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Venture Atlanta 2017 Recap

The always informative and fun networking bonanza known as Venture Atlanta had its annual conference last week at the still relatively new College Football Hall of Fame, where you can watch pitches from our region’s most promising startups while sitting, not kneeling, under the lights on the hash marks of a makeshift football field in the middle of downtown.

It was another great event for Atlanta’s up-and-coming tech community, as we heard about record number of out-of-town investors, record number of applications and record number of attendees. Simply put, so many records were broken that something must qualify for enshrinement in a small corner of our host building.

The conference format includes multiple six-minute presentations from capital-seeking companies who have shown true market fit and hockey-stick-like revenue projections interspersed with interviews with successful investors and company CEO’s. As far as I could tell, two themes stood out: be nice to each other and a background in sports is a winning factor to being a successful entrepreneur.

There was also a consolation prize for some companies that weren’t quite up to the judges’ snuff on market fit and growth traction but promising enough to not be left out. These companies were banished to a small room on the second floor amidst the Heisman Trophy and a bird’s eye view of the football field ballroom below. Personally, I felt bad for them; they seemed all alone, eager to show off their wares but with few takers. Next year perhaps they can be more visible.

As my company sponsored the coffee cups, I must say the espresso machines were a big hit, except that the lines were a bit long because we only had one barista at a time. My attempt to cut the line claiming my company was the sponsor was unfortunately met with scorn and derision.

There is a bit of a caste system at Venture Atlanta. Certain events are deemed “VIP” like the early morning breakfast on the second day and a big shindig after day one, complete with transportation to and a rooftop buffet at Ponce City Market. As the coffee cup sponsor, you would have thought I’d qualify for this opportunity to have some real food but I guess not, and I sheepishly had to walk in the oppressive October heat to MARTA while my peers sat on their air-conditioned buses ready for a big night out.

Besides that slight slight, I leave Venture Atlanta proud to be a small but consistent member of the Atlanta tech community. So many fine people, really impressive companies and an emerging track record of highly successful exits. Atlanta is cooking up all the needed ingredients to continue its ascent as a top-tier tech city and we have come a long way since I started A.D.A.M. Software back in the late 80’s. Here’s to continued success.

Roomba Ruminations

I don’t know about you, but I find Roomba, the vacuuming robot, to be kind of creepy.

Knocking around the house, constantly crashing into walls, and then spinning away as if nothing happened, Roomba is like a drunken sailor in hot pursuit of lint and dust.  It doesn’t care how many obstacles you put in front of it, how many clothes or cords you have on the floor, whether you have carpet, hardwoods or tile, Roomba is on a singular mission to eradicate household filth and it won’t be stopped.

That is the part that weirds me out.

What if it can’t?

My dog agrees with me.  He finds the Roomba almost as untrustworthy as the pizza delivery man. He barks at it, then runs from it and after months of therapy, has finally accepted it as like a step-brother.  Yes, they share a house, but that is where the friendship ends.

Roomba has made a difference in our house’s overall cleanliness.  Said mentioned dog is a big shedder especially when it thunders.  So we unleash the little whirling dervish of dirt on stormy summer nights.  The dog and I both cower in the corner; he is scared of the lightning and I’m scared of… “The Thing”.

I’ve also notice, after closer inspections, that the Roomba sports a stylish, high tech mustache complete with white bristles hanging down like a fu manchu.  The manufacturer says it allows the Roomba to dig out dirt from tough to reach corners, but I think it is secretly designed to give the device personality.   Evidently, the Roomba also has a fear of heights as it has “cliff detection sensors” that helps it avoid dangerous drop-offs, like hallway steps or violent mood swings.

Finally, Roomba’s work ethic is questionable.  Like many of us, at the beginning it is all gung ho, casually bobbing around the house, running into things like a typical one year old. But as soon as it starts to feel tired or filled up, it starts to look for Momma, or in its case, homebase.  Yes, it can put himself into timeout whenever it sees fit.  I find that disturbing especially as I paid hundreds of dollars to acquire its services.  Excuse me, Mr. iRobot, but I will tell you when the work is done.  Got it?

Trade Show Dude-ty

Perhaps after nearly 40 years in business, my professional calling has been realized.  While I know that I’m supposed to be on the senior tour by now and do honestly excel at holding the door for people (“finally found a job I’m good at”), it is in the cavernous and artificial confines of exhibition halls where all of my skills come together in a master souffle of salesmanship, comedy and Fitbit-obsessed step counting. I am a Trade Show Dude.

A professional gets paid to do his craft and I receive a check for traveling the country selling my wares, following in the glorious footsteps of snake-oil salesmen from a bygone era. Decked out in a company-supplied uniform (Ok, only the shirt and not the Tommy Johns), I take refuge with the security guards and the generally young people whose job it is to “man the booth”.  Whether a 10’ by 10’ or 20’ by 20’, this glorified patch of space usually padded with over-plush carpet is my Fenway Parkway, my Augusta National, my Cathedral.  Shrouded in bright florescent lights with the booth pews lined in perfect formation awaiting the trade show faithful, the exhibit hall is my canvas and I am it’s Rembrandt.

Don’t let anybody tell you it is easy work doing booth duty. You must bring your A game at all times, always have a clever line or two up your sleeve (“accelerating revenues this way, declining revenues over there”) and never get too engrossed in any particular conversation as you might miss somebody important walking by.  You need good eyes so you can carefully pick out the company names of harried attendees and not waste precious words on conference personnel.   Multi-tasking and good aerobic skills are also a prerequisite because at times, you must dodge people who haven’t had a meal since breakfast making a beeline for lunch while trying to scan somebody’s badge and not touch, prod or poke too near, um, their privacy.

I have been injured on the job both mentally and physically. One time somebody did not stop when I tried to talked to them and it hurt my pride.  Another time a shelf collapsed on my foot at the Oracle conference.  Let’s just say that Larry Ellison and I now both own a decent size stake in the company.

Being a professional Trade Show Dude has it perks.  I got to visit the exact same hotel in Las Vegas twice in a two-week period.  I just left my suitcase, had them clean my stuff and put it right back in my fancy suite at the MGM Grand.  I wish. The Opryland Hotel in Nashville also made an impression if you want to remain in a enclosed bubble while working a trade show bubble.

Trade shows are great for making new friends, and I have become a bit of a regular and a minor celebrity on the B2B marketing circuit.  There are times when I have even tutored young people from other companies on how to work the trade show floor.  I know they appreciate the advice from the stiff, gray-haired guy with the Ray Romano voice showing them the ropes.  They have even offered to buy me a free drink or give me promotional sunglasses so I would go away quietly.

But one guy I met on the circuit didn’t have such an opportunity.  I met him while working out one afternoon during a lull in the trade show action.  Just me and him and handful of others.  He was on the stairmaster.  So I went on the stairmaster.  When he went on the treadmill,  I went on the treadmill. Yes, I was stalking him and finally got the courage up to introduce myself.  I asked him a question about his Keynote speech that morning and now the Co-CEO of Oracle and I exchange emails.

Such is the life of the Trade Show Dude.

A Visit To City Of Refuge

City of Refuge is an oasis of positivity and good work planted in the middle of Vine City, a entangled, poverty stricken neighborhood just west of the new Falcons stadium and the existing Georgia Dome.  

On a tour earlier this week, the vision of founder Bruce Deel and his spirited team was in full force as the final pieces of the 220,000 square foot campus were nearing completion.  This two-building warehouse complex, with its own security guard and protective fencing, is the short term home (up to six months) for numerous homeless women and children, as well as a community and social enterprise center to help nearby residents escape the clutches of surrounding despair and depression.

It is a most impressive place, a mix of Disney-like avenues that snake through the warehouses comforting people who have faced extreme real-life hardships.  Serving up to 260 homeless women and children and providing solace and care for victims of sex trafficking, City of Refuge is booming with programs, partners and promise: the 180 Kitchen not only serves three hot meals a day, it’s culinary arts training program and catering services create lasting skills; on-site day care for residents and local residents free Mom’s to work, and Bright Futures Academy prepares older children for just that; Mercy Care runs a full service primary care clinic and I particularly liked the NAPA Auto Tech Training facility, 8,000 square feet auto center of lifts, tools and parts training those re-entering society with useful skills for future employment.

Less tangible but fully present: the focus on the mental health aspects of serving these vulnerable people.  Small groups living in well thought out “homes,” each designed to cater to  complex needs and rehabilitation.  When you walk the corridors of City of Refuge, you feel the love and compassion.   Tragically, there are literally thousands of people waiting to fill up the spaces when existing residents move on.

As the current campus in nearing capacity, the visionaries of City of Refuge have a next act: extend their reach further into the neighborhood and help transform one of Atlanta’s most impoverished and crime ridden area.  Years ago, a Creative Loafing reporter described Vine City this way: “boarded-up homes built among the trees along the narrow streets,…people loitering in the middle of vacant lots, casting hollow stares at passing motorists, and…young men hanging out on street corners, hollering at passers-by and then to lookouts down the street.”  Little seems to have changed driving through the other day.

Deel and his team plan to buy hundreds of acres of property, renovate, rejuvenate and slowly restore the neighborhood into a place that has a future.  It is a long-term vision that will require money, passion and persistence. But based on what they have accomplished, with the existing campus, the positive outcomes of people who have been touched there and the endless energy and purpose they bring, you’d be foolish to bet against them.

 

Chipping Away

I chipped my front tooth playing tennis the other night.  Yup, trying to gallantly hit a reflex volley, your athletic blogger missed the ball completely but connected directly with teeth formerly known as pearly whites, sprinkling tooth fairy dust all over Court 1 at my fancy schmancy country club in the heart of Buckhead.

For the next 48 hours, everyone I encountered was treated to a close up view of my chipped tooth.  In fact, I used the word, “chipped”, so many times that it has became an obsession, as if everywhere I look, chips are taking over.  So here I go:

On TV, I hear about Chipper Jones and Chipotle;  At Holiday parties, chips galore.  I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, but in business, owning blue chip stocks, using bargaining chips and taking some chips of the table could make rich;   At my fancy schmancy club, the reigning tennis champ is named Chip;  “Chip and charge” might work at tennis, but chipping is my achilles heal at golf.  I’d be honored to be called a “chip off the old block”. Chips Ahoy, anybody? (Not sure where the Chippendales fit in all of this).

Now that I have that out of my system, one guy not phased by all this chippiness is my rock solid Dentist, who in less than an hour restored my smile to its original off-white glamour, thankfully.

Looking ahead to Christmas, I wonder what Santa has in store for me.  In past years, when I haven’t blogged enough or wrote badly, lumps of coal were my usual gift (I have stockpiled them waiting for coal prices to recover but that is another story).  As I have been a bit better this year,  when I sit on Santa’s knee in the next few days,  I might have to ask for a little more to compensate for the recent tooth trauma and being such a good sport during the recovery.  You guessed it:  a bag of wood chips might be in order.

A BIG Thank You To The Kendeda Fund

For the past two decades, Atlanta has been the quiet beneficiary of an anonymous foundation whose sizable contributions have touched numerous important causes in our city.  The Atlanta Business Chronicle recently broke some news identifying the generous family behind the Kendeda Fund and your blogger felt a big shout out was in order.

According to the story, Diana Blank and her three children through the Kendeda Fund vehicle have gifted between $40 million and $50 million a year for a total of $480 million to date.  The largest of these gifts, a just announced $30 million grant to Georgia Tech for a LIving Building Challenge 3.0, follows a long line of support for green initiatives, homeless services, child welfare and others causes based here, around the country and across the world.

An even more stunning fact of the Diana Blank family philanthropy is that they are just warming up; the family intends to “spend down” the foundation by 2024 and more than double the amount they have already given. “I give it away and it keeps coming back,” said Mrs. Blank. “A billion dollars?  That’s a lot of money.  You just hope you are supporting initiatives that have value.”

Through her past and future support, Mrs. Blank, a modest and unassuming woman who according to the article flies coach, carries her own bags and loves nature, gives the Atlanta non-profit community a chance to show its stuff. While we as a city face many troubling challenges, the opportunity afforded us through support of foundations like Kendeda and many others in partnership hopefully with forward-thinking local governments gives us reason to think big and truly make a difference.  

Let’s not waste it.

Reposting “Appalachian Trail” in honor of Robert Redford’s new movie, “A Walk in the Woods”

(Blogger’s note: since my viewership is growing so rapidly, I have resorted to reposting, based on current events, some previous work that you and my handful of other loyal readers might have missed. The following was originally published in November, 2012. Enjoy!)

Finishing, “A Walk in the Woods”, Bill Bryson’s personal tale of tackling the Appalachian Trail (AT), made me think of some of my own outdoor adventures. Fortunately, these memories were brief and relatively benign as I don’t like to sleep in the woods that much, have trouble setting up even today’s idiot proof tents, and never carried a backpack filled with gear for any distance longer than walking to a Chastain concert.

The allure of dropping everything and hiking the AT does have some romantic quality to it, and the fact I live in Georgia and have seen Springer Mountain, the AT’s south-to-north starting point, makes it even a real possibility. The counter-balance to this fantasy is that I can’t spell REI and as a kid, I saw the movie “Deliverance”. That by itself is a good reason to never set foot in North Georgia.

But North Georgia has come a long way and if you can somehow avoid all of the bikers, there are some beautiful sections including Big Canoe, where I once had a house, and the Chestatee River, where I once worked up the courage to go on an overnight “camping with canoeing included” excursion with my daughter and a raft of other fathers and daughters. (I was the trip’s scribe and wrote a humorist, say I, essay on this experience before blogs were prevalent and email was my only distribution).

While my recent outdoor creds have been gained near the southern start of the AT, I actually earned my true camp badges in ropes, forestry, first aid and acting like a big baby deep in the Maine woods near the Trails finish line. Please note I scaled Mt. Katahdin as a 12 year old, survived Black Sandy Island as a 9 year old, and ate all the lobster on the field trip to Boothbay Harbor (that doesn’t count). Somewhere during those years I also made my first movement au natural, with no splash, no toilet paper and no real interest in having to do that on a regular basis.

I also recall that I went on a teen tour one summer which involved six weeks of camping. We stayed occasionally at the KOA campgrounds, the Ritz Carleton of outdoor living, many featuring pools, showers, real bathrooms and well stocked vending machines. I can’t for the life of me remember what our tents looked like, but I vividly remember the cute 16 year old girls from Long Island and winning the glazed donut eating contest.

Now my step brother, Peter, well, he is a woodsman extradonaire. He actually hiked most of the 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT) from Mexico to Canada one summer with his friend, Mike. In terms of stature, I’d say the CDT trumps just about anything in “Get Off The Couch And Turn Off The Electronics” summer activity category. While they certainly deserve all the credit, praise, recognition and adulation for their accomplishment, it took a village to get Peter and Mike across the proverbial hydrological land hump and every family member had a role to play, from the timely shipping of care packages to remote locations to logistic details only us little people cared about.

My job was in post-trip publicity where I pulled some strings with my employer to actually get them on national television (thank you). In my high powered assistant assignment editor position at the then fledgling CNN network (it was only a few years old at that point), I worked my magic to pull together a 90 second masterpiece focused on Peter and the stray dog he picked up on his journey.

As you see, the dog, named Mange, had to make the radical adjustment from wondering freely in the wild mountains of the West to navigate apartment living in NYC’s urban jungle, where dogs in the winter wear coats and their owners need to pick up after them. We found a dog psychiatrist, (yes, they have those), to evaluate Mange’s condition and after immediately prescribing Xanax, he pronounced Mange as well adjusted as any other NYC resident.

Our Peter and pet centered funny, touching, still picture-filled news piece ran on a slow news day one early afternoon and all was good until the phone call from Ed Turner, the big cheese those days at CNN Atlanta headquarters (and no relation to the super big cheese Ted either). He threatened all of us with our jobs if that story ever ran again, and so ended Mange’s media career.

As I look to the future, I don’t see a mid-life crisis Appalachian Trail hike in the cards, but I am interested in more outdoor adventures. The notion of walking on a trail carrying a pack, one foot in front of the next, seems like good clean fun, sort of like carrying your golf clubs. Physically, I’m up for it, and if I can avoid poison ivy, learn to hang my food, read a trail map and keep a good positive attitude even if it rains (“the more miserable, the more memorable”), I have some potential. Maybe I can bring my iPhone along for the ride, crank up some Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger singing, “Just keeping on walking, don’t look back” and who knows where I’ll go.

Fitbit Crazed

For my birthday in late July, my dear family got me a Fitbit. I don’t generally like new things so  the Fitbit remained in its box, packed away, while thousands upon thousands of steps occurred with no credit.

Over time, not wanting to seem ungrateful and slightly curious about all the Fitbit fanfare (they did a successful IPO recently) , it seemed like time to give it a try.  So I did and now I’m crazed.

Just to be honest, my first interaction with Fitbit was that it was very un-Apple like; I nearly tore my hands to shreds opening the darn plastic.  Steve Jobs would never have allowed for that kind of packaging.  Also, the guts of the Flex version of Fitbit were underwhelming:  two black bands, one charger gadget, one little pin-shaped thing whose purpose remains in question, one tiny battery and a printed sheet with a URL.   I was anything but impressed.

However, from that point forward, the Fitbit has become my new friend.  We go everywhere together.  He sits quietly on my right arm like I’m a big teenager with a new lanyard.  I sleep and shower with him (ok it).  He vibrates to me when I hit milestones but otherwise looks just like a black piece of soft plastic.  He has no face, no interface and he may clash with my Tag Heuer (very fancy) watch according to some fashion-forward people.

He is sneaky though.  Everything I do gets reported back to my iPhone app.  I can’t take one simple step without my app knowing.  He also keeps track of my calories and he even has the audacity to ask me about my weight.

He is getting inside my head a little bit.  I find myself checking my phone app way too much.  The first night that he joined my arm, my family watched HGTV while I walked around the house.  I’m not sure if it was “House Hunters” or my need for a few more steps to reach the magical 10,000 step milestone that got me moving.

In all candor and modesty, I have established a very impressive first week on Fitbit and my accomplishments have been recognized and rewarded with numerous Fitbit badges including: Boat Shoe, Sneaker, Urban Boot, Marathon and High Tops.  I plan to put them on my summer camp jacket if I can find it and in my LinkedIn profile.

Next week, I want to enter into a fitness competition with a good friend who also recently got a Fitbit.  He has been on a golf trip in Scotland this week, but when he comes back, after drinking too many pints and leaving God knows how many steps out there on the rainy course, he may be up to a Fitbit faceoff.  This is the same friend who a few years ago wanted to punch me out on New Year’s Eve, when goodwill to all men is supposed to be front and center, over a ping pong serve and whether it was  “legal” (I assure you it was). Perhaps a walking contest will be more in order.  The numbers will speak for themselves and I’m sure our Fitbits will be up for a rematch anytime.  Game on.

 

Dog Days Of Summer

I bought my dog a condo last week.  Yes, I know, but it comes on the strong recommendation of his therapist and it is supposed to ease anxiety and create a happy place.  With interest rates starting to tick up and rental housing rates out of this world, I decided it was time for my precious canine to have a place of his own especially now that he is in his 20’s in dog years and needs some independence.

We furnished his new digs in style.  The plush white carpet is to die for and we mounted an iPad on one of the screen walls complete with WiFi.  No dog worth his salt would be caught without an Over-The-Top video stream platform so we too subscribed to PetFlix.   I warned Gap, my dog, not to binge watch and that two hours of the Lassie Channel was it.

Now that Gap has his own place, I worry things are going to change.  I came over to watch the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, and I know he idolizes American Pharoah.  Being three himself, I told him that not every three-year old gets to eat and roll around in the hay for a living and that life was unfair.

So Gap is out looking for his first job, but he has a temper when around new people so the hospitality industry is out. As he has some German and Shepherd in him, I suggested cars or farming as possibilities.   He said he was thinking about going back to graduate school, just what I needed to hear.

For now, though, the new condo has a dog run, a dog park, a dog hair salon and doggone it, maid service.  Next thing he is going to ask for is an Uber account.

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Platform Tennis And My Paddle People

The Peachtree Invitational was in town this weekend, the annual platform tennis championship that brings top American talent to Atlanta for fierce competition, hearty partying and many laughs under cold, wet and generally gray conditions.

Marking the 10th year anniversary of this local event, platform tennis, also nicknamed paddle, is  an 87-year old game played outdoors generally in the winter using a heavy yellow ball zipping around a wire-meshed wrapped mini-tennis court.  Better known in cold weather environs, paddle courts are springing up everywhere around here, including three new ones coming soon to the Bitsy Grant tennis center bringing the metro area court count to about 14.  Paddle requires a high degree of hand-eye coordination, good footwork and patience, and is generally made up of people with high proficiency in tennis, squash or racketball.  According to Peter Lauer, the founder of the Peachtree Paddle league and the man credited with bringing the sport south, paddle is the “chess of racquet sports”, and requires a lot of thinking, teamwork and an ability to dress in layers.

Your blogger participated in said event paired up by the tournament organizer with another Bob, a crafty paddle veteran now living and playing a lot of paddle in Florida of all places.  Despite some adequate and spirited play, “Team Bobbsey Twins” made an unceremonious first round exit losing a heart-breaking three-set match.  One of the nice things about a paddle tournament though, in addition to the morning-to-night, free flowing kegs, chili pots and warming huts, is if you lose in the first round, you go to a consolation round, and if you lose again, you get one more chance.  For the record, “Team Bobbsey Twins” did put one big W on the board but our off-court antic also gained us some notoriety.

You see the whole tournament is built around a big Saturday shindig, where the stories fly as freely as the drinks, and all of the participants and significant others gather to celebrate late into the night. My playing partner Bob who we put up at the house for the weekend (that’s what you do in paddle) went with me to the party at a fine Buckhead estate, the same one that hosted last year’s party.

Your blogger, having attended last year and being a bit of a know it all, knew exactly where to go without bothering to look at the house directions.   A left here, right there, and before you know it we were right where we were supposed to be.  And, right on cue, there were makeshift valet parking signs indicating that we had arrived.  Pleased that this paddle thing had really gone upscale by having valet parking this year, and happy to not have to walk in the rain, we pulled right into an exquisite driveway, the car was whisked away and we entered the vaguely familiar beautiful home already full.

We walked right in and everyone was so friendly and welcoming.   The bar was set up right in the front. people looked fit and healthy like a paddle crowd should, and most of the men were wearing jackets, as were we, which was the recommended dress of the evening.   We were encouraged to go into the other room for hors d’oeuvres and everything seemed just right with the world.

Except, of course, we were at the wrong party.

Now you have to admit that this realization would cause a bit of awkwardness.  The food looked great, the bar well stocked, the car safely valeted and over in the corner I saw some people I recognized, including Ted Turner’s daughter. What to do?

Feeling like the Wedding Crashers or the imposters that showed up at the White House, I decided to fessed up.  The lady who seemed in charge, laughed, said we should have a drink and not worry about it.   I gave that strong consideration, thought about asking for shots instead, but decided, first and foremost, we are paddle people and though we were very impressed by everything going on at Party number 2, we had a duty to go to Party number 1.

We slinked out out of the house, tipped the valet guys and headed out into the cold and wet night in search of our paddle tennis brethren.

 

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