Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Different Approaches to How We Build the Atlanta Startup Ecosystem


As we all work together to build and fuel the Atlanta startup ecosystem, there’s a recurring theme that I feel obligated to address.  In short, it boils down to this:   An ecosystem is an unpredictable, sloppy organism. It is not a structure to be designed by architects and built according to the plans.

Let’s back up. Here are the comments that one will hear regularly in Startup community leader conversations:

  • Atlanta doesn’t need another… {coworking space, incubator, accelerator, meetup of X}…
  • Atlanta should stop splintering our efforts…
  • The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing in Atlanta…
  • We’re duplicating efforts and not being efficient…
  • We need someone to coordinate all of this…

First, let me be clear that I do think coordination and intense communication across a community is valuable and helps the ecosystem. I love to organize things, and I love to participate in organized efforts.   That said, when I hear these comments I get a little uncomfortable in my chair. Here’s why.

An ecosystem isn’t an organization. And it shouldn’t act like one.  Per the Rainforest model, we must let chaos happen. Chaos is where weeds sprout and we never know what weed will be the next giant.  We can’t be farmers, planting in neat rows, keeping out the unplanned, and fertilizing our favorites. We must get comfortable with chaotic, splintered, competing efforts on some level.

Competition (and even program demise) is healthy for the system. If we didn’t have more than one (X), how would we know each is the best it can be?    Our coworking spaces, accelerator programs, meetups, media outlets, mentoring programs… all of these are good, but just because they exist doesn’t mean they are the best they can be.  If we embrace competition within the ecosystem, the community will select which ones are the best. Programs and facilities will evolve to meet the needs of the startups. If they don’t, they will die— and dying organizations make the ecosystem stronger.   (Think of strength building in your body: individual muscle fibers must break and then rebuild, this makes the system stronger.)

We can’t predict or decide what will work.  Looking at different industries and verticals, we often try to say: Atlanta is awesome for [IT Security, EdTech, Sports, Health IT, Fintech, etc..]… so we should focus our efforts on that and really leverage our strengths. Yes, I agree that focusing on our strengths is great, so long as we accept that we have lots of strengths, and that different people and organizations will focus on what they know best.  Having too many strengths is a great problem to have!

A shared vision is tricky.  I love that my good friend @ScottyHendo is working to help us come up with a shared vision for the Atlanta ecosystem. Sadly though, I haven’t helped him out much. I haven’t added much to the conversation, and I think this is why. I think an ecosystem, in order to be antifragile and thrive must be made up of thousands of individual visions for the future. Seth Godin said “The Future is Messy.”  I think this boils it down. The future of Atlanta startup scene will be made up of a combination of my personal vision with everyone else’s. Coordinating the vision seems tricky. Instead of coordinating the vision, let’s just coordinate our calendars, and perhaps our core values.

- Geography is geography and it is what it is. Many are talking about the need for density as a foundation of a strong community. I totally agree with this, but I recently had an epiphany. I realized that by trying to focus on Buckhead, or Midtown, or Perimeter, or Alpharetta, or any other suburb, and build a single high density neighborhood of startups, we’re trying to solve two problems at once.  Atlanta has nasty sprawl and horrible land use habits.   That’s a problem that I’m personally going to accept as a working parameter to the variable I’m more concerned with: more startups. I’m not saying I’m embracing the sprawl or giving up, I’m just saying I want to work around it. I’d like to see programs and resources available to startups wherever they happen to land in our ridiculously large metropolitan footprint.

Efficiency shouldn’t be the goal: robustness should be.  Many of these coordination efforts are in the name of efficiency. I don’t believe getting to the place we want to be should be based on the least amount of effort for the most amount of gain. Instead, I think we put our entrepreneurial instincts of efficiency aside as a goal and instead focus on antifragility. Sustainable. Robust. Long lasting.

Again, these are such great problems to have, that you can’t be excited enough for Atlanta startup ecosystem right now. Comparing to what I hear from other cities where events and programs are far and few between, poorly attended, and of low quality– we are really accelerating here and I love being a part of it.


  • ScottyHendo says:

    I will violently agree with you, Johnson, on the importance of embracing the chaos of The Rainforest. But I do want to correct a misperception you have on our (not mine alone) recent efforts to gather various leaders within the ecosystem.

    We haven’t been to trying craft a single, monolithic vision. Rather, we have been seeking to forge a shared commitment to work as an ecosystem with as many visions as it wants to support. To do that, we are actively connecting voices who haven’t been part of the conversation and need to be if we want Atlanta to grow stronger.

    Yes, we’ve been asking “Are we as a community capable of a shared vision?”, but that has been to frame the conversation and to give people something to react to. It is a question designed to provoke a response that you have made via this blog post.

    Interestingly, this concept of thousands of visions operating in a wild ecosystem is a vision. By enlarging the network of people who share this perspective, a shared vision would be formed. Careful now.

    July 31, 2013 at 1:42 pm
    • Johnson Cook says:

      I’ve never had anyone violently agree with me before!
      Well said Scott. I like the vision of a shared vision of visions. :)

      July 31, 2013 at 1:45 pm

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