Standing in a crowded networking event, the casual mention of the name “David Lightburn” sparked leaders from four different organizations to pipe up in praise. Their commendations rang with a sincerity that is rarely seen at a business smooze-fest. That is because Lightburn, co-founder and president of the Atlanta Tech Village, is a rare breed. He exemplifies that nice guys can, indeed, finish first.
Lightburn met his counterpart, David Cummings, through a church softball league nearly a decade ago. Since then, the duo have been building companies together and side-by-side. In addition to the ATV, Lightburn is the co-founder and CEO of startups, Clickscape and Village Realty. He is also forming a new venture with Cummings, DataVibe, a platform to manage data-driven insights for sales and marketing.
The only thing that spreads farther than this towering businessman’s wingspan is his quiet impact on the Atlanta startup scene. Here, Lightburn shares about creating a collaborative community, why trust is the most important trait in a co-founder, and how successful entrepreneurship can start on an untraditional path.
What was your journey to entrepreneurship?
I did the usual hustling as a kid – mowing lawns and selling candy at school. I always knew that I wanted to own my own business, but I didn’t have a clear picture on how that was going to happen. I always imagined I would graduate, get a good job, build my resume, go to graduate school, and then climb the corporate ranks to a C-level position. I thought “business experience” was a prerequisite before starting my own. I started a small greeting card company while working my day job and then I got into real estate. Real estate is very entrepreneurial and it really opened my eyes to other opportunities and stirred a passion in me.
My first startup was Clickscape in January of 2009. Clickscape 1.0 was focused on home buyers and was similar to Redfin (minus the millions of dollars in funding) – we had salaried real estate agents, we gave customer satisfaction bonuses to our agents, and we shared the commission with our clients. Because it was so radically different, it required a lot of education on the consumer front and overhead was high. Over time, we made a series of pivots and eventually found that the best use was as a technology platform to recruit agents so we started a boutique real estate brokerage (Village Realty) centered on the same mission we had in the beginning – improving transparency, making real estate better, and making the process easier for consumers. You are involved in a lot of things — how do you divide your time now?
I lead the team at Atlanta Tech Village. It’s where I have spent the vast majority of my time over the past nearly 4 years.
I’m also involved with Village Realty as a founder and advisor. VR is a tech-enabled real estate brokerage that’s run like a tech company. We use the Clickscape.com portal and tech to provide our agents with the software and tools they need to grow their business and to provide better service to their clients. I’d venture a guess that we’re the only brokerage around that’s using Salesforce, Pardot, SalesLoft, and Slack. Christian Ross took over for me in early 2016 as CEO is doing a great job propelling the business forward.
Finally, I’m working with David Cummings on a new startup called DataVibe. DataVibe is a business intelligence and analytics tool that provides data-driven insights for sales and marketing leaders. The data of today’s companies is spread out across the internet and native reporting in many of those apps (like Salesforce and Pardot) is lackluster. DataVibe connects all that data and uncovers powerful insights related to sales forecasting, pipeline management, multi-touch attribution, and predictive analytics.
What advice do you have for finding a co-founder or collaborator to begin a company?
It all starts with trust. You are going to be married to this person, so you have to be willing and able to communicate and trust each other. I also firmly believe in having a technical co-founder. I learned this lesson really early on and it’s a consistent theme when I talk to struggling founders.
Describe your journey to the Atlanta Tech Village.
It was David Cummings’ vision. When he shared with me what he wanted to do, I was immediately hooked. I loved so much of the vision – The idea that with enough density of entrepreneurs that amazing things start to happen. That we could help increase the odds of success by creating a community of people who want to put their dent in the universe. And that, ultimately, we could create a double bottom line business that was successful and do something meaningful and impactful for Atlanta.
The Village changed my life in more than one way. It’s been so gratifying to see it grow and be successful. I say it all the time, but the Village works so well, not because of the office space, but because of the community. The type of entrepreneurs we attract and who our Community Team works for aren’t just great founders, but amazing people. What is your role at ATV?
As President and co-founder, I’ve been intimately involved with the creation and growth – from the closing table with David in December 2012 through the concept, design, and renovation to programming. My main role is leading leading the team, setting the culture while communicating and implementing the Village’s vision, mission, and strategic and financial goals.
I get the opportunity to work with an amazing team – both past and present. I’m incredibly grateful for their hard work and passion to make the Village great. None of this would be possible without them.
Mentorship and community make ATV really unique. Can you speak to building that support for its entrepreneurs?
We’ve try a lot of different techniques to get founders, especially, to take advantage of mentoring. We believe it’s important that mentorship happen naturally so we try to create the infrastructure and then let it go from there. We know that mentorship is a big piece of the success of a startup and we’d require it if we could. Seeing it firsthand, we know that if you have a mentor you are more likely to have success than if you don’t. What are some of the pitfalls that you see when you see someone launch a startup?
Founding a startup has been romanticized and is now a sexy thing to do, but oftentimes founders don’t understand the difficult, emotional journey that lies before them. I’ve seen lots of startups with really smart, talented people fail.
Another one is being unwilling to admit you don’t have all the answers. I think, as a founder, that there is this idea that you have to know everything for your team. The thing is, you never will. Despite your best efforts, you’ll never be able to eliminate uncertainty from startup life. Don’t let that paralyze your decision-making. Do the best that you can with limited information. If you make a mistake, fix it, and don’t make it a second time.
Real estate may be considered an untraditional route to entrepreneurship. What is your advice to someone coming from xyz field to take the leap?
First, consider entrepreneurship while in school. When I graduated from college, tech startups weren’t even on my radar. I wish I had the opportunity to get involved with a startup as an intern while I was a student.
Second, start now. Stop talking about it and do it. Found a startup before you have obligations – kids, mortgage, car notes. When I started Clickscape, we had a 1 year old and a mortgage. Those were stressful times. I wish I had taken the plunge sooner. What’s on deck for the immediate future?
At Atlanta Tech Village, it is about creating more $1 Million in ARR businesses. That is really what is going to move the needle for the Village and for Atlanta. That will lead to our other 2 big goals – For 10,000 jobs to come through the Village in 10 years and to help fuel Atlanta’s rise to a top 5 startup center.
On the DataVibe front, we want to democratize data giving non-technical business users data-driven insights in minutes from their mountains of data. With increased visibility, they’ll lead with more confidence, make faster better-informed decisions, identify opportunities for growth, and avoid roadblocks.
With Village Realty, we should be at more than 50 agents by the end of the year. We’re focused on providing the infrastructure and culture for real estate entrepreneurs to thrive.Lastly, how does Atlanta weave into your personal success?
I moved to Atlanta at young age and went to high school down here (Go Parkview Panthers!). After college I was in Memphis or a year or so before I started dating my wife who is an Atlanta native. We reconnected at a wedding; I caught the garter and she caught the bouquet and the rest is history. We dated long distance for a while and then I moved back to Atlanta to be closer to her.
I’m proud to call Atlanta home. There’s so much talent here and there’s so many great entrepreneurs, communities, and spaces across the city that are doing amazing things. We’re changing the landscape of Atlanta together and that’s really exciting.
Image Sources: The Atlanta Tech Village, David Lightburn, & Kiki Roeder