Leadership has launched for Techstars Atlanta with the appointment of its first managing director, Michael Cohn. The startup veteran will ignite the global accelerator program, set to begin this summer, by establishing its strategic direction, recruiting and selecting startups, and working with stakeholders across the Techstars global network.
Cohn has lived the lifecycle of an entrepreneur. In 2008, he co-founded Cloud Sherpas, an Atlanta-based company that, according to Crunchbase, raised over $63 million, and grew to 1,100 employees before being acquired by Accenture in fall 2015. Since his exit, Cohn has served as an investor and mentor, advising several local startups including Terminus, Groundfloor and Storj.
Through Techstars, Cohn will add a new role to his entrepreneurial experience – advocate. He will help pronounce the profile of the Atlanta ecosystem through the success of program participants, a partnership with Cox Enterprises, and state-of-the-art facilities (reportedly bringing just under $1 million in construction costs to the 9th floor of Ponce City Market, a hotbed for tech companies like MailChimp, Twitter, Cardlytics, and HowStuffWorks). Annually, Cohn will guide 10 early-stage companies to and within the competitive three-month program. Techstars Atlanta will offer expertise, funding, office space, and exposure to approximately 100-200 angel investors and venture capitalists at its Demo Day.
In an exclusive to Hypepotamus, Cohn shares his enthusiasm for Techstars, what he hopes to achieve in Atlanta, and why diverse startups near and far should be clamoring to apply by the May 8th deadline.
Why are you excited to develop and lead Techstars Atlanta?
2015 was a remarkable year for me, personally. In the last twelve months, I sold my company, traveled the world (on my own and with my family), and dove back into the startup community in Atlanta as a mentor at ATV. In looking for my next thing, the Techstars opportunity checked three major boxes for me:
- Coaching entrepreneurs. There were a handful of people that were instrumental in helping me navigate the early years at Cloud Sherpas. I’ve always wanted to do the same and pay it forward for other entrepreneurs. Over the last couple of years, but more so in the last six months, I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from being there to help fellow founders. Whether they’re considering a new hire, having issues with a partner, or struggling to find elusive product/market fit, there is nothing more rewarding than hearing from a founder that an experience I shared helped them shape a business decision that resulted in a positive outcome. Receiving that type of feedback is simply intoxicating, and selfishly, I want more of it.
- Connecting Atlanta. The more I learn about Techstars, the more I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of the global organization. I view my role as MD as one of a connector — that is, to connect the entrepreneurs and mentors that will participate in the Atlanta program with the greater Techstars ecosystem, and as a result, help raise the profile of the Atlanta startup community around the globe. Atlanta has all the ingredients to be one of the top startup communities in the country. Standing on the shoulders of giants, I’m hopeful that Techstars will help to cement our position as a leading startup community in the nation.
- Learning how to invest. Ever since my first company, I’ve always had a desire to be on the other side of the table, but never had the resources. Since experiencing some success with Cloud Sherpas, I’ve had the opportunity to participate as an Angel investor in a number of deals, some of which have performed better than others. In my role at Techstars, I’ll have the opportunity to review hundreds of startup applications and personally recruit the best entrepreneurs in the world. I’m excited that Techstars will help me hone those skills and ultimately become a better tech investor.
How will Techstars help propel the Atlanta startup ecosystem?
It’s my intention for Techstars to become a center of gravity in the Atlanta startup ecosystem. I’m aiming to have one of the most diverse Techstars programs in the nation – in terms of culture, geographies, technologies, industries, and more. We will recruit 10 fantastic startups, and expose them to world-class curated startup content. Founders will have access to the very best mentors this city has to offer. And finally, we will show our city and the world at large that Atlanta can produce fundable, early-stage tech companies.
What’s the roadmap to get the Atlanta accelerator off the ground?
Recruit. Recruit. Recruit. First, I have to recruit the very best startups. This is arguably the single most important part of my job. Second, I’ll be calling on Atlanta’s successful entrepreneurs to volunteer their time to mentor founders coming through our program. And third, I’ll be recruiting a world-class team to help me execute the program. We have a lot to do in the next four months before the program kicks off on August 1.
You founded and exited a successful Atlanta-based startup. How will you leverage those experiences to help emerging entrepreneurs through Techstars?
People who know me know that I shoot straight and generally tell it like it is. I haven’t been shy sharing my Cloud Sherpas experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly – with entrepreneurs that I’ve mentored. Techstars will provide a platform to share those experiences with a broader group of founders. But the beauty of Techstars is that it’s not just my experiences that founders will benefit from. We’re a mentor-driven program. Our mentors will share their experiences too. And let’s not forget our corporate partner, Cox Enterprises. I expect the participation from Cox will be invaluable to startups, especially those that may be in overlapping industries.
The application for Techstars has been extended to May. What types of companies do you encourage to apply, and what benefits will they gain from being a part of this global program?
We’re looking for early-stage companies, in most cases with arms-length customer traction, solving tough problems in big markets. We’re agnostic to funding stage, and would encourage teams to reach out to us, even if they’ve already raised money, as we believe that we can create a significant amount of lift beyond the capital investment.
As far as an industry focus, most corporate-funded programs in the Techstars network have a vertical spotlight, but our partnership with Cox has taken a different path. Cox recognizes that disruption can come from anywhere, and so we have no industry-specific focus. That said, Communications, Media, Automotive, Healthcare and Cleantech are all obvious choices given Cox expertise in each of these industries.
Finally, from a technology perspective, I have a particular interest in companies that are leveraging voice and text as the medium to communicate with their users, versus a more traditional user interface, like an app. I’m also interested in exploring blockchain 2.0 businesses, startups that leverage the sharing economy, and functional or narrow artificial intelligence. Lastly, I also wouldn’t shy away from what others call “hard-tech.” Heck, the Boston Techstars program is working on flying cars, among other things. Maybe one day we’ll make Brad’s dream come true and have a teleportation company come through the batch.
Learn more about and apply to Techstars Atlanta at http://www.techstars.com/programs/atlanta-program/. Catch up with Cohn on Twitter at @cohnhead, and follow Techstars Atlanta news through the hashtag, #TSAtlanta.