startup ShootProof as director of user experience. A formally trained product designer, he oversees the design and user experience of the online photo proofing service across all platforms. Allen is also co-founder of Govathon, local organizer for the Interaction Design Association, and chair of Random Hacks of Kindness Atlanta.

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Terry Allen, director of user experience at ShootProof

In this edition of Startup Q&A, Allen discusses the state of the Atlanta tech scene, civic projects and the role of marketing in the startup world.

Tell us how you got started in the Atlanta tech scene.

Allen: I have always been involved in the local design community, beginning with my time at Georgia Tech in the early 1990s. After designing environmental, medical and hi-tech products, I was led to web design by the Internet boom. I learned basic HTML and began making websites for friends and small companies. However, my love for technology really took off when my team won top prize at the landmark Random Hacks of Kindness Atlanta hackathon, an event that aims to create tech solutions for challenges facing humanity on a local and global scale. The organization hosts hackathons, app competitions and more to create “technology for social good.” Participating in this event was a thrilling experience that quickly formed an addiction. In addition to organizing hackathons, I am active in the design community, spreading the idea of creating delightful experiences to build great brands.

Earlier this year you co-founded Govathon, an event that aims to better communities in Atlanta. Why do you find it valuable to spend time on civic projects?

Allen: Projects that work to solve big problems like food scarcity, government transparency, transit, medicine, disaster recovery and other issues are so important. We started Govathon to engage citizens to make a difference by being proactive. Watching the teams organically form to design, develop and create amazing, innovative technology was amazing to behold. This process builds lasting relationships that go on to strengthen the startup community, and results in products and companies that make Atlanta an even better place to be.

Your past roles include leading and directing roles in marketing and design. What role does design and marketing play in the tech scene?

Allen: Design and marketing are critical to the new tech space. Unlike a few years ago, it’s very common for founders and early employees to be designers, but now it’s mainstream. I think this is because customers are more sophisticated now, and that means companies must take the product experience and brand more seriously. The local tech scene has really exploded in the last year and with that a good deal of marketing and good PR for Atlanta. We are doing a better job of telling our stories, but still need to be careful not to create an echo chamber of all talk and no action. Lately there has been a push to connect Atlanta’s large enterprises with the startup community, as that is where much of the innovation is happening. If this is successful and sustained, this key differentiator has the potential to distinguish Atlanta in the long run.

What’s next? 

Allen: Hack for CF, a hackathon for Cystic Fibrosis (CF), takes place the weekend of Oct. 5. This unique event will bring together CF subject matter experts, designers, data scientists, technologists and others interested in furthering CF causes to make a difference.

TiE Atlanta: fostering entrepreneurship in Atlanta youth

Pitching a business idea to billionaires — that’s not something many 16-year-olds can put on their list of extracurricular activities. But, high school junior Divya Chawla did just that at the TiE Young Entrepreneurs (TYE) Global Program.

“TYE was the most life-changing experience I’ve ever had,” said Chawla. “I went from being a completely shy, introverted person to ‘I can go on stage and pitch to billionaires.’ It was incredible.”

Chawla was one of six Atlanta students who went to the TYE 2013 Global Business Plan Competition in Washington, D.C. To get to that point, team members completed TYE’s seven-month program, created a business plan and won first place at TYECON Atlanta. As the winner of this annual pitching competition, the team went on to pitch its idea against teams from around the world.

Ashish Thakur, executive director of TiE Atlanta, guided the students from the birth of their business idea to their final presentation. “I’m passionate about this program because it gives students the chance to learn from mentors and understand the foundations of entrepreneurship,” said Thakur. “It’s very enlightening, and I learn so much from the students. I’ll probably be working for them someday!”

The team’s idea was a flameless, self-heating bag that can be used to provide warm food for people in need around the globe. Although this business plan didn’t win top prize at the global competition, the idea was so impressive that potential investors have since approached the students. The team is still working to turn its idea into a reality.

“We didn’t think that winning was important,” said Arsh Chopra, TYE Young Entrepreneur. “Our passion for our idea allowed us to network with entrepreneurs from all around the world, and that in itself was amazing. We’ve built wonderful relationships.”

Team Members: Murtaza Bambot, Rajan Bedi, Divya Chawla, Arsh Chopra, Anand Murugappan, Preet Shah

The Wall Street Journal: David Cummings on finding success in Atlanta

Atlanta ranks as one of the top 20 startup hubs in America, and Atlanta entrepreneur David Cummings knows why.

Atlanta’s deep roots in history, high concentration of Fortune 500 companies and Southern hospitality make it the prime location for startup activity. Cummings explains this in his recent Wall Street Journal article, “David Cummings: Finding Success in Atlanta.

“Atlanta might not be the first city that comes to mind to build a tech startup, but it’s the best in the country if you want to bootstrap your way to success due to the large number of Fortune 500 companies, access to talent, local capital, strong community and low cost of living,” said Cummings.

Atlanta’s student enrollment in universities is also a factor that makes Georgia’s capital great for entrepreneurs. Emory University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia enrich and develop intelligent, creative individuals ready to contribute to the community.

Sweet tea and warm smiles make Atlanta a perfect startup hub, too. Cummings notes that Atlanta’s Southern hospitality, combined with a big city feel, has made way for the Atlanta BeltLine, Piedmont Park expansions and more. Companies grow in amenity-rich cities.

The Atlanta Tech Village, created by Cummings, along with Hypepotamus, ATDC and other resources have created a great sense of community for startups. “Atlanta has a vibrant, growing startup community,” said Cummings.

And, with all of the talent in Atlanta, it’s sure to continue expanding.