Lisa – Welcome to the Atlanta Startup Podcast, the briefing room for the innovation ecosystem. I’m Lisa Calhoun, your host and general partner at Atlanta venture capital firm Valor Ventures. On this show, I bring you the investors, the founders, and the activators creating the fastest emerging venture capital ecosystem in the country.

Lisa: I’m happy to welcome venture visionary Allyson Eman to the show. Allyson, thank you so much for joining us.

Allyson:

Thank you for having me.

Lisa:

So we’re going to talk about all things Venture Atlanta. You started Venture Atlanta and really got it off the ground. How long has it been now?

Allyson:

13 years.

Lisa:

Wow. Wow. So tell us, you know, for those listeners that don’t know Venture Atlanta and haven’t been, what is it?

Allyson:

Venture Atlanta really is the must attend venture capital conference to cover the Southeast. So it really is the a the big event for investors and entrepreneurs when they think of capital, when they think of making connections. We want anyone who’s investing in companies, working with companies, connecting with technology companies to be at Venture Atlanta.

Lisa:

You know, I was looking at some of the enormous successes that you’ve led in this organization. And the website says some $14 billion–with a B–is the exits that have come out of Venture Atlanta startups. Can you open that up a little bit more for us?

Allyson:

Just to be candid, they didn’t all come from Venture Atlanta. So I sit on the venture forum, which the Atlanta CEO council had a huge part of or actually ran for several years– some of those dollars actually did come from them as well. And there was a large exit for a pharmacy company. And that is, you know, included in that $14 billion. There’s some great exits like Silverpop, Cloud Sherpa… Clearly, I mean, just some wonderful exits. We’ve had some wonderful companies like Cisco and Accenture and IBM buying our companies. And then you look at our companies that have raised a ton of capital, which is companies like Kabbage, Roadie, SalesLoft, and SpringBot. We’re so proud to have over 450 alumni companies.

Lisa:

Tying the current successes back in time… Venture Atlanta, unlike a lot of venture conferences, you’ve really been around–you’ve seen change in the ecosystem and in the venture capital world. What’s been changing in Atlanta and the Southeast from your perspective?

Allyson:

When I was hired back in 2007, there were five funds in Atlanta. I mean, you know, there were. I could count on one hand when we actually started,  when the first conference of venture Atlanta was –October of 2008. That was the launch of Tech Operators with Glenn McGonnigle and Tom Noonan and and Dave Gould. It was a big deal because there was guys that had had this successful exit with ISS and they were starting to fund. For a long time there was, there was Noro, there was ATA, there was Moseley Investments and you know, maybe a couple other small ones. But now that ecosystem is so much bigger, you know, now there’s, you know, 30, 35 VCs– still way smaller than Boston or New York or California. But for us, I mean we just keep growing and growing and growing with the number of, of investors.

Lisa:

We’re also were growing in terms of incubators and you know, things like Techstars that came to town, Switchyards, Atlanta Tech Village. I mean, obviously we’ve had ATDC for all these years and when I first started it was already an icon.

Allyson:

They’ve also had great growth in the times where everyone else has grown along. So the, the ecosystem has really supported, you know, not only all the funds but it ha supported the entrepreneurs in different ways. I mean you look at, Valor and different funds that have come to town that specifically support females or you know you know, diverse audiences, things like the Launchpad 2X with Bernie Dixon. So there’s just some great programs.

Lisa:

Awesome. So a lot more investors, a lot more startups. I know the programming at Venture Atlanta has really exploded. It’s a bit far out when we’re recording this interview this spring for  October. But can you give us any preview of some of the themes that will be on the stage or in the panels and venture Atlanta?

Allyson:

 will say last year we had a sports panel that was on building winning teams and it was so popular and so widely received that we’re thinking about bringing that back for, you know, with different, different athletes. But you know, every single person in that room was part of a team in some capacity. So you know, I tease all the time that, I’ve sat through every panel and every speaker for 13 years. That was my favorite. I mean, I just enjoyed it so much and the insight was great and this was five people that had never been on stage together in their life and there was just such great chemistry and it was just a lot of fun.

We always change things. I mean, we’ve never had the same event of year over year. We or gone back to the same venue that we’ve had the last couple of years, which is Southern Exchange. But this year we have three full floors and a hundred top 10,000 square feet of space. So we’re looking at expanding our showcase. We’re looking at doing an entire floor of meeting rooms where, you know, the connections are just so widely used. I mean there’s companies that’ll have 20 -30 meetings with investors at our conference. So I mean everyone like, you know, congregates at that event really just to network.

Lisa:

So my first Venture Atlanta was 2008 or nine, and I honestly don’t remember. It was just a while ago and I thought there were so many investors, but then coming back a few years later, it was like there were 10 times the number of investors . . .

Allyson:

The beginning, like I think the first year, we had like 30. This past year we had 350.

Lisa:

350 investors and most of them from outside of the state. Right?

Allyson:

Yeah, a huge number from outside of the state. You know, it was wonderful. Like we saw a really big contingent of funds from New York and from Boston and from the Valley, Denver, Texas, Chicago. We’ve been partnering with ATDC for the last several years and helping to bring a group of companies outside of Atlanta. So we’ve actually gone to Silicon Valley, we’ve gone to Boston in New York, and I think those are really helping bring these ambassadors back. So basically in the spring, so like next month we’re going to the Valley saying here’s some great companies. And then we go back and say, and come back for Venture Atlanta October to see more, I mean, just perspective.

The first year we had 20 companies on the stage. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We basically were begging companies to get on stage, you know, just to, Hey, will you do it as a favor and will you do this as a favor? And last year we had almost 80 companies participating and that was from across the Southeast. And that was a big, big change for us. So we had a third of the companies that participated in Venture Atlanta were from out of state and out of state is any States between like the DC, the Texas footprint, the whole Southeast… So we had companies from New Orleans and North Carolina and Florida and Tennessee and Texas. And it was, it was great. And the goal is that the investors, you know, kind of the one stop shop that you could see, you know, this huge market at one event

Lisa:

It’s become, and I think a lot of people don’t realize this, a really competitive stage to get on. I think a lot of folks do not realize how much sorting through the Venture Atlanta team does. I’ve certainly enjoyed being in the early stage review for years now. Tthere’s so much coaching pitch, coaching feedback that’s given to entrepreneurs that approach venture. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? Because what actually comes in the stage is a fraction of what actually applies.

Allyson:

Yeah, that’s very true. Actually this year was a tougher than ever. So we had hundreds upon hundreds of applications. And the thing that’s nice about Venture Atlanta is, it’s an easy application. It’s a couple of questions and you know, you upload an executive summary. It is not that we, you know, we are not out to collect any money from the entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are always like, well, “I don’t know if I should apply.”  I’m like, you lose nothing if you do. But what they’re exposing themselves to is a committee made up of, 30 or 40 investors plus service providers like, you know, you know, lawyers and bankers, accountants and commercial real estate guys and anyone that can help support the entrepreneur. It’s a really rigorous process. We read through everything. We grade the companies, we have discussions.

I always have a committee chair of someone in, you know, in the ecosystem, which is really fun. And then once those companies are whittled down and chosen, then they all go through up to three rounds of coaching. So it’s really important to us that they get on stage. I pride myself that when a company gets on stage, they are prepared–they know their pitch and you know, over the years, a couple of years ago, the pitches for a long time were six minutes and then, then it was, all right, let’s go to five. Let’s, let’s go to five and then last year we went to four. I was very hesitant about it. I mean I was kind of the one pushing, putting my arms up …but  let me tell ya, four minutes was perfect. I mean it’s definitely plenty. There’s plenty of time and we had 35 companies on stage.

But what’s you know, but what’s, what’s great is that the companies, by the time they get up there, I mean their pitches pretty tight. And you know, last year I was like, listen, you know, if you go over music comes up, mic’s cutting off, you’re done. And so I will say, I think only two or three went over this year. And I mean, they just keep talking like, you know, and they’ll sell even if their mic gets turned off and we’re like, get off the stage. I mean, come on, you know?, Most don’t go over because they don’t want to be embarrassed. And you know, they have a big clock in front of them counting down, flashing in red, and they still don’t stop sometimes.

Speaker 3 (11:23):

Well, and you know, in addition to that, there are so many events that round out Venture Atlanta now. I mean, October’s become this startup season thanks to Venture Atlanta. I mean, that’s my impression–

Speaker 4 (11:38):

Oh yeah, yeah. I mean basically last year, you know, the event was huge. It was the biggest event we ever had. It was over 1100 people, most investors, most everything. We were actually up 20% across the board and sponsors and attendees and everything was awesome. And you know, I always go home the day after a Venture Atlanta, I’m exhausted –can barely empty my car out. And on Friday morning I had Paul Judge emailing me going, Oh listen, I’m looking at the A3C hiphop festival, when’s Venture Atlanta. And I was like, Oh my God, Paul, it’s been, it hasn’t even been 12 hours. This year, just like last year, we’ve got Techstars demo day opening us up on Monday. We’ve got, you know, Engage Ventures does, does their event, we’ve got an alumni dinner on Tuesday. We open our conference on Wednesday and Thursday and then the hip hop festival comes right on Thursday afternoon after us. So you could spend the weekend in Atlanta and just see some great stuff.

Lisa:

Absolutely. So given the kind of breadth of the startup ecosystem, Venture Atlanta has truly catalyzed that activity in the Fall and it’s really kudos to you, honestly, your leadership. It’s, it’s so impressive. It’s been so much fun to watch. I think a lot of people who are listening will think, venture conference, this is exciting. Maybe if I have something to pitch, I’ll apply, it’s free. That’s great. But actually the Venture Atlanta ecosystem has so much more even for people who are interested in jobs in tech, their careers in tech and just getting involved in general. So what would you say to people who are interested in attending but they’re not currently leading a startup and they’re not an investor? Is there a place for them?

Allyson:

Veteran Atlanta is not exclusive. It’s a  conference open to any everybody. And we want the room full of entrepreneurs. We want the, we want the room full of people who are engaging with entrepreneurs, engaging with investors, supporting technology, supporting tech companies. I mean, we open the doors to students. We work with students from Georgia Tech and Emory and we have a bunch of them volunteer. And you know, we, we work with, we work with everybody. I mean, we want it to be that kind of conference that, you know, people think, you know, I just want to be there. And you know, the bottom line is, again, I mean, great point—you certainly don’t have to be an entrepreneur and investor to attend. I mean, obviously we do have sponsors, you know, we’re a nonprofit, so we’d need sponsorship support and it’s not a free event and it’s not a cheap ticket.

It’s not a drop in the pocket for people. But we also support the entrepreneurs that we offer discounted tickets for entrepreneurs, discount tickets for students.. You know, this year we worked with different incubators in Tampa and Charlotte and Nashville and you know, they’re like, I was like, I, you know, I want you, I want you guys to run a bus and come up to Venture Atlanta. And they’re like, yeah, let’s do it, you know, kind of thing. So I think we’re going to continue to see other cities excited about Venture Atlanta and for us, we want to continue to keep Atlanta at the core, you know, as, as the pillar, you know, as the central hub. I mean, obviously the government, you know, really wants Atlanta to be known as the tech city, on the East coast and Georgia as the place for growing businesses. And you know, because of our founders, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, TAG, and the Atlanta CEO Council, I mean, the event will stay in Atlanta, , so we’re true to are true to our own town. We’re true to Atlanta it’s very important to us right now–a big mission of the organization to truly be, like I said, the must-attend venture conference in the Southeast.

Lisa:

You know, I was just looking at venture capital numbers and while much of the Southeast– Louisiana, Mississippi–sort of lag behind in terms of venture dollars, it’s kind of interesting– Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, they’re right on the cusp of being a top 10 venture capital state. And you know, sometimes one or the other is a number nine, you know, and crosses over top 10. The Southeast also has, as you and I know, 38% of U S population. It is an enormous region. What do you think is in the future for venture capital and startups in the Southeast?  You’ve been watching the last 13 years from a bird’s eye view, where do you see trends going?

Allyson:

Atlants just continues to explode. I mean, if you look at us, obviously as you know, the FinTech capital, leader in health IT, you know, what’s happening with blockchain, marketing automation, you know, things like that. Atlanta has done a great job really showing where we’re leaning and how we’re growing companies. And hopefully we continue to have exits because that’s what’s really important. I think that’s what’s been a little bit missing in Atlanta, you know? You’ve had the ISS, you know, you’ve had, you know, AirWatch and you know, whatever, but we haven’t had a lot of just this huge exits. So then there’s, you know, entrepreneurs out there investing in new companies or starting new companies, but they were seeing, you know, more and more of that where, you know, I’ve had multiple entrepreneurs on my stage you know, different years saying, Hey, , I’m doing something new. I want to be back on Venture Atlanta. It’s so fun and you know, I think, you know, there’s such good stuff going on in Florida. I mean Tampa’s really got some great activity. We had some great companies come out of Charlotte and Raleigh Durham last year and we actually had the most investors from Florida ever come to Venture Atlanta and the most companies presenting. So there’s some great stuff going on in Florida. And again, we’re just, we’re trying to just collaborate with everybody and support the other cities and states.

Lisa:

Awesome. One thing we ask on Atlanta StartupPodcast is always, who are some got- people aside from yourself. Of course, Allyson—you are,  understood, but go-to people in Atlanta. But if you’re an investor coming into the area and you’re trying to get a great review of startups, you may not have been to Venture Atlanta yet. Who are some of those go-to personalities that come top of mind for you that can really help an outside investor break open the ecosystem and unlock deal flow?

Allyson:

Well, you know, obviously I got, I got a lot of sponsors that I work with, so I don’t want to show too much favoritism. But obviously, you know, you’ve got, you’ve got your movers and shakers. I mean, you’ve got obviously going out to ATDC and meeting with, Jane McCracken and Johnny Green. Going over to ATV and meeting with Karen and David Cummings. Going to Morris Manning Martin and meeting with John Yates, or Nelson Mullins and Doug Spears group, or DLA and Jeff Levitt’s group. You need to know Dale Kirkland at Silicon Valley Bank, Aprio and Mitchell Kopelman, you know, Cherry Becker and Michael. So you know, and, and just because I didn’t name someone doesn’t mean they’re not my go to list . . .

Lisa:

It sounds like go to the sponsors of Venture Atlanta and you’ll find a who’s who.

Allyson:

Yeah. And that’s exactly it. The people that support Venture Atlanta—and many of them have been our supporters for 13 years—you know, the Bennett Thrashers of the world and you know, SunTrust has been a great supporter for the last several years. So, we definitely have some wonderful support and, you know, we’re been, we’ve been so lucky to, to have that. I mean, our sponsorship growth has been kind of insane. I mean, we had 95 sponsors last year and you know, managing that was a feat. I mean, it was, it was a little difficult. And you know, of course I was at the conference and I was like, Oh, I made a mistake or messed something up. But, you know, I take so much pride in putting on this event, but there are so many pieces. And you know, what’s crazy is how many times people were like, so what do you do all year? You know, they’re like, yeah, the events, just a day and a half. Like don’t you just work like a month on it? And I just want to slap them every time.

Lisa:

And you’re fierce and you’re redheaded for those who don’t know you. So that is a real threat.

Allyson:

My hair is absolutely Brown, but it looks red if right now. But my hair is very Brown.

Lisa:

What do you feel are the emerging hubs in Atlanta that you also feel like startups are really attracted to?

Allyson:

Well, you know Joey Womack is doing some great stuff with different; WeWork has a new startup up lab. I think, you know, when Bernie Dixon, you know, left you know, her full time role a couple of years ago and is now full time in Launchpad2x. I mean they were just doing some great stuff for female founders. Metro Atlanta is a partner with them and has been for several years. What else is around that I work with a lot? Like, I mean I just know that there’s a lot, there’s a lot the Lola, you know, again, something that, you know, supports women and, and I think that’s where, where I’m seeing the most, and you have your ATVs–you certainly have plenty of stuff to support a regular tech startup, but really in terms of like diverse founders and female founders and things like that, I mean there are always the most challenged and challenged and I think there’s more support for that.

Lisa:

Great to hear. So in closing, how should people get involved with Venture Atlanta?

Allyson:

Quickly for 2020. So sponsorships are open now. So come on, you know, anyone could find me. Best way to find out anything about Venture Atlanta is on our website, which is venture atlanta.org. The event this year is October 21st and 22nd, so put that on your calendars. It is a week later than it’s been the last couple of years, so that, that’s one thing. You know, if you’re looking at, if you’re a company and you’re looking to raise capital, we’ll open our call for companies in May and will be open all summer. If you’re looking to attend, we’ll open our registration sometime in late April. And you know, where we continue to invest in Venture Atlanta in the experience of Venture Atlanta. So, you know, we’ve gone to a new registration platform, we’ll have a mobile app this year. We’re looking at different engagement tools.

You know, just make it a better experience. And, you know, we sit and brainstorm with our marketing team, with our PR group, and just go, how can we continue to elevate?

Lisa:

Well, somehow you manage to do it every year and it’s just incredible. Looking  to 2020 and thanks so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Allyson: Thank you.

Lisa:

The Atlanta Startup Podcast catalyzes critical conversations and connections that couldn’t otherwise occur in our dense and dynamic ecosystem. Want to be on the show? Click on booking.

The Atlanta Startup Podcast is produced by Valor Ventures as a service to the Atlanta startup and investor community. We couldn’t do it without the support of our sponsors–Atlanta Tech Park, the global innovation center, and Write2Market, Atlanta’s favorite tech and healthcare marketing firm.

If you’d like to get your information on the Atlanta Startup Podcast, our share a message with our listeners, visit us online and check out our affordable rate card.

All advertisements here are tax-deductible donations to the Startup Runway Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is connecting underrepresented founders to their first investor.