As winter gave way to the beginning of spring, I had spent the first part of the month in Athens, Georgia. The South always had a certain fascination for me; being a city girl for most of my life, I had learned to get by living in small, cramped places. My 600 sq ft walk-up flat without a lift in the West Village in New York City was my first grown-up place during my undergraduate days, and later in Berkeley and also in London, I had learned to live in a very compact, mobile, and almost transitory manner. I had never spent time in the South, as I had always been traveling in between the West and East coasts, from Europe to Asia, Seoul to Los Angeles and back again, and the Southern part of the United States was somewhere I had never thought of visiting.
University of Georgia's main campus. UGA is the oldest public university in the United States, having been established in 1785.
However, one of my cofounders for a startup we are launching had spent a year teaching at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia (UGA) and he had many positive things to say about Athens as we were contemplating our U.S. headquarters. My perspective is that it is much better to take advantage of a place with a highly proportionate technical talent with low cost of housing and overhead and Athens fit that bill quite nicely.
In my perspective, the major cities seemed overrated - places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and even New York City or Boston were major places where VC funding existed, but the atmosphere in which to grow with the population was not there. It has been said that the average Millennial stays in the same job for an average of 2 years before moving onto another job. My partners and I wanted to shift that perspective, and create a company culture of not simply retaining the best talent, but to recruit the local out-of-work population, and grow with them. Similar to how the energy/ oil industries provided secure jobs for people in my father's generation; so that during that era, people were able to live comfortably under one income; that is something I aspired to re-create.
One of the things I had discussed before my trip to Athens was with the former Executive Director of Four Athens and VC, Jim Flannery, in which I had expressed my desire to create regional jobs in the area where we would be headquartered, to lift the poorest people out of poverty, and not simply be headquartered somewhere and then bring in external talent from elsewhere whilst inflating the local real estate to unsustainable proportions, such as what had happened in San Francisco and Seattle. Although, the San Francisco Bay Area is my hometown, the place that I grew up had lost much of its appeal, mainly due to the out of control homelessness and rising living costs, in addition to a certain kind of attitude there that exacerbated elitism and careless disregard for people who were struggling in their lives; where some tech founders preferred to write long letters complaining about underprivileged people, instead of thinking of how to solve the overwhelming social problems that plague us today. I longed to find a U.S. headquarters that had a sense of community, and deep respect for its people; not just the young or talented, but also the elderly population and the people who had been living there for many years.
Jim had told me before that Athens had "a world-class research University, unmatched human talent, a vibrant community steeped in food, music, the arts, the outdoors, and a major city (+ the busiest airport in the world) an hour away, and really, all of the necessary components to build high-growth companies."
Jim Flannery, former Executive Director of FourAthens will be heading a new VC fund to highlight Athens' best startups.
I went to Athens, Georgia, not really expecting too much on a first trip, but I have to say, it really opened my eyes to Southern hospitality and a sense of community. The first thing one notices about Athens is the beautiful architecture, and the how much space there is everywhere. There are no crowded buildings or small, cramped flats, there is fresh air abound, and a kind of quiet that is indicative of a return to nature.
Post-modern, Warhol and Françoise Nielly influenced art at the Classic Center in downtown Athens.
Athens is also the ultimate dog-friendly town. Everywhere, you will see people walking their dogs. It is also a town where everyone might be jogging late at night, as several running clubs meet after the sun goes down, so you will always see people in their trainers hiking up and down sidewalks in different neighbourhoods. It's a place where people are very open to ideas and change, whilst still paying homage to history. The UGA campus is spread out in the heart of Athens, and which I learned was the oldest public university in the history of the United States, having been established in 1785.
The bulldog is the mascot of the football team and the entire city, referred to as "dawg." Athens is an overwhelmingly dog-friendly town, with many people walking their dogs in every part of town.
I also met a lot of different founders. We spent one evening at one of the bars downtown during Happy Hour where I became acquainted with founders who were working in all sorts of different sectors, from biotech to eCommerce.
Currently, Georgia offers a 35% tax credit (up to $50K per person annually) for angel investors who invest in Georgia-based startups. For startups, they can also take advantage of Georgia's 10% R&D tax credit.
Another advantage Georgia offers are its great office spaces in the downtown area and the affordable cost of housing and living. I spoke to a founder who said that he would not be able to pay for a similar 3000 sq ft loft space in a city like New York or Los Angeles. I also had the pleasure to hang out with Jordan Burke, the current Executive Director of FourAthens, at a local coffee shop where many founders can be located in the mornings, as he gave me many insights into the Georgia startup landscape and told me there is no lack of technical talent there, but that there is a lack of business management and marketing talent.
"Aside from the University, Athens has always seemed to get the reputation of a being a bunch of folks hanging out and playing music. And while the music scene is foundational to Athens' character, it only scratches the surface of the wealth of creativity and talent here." Jordan Burke, Executive Director, FourAthens
Jordan Burke, Executive Director of FourAthens is on a mission to make Athens the new U.S. headquarters for tech startups.
We spoke a bit more about Athens' growing landscape and the primary difference between Athens startups vs. Silicon Valley startups. Whereas, in Silicon Valley, startups are often pushed to become unicorn companies and scale before they might be ready, Athens startups have more of a bootstrapping mentality and focus more on the development of the revenue model as opposed to growth. This can be both advantageous and disadvantageous, but the founders in Athens are not prone to gambling with investors' funds, and typically do not raise more than what they need.
One of the founders I spoke with, Ty Frix of Ichor, a health and wellness, biotech startup, and who is currently raising $1.5 million to scale into the Southeast U.S., told me of the various lessons he had learned with the first $2 million he had raised to launch his company. There had been a steep learning curve as a product company, and attempting to develop wearable devices that monitor the health of athletes.
Ty Frix, founder of Ichor, used his past experience as a football player to develop monitoring devices for athletes.
In the beginning, he told me, they had made the devices quite complex with many features, and ended up becoming toppled by Apple and FitBit, in addition to encountering production problems in which he told me that for any device, there is usually a 10% failure rate straight out of the factory. These are things he learned right before making adjustments to his revenue model, in which he attained clients from three different verticals.
Currently, Ty is shifting from being purely focused on athletes to transition into nursing homes, to monitor elderly people living in senior communities. His grandfather is one of his test users, and who is also Ty's inspiration. His grandfather had been a sharecropper who had picked cotton, then worked on a farm, and also had a 12-mile postal route in which he would walk everyday to deliver people's mail. He was able to provide enough for his family and to send Ty's father to medical school, the first in his family to attain a degree. This kind of legacy has now fallen on Ty, and he wants to focus his startup to work with elderly people; people like his grandfather, who had sacrificed their lives and spent all their lives working to provide for their families.
I think oftentimes in our contemporary society, we are so hyperfocused on creating beautiful lives for ourselves that we often don't appreciate our families and the incredible sacrifices they made for us to give us a better life than they had. I look at my own parents, and I feel a great sense of responsibilty towards them. I think one of the things about Athens is that people aren't disposable or inter-exchangable; there isn't this attitude of quickly hiring someone then firing them; instead there is this respect for the individual, to respect employees as human beings and not merely people to cushion the bottom line.
I think for U.K.-based startups who are also looking for a U.S. headquarters, they might consider Athens a possible choice. Certainly, it's not living in a busy, crowded, bustling kind of city life, but there is something quite similar about the British mentality with that of the Southern United States, in that people carry a deep sense of responsibility about their communities and have a way of helping out their neighbours without any expectation, a kind of philanthropy that is a natural part of life.
This is what Athens has that San Francisco does not.