Jon Birdsong is the founder of Rivalry, a sales process management software company. He is also the coordinator for the Atlanta Startup Village, which is Atlanta’s premier Meetup for tech entrepreneurs. In this interview he talks about building Atlanta’s Startup Community, and how students can get involved.
Why don’t we start the program like we normally do. Tell us a bit about yourself, and your experience at SalesLoft.
So all last year I worked at a company called SalesLoft, which is a sales intelligence company that goes out and finds all sorts of valuable information about people, and companies in your CRM. It scrapes the internet and finds things such as job changes, news, press releases and anything that will help educate the sales rep. And a more educated sales rep is a better sales rep.
I worked there for a year, and at the beginning of this year I started a sales process management company called Rivalry.
What effect did going through TechStars have on you?
TechStars definitely game me and a few other folks confidence that Atlanta was doing a lot of things wrong. We saw what could be possible for a startup community. We saw how folks like Brad Feld and David Cohen really cultivated and organized a startup community. We realized that was how Atlanta needed to be — open, inclusive, benevolent — that was something we all identified with.
Let’s talk about Rivalry specifically. What gave you that spark to start your own company?
I knew that I always wanted to start one. It was just a matter of one, when is the timing going to be right, and two, was I confident enough in my ability to work in enterprise.
Before SalesLoft I worked for a B2C startup called OpenStudy in the education space. It was right in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia in Midtown. I spent two years there doing marketing. I had a really good idea of how to build something, put it in the hands of customers, and get feedback — but I hadn’t done it in enterprise. I knew there was a lot of money in enterprise, but I didn’t know anything about it, which partly led me to SalesLoft.
Other than that I had always wanted to be the CEO one day.
Right now what are your main challenges?
Its funny, I was talking about this with some folks at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. There are a lot of challenges in the Atlanta startup scene. One of them is hiring — for every developer there are four jobs available. If you are going to build a company, obviously you want the best folks. It took me four months alone to bring on our first full-time developer.
Going after a top 10, top 1 percent developer is kind of like…
Chasing after a unicorn?
It is. It takes time, and it takes patience. But it is a big challenge.
The Atlanta Tech Village has helped solve a lot of those problems. One of the biggest issues with Atlanta entrepreneurs was lack of options for real estate. Folks were playing real estate roulette. No startup wants to get locked into a 5-year lease. There really wasn’t an outlet for a small company that just wanted to take a chance for the next 24 months.
The Atlanta Tech Village is a new space in the Atlanta ecosystem, and it is fantastic. You can scale a company from two to forty here, and still have that serendipitous interaction that creates positive momentum.
It is interesting that is is so difficult to find talent. Georgia Tech is right around the corner, and they have one of the best computer science programs in the country.
It is, but I don’t think the entrepreneurial culture doesn’t run in their veins. I’ve worked for two years on Georgia Tech’s campus and have been exposed to thousands of students. That is a generalization, but as a whole they aren’t taking a leap of faith and starting a company like their counterparts at MIT and Stanford. The culture is different. Big businesses have a lot of influence there, and it is extremely easy to get a nice, cushy job out of college. There just isn’t a lot of exposure to early-stage companies.
Well, what do we have to do to change that? How do you start building a culture where entrepreneurship is the ideal.
The simplest answer to that question is success.
Success breeds more success. When you see stories of David Cummings selling his company Pardot at the age of 31 or 32 for $100 million dollars. He was completely bootstrapped and created a hundred jobs.
That story needs to be told to freshmen coming into Georgia Tech, and folks on their sixth year at UGA — and I’m a UGA grad so no shame there. It’s the same thing at Auburn. These are folks that want to go into traditional southern industries: banking, finance, real estate. The internet, technology — these things aren’t fads. They aren’t going away.
I was telling someone the other day that if you aren’t technically aware you are going to get leaped by someone 5 years younger than you. You are going to get leaped by the student that knows how to set up a WordPress site, build a following, and build a community and sell, and code.
It is going to be a very interesting generation. I think there are some folks that would have been very successful in the past, but aren’t as technologically progressive as they should be. It is going to hurt them.
I’m sometimes hesitant to call Signal Tower a tech blog, or a tech publication, because technology is everywhere. There isn’t a single industry it isn’t going to touch. I know it is cliche, but software really is eating the world.
I think you bring up an interesting point. On a farm, in a commercial real estate — many of my friends that I grew up with are in these spaces. Software is bridging a gap. There is a lot of opportunity in these fields, who want to get out of there comfort zone.
The internet, technology — these things aren’t fads. They aren’t going away.
Atlanta has a huge amount of fortune 500 companies. I’ve got to believe there is an unbelievable opportunity for enterprise startups.
For me personally, if I was a young 19-year-old kid going into Georgia Tech or UGA, I would try and focus solely on finding a niche in the business to business space. Interview your dad’s friends. Figure out what problems are there. People have done this.
Greg Benoit of QGenda started a doctor scheduling software out of Excel. He presented two Atlanta Startup Villages ago. They are doing millions in annual revenue, and are bootstrapped, and doing phenomenally well. It just takes a little bit of initiative to get going, and getting customers.
Let’s take a moment to talk about that. As a startup, how do you get your first customer?
The first thing you need to do, before you build anything, get a customer.
There is two ways. One is to itch your own scratch, because you are your best customer. The other way is to go out and find someone else’s itch. If you talk to 50 folks in commercial real estate, or 50 folks in agriculture, and you start to see a pattern, something may be there. See if there is a way to do that task more efficiently.
You had an article published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle called Four Challenges Facing the Atlanta Tech Entrepreneur. I want to get to the content of that article, but first I’d like to talk about guest posts. How do you do it, and what are the advantages?
Before I get to that I’d like to say that I am a huge proponent of writing.
I think a great way to build leads, to build credibility is to write. It is much easier write that cold email when you can say “By the way we right about sales process, or sales intelligence, and by the way here are 300 posts we’ve written in the last year.” That gives instant credibility, and allows folks to connect with you on their time. Building that credibility online is extremely important for business and individuals.
The first step for any company or any individual is to just start writing.
The first thing you need to do, before you build anything, get a customer.
Do you find that writing helps you organize your thoughts?
It does. Jeff Bezos is a great example, because he makes people write what they want to get accomplish in each meeting.
There is some clarity and succinctness involved when putting your thoughts on paper.
Let’s go back to that article. We’ve already covered the first point about finding talent, the next one is about not failing fast enough.
There was a guy who graduated in 2008 from Georgia Tech named Paul “Stammy” Stamatiou. He works at Twitter now. I view Stammy’s path as an unbelievable success. Within a span of two or three years he has gone through Y-Combinator, he put everything he had into two startups. Things didn’t quite work out, but he quickly moved on.
There are companies here, in Atlanta, that are failing slow — and that is soul sucking for an entrepreneur. I’d rather know within 12 or 24 months if things are going to work out. As an entrepreneur you have the skills to do something else, and you have tons of opportunities available.
Spending time fixing something that doesn’t exist isn’t a great use of time. Failing slow isn’t fun, and I’ve done it.
Me too. I wonder if that is a cultural thing? In school we’ve been taught that failing is the worst thing you can do, and in entrepreneurship that isn’t the case at all.
It is definitely the traditional way of thinking.
The third point is weeding through the wantrepreneurs.
There are a lot of wantrepreneurs in Atlanta.
There are a lot of people that will sit there and Tweet all day, and it gives the perception that they are doing something, but they aren’t doing anything actionable. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but know where your priorities are.
There are companies here, in Atlanta, that are failing slow—and that is soul sucking for an entrepreneur.
Say there is a student in Atlanta and he wants to get involved in the startup scene. What is the best way for them to get involved in the startup community.
If they want it bad enough they should go intern at companies that they enjoyed meeting at the Atlanta Tech Village, or the Hypepotamus, or the ATDC. Just show up and say “Here I am, tell me what you need, and I’ll get it done.”
That is the best way to get involved in the startup community. Surround yourself with other startups volunteer your time. That’s what I did, and it was great. As a student the highest priority should be learning, not what looks good on a resume. I honestly think resumes are going to be extinct for technology folks in the next 5 or 10 years. I don’t look at resumes anymore. I look at Twitter, GitHub. Do they have a personal blog? Can they sell? The internet is leveling the playing field. Are you a player, or not? You can’t just hide behind a resume.
I’d go to events. I’d start writing. Shoot, if I wanted to get involved into the startup community I’s go to events, and start writing about the struggles of trying to get involved in the startup community.
Learn — and plot when you are going to start your own.
Beyond writing you also organize an event, The Atlanta Startup Village. Will you talk a bit about that?
The Atlanta Startup Village was spawned after our time at TechStars Boulder. It was really a group effort by all of us at TechStars Boulder, but I was probably the loudest.
It is important that startup communities are led by entrepreneurs. There is no other way about it. For a long time the Atlanta Startup Community was led by the Government, Georgia Tech, and folks that weren’t building businesses.
TechStars gave us the confidence just do it. We went in and just started something. It didn’t matter if just a few people showed up. We started the first Atlanta Startup Village about a month after we got back from TechStars, and about 40 or 50 people showed up.
The premise is a very simple one we borrowed from TechStars — they have something called the Boulder, Denver New Tech Meetup, which showcases five companies that present for five minutes what they do. We took that concept and brought it to Atlanta.
What interests or inspires you?
What interests me? Technology, politics, golf and Atlanta.
What inspires me? History, great leaders. I’m watching a documentary on Teddy Roosevelt right now. I try and keep a documentary, or a biography around at all times. It’s great, and he was a great man.
I’m a documentary junkie myself. As a side recommendation The Trap is on YouTube. It is a about the political and economic ideologies that evolved after WWII. It is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a while.
Are there any questions that I should have asked you? Are there any stories you need to tell?
I think one big concept for folks in the south is that startup communities benefit from other startup communities.
When we had Brad Feld speak at the Atlanta Startup Village, folks from Augusta came. This week myself and about five or six other entrepreneurs from Atlanta are going to Greenville, South Carolina. They’ve got a fantastic startup community in the Next Innovation Center. We can learn from them, they can learn from us.
Where can people follow you? How can they throw money at you? How does that work?
If you have a company in the Salesforce.com ecosystem with 5 to 20 sales reps, and are looking to improve your sales process, fill out a contact form, and I’ll be quick to respond.