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Former Startup Atlanta Director Takes Lead At New Brand-Focused Accelerator

by Holly Beilin

There are a few common areas in which startup accelerators typically help early-stage founders with: connections to investors, go-to-market expertise, and pitch deck advice. But many tech-focused startup programs don’t have the domain expertise to help with something that, particularly for consumer-facing startups, is also critical: brand.

“Thanks to a recent renaissance in appreciation of branding for startups by companies like MailChimp and communities like Switchyards, we believe we are continuing the work of crafting great brands for startups,” Charlton Cunningham, the former Executive Director of non-profit Startup Atlanta, tells Hypepotamus.

After a more than three-year stint leading an organization established by the business community to help local startups, Cunningham has decided to take that experience to work with founders on an even more hands-on basis. He will now lead a new accelerator and startup studio program, Oust Labs.

The three-month program was launched by Atlanta-based creative agency Oust, which has done work for clients including Red Bull, Facebook, Twitter, Home Depot and more. Cunningham says the derivation of the accelerator came about when the Oust team noticed a lack of formal programming for consumer-facing, brand-heavy startups.

The accelerator includes an investor roundtable, where angel investors and business veterans will provide advice — and potentially funding — to the entrepreneurs, as well as a turnkey startup studio that will leave startups exiting the program with a full brand, visual identity, marketing toolkit and more.

In lieu of taking equity, as is typical in many accelerator programs, founders pay a flat fee of $25,000 and retain control of the company.

“We hope the accelerator will continue the tradition of great programs offering founders opportunities to develop and grow their business. We also seek to begin the conversation around how business and culture find their natural intersections in a city known for being great at both,” says Cunningham. Below, he shares more on his journey to becoming a leader in the startup ecosystem, what sets the Oust Labs program apart, and who else he’s collaborating with to assist founders.

How did you get into the startup world?

I really got here in a roundabout way. In 2011, I received a degree in Architecture from Kennesaw State with the plans to move into the building and construction industry. However, remnants of the recession left me competing for entry-level positions with people who graduated 2-3 years prior. I spent the next few years gathering experience in sales, graphic design, and brand strategy, while building a growing passion for startups and entrepreneurship. 

This led me to frequent visits to Chattanooga, that had recently been dubbed Gig City, to check out the vibrant startup scene they had built there. When I returned back to Atlanta, I couldn’t find anything similar, so I decided to create my own community to help connect people with ideas to those that could help. This naturally led me to getting connected into the startup scene, and the rest is history.

How did you help to grow Startup Atlanta as Executive Director? What are you most proud of during your time there?

When I came on board Startup Atlanta, the organization was just completing a pivot to a new mission and vision that focused on becoming a community partner, supporter and connector. I was able to take this new mandate and create relationships with community leaders, co-working spaces, programs, events and publications to make valuable connections for startup founders. 

One of our biggest accomplishments was the creation of the free Guide to the Ecosystem booklets, which gave an overview of what resources were available in the local startup scene.

Why did you decide to take on this new role at Oust?

I decided to take the leap to Oust for the opportunity to be in a role that would have me working closer with founders. Being able to take the connections I made in my last three and a half years at Startup Atlanta and add value to startups — who sometimes are one conversation away from a deal or new team member — really excited me.

Additionally, getting to create a program in conjunction with a team of creatives, with freedom to break the rules and make mistakes, was another deciding factor.

Talk to me about the accelerator — what sets it apart from the city’s many other startup programs?

As an end-to-end accelerator, we are seeking to bridge the gap between traditional programs that provide mentorship and business development by adding in creative execution. We set up our program in two distinct parts: a three-month launch program, and scale. Thanks to a recent renaissance in appreciation of branding for startups by companies like MailChimp and communities like Switchyards, we believe we are continuing the work of crafting great brands for startups.

What kind of founders/startups are a good fit for the program? Who would not be a good fit?

As with most programs, we are looking for founders with domain expertise who are uniquely positioned to solve the problem they are addressing. As a new program, we are also looking for founders who are adventurous, curious, and willing to take chances. Finally, we are hoping to work with founders with a dream that sits at the intersection of culture and commerce — meaning they have a pursuit beyond just making money and are seeking to push culture forward in some way.

Who are some of the mentors and/or investors?

Our investor roundtable is led by artist and creative Lecrae Moore, who brings his industry experience and influence to the table. Another is former Chick-fil-A marketing executive David Salyers, a seasoned business professional seeking to give back to the community. Some of our mentors include Noelle London of Invest Atlanta, Christian Zimmerman and Nate Washington of Qoins, and Michael Maziar of Silicon Valley Bank.

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