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Meet the Startup Founder Catalyzing Savannah’s Tech Community

by Muriel Vega

“Fall in love with your problem, not your product,” says José Mallabo, the newly-appointed Savannah-based startup catalyst for the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), the state of Georgia’s technology startup incubator.

ATDC has used their Savannah location to test many of the incubator’s smaller city programs — including a 12-week Startup Bootcamp that focuses on the lean startup model. The program aims to jump start entrepreneurship as an engine for economic development in smaller cities and help founders succeed despite being hundreds of miles away from the state’s tech epicenter of Atlanta.

As startup catalyst, Mallabo will now be in charge of this programming.

“I think we have a unique challenge in Savannah, that is probably more than in Atlanta, a much more evolved and larger business community overall,” says Mallabo. “My big objective is to help develop the community here. We have a lot of different pockets within Savannah that could incubate and nurture the tech economy. Unlike some other markets, I have the task of organizing that into communities that can help our ecosystem.”

In less than 200 square miles, Savannah houses four universities. Mallabo sees this large concentration of talent as the way to bring the local tech community together and pool resources to grow these startups.

“I’ve been working in higher education for the greater part of the last four years now,” says Mallabo. “It’s critical for technology updates to get the universities involved. One of the things I have to do is to reach out to the four Universities within the greater Savannah area and tap into the students that would be entrepreneurs, the deans, the business professionals, the technology educators, and get them involved.”

A startup founder himself, Mallabo has some impressive names on his resume — he’s held marketing and communications positions at eBay, LinkedIn, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, Kodak, and more. Currently serving as co-founder and CEO of career education startup Vireo Labs, he’s bringing real-life experience, both successes and failures, into this mentoring role.

For example, after experiencing issues validating the initial MVP of C’reer, Mallabo and the Vireo Labs team had to go back to step one and revisit their customer discovery data.

“I’ve gone back to the drawing board at my startup and brought our team back to customer discovery and validation,” says Mallabo. “The exact same thing we were teaching at ATDC an hour ago. So, I’m running two jobs at the same time, but they’re very, very much in parallel.”

“I’m doing the same things they’re doing, and so I can tell them there are these challenges to running a startup within Savannah. It’s a unique market.”

To overcome those challenges, Mallabo believes that increasing access to resources, including talent and mentorship, will help businesses scale in smarter ways by tapping into the community.

“Early stage startups that want to raise some seed capital in Savannah — it can be done through community building versus hiring somebody outside of town and getting charged whatever that billable rate is to find someone,” says Mallabo. “Some of these professionals that are not part of the tech ecosystem now, but have professional experience, can be pointed at our technology companies. I think that’s a pretty big important part of what I do.”

As the tech community in Savannah expands, he shares that ATDC has been a key player over the last two years to clarify myths of what it takes to succeed in the startup world.

“I think that ATDC has done a good job with saying there actually is a method to this, what people see to be mayhem,” says Mallabo. “It can be measured in the same way as the scientific method measures every phase of evolution. It’s about discovery.”

Mallabo has learned his own lessons on that through the many acquisitions, failures, and growth phases throughout his career, such as the importance of customer behavior, that he will now impart to the startups that will enroll in the incubator.

“Don’t fall in love with your products; fall in love with your problems,” says Mallabo. “The big lesson I learned at LinkedIn in opening five markets in a year was what you think the customer needed is very different than what the customer behavior is and how they interact with products. It’s very different in terms of how that translates into behavior that can translate into a business model. Don’t mistake focus groups for user testing.”

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