Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Keystones in Atlanta – The Spark that Will Drive Us Forward


honeybee2Personally, the most exciting idea in the Rainforest book by Hwang and Horowitt is what is shared in today’s post.    This is the “how to” part of a successful startup and innovation ecosystem. This is the meat. Those who know me, know that I’m all about action and movement, and now, if you are here in Atlanta and share the vision of accelerating our startup ecosystem, you will be excited too.

Arguably, the most important player in a thriving startup ecosystem is the Keystone. Keystone species are those like honeybees —  they are a critical part of the ecosystem because they bring together ingredients that otherwise wouldn’t come together.   Keystones are the individuals and organizations that help us overcome the social barriers I discussed earlier.   Keystones are brokers of social trust… an introduction from the right person in your network comes with automatic trust and helps you move the relationship along to productivity faster.

Keystones are able to help put the right people in the right places at the right time. They assemble teams that build companies, they bring the people with capital to the table, they take great ideas and give them the spark that is needed to birth traction.

Let’s evaluate the DNA of keystone individuals. This will help you identify them, seek them out, or perhaps even become one in Atlanta.

DNA of Keystone Individuals

Integrative.  These people are completely comfortable reaching across social boundaries. There is nothing held back for introductions. They aren’t keeping score and they aren’t only playing for one team. They play for the ecosystem.  Keystones are genuinely open, authentic,  and generous.  Because of this, they can operate and function highly in any social circle.

Influential. We know those people who are able to convince people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.  In an innovation ecosystem, we know it takes irrational decisions. It takes people on fire. To accelerate innovation, it takes some convincing. There are hundreds of people standing on the edge of the pool, wanting to jump in, but they just can’t overcome the fear.  They know life will be better when they jump, but without some coaxing, it just won’t happen.  (Not just speaking of wannaprenuers here, but also engineers, sales people, and others who want to leave a cushy corporate job to be employee #5 in a startup.)

Impactful. Keystones make things happen. They don’t make intros just for entertainment or political purposes. They expect their intro to turn into business or at least a relationship that matters to both individuals.


Keystone Organizations

In addition to individuals who play the keystone role in the ecosystem, there is also a critical need for organizations to scale the role of connections.   Before we discuss some specific keystone organizations in Atlanta, let’s consider the characteristics of these.  (Quoted directly from the book, because they say it the best).

Characteristics of Keystone Organizations:

- “Facilitate access and connections to people with talent, ideas, knowledge, capital and opportunities by breaking down traditional hierarchies and reaching across social boundaries.”

– “Taking actions that enable greater collaboration between individuals so they can better work on new projects and initiatives together.”

– “Serving as filters for high quality connections which in turn helps them maintain a strong role as a respected hub in the system.”

– “Validating and propagating cultural behaviors [and values] that are conducive for innovation.”

Keystone Organizations in Atlanta

You won’t be surprised that I believe the Atlanta Tech Village is destined to become a huge keystone organization in Atlanta.  Our core values:  Dream Big, Pay it Forward, Work Hard Play Hard, and Be Nice, all fit with the role of a keystone organization. Our mission statement is to accelerate the connection between ideas, talent, and capital in Atlanta.  For me, it’s a luxury that Hwang and Horotiw have so nicely defined the role and characteristics of a keystone organization, because they have provided us at the ATV with our roadmap to our identity.

Other existing keystone organizations in Atlanta are numerous and doing great work. Some of my favorites: Hypepotamus,  RoamEntrepreneurs Organization (EO)Georgia Tech Business NetworkMetro Atlanta Chamber of CommerceMIT Enterprise forumB2BCampAtlanta Startup Village,

There are other big players that serve as keystones that you may not realize in the context of the ones I’ve mentioned, but are vital players. One of the examples from the Valley, that is also starting to have a helpful presence in Atlanta in Silicon Valley Bank (SVB).  Even with a relatively small presence in Atlanta, the SVB folks are already doing a phenomenal job of what they do so well out West and that is: make connections. They understand that helping the ecosystem helps their business. They are truly in the business of helping startups and it shows.

Others include Law firms and Accounting firms.  Our friend, John Yates (aka the “godfather of dealmaking in Atlanta”) and the team at Morris Manning & Martin have served the keystone role for many years and continue to do so in the new day. Other law firms in Atlanta that I have come in contact with through the Village also have great introductions to make for anyone in the startup ecosystem. Just a few include 360 Venture LawFisherBroylesNelson Mullins, and DLA Piper.

Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing these folks as great lawyers or banks (although they all are), I’m endorsing them as great connectors. When entrepreneurs chose their bank, lawyer, CPA, and office space, considering their ability to create connections to customers, talent, and capital must come into the decision process.

Last point on keystone organizations– it’s important to highlight some organizations that are not good keystones. These are organizations that look to place tight control over their connections or their value. The Rainforest book makes the point that technology transfer centers (usually run by Universities and governments) are ineffective keystone organizations because they treat their intermediary role as a permanent one rather than a temporary facilitator.  I would also argue that associations who become overrun with sales folks and service providers lack the ability to effectively connect people because there are too many people trying to feed their families in the room. These people, by nature, aren’t able to act generously and fit in the DNA of a keystone individual of being integrative, impactful, and influential.


Keystone individuals and keystone organizations are in constant motion. I encourage anyone working in or around startups in Atlanta to seek them out and become good friends with them. These individuals move so fast that new connections are formed every day. Help them and they will help you.  It’s the unwritten law of the rainforest.

Go get ‘em, Atlanta.


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