William Leonard

Hey, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome back to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. I’m William Leonard, your host and investor at Valor Ventures, a leading seed-stage venture capital firm here in Atlanta, Georgia. Today, I’m really excited to sit down with Kristin Slink, a FinTech Catalyst at ATDC. Kristin, welcome to the podcast.

Kristin Slink

Thanks for having me, William. It’s a pleasure to be here.

William Leonard

Awesome. Awesome. Well, I said an interesting acronym there: the ATDC and you know, we have a lot of listeners throughout the southeast US who may not be as familiar with what ATDC is. Can you start by educating us on that?

Kristin Slink

Absolutely. We get that a lot. We love acronyms. ATDC, which stands for the Advanced Technology Development Center. We are actually a 41-year-old incubator based out of the state of Georgia. We’re funded by the state but also run under the umbrella of Georgia Tech. We provide services to entrepreneurs at any stage. We have a program that starts with “I work a corporate job and I’m interested in entrepreneurship all the way up to a scalable company who’s raised a series A and beyond.” We provide coaching, community, curriculum, services, office space, you name it, we have resources for the tech entrepreneurs here in Atlanta in Georgia.

William Leonard

Awesome. The ATDC has been around for some time now. I know your story a little bit, but I’m curious as to how you found yourself working for the ATDC. What’s your background a little bit, Kristin?

Kristin Slink

Absolutely. I always try to make a long story short. But I did get my start in San Diego, California. I founded a company called LoanHero back in 2014 and that was really the result of consulting. In the past, I would consult with retailers on how to create a lending program. Essentially being able to extend payment options to their customers, typically working with retailers with a product or service over $3,000 or more. And so in that experience, I realized that it was a really honest process to get loans processed with different lenders having different credit segments that they really catered on. And at the time, there was no single platform that really integrated multiple lending options with one seamless user experience for the retailers. Taking that experience through the consulting, we went out and raised $400,000 on an idea. You don’t hear that often. But we raised money to build LoanHero, spent four years building that up, and ultimately got acquired by LoanHero out in Kennesaw. As part of that acquisition, I ended up moving out here about three years ago. I worked with them for about 10 months to see through the integration. At the end of that, I was here in Atlanta and just started researching. If you are an entrepreneur and interested in starting a company, where do you go? When I started my journey, I was not part of any community and made a ton of mistakes. That coupled with being in a new city, I really wanted to get ingrained. ATDC was one of the first acronyms I heard in the programs I learned about and after meeting them and understanding what they did, it was just a perfect fit for what I was looking for. I joined the team as an Entrepreneur In Residence to start and then after being there for about six months, I ended up moving into a full-time capacity running the FinTech verticals. So that’s where I’m at today.

William Leonard

That’s a really interesting story. At the onset of your career, did you start out in finance or consulting? What were the early origins of Kristin’s career?

Kristin Slink

I was a psychology major. When I moved out to California, my question was, “Do I pursue business, which was always a passion of mine? Or do I go and work in mental health?” And I ended up pursuing business. Worked for an enterprise renting a car, believe it or not, with your management training program. Really no previous experience in business, entrepreneurship, technology, finance, any of that. I just kind of found myself in this consulting role, after several different years of trying to figure out what my passions were, and learned as I went, and that started my journey.

William Leonard

Gotcha. We’re talking to a lot of investors or a lot of founders, oftentimes, on this podcast. You’re a little bit of a unique addition to the fray here and that your title is a FinTech catalyst. What does your day-to-day look like practically in that role at ATDC?

Kristin Slink

Yeah, I have a really fun job and it’s really simple to explain it. I spend about 60% of my time coaching entrepreneurs. And then I spend 40% of my time out in the community. That involves bringing awareness to our program, ATDC, and general awareness to our FinTech vertical, our portfolio members, finding new companies, and just really connecting everyone within our community is a really big part of that role in what I do.

William Leonard

Awesome. That’s really interesting. As a local investor here in town, ATDC is just so instrumental in terms of talent development, just really incubating local businesses and helping them become that venture scale, that venture bankable startup. You’re working with startups on a day in and day out basis. You’re seeing a lot of things happening at the early stage, right? I’m curious, what are some of the critical mistakes or the critical aspects of the billing process that you see a lot of the founders you work with struggled through, or learn from as well?

Kristin Slink

There are several. I think a big one is all-around fundraising. In my personal experience raising money too early, I didn’t have a product yet. Think about that, you know, equity takes from those investors early on and also seeking money from the wrong investors, too. Not every company needs to raise startup capital to be successful, you really need to be working with the right funds raising at the right time. My biggest feedback to entrepreneurs is to always try to get as much traction as you can. I’m sure as an investor, you love that, too. Being able to show that you’ve got something tangible, that you have customers that want to pay for what you’re providing, and you’re really solving a need, really kind of building that awareness, and improving that out, I think, is pretty critical at the early stages. Another mistake I see a lot of entrepreneurs make as well is building a product without talking to customers. It sounds really basic but it actually happens a lot more than you would imagine. There’s a lot of people out there that start building products but aren’t talking to the end user and come to find out after the products are built, they get a lot of feedback to tweak that where that could have been done a lot earlier on in the process. Those are just a couple of things.

William Leonard

Really interesting insight there. You mentioned something about who the ATDC is helping, and it’s really a wide range of people from those who are in the corporate world who want to be an entrepreneur, to those who already have their business kind of in the swing of things. I guess my question for you is, what advice would you give to those who are thinking about maybe applying to be in ATDC? What are some of the practical value adds of being a member and being a part of the different verticals that the ATDC has to offer?

Kristin Slink

Definitely. I’ll explain that real quick. We really have three different tiers. I always explain it as a pyramid. The shortest concentration or smallest concentrations at the top, largest is at the bottom. I’ll start at the bottom with the largest, that’s our Educate program. You do not have to apply to be part of our community. It’s $25 per person per quarter. You just sign up on our website, which is atdc.org. You instantly get access to all of the events that we hold. We do a core curriculum around customers about customer discovery. Really talking to your customers and finding out, making sure that you’re solving a need. We also have financial readiness. We walk early-stage entrepreneurs through building a financial model and put them in touch with those who can kind of help them tweak that to make sure you know where the money is coming from, where the spends are going. We also have an investor readiness course as well. It’s kind of part of our core three, getting you ready to talk to investors and kind of how to do so. It’s super easy. You just join the website, get access, get connected to our community and some of our resources. Now going up the pyramid there, so to speak, the different levels, the next level is Accelerate. Where the Educate program’s more on an individual basis, Accelerate is on the company level. This is what you do have to apply for. You would just have to get a coach like myself, to really say yes, throughout this particular stage. When I say a particular stage, what we’re really looking for in the accelerated level is an MVP built and has been iterated at least one time. You’re talking to customers and making some iterations, you’ve got a small start of a team. You’ve raised some sort of money. All coaches kind of consider that differently. I look at that as bootstrapping, raising funds from friends and family, even the seed level, in really kind of establishing that product-market fit is really a big concentration there. You just meet with an ATDC coach and catalysts like myself, I get another person involved. And as long as there are two that are really saying yes to companies at this particular stage, we welcome you into the program. I’ll talk about the resources and stuff available to Accelerate and Signature after I explain Signatures, the next level up. This is our smallest concentration. These are companies really at scale. Typically, in this phase, they have raised. There’s their seed or series A, they’ve got customers traction, some rep revenue, they’ve got a good basis of a team, and they’re really focused on scale. That’s kind of where they’re at. Now for the Accelerate and the Signature portfolio members, we do offer a lot more benefits and so in addition to our curriculum, our community, and kind of just being involved in ATDC in general. You do get assigned coaching and coaches so every company gets two coaches and then when you get into the signature level, you are also teamed up with our entrepreneur residents. We also have Connect programs as well. We have Campus Connect. Joy runs that. She helps connect our companies to campus resources on Georgia Tech, primarily more on the hiring phase. We do a lot of job fairs, we have a database of resumes. We really help connect and find some talent coming out of the university. Our Corporate Connect, it’s Corbett who runs that. He helps connect our portfolio members to corporations, not just in Atlanta and Georgia, but mostly in the south. The goal there is feedback pilots, that sort of thing, sometimes an investment. And then last, we have an investment Connect. Brad is the one who runs that program. That’s really connecting our companies to investors, the investment community, one flagship event that we do is our investor roadshow, where typically prior to COVID, we would bring companies to both the East Coast and the West Coast. In most recently, we did one focus on FinTech, where it was virtual. We had our companies create digital boosts, and then we invited our investment community to come to take a look for a month. I just did a lot of talking on explaining the program. I know it’s a mouthful. I say it all the time. I’ll stop and see if you have any questions.

William Leonard

As you said, you did explain a lot but it gives a great breakdown of the true benefit and how ATDC has been so critical to the metro Atlanta startup ecosystem in the community here. Within that pyramid, you explained there’s a benefit for everyone who’s building a startup, right? And from your perspective, you’re unique, because you’ve scaled and you’ve exited a startup before. And obviously, along the way, you’ve learned and experienced a lot of happenings that come with building a business. From your viewpoint, Kristin, what are some of the things or what are some of the critical lessons that you’ve learned personally along your journey of building, scaling, and exciting LoanHero? How has that translated to your role at ATDC? 

Kristin Slink

I say they go hand in hand. I would say my number one learning is to learn from other people’s mistakes. A lot of us have made mistakes, a lot of us talk about those mistakes, and so if you can learn that from someone else, hopefully, you can avoid those, too. Understanding what to look for, what to avoid, or knowing what kind of situations someone has been in the past kind of helps steer you in the right direction. That’s really big learning that came from there, which also stems into the community as well. Not only learn from other people’s mistakes but also surround yourself with others doing like-minded things. That’s why the community is so big. I’m so excited to go back to ATDC headquarters, which is in Tech Square, just to be surrounded by the energy and be able to meet other entrepreneurs. That’s one thing that we like to do. Connect other entrepreneurs to one another because you never know what you can learn from someone else, or what experiences they have had. Community connections, and really just kind of understanding that there are so many people out there that want to help you is just building that awareness piece. It’s out there. Let’s take my experience, for example. I raised money without even knowing what a pitch deck was or what investors were. I was using Google come to find out there’s a startup community in San Diego, same here in Atlanta in Georgia. Even if you’re in Macon, for example, you can join ATDC and be part of the community that way. Know that there are other people there to help lift you and guide you on the path.

William Leonard

It’s good to know that you don’t have to be directly centered here in the metro Atlanta area to be a part of ATDC because I went to Mercer. Mercer’s starting to build an immersive startup community itself. I know we’ve got universities in Carrollton, Athens, Statesboro, Georgia. I think it’s important to bring awareness around that as well. Shifting gears here a little bit, you’ve been in Atlanta for three or four years now. You’ve been able to really assess the startup scene and specifically within FinTech, and I’m curious, from your viewpoint, how has it evolved over the last few years and then a tangent off of that, why is FinTech so important here in the southeast?

Kristin Slink

I love this question. Because when I say I moved to Atlanta from San Diego, people kind of look at me and are like, “What do you mean? Don’t you miss San Diego?” Actually had that conversation this morning, where I miss San Diego but the Atlanta community is just so vibrant, and it’s so southern. Hospitality is a thing, right? I think that is a really big difference. Coming from a different startup hub in the US coming to Atlanta, I think that our startup community is very inclusive, and everyone wants to help one another. It’s really like pat your back, you pat mine, you know. It’s just that camaraderie that comes from that that I really enjoy about this community. That’s in general, FinTech specifically. Starting an online lending business in San Diego and saying FinTech, people kind of look at you like, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” And so not only people understanding your business model, specifically, but also being able to connect you to partners, mentors, other people in the industry to really help stepstone your progress was lacking there. Coming into a FinTech hub, where I say FinTech and it’s a different kind of conversation and even open my eyes up to how big FinTech was. In my personal experience, FinTech to me was online lending, where FinTech is more typically in Atlanta, you’re hearing about payments, but over the last couple of years, you would ask me kind of the difference between when I first got here, and now even that is expanded, right? We have so many companies that are doing something in FinTech. I always argue every company can have some kind of aspect of FinTech in it now that we’re kind of coming into that space. But if you’re processing payments or moving money around, or there’s a lot of financial literacy, for example, there are a lot of different business models that do wrap in FinTech. It is very important to the southeast and not only Atlanta. I’m glad you said kind of the greater southeast. We’re really connected to Charlotte as well. The Charlotte FinTech organizations up there and then I also recently co-chaired FinTech South, which is the biggest fintech conference in the southeast. We had tons of speakers and great content and a lot of heavy hitters kind of coming to showcase Atlanta. There’s a lot of talk about why corporations are moving here, why companies are hiring here. There are so many universities, there’s talent, there are Fortune 500s, there are bigger FinTech organizations, there’s just so much to offer here. I can go on for days, days, and days about the differences between my former community but I would say I’m pretty glad to be in Atlanta these days.

William Leonard

I think you’ve touched on all the core underpinnings of why Atlanta is solidifying itself as a FinTech hub. You mentioned the universities, you mentioned the companies moving here, the Fortune 500 that are already here. It’s almost like a Renaissance period for the city in terms of innovation and just building around FinTech specifically. I’m glad we’re here. I’m glad you relocated as well. We’ve connected early this year for the first time, and we’ve talked several times. I love how you label yourself as a nontechie turned tech AF, and I’m curious, like how you practically turned into a techie. How others who aren’t super technical can follow a similar path to building a startup, having that idea, executing on an idea, and having success like you did?

Kristin Slink

Not only am I nontechnical and building an online lending business, but even in the last three years of working with a lot of different entrepreneurs, I think a lot of the really successful ones are nontechnical. They come from these fields and industries where they recognize a really big pain point, have an idea about how tech can really take them to the next level, and they go and build it. I do see a lot of disconnects, too, between knowing what you want to build and then thinking you have to be technical in order to do so. I’m a really big believer that you don’t have to be technical. I’m very vocal about that as well because I want to empower those that do have ideas for tech businesses that you don’t need to have to write the code, right? There are so many resources out there and so many ways to visualize and articulate your idea. It takes a lot to get to that point, but it’s doable. You can also leverage a lot of resources around and so I’m just super-empowered around that and passionate about really just being proof that I wasn’t technical. I didn’t come from a finance background, but I did create a successful business that I ultimately sold. I see so many other founders that kind of have that mold as well, that is really kind of coming into that. As time has progressed, I think that even five years ago, you really felt like you had to be the one to build it. I have got this idea. I’m going to build it, tinker with it, and then I’m going to raise VC funds and then make it this big thing. But now you’re really seeing a lot of non-technical entrepreneurs come out of the woodwork and are able to be successful as well as raise money, create these businesses that are really life-changing. There’s a lot of power behind that.

William Leonard

Is there any advice or insight from your perspective on how somebody who is nontechnical can find technical talent to help them build? Is there a specific way to go about that? Well, how do you want to talk about that?

Kristin Slink

I’m a big believer in visualizing your idea. I kind of fell into a product role at my last company. I really learned through my experience in those years of building LoanHero how to talk to technical teams, and the biggest way to talk to technical teams is visually. Really articulating what you want the software to do in the form of a clickable prototype is, I think, the best way to visualize the idea, not only to get it built but also to raise money to hire talent to find customers to get feedback. That process of validating your idea, putting some strategy behind it, doing customer discovery, and ultimately putting it in some sort of visual form, where you can put it in front of people for feedback, helps get the idea out of your head onto paper and helps articulate that idea to others. It also shows that you put a lot of thought into it. When it comes time to get that built, there’s less confusion on what’s in your head versus what actually gets built. Technical folks have a different way of processing and thinking about things. The best way that I’ve always kind of navigated that conversation is visually showing them this is how it’s done. I even say clickable prototype, and some non-technical folks may be like, I don’t know about that. That sounds too technical. But there’s a lot of drag-and-drop systems out there. A clickable prototype doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just needs to show you know what you’re trying to get across.

William Leonard

Interesting. Having that visual representation of the early stages is so important. I love that. Great advice, Kristin. I think this has been a really interesting conversation. It’s a little bit out of the norm. But I love it because you’re providing such a unique perspective and really educating a lot of our listeners who are early-stage founders or maybe want to go out and build a business, but they need that inspiration. Or maybe they’re just nontechnical. And that’s stopping them from going out and building. I love the advice that you shared about just surrounding yourself with people who are technical, having that visual of what you want to build, and just going and doing it. Not letting anything get in your way.

Kristin Slink

Going and doing it. I just want to hang on to those words for a minute. It’s just taking the step. It’s doing it, it’s just making the move, right? You’re not gonna get anywhere by not doing it. You just have to take that first step and do it. I just feel very passionate about empowering just to get into entrepreneurship. Do it. You’ve got the idea. You’ve got the power. You can, you can succeed, you can do it. But with the right work.

William Leonard

Awesome, Kristin. I think this has been a great conversation. I appreciate you joining me to share more about ATDC, your background, your role as a FinTech catalyst and how you’re helping startups, not only in the metro Atlanta area but throughout the state of Georgia. Build businesses, get connected with potential customers, and just further contribute to the ecosystem. Really appreciate you joining here, Kristin, and let’s certainly do it again.

Kristin Slink

Absolutely. Thank you for having me. And if anyone wants to follow me on LinkedIn, it’s Kristin Slink. My handle is @iamtechaf on Instagram.

William Leonard

Awesome. And then what’s the ATDC website as well?

Kristin Slink

atdc.org. There’s a button at the top right-hand corner that says “Join” and just click on that button, make an account, pay the $25 for the quarter, and then look at all our events and curriculum that we have available and get to it.

William Leonard

Perfect, Kristin, thank you again for joining. 

Kristin Slink

Thanks for having me. 

Lisa

Thank you for listening to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. You know, we’re not just a podcast, we’re a community, and we’d love to see you at one of our digital or physical events, go to valor.VC and sign up for an event that makes sense for you. We have events for founders and the investors who back them. Another event you might enjoy is Startup Runway. The Startup Runway Foundation is a Valor organization that provides $10,000 grants to founders who are women or people of color building next-generation software products. Applications are free and we’d love to hear from you at startuprunway.org. And as always, thank you so much to the organizations that make this podcast possible. Not only Valor Ventures, but also Write2Market, a tech marketing and PR agency in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Startup Runway Foundation and Atlanta Tech Park Valley’s headquarters, and also headquarters for over 100 local entrepreneurs, building global businesses. See you next week. Please bookmark the podcast and join us.