Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Adventures and Lessons in Commercial Real-Estate


The first photo of the future Atlanta Tech Village Event Center

The first photo of the future Atlanta Tech Village Event Center

I hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble about us with this post, but if you didn’t know already, for those of of us at the helm of the Atlanta Tech Village … this is our first venture in world of commercial real-estate development.  It has been a ton of fun, and already I can start to see the lessons learned that will make the next project even more fun.

A few of the top lessons learned and surprises from my first year in CRE:

There are few fixed processes.
This was the biggest surprise to me. With an industry so old, with so much history and money, I really expected there to be more questions that are answered with: “This is just how it’s done.”  But the truth is, things can be done however you want them done. Each project is unique. Every relationship is unique.  Every contract, every price, every process is unique to any given project.  This surprised me, but it has been fun to navigate.

There is an opportunity to be creative around every corner.
A year ago if you told me that a real-estate developer is successful because he/she is more creative than those around him, I would have giggled.   Building + tenant. How creative can you get?   I couldn’t have been more wrong!   To develop real-estate takes a TON of creativity. You have to find ways around, in, over and under things… from regulations, to fixed laws of physics, to financial arrangements, to personal relationship building, negotiations, and especially vision.

Teams must be managed differently than in a startup.
Unlike in tech startups where you can recruit a team to your own culture and can build around core values, this doesn’t work quite the same in CRE development.  The biggest difference is that you are outsourcing everything. You aren’t going to have a rockstar architect, general contractor, permit expeditor, urban planners, audio-visual experts, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, cleaning crews, equipment rental, etc, on your team in-house.  You are forced to use a team made up of 95% contractors. Culture is different here. Where a startup team can and usually should be left to make ton of assumptions for you, this can’t happen with this much variety of personalities at the table. You have to work hard to get what you want and keep on everyone.

The constant challenge— forward motion.
Given these contractors and the nature of their business (that they have other clients besides you), keeping your project in motion is the most difficult thing I’ve discovered. There is always one hand waiting on another hand. Getting the hands to transfer information and requirements from one to another is challenging.

Details are exhausting.
Now that we are finally in all out construction mode at the Village, I’m starting to develop a twitch and lose sleep.  Now we are seeing the culmination of 10 months of planning, almost a million dollars of design and prep work, and thousands of people hours come together. Now the “What if” questions are non-stop for me. What did we miss?   Did we remember power beside every conference room for the iPad apps? Did we discuss the automation enough? What about the elevators? Light switches are where?  Are we clear on the security systems? And on and on… Staying on top of the details is what separates the awesome buildings from the mediocre ones and we plan to be nothing less than awesome.

Everything takes longer.
Ok, so this is true in software too… but no, in the world of CRE, it REALLLLLLY takes longer!!

More factors are out of your control.
This is the last big surprise for me. So much of the process is out of your control. Of course things can be “influenced” (and that’s part of the forward motion challenge), but controlling these elements is a lot different than influencing them.   Neighborhood planning units. Design review committees. City planners.  Building inspectors. OSHA inspectors. DOT officials.    The outside interactions that you have to navigate are far more intense than anything else I’ve done in my life and admittedly it does take lot of the fun out of the process.

Overall, this has been an awesome journey and now that glass walls are starting to come up and our work is starting to show visible rewards, it’s getting even better.   Give us a few months and if things go according to plan, we will have a gorgeous building to show off where people are doing amazing things in an amazing space.


  • Jim says:

    Haven’t commented in a while, but just had to this time. Your wording about “those you at the helm” makes me want to say “put a jib on it.”

    Other comments – “opportunity to be creative”: sadly I many developers/developments get in trouble. The creative bent can be used for financing, political manipulation, zoning, land purchase, tax incentives, etc, etc – not a pleasant ending in sight. Except for those with the imagination.

    “teams must be managed differently”: excellent point. WIth a startup, EVERYONE is invested in the total success, with a building none of the players really care about the end state, or even the other players. PROJECT management at it’s finest.

    “everything takes longer”: The big difference here is visibility. If you looked at, touched, demoed, a new piece of software every day – like you see the construction every day – the similarity would be clearer.

    “factors out of your control”: Life. If you simply understand the parts that are out of your control, and work to creatively control and direct what you can, there’s no reason this should take fun out of the process.

    Be careful, if you allow that “fun” can be taken out of the process, then you acknowledge that there is a tipping point where ALL the fun is taken out of the process… If instead, you consider the “fun” to BE the process, it’s not over till it’s over…

    October 15, 2013 at 10:48 am
    • Jim says:

      “those of you” … need an edit button. There are others …

      October 15, 2013 at 10:51 am

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