Why Atlanta is the best city to start a business and acquire funding – Michael Ross, Pres. of MHR International

Atlanta has become a city of growth for founders, entrepreneurs, and investors. However, these startups cannot grow without the help of seed investors. We’re joined now by one of Atlanta’s leading angel investors, Mike Ross, President of MHR International, to walk us through Atlanta’s angel investing scene today and where we are headed.

Transcription:

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Thank so much, Mike, for joining us on the show.

Michael Ross :
Glad to be here.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure. So congratulations on all of your success over the years. Your kind of a household name here in Atlanta when it comes to angel investing, right?

Michael Ross :
Oh, I don’t know about that.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Well, your name’s come up a number of times and we’ve done a number of interviews over the last four years and people have spoken very, very highly about you and the investment community. And so it’s a pleasure to have you on the show today. So from your perspective, where have things been in Atlanta over the course of the last 20 years with regard to angel investing?

Michael Ross :
Well, I really go back probably about 10 years when I first started getting into it. And I think it’s growing. It’s just a lot of electricity, a lot of energy. The checks are getting bigger. The venture capital-

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s a good thing, right?

Michael Ross :
Yeah. Capital firms are getting bigger. I think Atlanta’s really catapulting itself into one of the major tech centers in the country.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure, sure. For the people that are not as familiar with your story as we are here at the show, tell our viewers a little bit about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey.

Michael Ross :
Sure. I’m from Atlanta.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
Went to Morehouse college and started a management consulting business.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
We do program management, construction management, information technology, and diversity and inclusion programs.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Wow.

Michael Ross :
And we’re approaching our 30th year in business.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Fantastic. Wow.

Michael Ross :
And we’ve been fortunate to work on several major projects here in the Atlanta area including the 1996 Centennial Olympics, the,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Wow.

Michael Ross :
Atlanta airport, the new World of Coca-Cola.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
The Georgia World Congress Center expansion floor, Atlantic Station and on and on.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Wow. You just rattled off most of the big icons here in Atlanta. So congrats on all of that.

Michael Ross :
Yeah. We’ve been very blessed.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
I bet. I bet. So talk to us about angel investing and the importance of having a great strong community of angel investors within the Atlanta market for these young entrepreneurs.

Michael Ross :
Well, when somebody decides that they want to go into business,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
A lot of times they need money.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Michael Ross :
And who are they going to go to?

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
And many times people don’t have family and friends.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Michael Ross :
People always talk about family and friends. Well, you got to have family and friends that got money.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Michael Ross :
And if you don’t have family and friends that have money, then you go look for other people.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Michael Ross :
And hopefully angel investors feel that void,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
Between your friends and venture capital.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Michael Ross :
And so Atlanta has been fortunate enough to have a few organizations that are collections of angel investors that make small investments.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
Sometimes between 25,000 and 100,000.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
And that helps the firm get off its feet.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
And begin to prosper before they go into more bigger investments.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure. Sure.

Michael Ross :
Like the series A and things of that sort.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right. Right. And with regard to the types of investments that you like, there’s some people out there, some angels that say, I only do technology, others might do real estate, others might specialize in retail or restaurants. Is there any area of expertise that you say that’s what I’m interested in?

Michael Ross :
Well, I look at a lot of different firms, but I like FinTech a lot. I like sports and entertainment related companies.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
I’m very bullish on the crypto currency,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Really. Okay.

Michael Ross :
Craze that’s going on now.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
So those are the kinds of things that I’m looking for.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay. That’s fantastic. We’re seeing more funds dedicated to companies led by diverse founders, which is a fantastic thing obviously, and no better place in the United States than to have that right here in Atlanta. How does this also benefit the Atlanta tech scene overall, do you think?

Michael Ross :
Well, the more diversity you have, I think it’s been shown in studies and even in our own experience in Atlanta, if you really look at the expansion of Atlanta over the last 50 years, a lot of it came after Maynard Jackson was elected mayor. And he put together a program, a minority and female business program that allowed for more diversity, more inclusion.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
And because more people were included, we began to develop a platform of minority and female businesses that grew in many different sectors. And so by the time the film industry came, we were prepared. We had available businesses that could partake of that.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
When the music industry was here, they created a lot of other opportunities,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
For minority businesses. We already had government and private sector work and real estate and construction. And then finally, when the tech industry came, it was built on a platform of inclusion and diversity that it put in place not only 50 years ago,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
When Maynard Jackson came into office, but it goes back a 150 years to people like David T. Howard, to people like Alonzo Herndon, to people like Jesse Blayton, Yates and Milton store. So you’re really talking about 100 years.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Wow.

Michael Ross :
Or more of inclusion and diversity in the Atlanta business sector.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s fantastic. You think mayor Jackson would be proud?

Michael Ross :
Oh, absolutely. I mean, he was that guy and he was the catalyst for developing the platform over which all of us are, we should be entirely grateful for him.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure. Sure. How does the process, how has the process changed, I should say for founders to attract investment dollars over the years?

Michael Ross :
Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure that the process really has changed that much. I think, well, first of all, I think it is good to go to an accelerator or an incubator.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
That’s what I’m looking for before invest.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
Whether or not you’ve gone through a formal program like,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
ATDC.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
Or the Atlanta Tech Village or the Russell Center.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
Or places that give you support.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
Legal support, accounting support,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
Teach you how to market your business. And so that’s one of the first things that I think people should do. And then they just got to get out and get on the hustle.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
And meet people and network and find people,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Michael Ross :
Who are interested in investing in young people and ideas,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Michael Ross :
That young people bring. But I also think the educational centers here in this city are very key.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
The Atlanta University Center, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory, Agnes Scott. There’s just a wealth of talented individuals coming into this city every year.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
And that’s why Microsoft is here. That’s why Google’s here. That’s why Amazon is here because you’re not going to find a more diverse, competent technical group of young people than Atlanta.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. That’s right. And it’s got the base of the universities and the colleges to support that, right?

Michael Ross :
No question about it. And all of them have initiative of that are designed to increase entrepreneurship and to help students follow their dreams.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
Because in the final analysis, in my mind, it’s all about following your dreams and being passionate about what you’re doing.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. That’s right. And I know that you’ve helped so many and influence so many. Another influencer is Sig Mosley. I know that you know that gentleman. And what kind of an influence do you think he’s had and the impact that he’s had in the entrepreneurial path here for so many?

Michael Ross :
Well, first of all, I’ll just speak personally. He’s been a mentor of mine. We have invested in several projects together.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
Sid is like going to the Library of Congress for investing.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
You can ask him a question about anything.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
And he knows the answer to it.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
But in terms of his impact on this community, going back into the early 90s, he’s had a tremendous impact on the community. Everybody knows him. Everybody loves him. Everybody respects him. And it’s just a pleasure to work with him on a periodic basis.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure. Why is Atlanta, do you suppose the best place to start a business and get funded? I mean, that’s the key, right? It’s one thing to start a business or have an idea, but to actually get it funded. Why do you think Atlanta is the best place?

Michael Ross :
I just think that we have an inclusive community here. We have people who are interested in developing young people.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
Of course, I said, we talked about the education institutions here.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
So I just think that it’s a place that welcomes people to come and follow their dreams and be passionate about what they’re doing and it’s just good. It’s got institutions, it’s got capital, it’s got corporations, it’s got culture.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
And these are all necessary ingredients to making a very good ecosystem.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
What do you see the role of the angel investor being now that investments are moving towards later stages and bigger check sizes?

Michael Ross :
There’s always going to be a need for angel investors because you’re always going to have early stage companies that need some capital to do something so.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
I don’t see the role of angel investors changing at all.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
I think they’re going to be around for a while.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. You think we’ll see some of those big players out there, I guess we have already that have received some of those big payouts to take that money and reinvest into the new startups here in Atlanta.

Michael Ross :
Yeah. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think that’s part of the reason why the Silicon Valley took off because,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. That’s right. That’s right.

Michael Ross :
You had all these employees that were making money because their companies got bought out or IPO’d. And so the more people with more money,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yep.

Michael Ross :
The better the ecosystem is going to be.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. That’s right. And what do you think Atlanta could do to go from a mid tier ecosystem to a top tier ecosystem?

Michael Ross :
I think we’re there.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
You do?

Michael Ross :
Frankly. Yeah. I think we’re, if we’re not there, we’re right on the precipice,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
Of being there.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
I mean, usually when they’re talking about the top cities now in tech,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
Atlanta’s in the top six or seven.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
And I think it’s only a matter of time before we bust into the top five.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. That’s pretty exciting. What do you see? What are some of the things that maybe keep you awake at night that might be lurking? I mean, we just got through this incredible pandemic that we’re not through it yet, but are things like that concerning to you that might slow down the investment community?

Michael Ross :
Well, yeah, I mean the pandemic has really changed the way that we all live and we all operate. We all interact with each other.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
So that’s going to be a concern. Looks like it’s going to be here for a little while longer.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. Yep.

Michael Ross :
Political will, I think is also important.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Okay.

Michael Ross :
You got to have the political will, that gives you support systems,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
To create an inclusive and diverse ecosystem. So I think that’s another thing. And then corporate investments and involvement, Atlanta has a lot of corporations here.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
And making sure that they stay engaged in the process and can help those companies grow and scale.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
For sure. For sure. And what do you think about Sig Mosley having his own award, the Siggies? I mean, talk to us about that.

Michael Ross :
Well, I’m a recipient of a Siggie so.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. You are.

Michael Ross :
Look, it’s long overdue.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah.

Michael Ross :
Sig is the godfather. And it’s a really well deserved tribute to him and all of the work that he’s put in over the years in this community.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure, sure. Yeah. And with regard to just the overall community as a whole, would you count it as very strong right now? Is there a lot of money on the sidelines to invest here in Atlanta?

Michael Ross :
It seems to be. I mean, there was a time if you started a company here, you had to travel away from here in order to get money.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
But with Venture Atlanta and the success,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure.

Michael Ross :
Of Venture Atlanta and even some of the venture firms, Panoramic Ventures, Collab Capital, The Fearless Fund, the Zane Venture Fund,

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Right.

Michael Ross :
Who are focused on diverse founders. I think sky’s the limit for us in this city.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, for sure. Well, Mike Ross, president of MHR International and an all around well known investor here in Atlanta and an all around good guy. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Atlanta Small Business Show to share your ideas. Thanks so much.

Michael Ross :
Thank you very much.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Thanks.


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