Confessions Of An ATL Startup In Silicon Valley: Cooleaf Challenges Local Founders To Swing For The Fences

If 2016 was any indication of what the New Year has in store for Cooleaf, we know it’s going to be monumental. The Atlanta-based startup closed a $500,000 funding round, was one of nine winners who beat out nearly 200 other startups at the Citi Smarter Worklife Challenge and was accepted into prestigious Silicon Valley accelerator, 500 startups. Cooleaf helps companies unleash team’s highly engaged in achieving business goals through a combination of technology, content, and analytics. Their customers include big names like Cushman & Wakefield, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Georgia State University, and DeKalb Medical. It was incredibly inspiring to work with the Cooleaf team and witness their tremendous growth firsthand. Being in an up-and-coming tech hub like Atlanta, we were especially curious as to what their time in the big leagues (San Francisco) had taught them and what lessons other ATL startups can learn from. So, when we had the opportunity to ask Co-founder, Prem Bhatia for his insight… and some feedback on our time together, we jumped at the chance.

First, some basics. How’d you guys get the idea for Cooleaf?

Look, the fact is, that most companies are pretty terrible at getting their teams to put forth any level of discretionary effort that goes above and beyond the minimum call of duty. As a result, most companies are operating with ‘one hand tied behind their back’ and failing to achieve better top and bottom-line results. For me and my co-founders (John Duisberg and Sarwar Bhuiyan), this pain was real as we had experienced working for companies in corporate America. We knew that some companies were better at ‘engagement’ than others but that almost all could do better at using data and analytics to make better decisions around how they engage employees in the goals and core values of the company. We started Cooleaf to help companies and leaders that were passionate about achieving or maintaining a ‘Top Workplace’ environment.

How has your company changed, grown, or evolved since 500 startups?

When we were accepted into 500 startups (batch 15), we realized that it would be a lot of work (and travel!) but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of one of the world’s best accelerators. Dave McClure has written about how tough it’s become to get accepted to 500 over the past few years (their acceptance rate is now roughly 3% globally) so we knew this was an opportunity to differentiate Cooleaf and join companies like Twilio, Wildfire Interactive, and many others as a 500 alumni company. 500 puts a ton of pressure on companies to “grow, grow, grow!” and you start to realize pretty quickly that you’re swinging for the fences alongside some other tremendous founders in your batch. The 4-5 month period during 500 is really intense and leads up to Demo Day at the conclusion of the batch. Since we finished up in early 2016, we’ve continued to learn a ton and iterate to tighten our product-market fit with customers. We’re still in touch with our batchmates and many of our 500 mentors (and see these as being enduring friendships). For us, the focus on growth, experimentation, and quick iteration was reinforced through 500 and has made us a stronger and more resilient company.

“Silicon Valley was built on the backs of those that envisioned almost comically huge change at the time.”

What insight, tips, or advice would you give fellow Atlanta startups after your experience in Silicon Valley?

Swing big. Look, startups are really freakin’ hard. You’re not going to want to look back on your experience as a startup founder and wish you had gone bigger. Silicon Valley was built on the backs of those who envisioned almost comically huge change at the time. However, what I see too much of in ATL is the lack of big thinking by startup founders. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are some amazing founders out here, but the sheer number in SV/SF is 10x or more of what we have here of founders truly swinging for the fences. I think that can change if we all (collectively as a startup ecosystem in ATL) can continue to encourage and push founders to think and go for the achievement of a larger vision.

What has the feedback been from the businesses using Cooleaf? Are they receptive to the data you show them? Do they implement the changes and recommendations you make?

We’ve been blown away by the level of customer love. Our platform has helped companies like Woodward Academy, Turner, Dekalb Medical, Aprio, and others get their teams more engaged in critical initiatives like learning initiatives, health/wellness, team-building, and more. In many cases, our customers have their eyes opened up to the success (or need to iterate) their strategies to engage their employees in these initiatives through the data and analytics provided through our platform. In the case of our customer Daugherty Business Solutions, Cooleaf’s analytics allowed them to pinpoint which people leaders were more frequently recognizing their team members (versus others that may not have been as active in recognizing team achievements). Through these insights, they were able to gently encourage certain people leaders to be more active in recognizing team efforts. As a result, within 12 months they reduced their regrettable employee attrition by 40%!

Okay, we gotta ask… what was the reason you chose to work with us?

Richard Simms is one of those guys in the ATL ecosystem that I consider a total rockstar. When I first met Richard, he was leading up the efforts to bring Tech Talent South to ATL and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. Frankly, I knew that if Richard was launching his own firm it would be top-notch. We were at a point where we had some pretty clear ideas on the direction of our site and framework but we needed a top-tier team to help us bring the vision to life.

What specific new features or aspect of the update did you like most?

Richard and Carlos really hit it out of the park by bringing our site to life in a visually rich and clean manner. They were super diligent about executing and we’ve received a ton of compliments from folks on the site. Overall, we love that they executed on our rough vision and refined it to a beautiful, responsive, and smooth new site!

So, like, not to make this awkward or anything, but would you recommend us to someone else?

Well, selfishly I don’t want others to work with TT because we want them to support us for more work! But in all seriousness, these guys know their stuff when it comes to design, development, and ensuring a completely seamless customer handoff. In particular, if you’re an ATL company looking to support super quality ATL companies, you can’t go wrong with Richard, Carlos, and the TT team.