Some lucky authors get their books turned into movies. Others get television series. Or maybe amusement rides.
Me? My book is being turned into an entire building. That’s right, 304 pages of text transformed into 103,000 gleaming square feet of awesomeness.
Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool.
How did this happen? Earlier this year, Johnson Cook reached out to me over Twitter. He explained that my book, The Rainforest, had inspired the way he was designing his startup hub, Atlanta Tech Village. The book provided him a useful framework on how innovative ecosystems thrive, how startup communities excel. So Johnson decided to become the “Chief Rainforest Evangelist” (his phrase) in Atlanta. He wanted to apply the Rainforest model as a roadmap for growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
That’s where most people would be satisfied. A few weeks later, however, Johnson came back to me again. This time, he wrote: “I have a new idea… a big idea.” He said he wanted to design the entire Atlanta Tech Village like a real rainforest. A physical one. He sent me sketches. It had trees and canopies and undergrowth. It blew me away.
Johnson Cook is doing amazing work, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of his thinking behind how he is building a startup hub in Atlanta. Here’s a little Q&A we put together for you:
Q: You’re in the process of converting the Rainforest concept into physical space – a space whose very nature and design will foster innovation. Why did you decide to do that? How do you approach the task differently from a standard coworking space?
Johnson: Back in January 2013, the Atlanta Tech Village was a vision in our heads and a blank canvas in every respect: a five story office building, 80′s design characteristics, and the energy and charm of a somewhere you would go to meet with your lawyer to talk about taxes. We were starting from scratch in every area of our vision. We needed to create a framework for helping tech startups get off the ground, we needed a programmatic flow for 103,000 square feet, we needed design inspiration, and we wanted it to all fit together nicely. My friend Scott Henderson at another Atlanta startup hub (Hypepotamus), recommended the Rainforest book to me and I immediately picked it up. As I read the book, I realized that it was providing both a philosophical and a practical handbook to accomplishing our vision.
Core Values. First and foremost, the core values we live by in the Atlanta Tech Village are very much in line with the Rainforest concept about community and openness. They are: Be Nice. Dream Big. Work Hard Play Hard. Pay it Forward. We display these throughout the building, as well as on lanyards for keycards. Even our wifi passwords are varying combinations of core values so we are constantly reminded and reminding of their importance. Everyone in the community shares these values and understands that we must work together for our own individual success.
Q: Can you describe what each level of your Rainforest will look like? How will each level help to serve different steps in the start-up process?
Johnson: Stratification of Startup Progress. The Atlanta Tech Village building is five stories plus a basement level. First, we’re using the physical layers of a rainforest for inspiration in many ways. The basement level is the equivalent of the root system. We have a small data center (mostly for show and dev servers– as all of our startups leverage the cloud), we have an exercise facility (keep the fundamentals of your startup healthy: your body), and a large video production studio. The first level is the forest floor, or main level. This is mostly open to the public with a large event center (complete with 400 seat auditorium and high end audio visual), startup community center (with shared kitchen, keg, coffee, and more), and a local coffee shop + bar that is open to the public.
The second floor is the understory layer and consists of 2 to 4 person offices. Once a startup has accelerated to the point where they need their own quiet space, they move up in the building from first floor open coworking to second floor private office.
After the understory layer, companies that succeed will expand into the canopy layers. These are floors 3-5 and are designed with 6- to 25- person modular suites. The suites can all be connected to together similarly to adjoining hotel rooms, so that we can offer flexible space with lots of variety without ever bringing in contractors for construction. Startups change (both expand and contract) rapidly and we need a building that can meet that unique requirement.
Finally, we’re adding a rooftop patio, known in rainforest lingo as the emergent layer. This is where startups will visit to be inspired, relax and take a deep breath after long grueling days.
Design elements. We had fun working the colors and textures of the rainforest into the story of the building. The lower levels will use hardwoods and brown colors, signifying the root systems and litter fall in the rainforest. The second floor understory layer will be oranges and lighter browns, with some splashes of green, indicating the “weeds” that sprout up and may or may not make it. The canopy layers are where all the action happens and will be bright greens, lots of glass and daylight throughout the space.
Q: What do you think is most helpful to creating an environment designed to inspire innovative collaboration?
Johnson: Engineering Serendipity. The Rainforest book uses the term “engineered serendipity” and this concept drives much of what we do and how we think. Some of the ways we are engineering serendipitous interactions are:
- Weekly Startup Chowdown Lunches: This is our time when we bring the whole community together for lunch (averaging 150 people each week). We encourage folks to meet new people and explore ideas. We intentionally don’t plan programming during the eating period so people can talk, network and share ideas.
- Soft seating: The most valuable times in the Village won’t be when a startup is sitting at their desk. It will be hanging out with other startups. For this reason, we are working to include sofas and lounge areas throughout the building.
- Shared amenities: Kitchens, game rooms, kegs, conference rooms, community centers will be a main source of energy for the building. Even the largest suites will not include any kitchen or private break room amenities because we want to encourage everyone to be in the common areas where they can interact. Sometimes engineers and highly technical folk aren’t naturally social, so engineering serendipity can be tricky. We do know however, that they need their coffee and Red Bull, so at least they have to bump into each other and grunt while taking breaks from writing code!
Q: As someone who is building a Rainforest, what advice can you give others about building their own innovation ecosystems?
Johnson: Weeds. The rainforest concept teaches us that we have to let the weeds grow. We can’t be a farm where we are planting seeds of ideas and people and deciding what will be successful and what will fail. For this reason, we are intentionally promoting that Atlanta Tech Village is not an incubator. We are the nest where serendipitous interactions occur and we don’t want to be deciding between good ideas and bad ideas or crazy entrepreneurs doomed for failure and brilliant ones. We want it all to happen. We just want it to happen in a high-density nest where the acceleration of connections between ideas, talent, and capital mean that the successful ones have a faster shot upward with less unnecessary friction to growth.
Also, we don’t have any government involvement or institutional investors that control our decisions. We have a tremendous attraction to entrepreneurs because of this. We can make our own decisions without a board or committee or politician scrutinizing how they will benefit from our project. It’s just us, and that’s very nice. Entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs. David Cummings, who had a great exit selling Pardot to Exact Target last fall for almost $100 million, has funded the entire project from his own pocket. This project will end up being over a $20 million investment once we’re all said and done. David has set the bar high for giving back to the community.
Community. Continuing the thought around weeds and not wanting to control everything that goes on in the building. We have the same approach to hosting programs from other people in the community in our building. We leverage the energy of others and don’t allow the community to depend on us to set the pace or drive everything. The community will set its own pace if we can provide the resources to do so. We encourage other organizations in Georgia to host events in our event center, we are talking to outside training companies to use our classroom facilities, and we already host accelerators that need space and resources. The more faces that come through the building, members or not, the more value we provide to everyone involved.
Q: What else is on the horizon for the Atlanta Tech Village?
Johnson: We still have another 12 months of heavy construction to complete, so we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. However, by spring of 2014, we will have over 600 desks in the building and coworking space for 1,000 members. It will be an awesome place with even more amazing energy than we’ve seen in the first seven months. Our big goal for Atlanta is to create 10,000 high paying net new jobs for the region over the next 10 years. That’s a number that gets the attention of economic development folks who normally aren’t interested in the startup scene. We like that.
That said, while the building is exciting, we are, after all, still entrepreneurs. Admittedly, our desire to create more companies hasn’t gone away. So for me personally, the most exciting aspect of this physical rainforest is what it will allow us to do as entrepreneurs. You might say we are selfishly helping Atlanta become a top tech startup city because that just makes it easier for us to find ideas, talent, and capital to create and invest in our own projects and new companies. Through a fund that is set up independently of the Village, we’re already doing some angel investing and starting a year-round mentor driven accelerator program.
The Atlanta Tech Village is good for everyone who touches it, and we’re excited to be making a mark on our great city with a legacy will outlast our own careers…. if we get it right. Come visit!
Victor W. Hwang is a venture capitalist, entrepreneur, and ecosystem designer in Silicon Valley with T2 Venture Creation. He is co-creator of Rainforest Architects, a workshop for leaders seeking to unleash the innovative potential of companies, communities, and countries.