When Andrew Ryan’s father brought an Atari computer to their New York City home one day in the mid-1980s, he had hoped that it would spark an interest in technology in all three of his children.
Only six-and-a-half year old Ryan, however, took that bait and ran with it — all the way to Atlanta, where he’s now the CEO of association management software maker, MemberSuite.
“He really tried to get all of us into it, but I was the only one it stuck with,” said Ryan, who used that Atari – and a magazine called, Compute! — to teach himself how to write BASIC. “I loved the idea of being able to program. It’s the ultimate equalizer. You can envision something and very quickly bring it to reality without having to manufacture anything. It’s a great way to manifest your imagination.”
Now 37, Ryan has turned what he imagined for himself into these realities:
- He graduated from MIT and wrote his first software system for an association when he was 23.
- Ryan founded MemberSuite in 2010 as a cloud-based way to help non-profits and other member-based associations manage, customize and automate their processes, including recruiting, fundraising, communications and data analysis.
- In 2014, Ryan raised $4.5 million in a Series A funding round.
- MemberSuite was named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies in 2015.
- The company, now with 115 customers, experienced 150 percent growth over the past year, says Ryan. It is now working on Series B funding totaling $11 million. He hopes to double to current employee count of 55 over the next year.
His story also landed Ryan in a very exclusive club: He’s one of the few African-American technology entrepreneurs in Atlanta. Why aren’t there more in a city known as the Capital of the New South — where Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson forged such progressive legacies for future generations, and where current startup/STEM mentors like Paul Judge, Rodney Sampson and James Andrews have enjoyed success?
Ryan believes the answer lies in generational differences — and in the way Atlanta funds its startups.
Ryan says his is the first generation to enjoy affluence on a broad scale. “A lot of us went to four-year colleges and universities. A lot of my parents’ friends did not.” Andrew’s father worked for the pre-breakup AT&T, so technology wasn’t intimidating to him. Many of his peers, though, would end up in traditional disciplines, such as medicine, law or finance because their parents “saw success as being successful in somebody else’s business, like being a doctor.”
For today’s kids, fluency in technology is just one more aspect of daily life. “My 3-year old daughter, no matter what device you give her, can pull up YouTube and get Daniel Tiger on,” Ryan said. “Part of me wonders if just by virtue of growing up in modern America, a lot of problems with the digital divide that we highlighted in the early 2000s, that we were really worried about, have solved themselves.”
The lack of local black tech entrepreneurs is also tied to the difficulties in raising early stage VC funds in Atlanta, he said.
Because MemberSuite now has revenue history, potential investors are looking at real metrics. But early stage investors “have to go on a gut feeling, and what they end up doing is pattern matching – ‘these 10 companies succeeded, and they looked like this.’ There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but they’re going to pattern-match the same way, and you’re going to get a prototypical ‘funded entrepreneur,’ which I think is happening in Atlanta. The CEOs of these companies look the same.”“Atlanta really has to solve this early stage capital problem if they really want a more diverse set of entrepreneurs.”
He’s encouraged by the city’s rising number of incubators/accelerators. Atlanta’s strength remains in its talent pool, he said, and the willingness of those who made successful exits giving back to the tech community. “It’s an exciting time to be in tech in Atlanta. The alumni of successful companies have seeded things, and we’re starting to turn the corner.”
Local efforts to boost STEM education will also help, but Ryan also believes those students should learn about entrepreneurship.
It happened for Ryan when he was working a job while attending MIT. “I was 19 or 20, and making $20 an hour. For me, I was making all the money in the world. But I really wanted to build my own network from scratch.”
A startup was interested in his services. It offered stock options but less money. Ryan called his father to ask what he should do, and he ended up receiving “the most impactful advice. He said you should never make these kinds of decisions based on money.”
Ryan went to work for that startup. “It changed my life. I had never been exposed to entrepreneurship before, so I think in addition to STEM investments, make sure kids see entrepreneurship as a viable path, as something they can aspire to, because that’s important too.”