Athens' Greatest Assets Are Its People
Jordan Burke, executive director of Four Athens, is interviewed by local entrepreneur Ashley Steele about his perspective on Athens' business start-up community.
Q&A by Athens Entrepreneur Ashley Steele
Ashley Steele: So Jordan, where are you from, and where did you grow up?
Jordan Burke: So, I’m from Lamar, Missouri (pronounced with an ‘A’ on the end) which has the…
AS: Missouri (with the same pronunciation)?
JB: Yes, Missouri, it’s the one thing I picked up from my grandmother. It has the honor of also being the birthplace of Harry S. Truman. Small town of I think like 2,000 people. And moved almost immediately to south Florida where I grew up for 25 years.
AS: So, when did you move to Athens and why?
JB: I moved to Athens about 10 years ago, my mom moved up here and bought a business from someone out in Braselton. And, for reasons that I won’t get into now, we had to shut that down after about 9 months. It was midst of the economic recession, and it was focused on home furnishing at a time when people weren’t buying homes anymore. But, outside of that, I moved to Athens from Winder, and started working here and just kind of fell in love with the town.
AS: Awesome, so entrepreneurship is in your family?
JB: Yes, it is.
AS: That’s cool! And, so why have you stayed then, coming from south Florida to Athens? That’s quite a difference.
JB: Yeah, Athens… One of the reasons I was excited to leave south Florida is there were so many people down there. Everyone was in such a hurry that they kind of ignored their fellow human beings and you don’t get that sense here in Athens. It is small enough that you kind of run into just about everyone around town which sometimes can be frustrating, but you also have enough going on that you never feel at a loss for something to do.
JB: Like it’s that good mix of small and big.
Pictured above founder of moveBuddha, a Four Athens startup, hard at work.
AS: Yeah, totally agree! So, what or who has been the largest influence on the work that you do now?
JB: I would say probably my grandfather. He was in economic development in south Florida when I was growing up, and I would always come to him with these crazy business ideas. Like when I was 9, he had to explain to me the concept of copyright infringement to me and my sister because we were taking cell pictures from the Lion King movie that had just come out and we were copying them. Like I was hand-drawing them and she was coloring them in and then we were selling them for a dollar and he had to explain that that was not a viable business.
AS: A dollar?
JB: I know it was, you know. If Disney had come after us, we would have been in trouble. But, he was always very critical of the business ideas that I came up with, and I learned very quickly that it wasn’t about, you know, me bringing the idea to him. It was more about, is this a viable business? I had an idea to start a LAN-gaming café before Xbox Live came out and you actually needed computers that were networked together in a room to do anything. And he asked me a lot of good questions about, you know, does this business make sense from a tax flow perspective? You know, how long is it going to be before you actually pay yourself a salary and make money on it? Is there actually a market for this? And, those questions are something that I look at when I start any business and talk to other entrepreneurs because those are foundational questions for whether or not you’re going to be successful.
AS: Yeah, absolutely. What would you say, or who is someone recently or in Athens that’s had an influence on the work that you’re doing now.
JB: I’d probably say Jim Flannery just because he’s usually right outside my office and I get to walk out there and ask him stupid questions. I think that probably the most fun I had was the business we tried to start called Just Small Potatoes.
AS: Oh I heard all about this one.
JB: Which, I don’t drink. But, some of the best ideas come out after happy hours. And, honestly, I think my next job will be going to happy hours and hanging out with people afterwards and just buying up domain names for the ideas that they come up with while they’re drunk. I’ve got about 20 of those and they’re all really good ideas.
AS: So, what do you think are Athens’ greatest assets?
JB: I think it’s people. We have a lot of driven, talented, creative people here that also have a… I’m not sure of the best way to put this… but, they actually care about each other. It’s kind of a social consciousness but it’s also a recognition of humanity of the community. One of the things that I don’t like about Atlanta, that I don’t like about south Florida is reducing humanity to numbers and, you know, profits and losses. That’s important obviously if you’re running a business, but understanding the human impact of the businesses you start and the work that you’re doing in a community. I think Athens has a very long view on that and a very focused view on that.
AS: What would you like Athens to be?
JB: What would I like Athens to be? To quote the mission statement for Four Athens, I would like Athens to be a high growth startup hub in the Southeast. And by that I mean a destination for people who want to start a tech business or a product focused business with high growth potential. They look at Athens and they see the quality of the people we have here, the work that we’ve done here, and they’re just like “Yes! I want to move there. It is a wonderful city.” And, you know, it’s really easy to fall in love with it.
AS: So, what do you think, then, that your business or organization needs most to grow and stay in Athens?
JB: I mean we’re a non-profit so money. Always money. But, realistically, I think the partnerships that we’re making with other community organizations, with the government, with the university. As those grow and develop, those are going to be the foundation for Four Athens to really grow as an organization. We are just one node in a larger network, and I think the better we can do our job in connecting the other nodes in the network together, the better off all of Athens will be.
AS: Awesome. And, how does this community continue to inspire you?
JB: I mean, just the amount of responses I get when I post something in one of our Slack channels or post an email or something asking someone for help. And, the quickness with which they turn around and offer help or support beyond what is asked. People in Athens love helping other people. I think it’s a hallmark of our community and it’s very inspiring to work with a non-profit. It’s hard for us to point to something that we do unlike the United Way and the Girls and Boys Club. They have real impacts in their communities and it’s visible. For us, it’s a lot less visible the impacts that we have and it’s hard to point to things and say, “Yes, we helped do that,” at least yet. But, people are still willing and ready to help with that kind of an organization.
AS: Awesome. Who is the name of a rising talent, like a rising entrepreneur, that you’d want to talk about and then maybe someone who is not necessarily in tech startup world that you’d like to talk about?
JB: So, a rising entrepreneur that I’d like to talk about, well there’s two. Jesse Lafian of Reservoir. He went through the Four Athens, UGA, ATDC Accelerator last fall and has developed a soil moisture sensor that is wireless for horticulturalists and landscape managers. And, he has hustled unlike anyone I’ve seen. He’s still in school. He’s graduating in May I believe. And he won the College of Ag’s pitch competition. He’s up for Next Top Entrepreneur. He recognizes where his opportunities for learning are, and he either finds someone to help him specifically with that or he brings on someone who can help him solve that problem immediately. Another one I’d like to talk about is Trent Walls. He also went through the Accelerator I believe last spring. And, he’s the founder of Cosmic Delivery. In a town who I believe everyone knows who Bulldawg Food is, you’ve probably almost been hit by one of their drivers at some point either as a pedestrian or driving a car, Trent has done a fantastic job hustling to get Cosmic Delivery on the map with just, I believe, 15 restaurants at this point. And, he’s developing some cool tech to make it easier to do food delivery. And, I’ll be excited to see what he brings from this, if he can make Cosmic Delivery grow and if it will be successful outside of Athens.
AS: Awesome. And maybe someone who is not necessarily in tech.
JB: So I’ve worked a lot recently with Broderick Flanigan of Flanigan Portrait Studios down on the East side. And, he’s a fantastic artist and it’s been awesome to see how much his work has kind of blown up in the past year. I met him for the first time I think last summer and we talked a little bit about what he was doing with Chess and Community, the art classes that he does, his studio, and it’s just been great to see how much he’s in demand. I would love to see his work grow even more, and I know a lot of the folks that he works with, like I’d like to see them get some of that, you know, success by association.