A Look Back on One Year

As we reflect on one year at Four Athens, the words that come to mind are potential and challenge. And that makes what we do at Four Athens so rewarding. One year ago we publicly launched a space to nurture and cultivate technology startups in Athens. But Four Athens, and its mission, is far greater than a physical building. We are laying a foundation that will continue, with or without Four Athens, to make Athens a creative, energetic, highly profitable place for the best and brightest to find jobs, create companies, build empires and raise families.

A year ago, we set off to discover the technology scene in Athens. A year later, we’ve identified over 40 technology (and growing) companies in Athens, over 200 developers, and a slew of entrepreneurs that can compete with the best leaders in Silicon Valley. Four Athens isn’t creating the tech scene in Athens – we’re merely acting as a conduit to nurture and further grow the community. Yet, we’ve barely scratched the surface. This is not a “pat ourselves on the back” post. We’ve got work to do.

We’re helping not to build a community but grow it – to make sure that the existing community remains stable, relevant and growing; to make sure the right people know what is going on and to make sure entrepreneurs have the resources, contacts, funding and support that they need to see their pet projects grow into billion dollar companies, employing thousands and improving the wider community.

Along the way, we’ve identified key metrics to determine if this crazy experiment is working. For year one, we wanted to see 10 companies move into the Four Athens space, identify 40 mentors to help grow startups in Athens and raise an angel fund to financially support startups in Athens. It hasn’t always been pretty, but we’ve accomplished these goals and, I believe, laid the groundwork for bigger and better things over the next year.

These metrics weren’t pulled from thin air. Any successful entrepreneurial community needs the right type of people and the right type of money to support it. Without these two ingredients, the community would not be able to grow and would continue to be a story of random successes that never coalesce around a sustainable model of economic development. Our metrics are designed to target these two ingredients and identify if they’re growing.

Here’s what we discovered:

First, the people. You don’t have a startup community without startups. Seems pretty obvious. We were unsure about this metric. Happily, we’ve been blown away by what is being created in this town, quietly, without support and under the radar. So our goal to identify ten startups to move into the space indirectly led to the identification of over 40 companies in town. Not all of these companies will survive, but the talent is here and for each company that doesn’t survive others will take in the failures and nurture them until they go out on their own again, creating a cycle.

Second, the people. You don’t have a startup community without mentorship. Starting a company is hard. Like, really hard. Too often that gets glossed over or glamorized. Starting a company is not like “The Social Network”. In order to succeed, you need support from more than your family, friends and significant other. You need people who have been successful caring about what you’re doing. You need CEOs from major companies and those with the right connections assisting you, connecting you and pointing you in the right direction. A startup can be a solitary pursuit on a day to day basis, but is a collective effort for those that make it. You succeed when others care about your success.

Third, the money. Athens has a wealthy population. To date, that money has generally been invested in real estate – restaurants, bars, student housing and commercial projects outside of the area. Over the long term, the community needs to identify more diverse uses for that investment capital locally. Technology startups are the most cost effective and cost efficient method for deploying that capital. A tech startup can be launched with less than $100,000 and have the potential to be generating millions in revenue within a year or two. Will there be huge failures? Absolutely. But, as a startup community, need to embrace that risk and encourage more investment capital into the sector.

We’ve scratched the surface in year one finding the people and the money necessary to grow the technology startup community. Going forward, it’s going to take more money, more people and more support to grow this community into a giant economic engine that will support Athens for decades to come. A sustainable economic sector doesn’t get built in a year, it doesn’t get built by a government report or a loose collection of people that meet once a month or quarter to discuss the state of the economy. It gets built over 20 years of hard, dedicated, prolonged effort that focuses our scarce resources on the areas that will show the most benefit and return.

Here’s how we’re going to approach year two: startups, money, mentors, and community.

We will find & create more startups. We need more people taking big risks and chasing dreams. We need more people changing the world (or at least their corner of the world). If you’re a student, become a computer science major. If you’ve already graduated and don’t know what you want to do with your life, learn to code – there are tons of free resources out there. Get involved in a local startup as an intern. Work hard, learn a lot, identify a problem that you face daily and create a solution to fix it.

We will invest more money. Four Athens will continue investing in more startups and attempt to further influence the Southeast investment culture. We’ll also continue to raise larger funds. Put your own money at risk and become an angel investor. You don’t win on your first investment, but start putting capital to work and you’ll see the rewards over time. There’s no better investment you can make into the Athens community.

We will identify more mentors. Some of the biggest names in Athens are mentors for tech startups. You don’t need to know about technology – some of the biggest problems that startups face are mundane business challenges. We need mentors that understand scaling businesses, marketing products, finding product/market fit and building teams.

We will influence the culture of the local government. There are some great supporters of startups in our local government, but they are too few. Startups are not a secondary feature of economic development. Small businesses hire more employees than large companies. As a community, we can’t sit around and wait for the Caterpillars of the world to find us every 30 years and then move on when they get a better deal. We need to promote internal economic growth, growth that builds large, sustainable businesses that pay above minimum wage and will be here whether the students support them or not. The Athens Downtown Development Authority gets it. They recently agreed to partner with Four Athens to fund a program that assists early stage companies open an office downtown. The density of startups in the Athens core is crucial to the success of a sustainable startup culture.

There are a million other areas that the startup community needs to focus on to be successful – the university, the region, infrastructure and much more. But for now, we’re laying the foundation. We’re tackling a big problem and we’re doing our part to help it succeed. Personally, I’ve met more fascinating, creative, inquisitive people over the past 12 months than I’ve met in my life. It’s been a crazy adventure and I can’t wait for the next 12 months.

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