Is 'Hotlanta' the Next Fintech Startup Mecca?

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Atlanta, or "Hotlanta" as its advocates call it, is attracting the attention of fintech entrepreneurs. Kabbage, Cardlytics and ControlScan are among the financial technology startups that have set up shop in the city. Larger, established fintech players in the city include CheckFree (owned by Fiserv), Global Payments, Equifax, First Data, Intercontinental Exchange (which just bought the New York Stock Exchange), NCR, and TransCentra. NCR and First Data were ranked fifth and seventh, respectively, in the last FinTech 100 ranking. (NCR moved its corporate headquarters from Dayton, Ohio in 2009.) There are 70 fintech companies in Atlanta all told.

The latest Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity shows that among U.S. cities, Atlanta has the second-highest rate of entrepreneurs, at 500 per 100,000 adults (Los Angeles is first).

"We have a lot of entrepreneurial activity from people coming out of universities and the universities themselves doing a lot of research and development," says Tino Mantella, president of the Technology Association of Georgia. Financial technology will be the focus for the association's summit on March 20; Mantella expects 1,300 attendees.

Why Atlanta? A lower cost of living and lower salaries are two draws for fledgling companies.

"The best thing about starting and running a fintech company in Atlanta is the ease of finding good talent, from a technology and an operations perspective," says Kathryn Petralia, co-founder and COO of Kabbage. "The cost of living is lower, folks can live out in the suburbs and buy much larger homes, and it's generally a good place to live. Aside from digital marketing talent, we have found building a company in Atlanta significantly easier than our Silicon Valley counterparts."

The local talent comes from research universities, Mantella explains. In addition to Georgia Tech, Emory University and the University of Georgia, the state has 25 technical colleges.

Atlanta's history is also a factor, Petralia says.

"The reason there are so many fintech companies in Atlanta is because the Fed tested ACH automation in the Atlanta region in the 1950s," she says. "As a result, companies like TSYS, Nova (now Elavon), Equifax and CheckFree grew up in Atlanta, and many more have moved in."

Georgia's laws are conducive to fintech businesses, Mantella says. "Georgia is a right-to-work state; that is friendly legislation," he notes. Right-to-work laws prevent employers from excluding non-union workers, or from requiring employees to pay a fee to unions that have negotiated the labor contract all the employees work under.

Big anchor tenants, such as First Data, Elavon, and Global Payments, encourage the small startups to settle in Atlanta, Mantella says. "A lot of these young companies like to be here for the co-opetition, but they're sharing ideas, exchanging talent, they're all involved with our fintech society," he says.

Strong fibre and broadband networks help provide the communications backbone technology startup companies would rather not have to worry about. And the city is a popular destination for data centers, Mantella says, because there are few earthquakes or other types of natural disasters.

Security support is another feature Atlanta tries to provide. Recently Mantella's organization simulated a cyber attack with more than 250 participants - 40 people on stage and 200 in the audience. "The lights went out and we simulated an attack where a broadcast system went out," he relates. "We had agents from the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on stage with us, and we had two hours to get back online." The exercise was well received and will be conducted again, he says.

What are the hallmarks of Atlanta fintech startups that make it?

"First of all, they have to have a good idea," Mantella says. "Often, they think they have a new idea, but when it gets tracked down there are 27 other groups doing something similar. Secondly, they need talent and experience." Next is capital. "A lot of these companies are working to become EBITDA positive, it takes a while to get to EBITDA positive, and some of them don't make it."

About $500 million is being raised by Atlanta venture capitalists, Mantella estimates, but his group would like to see more venture capital firms to come to the city (currently there are six). His group is also working to get a bill passed called Invest Georgia that would provide an additional $100 million to venture capital firms. The group also runs an annual competition in which it gives away $50,000 to the best new business launch.

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Comments (2)
Startup companies like bitpay.com are moving into Atlanta
Posted by tonygal | Monday, March 04 2013 at 2:44PM ET
We thank Tino and his team for helping bring attention to the Financial Technology community that is thriving in Georgia. Penny, thank you for taking note of what we have going on around this industry and we hope to see further innovation in the coming years.
Sean Banks
Partner, TTV Capital
Chairman, TAG Fin Tech Society
Posted by 960354squid | Tuesday, March 05 2013 at 3:10PM ET
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