David Lightburn | Crain's Atlanta

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Lightburn

Background:  

Atlanta Tech Village opened nearly five years ago. Today, it bills itself as the fourth largest tech hub in the U.S. At 103,000 square feet of space, the Village is home to more than 300 startups.

The Mistake:

We certainly didn't know from the start the monumental efforts it would take to get us to this place in time. While we were building this fantastic community, we had underestimated the expense of doing it, and, for awhile, we were concerned whether the business model would work.

We knew from the beginning how important culture is to success. My co-founder, David Cummings, is known to say that “corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur." We settled on our four core values: be nice; dream big; pay it forward; and work hard, play hard. We made community a focal point early on.

We found out quickly, though, that to build community at this scale—across hundreds of startups and more than a 1,000 active members—takes an insane amount of energy and resources. We had to learn about commercial real estate while trying to build a community, while understanding the costs of it all. What works in New York doesn't work here. People like their personal space in Atlanta, so we had to plan accordingly, which affects the design and the costs.

When we first started, we tested our assumptions by building out temporary space and signing up initial members while getting an early lesson in property management. Members trying to make deals don’t like hearing jackhammers in the background. Ultimately, we were a startup helping startups.

To build community at this scale ... takes an insane amount of energy and resources.

The Lesson:

Entrepreneurs have to push the edge, selling the vision before the product is fully established. We didn't realize how steep the learning curve would be, but we learned how important it was to orient everything we do around building community and engineering serendipity.

We’ve chosen to double-down on the relationship-driven principle and always lead with community. It’s not about the office space. The office space is beautiful, and the flexibility it gives founders is really important in the early stages of a startup, but it’s our community of entrepreneurs that truly makes us successful.

Because of this lesson, we’ve become very intentional with everything we do. For example, when designing the building, we concentrated on how we could bake in the opportunity for serendipitous interactions. So we have kitchens on the first, third, fourth, and fifth floors. There wasn’t space on the second floor for one, so we spent well over six figures to connect the first and second floors with a custom staircase.

I don’t know what the return on investment is for those stairs, but you better believe I take those stairs every single day to reduce the cost per step. It matters, though, because so many of the chance interactions we encourage happen in those areas.

Similarly, we made a design decision to make over 50 percent of the building shared space rather than revenue-generating office space. If this was a pure commercial real estate play, we’d try to monetize every square foot of the building. But it’s not.

Finally, we’ve adjusted our hiring process to hire relationship builders exclusively. No matter the job title, Atlanta Tech Village team members have a servant heart and a community mindset,  whether it’s our director of security, our facilities Team, or our events Team.

It can be difficult, when you have the hard costs associated with commercial real estate, to not chase dollars by filling office space with startups who aren’t good culture fits. But we won’t compromise on who becomes a Village member.

With a team of 11 community-focused crusaders to run the daily Village operations, a monster monthly budget for member amenities, and hundreds of hours devoted to events and other engineered serendipity, the cost to build community is high, but in our book it’s been worth every penny.

Follow David Lightburn on Twitter at @david_lightburn.

Photo courtesy of David Lightburn.

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