Athens, Georgia hosts the University of Georgia, but the city struggles to translate higher education into higher-paying jobs.
“This city is probably one of the most overeducated, underemployed, underpaid cities in the country,” Jim Flannery, an Athens entrepreneur, said.
Flannery is founder of Four Athens, an Athens-based tech business incubator that helps entrepreneurs acquire the investments, advice and office space needed for success.
Christopher Travers, a University of Georgia student and mobile app creator, said Four Athens is key to local startups’ growth.
“If you’re not connected to Four Athens, you’re doing yourself an injustice,” Travers said.
Four Athens owns four small office spaces around downtown Athens and hosts a variety of classes, happy hour gatherings and information sessions. The spaces and events encourage a community of entrepreneurs who offer advice and other collaboration to one another, Flannery said.
While Four Athens does not guarantee success to startups, it provides guidance to ensure good ideas become strong businesses.
“We provide sort of bowling lane bumpers to say, ‘hey, stay in the lanes here’,” Flannery said.
On average, Four Athens hosts between 45 and 50 tenants in its offices, but the dynamic nature of startups means tenants move in and out frequently.
“We do everything very, very short term,” he said.
In addition to inviting new entrepreneurs, the incubator’s community atmosphere attracts seasoned businesspeople.
Tedd Mayer, an Athens entrepreneur and founder of Audio Icons, uses Four Athens to guide his development of the FanTunes Helmet Speaker, a Bluetooth-enabled speaker system housed inside a football helmet.
“It rounds out my education, and I’ve been in business for over 40 years,” Mayer said. “Getting out and meeting groups of like-minded entrepreneurs is a really critical path.”
Brandon Checketts, who leads the online bookseller company BookScouter and the business consulting company RoundSphere, said Four Athens provides a unique environment for online-focused companies to share expertise.
“Most of the companies that are visible in the local business economy have physical locations or do business with local residents,” Checketts said. “I would say, out of our customer base, less than one-tenth of a percent of them reside in Athens. Four Athens is a better place for us to connect with companies that are doing stuff online.”
Despite its growth, Four Athens has seen little interest from UGA, Travers said.
“What I want to see is the University of Georgia support the community more,” he said. “They need to invest in the tech scene here, which is Four Athens.”
The Athens tech scene trails that of other cities, partially due to local government’s over-reliance on the university to support the Athens economy, Flannery said.
“Athens is about five years behind everybody else,” he said. “When I started talking to people about doing something like this, it was shocking that there wasn’t already something here.”
Still, Four Athens gives entrepreneurs an important platform for success, Travers said.
“I’m working to start my next venture. I’m making sure the ideas are valid,” he said. “Then, we’re going to build our next successful company.”