MEET Startup Riot
Atlanta seems to be a hotbed for many things these days, including startup companies. The FEED sat down with Sanjay Parekh and Rachel Maher, the energetic folks behind Startup Riot. One part conference, one part investors circle, one part classroom, Startup Riot is a one of a kind event providing eager entrepreneurs the chance to hone their skills, build a team and find financial backing. And, it started right here in Atlanta!
Tell us about your project:
Sanjay: We do a day long conference in Atlanta. This year will be the fifth year. We highlight a group of entrepreneurs, 30 this year. They get 3 minutes and 4 slides to present in front of a large audience of helpers and investors. It is called Startup Riot.
How did you get started?
Sanjay: In 2007 my previous startup, Digital Envoy, was acquired. I decided I wanted to give back and help other entrepreneurs. I started Startup Riot to allow them a platform to present in front large audiences.
What inspires you to do this work?
Sanjay: It is really about giving back and helping other entrepreneurs. During my time at Digital Envoy we were helped by a lot of other people. A lot of entrepreneurs make it seem like they are so smart and that is why they succeed but it is really about the help you get along the way. We got a lot of help and support that worked for us so I want to give that to others.
What words of wisdom do you have for others?
Rachel: They should just look at twitter and your newsletter every day.
Sanjay: Try to make sure you have a team around you especially if you are a first time entrepreneur. It can be really tough when things are going bad. And if you don’t have anyone to celebrate with when things are going well, its kinda lonely. Stay focused. It’s a lot of work. Entrepreneurs often complain about things that are not going right, but the truth is if it was easy everyone would be an entrepreneur. Even when you fail you can learn a lot.
What challenges have you faced?
Sanjay: Startup Riot is a pain in the but to tell the truth. Its funny, every year leading up to the event I start complaining more and more. My wife tells me ‘you do this every year and then you are so happy when it happens’. Its very different from my old startup. My old business was a recurring revenue business. You would sign up customers, they paid every month, it was easy to predict revenue. This isn’t that. You have to get people to come to the event, you have to get sponsors to give you money to pay for the event, you have to deal with the venue, the caterers, you deal with so much minutia. It is crazy.
Rachel: I can imagine from event to event, you just have to start from the beginning. You are just starting over every time.
Sanjay: Every time its like the same things over and over again, its painful. When people talk to me about doing events and starting a business with events, I tell them don’t do it. There are better ways to make money. If you have passion and a reason to do it, then maybe you can survive it. If it is just for the money, that won’t work out.
Are you collaborating with anyone?
Sanjay: So we have expanded the event. Last year we did Seattle with a day long event. We started hosting career fairs last year. We expanded that event to DC a few weeks ago. We are looking at other cities for the career fair, possibly international. We are doing Make, a hackathon for the first time here in Atlanta. We don’t directly collaborate with anyone. We have a lot of sponsors. Many of them have done awesome things to help us out. MailChimp is giving away a maker bot to the most valuable player (developer or designer) at the event. That is a $1,000 or more device and people are only paying $15 to $20 to attend the event and they might walk away with an expensive toy!
We have gotten a lot of help. A lot of the sponsors that have been with us for multiple years keep making connections and introducing us to new folks. They really get what we are doing.
What impact are you hoping to have on the community?
Sanjay: The thing we look for every year is, did we help just one person succeed. Was one person able to make connections and sell their business, did someone find someone that they hired? If it is just one great outcome, that is a success for us. Inevitably every year there is more than one success, and it isn’t just folks that are local. We bring people from all over the world to Atlanta. We want to showcase that this is a great place to start a company. We have some people from Eastern Europe coming this year to the event. If we can snag some people like that, it will make our community much stronger. It is the same thing in Seattle. Seattle has some of the same issues we have here. If we can become a part of the community there, that is win for us.
Would you like to see Startup Riot replicated?
Sanjay: We have looked hard at nonprofits because that is something I think we can help with. The challenge is that we need help in that space. I don’t come from the nonprofit world. We would be coming in as folks that know how to do a great event. We can organize it and have it run smooth. If there is the demand there, we would love to do it. That said, I don’t think we could do one for something specific like organic farming, I am not sure that there is a demand for it or that we have the expertise, but if it were broader like nonprofits I would be excited. Other people could take this same model and do something with it.
What kind of help or assistance does Startup Riot need to grow?
Sanjay: Spreading the word. Getting the right people to the event. We do things that are different from similar events, we keep out service providers like accountants, lawyers, and email clients, unless they sponsor the event. We don’t have money to do marketing. We have never done marketing for Startup Riot. We have been covered by great blogs, Fast Company, CNN International, Washington Post. We have a lot of press coverage but we have never spent a dime on marketing. We have no marketing people because there are only two of us. Community is really the way we get the word out there. We get good people to refer other good people. That makes our job easier as well. We have to filter out less people when we get good referrals. If we have just anyone signing up, we have to reject more people (there are limited slots), that makes our job harder.
What are some of the biggest issues facing Atlanta?
Sanjay: The biggest issue I face every day is transportation and traffic. It is a pain! I just signed up to get a Peach Pass because I live on the North Side outside the Perimeter. Coming in and out of the city is painful, to spend that much time commuting back and forth, it isn’t productive. I don’t sit on the phone in the car. At most I listen to podcasts, so I grow my brain, but it isn’t as productive as possible.
For startups, one of the biggest problems we have is capital. And that is a perineal problem. I have been working with startups since 1999. If we have money it isn’t enough or it isn’t “smart money”. And the money we have right now isn’t enough, be it smart or dumb. But you will always have those problems.
A lot of people will say it is easier to raise money in Silicone Valley…well yeah, but there is so much noise there. Everyone is trying to start a company there. You have to trade one problem for another- either you can have tons of competition or you can have a limited investor market. Working hard to achieve your goals rather than complaining about what holds you back is important.
What are your favorite organizations or things around the city?
Sanjay: In Duluth I appreciate the revitalization efforts happening. I think they have done a fantastic job making that area nice. My wife and I have lived there for 13 years and it has changed dramatically in that time. The Beltline is petty awesome. I think there is still a lot of work to be done, but thus far the development along the Beltline is fantastic. In the Old Fourth Ward, that park is beautiful. I know Kwanza Hall very well, he is a Marshall Fellow as am I. As a City Council member he is one of the main drivers behind that area. That park is such an improvement over what was there before, which was just a retention pond. It is also on the Beltline. That is probably the biggest thing that will happen to the city in the next 10 years. Just like Ponce City Market. The revitalization of that space is going to be huge for that area.
Are there any interesting resources you have found around town?
Sanjay: ATDC is a big one to help groups like us. Atlanta has a bunch of co-working spaces now. I think that has been really helpful for the community. We have the gamut- the Hub is social entrepreneurship, 151 Locust in Avondale Estates, Ignition Alley, Strongbox West, Fusebox, there is one in Duluth the Work Spot, ROAM Atlanta in Alpharetta. So many great places to sit and work, you are not relegated to fighting for a table at Starbucks or fighting the kids and whoever else is at the coffee shop. There are peaceful places to work without renting an office. That is one thing that has changed for the better for people running startups or freelancing. Flashpoint is another one, it is the incubator at Georgia Tech. They will be doing their second class this summer. 16 companies graduated from it last year and did a tour from New York and San Francisco. Many of them have raised outside money or have term sheets. There are a lot of strong contenders coming out of that program.
Where can interested readers find you?
Sanjay: At Startup Riot that will happen in a few weeks. Registration has just closed. And there is MAKE. There will also be a career fair, registration will be open for a while if anyone wants to attend. On twitter I am @sanjay.
Rachel: Mine is @rachelkmaher.
Sanjay: And then we are also @startupriot on twitter and Facebook. There is Starup Gossip if people want to know about events going on in the community. Every Monday I send out a newsletter with info on the next few weeks of events and random news in the startup community that people might have missed.
What FEEDs your soul?
Sanjay: I FEED my soul with Bob Marley music.