Atlanta’s Rising Entrepreneurs Local small business owners take working in Atlanta to the next level
While the job market continues to heat up across the country, something else is on the rise as well: entrepreneurship. And metro Atlanta is brimming with small businesses that have been launched by ambitious, enthusiastic individuals. In fact, according to Volusion, an all-in-one e-commerce platform, Atlanta is one of the top 10 enterprising cities in the nation, with small- to medium-sized businesses thriving in the local market, particularly in the health and wellness, sporting goods and apparel sectors. Of course, other industries like technology, healthcare and FinTech also are seeing in influx of successful new companies. If you have your sights set on joining the entrepreneurs who founded those businesses, you might need a bit of inspiration. Here, KNOWAtlanta introduces the owners of five small businesses who have taken the leap and either relocated their business to or established their business in the ATL. Let their stories motivate you as you move forward with your own entrepreneurial plans.
Emilie Sennenbogen: A Natural Progression
When Emilie Sennenbogen and her husband moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles in 2005, she brought something very important with her: the seeds of a thriving business. She had spent years as a freelance video and commercial producer in LA and continued to work in that arena after her move to the ATL. But after 15 years as a freelance producer in the film industry, Sennenbogen felt that it was time for a total shift in her professional focus. So she took the passion she had been developing for natural bath and body products and decided to start her own full-fledged company: Mama Bath + Body.
“I had gotten to the top of my industry, and I was ready for a change,” Sennenbogen explains. She turned to the side business she had been fostering since 2002, when she would take the sugar scrubs, lotions and body washes she made in the kitchen of her small Los Angeles apartment to festivals and markets on the weekends. Once she made the decision to see what she could do with the business in Atlanta, she made two important moves: she secured a freelance writing gig so she could focus her time on Mama Bath + Body, and she diversified her product offerings to include soap. Soon, she was traveling to festivals and markets throughout Atlanta and the surrounding region and found a solid following of customers. Then she began concentrating on the future of the business.
When she moved Atlanta, Sennenbogen took small businesses classes that were offered through the City of Atlanta and participated in a free advisor program for entrepreneurs through the SBDC. As she prepared to expand the business, she moved from her own kitchen to a workshop in the back of a friend’s dog bakery. Eventually, she decided that it was time to consider opening a retail store; however, the economic downturn in 2008 thwarted her plans. She continued to travel to markets and festivals, and she joined several co-ops in the area, including The Beehive. “It was a really grassroots way to build the business,” she says. But in 2014, things really took off when she opened two retail stores: one at Krog Street Market and one in Avondale Estates. And today, the business has grown to include an impressive production space where all Mama Bath + Body products are made.
“When we moved here, the natural beauty industry hadn’t really hit Atlanta like it had in California, so we didn’t have a ton of competition,” Sennenbogen says. “And while natural beauty is certainly popular these days, we are still a unique store offering for Atlanta. So I feel like we’ve been able to make our mark in a more meaningful way than we would have had we stayed in Los Angeles.”
For those who want to start their own business in Atlanta, Sennenbogen offers this advice: “Do your due diligence about the different areas of the city and where your ideal customer lives. There is a lot of development going on, so there are constantly new opportunities.” Of course, she understands the apprehension you can feel when striking out on your own. Yet, she encourages it for those who are willing to take the risk. “I’m constantly challenged having a small business, and I learn new things all the time,” she concludes. “It’s not for everybody. But if you’ve got a bit of an adventurous spirit, you should give it a chance and try making your passion your job.”
Dr. DeShawn Stevenson: The Business of Acclimating
When Dr. DeShawn Stevenson and his co-founder, Justice Miranda, brought their on-demand personal assistant startup OurErrands to The Farm, an Atlanta-based innovation hub and business accelerator from Comcast NBCUniversal, they had a major decision to make about their business.
“They were challenging us to break down all of the components of the business and try to figure out what the real need was—what the real problem was we were solving,” explains Stevenson, who actually came up with the idea for the business while working as a pharmacist for a well-known chain of stores. His original concept revolved around a service that would allow customers to have their prescriptions delivered to them; it expanded to include other errands and became a concierge-type service using the Uber model. However, when The Farm recommended that OurErrands shift its focus, Stevenson soon devised another plan based on his own experience several years prior.
“I had been with my company for 15 years and relocated from Atlanta to Savannah,” he recalls. “I had no family there. It was a new job. It was more demanding, and I had less personal time. And when I had a chance for an internal transfer, I moved back to Atlanta in six months.”
Stevenson realized that he had never really acclimated to his new city—and research showed that he isn’t the only one to face that issue. In fact, when companies relocate their employees, they often find that those individuals either move back or quit their job within the first six months of the relocation. Typically, it’s not because they don’t like their work—it’s because they never felt at home in their new locale.
“We reinvented the company and rebranded our mission,” Stevenson says. That new mission involves helping people navigate their way through the entire relocation process. From finding childcare, schools and movers to being onsite to help set up utilities, OurErrands is there every step of the way and uses an automated process to reduce the stress associated with all of the details that go into relocating. Relocators are matched with a lifestyle manager who helps from beginning to end; and, unlike traditional relocation specialists, who break off communication after a move is complete, the OurErrands lifestyle manager stays in contact for upwards of 12 months. In fact, OurErrands often sends gift cards to new locations in town and strives to help relocators replicate the lifestyle they had before they moved.
Additionally, OurErrands is able to track how well employees are acclimating and provide companies with that information. Those analytics can help corporations retain their top talent by ensuring that their employees—and their families—have adjusted well and feel at home. “The goal is to have more acclimated associates who are more productive. The goal is to decrease turnover,” Stevenson notes.
The rebranded OurErrands relaunched in March of 2019 and is currently working to create new packages not only for companies that need to relocate their employees, but also for individuals who want to use the service on their own. The company also is part of a pilot program for Comcast, through which OurErrands is being rolled out to 20 cities throughout the United States.
“We want our service to be an extension of your family,” Stevenson says. “We want to make sure that all of our clients are well taken care of. We want you to be happy, and we want to help you.”
Thomas Monti and Justin Waller: Brewing Up a New Idea
Something unusual happens when you go to Schoolhouse Brewing in Marietta and find a craft beer that you really enjoy. The founders and brewers, Thomas Monti and Justin Waller, will actually give you the recipe and sell you a pared down kit with the ingredients so you can brew it yourself at home.
“We’re an open source brewery,” says Monti, who met Waller when they were both teachers at Marietta Middle School and discovered their shared love of homebrewing. “When you open a brewery called Schoolhouse, you want your customers to learn. Our tagline here is ‘Where Education Meets Recess.’ We want people to ask questions. We will tell you anything you would like to know. And if you want a recipe, we’ll let you have it.”
Educating craft beer enthusiasts was at the heart of Monti’s original homebrew business, which he started after he left teaching and began as a bottle and growler shop that also sold homebrewing supplies. When Waller came on board, the duo soon decided to consider opening a full-scale brewery. And upon the passage of SB 85, which allows breweries to sell direct to customers in Georgia, Monti and Waller saw the opportunity and moved forward. After spending a year looking at many different spaces across metro Atlanta, they ended up back in Marietta with the perfect facility in the Franklin Gateway area, which is undergoing a major revitalization. “This is home,” Monti says. “Marietta has been so good to us for the last five or six years, and the welcoming that we’ve had is amazing.”
Schoolhouse Brewing officially opened at the end of May, touting itself as a rotating brewery that will have 20 varieties on tap at any one time—all of which are brewed onsite in small batches. “There really is not a style that we don’t want to try or don’t appreciate,” Waller notes. “And we want to introduce customers to styles they may not have even heard of. We want to always have something new and something different.”
Customers can taste all of the varieties in the taproom at Schoolhouse Brewing, which boasts a 4,000-square-foot tasting room, different school-themed areas in which to sit, an outdoor beer garden and more. Weekly events like trivia nights and karaoke also are on tap, as well as food trucks and live music on the weekends. And, of course, there’s all of that great beer. “What we really want is to provide a product that is always fresh, new and local,” Monti says. “There will be a new style every time you come.”
Monti and Waller attribute the ability to achieve their goal not only to the collaborative nature of the craft beer industry in metro Atlanta, but also to Marietta itself. “Staying local is key. And we want to succeed not only as a business, but also as a partner in Marietta. We want to partner with customers, the local government and charitable organizations,” Monti concludes. “We’re two local boys that have been in this community for 20 years, and we really want to be a part of it.”
Alia Alston: Chilling Out
Alia Alston wants you to know something: you don’t have to live in pain. For years, after she was in a serious car accident with a drunk driver, she thought she did. But her father, who is a chiropractor, strived to help her find natural healing methods to help her deal with the chronic pain she experienced. He suggested Cryotherapy, which involves the use of freezing or near-freezing temperatures as a treatment for pain and was being employed by Nike and the NBA’s Mavericks.
“After a few sessions of Cryotheraphy, I had regained sensation in my left arm and leg and felt a significant decrease in my pain levels,” Alston notes, adding that the treatment was only available in professional or medical settings at that time. She soon had an idea. She continues, “I saw an opportunity to create a retail environment that would provide an upbeat, spa-like health studio, offering Cryotherapy and other complementary services.” And then, Icebox Cryotherapy Studio was born.
Founded in 2012, Icebox Cryotherapy, located in Atlanta, was the country’s first brick-and-mortar retail Cryotherapy studio. It offers Whole Body Cryotherapy treatments in its state-of-the art Cryotherapy saunas; treatments last three minutes each. The studio also provides CryoBeauty services that are a mix of innovative cold therapies that offer quick and noninvasive beauty treatments.
Alston spent a great deal of time educating potential clients about the benefits of the treatment, and she was able to develop credibility for the studio and its services as she began working with the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Falcons. While some people saw Cryotherapy as a fad, she believed in it and knew it would take off. And so it did. She expanded to three locations in metro Atlanta—Buckhead, Midtown and Alpharetta—and also has a studio in Tallahassee, Florida. In 2018, Alston began franchising Icebox Cryotherapy; there currently are 30 locations poised to open in the next year—four of them in Georgia. “I love Atlanta. I believe it’s our large community of healthy, active adults that helped Icebox grow,” she says. “I always say that Atlanta is a small town-big city. Word spreads, and people here love and support small businesses.”
Of course, they also love what Cryotherapy can do. “We needed to give people another option in healthcare. The self-care industry is growing quickly because people are looking for more than a pill or sedative lifestyle due to their pain. They want to stay active, feel young and do it naturally. Icebox offers that option for them,” Alston says. “With our fun atmosphere, highly trained staff and best equipment in the industry, we push past the norms of a typical wellness studio and deliver the Icebox, customer-centric, best-three-minutes-of-your-day, cool experience.”
David Pierce and Mike Feeley: Taking Clients into the Future
It was 2010 and the height of the Great Recession. David Pierce, a U.S. Army veteran and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, and Mike Feeley, an entrepreneur and general contractor, had both fallen on difficult professional times. As the friends tried to figure out what to do, they decided to bring together their 22 years of IT experience and extensive background in building and development, respectively, and launch their own company: ProComm Advisors LLC. And while it may have seemed like an unusual time to start a business, it actually ended up being the perfect time.
“Companies were trying to stay alive. They had to bring costs down, and the way to do it was to bring themselves up to speed on technology,” Feeley explains. ProComm Advisors, which offers an array of integrated, customized solutions like cloud recovery and network security, was able to provide products to companies that allowed them to streamline their efforts and ultimately save money.
From cloud-based phone and surveillance systems to offsite storage solutions, ProComm Advisors had the smart solutions that companies needed to survive during a terrible economic downturn.
“We were there to help. We didn’t save them—we helped them save themselves,” Feeley notes. Of course, in the beginning, finding those clients was a challenging proposition. The duo knocked on doors and worked diligently to make contacts. They approached companies across a range of industries, which was possible thanks to the fact that they were serving the metro Atlanta area, which is home to everything from healthcare to engineering to accounting sectors, among others. “Our approach was to offer products that everybody needs. Whether it’s healthcare or engineering, they both need file servers and phone systems. We made sure to have a package of products that everybody needs and uses. And it was about determination and grit and never giving up,” Feeley says of those early years. And as the economy began to recover, ProComm Advisors found even more opportunities as their roster of Atlanta-based clients started to thrive again. In fact, as the company’s clients have expanded their own efforts, Pierce, Feeley and their team have found themselves working in places like Nashville, Tennessee; Greenville, South Carolina; and Birmingham, Alabama.
Today, the goal is to maintain strong relationships with current clients and continue to have steady and selective growth. “We have to be strategic and set expectations,” Feeley asserts. “We want to keep adding to what we’re doing because we love what we do. I love seeing how I can solve problems for clients. And we want to see our clients grow. When they prosper, we prosper.” And Feeley knows that there will always be more work out there for ProComm Advisors, especially in the Atlanta area. He concludes, “If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere. If you’re smart and you just go for it, there is plenty of business to be had here.”
Growing a Business at The Farm
In February 2018, a partnership between Comcast NBCUniversal and Boomtown resulted in the opening of The Farm, an innovation hub that consists of an accelerator program of 10 companies and premium co-working incubation and hardware lab space. Located at SunTrust Park at The Battery, The Farm distinguishes itself from other accelerators in Atlanta in a number of ways.
According to Burunda Prince, managing director, “First, we are the only accelerator partnered with Comcast NBCUniversal. That lends both credibility and breadth. Second, our Boomtown model means that we continually experiment, test and iterate to improve, just as we coach our startups to do. Third, we are industry and technology agnostic because we believe there is great benefit to a collision of ideas and experiences. Most importantly, our guiding motto is to always put the founder first. They are the heroes and she-roes taking great risk and making greater commitment to make dreams a reality. For us, it’s an honor to support, serve and actively encourage founders.”
The Farm seeks “gritty founders” who are solving major pain points using technology to disrupt and innovate. Companies undergo a multi-stage application process to help the accelerator better understand their value proposition and how it can help. Startups that have been part of cohorts at The Farm include Last Bottle Clothing, Civic Eagle, OurErrands and Kitler Rewards. “Our goal is simple,” Prince states. “We want The Farm to be the premier corporate accelerator, the standard by which all others are measured. And we want front and center in that measurement to include how founders are supported, taught, respected and celebrated.”