The future of small business may be below the Mason Dixon line, in a northern suburb of Atlanta.
With miles of greenery and mansions dotting the highways, Alpharetta, Georgia exudes a natural beauty that adds to the overall high quality of life. But there's more to be seen behind the Southern charm: a thriving ecosystem of startups.
A small city of just 60,000 people, Alpharetta has been gaining recognition as the "Technology City of the South." The area's robust fiber-optic network and proximity to Atlanta lends it the edge it needs to attract both large and small data-heavy companies.
Home to nearly 600 tech companies, Alpharetta was recently named the best small U.S. city to start a business by NerdWallet. The personal finance website assessed 463 urban centers with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, while considering factors like overall business climate and economic health.
Priority Payment Systems, one of Georgia's fastest-growing companies, benefits from its Alpharetta location. The financial-tech company has seen a surge in demand for its services and data analytics products as commerce and payments go digital.
Founded in 2005, Priority Payment Systems now processes about $7 billion in transactions per year and caters primarily to retailers, restaurants, and banks, as well as car dealerships and health care companies.
The city's large pool of talent and range of outdoor amenities presents an enticing picture for small business owners. Here are a handful of reasons why entrepreneurs should consider hanging their hats in this Southern hub:
1. The technology sector is strong.
The unemployment rate in Alpharetta is one percentage point lower than the national average. Tech workers comprise as much as 17 percent of the Alpharetta work force, with IT workers at 15 percent.
Sean Kiewiet, CTO of Priority Payment, says the business climate in Alpharetta has improved since Priority's founding back in 2005: "When we started, it was a sleepy borough," he says. "Now, there are a lot of things that are unique compared to other startup markets," such as access to venture capital and angel funding.
Beyond startups, Alpharetta is home to "serious players" in the finance industry, and early stage ventures get the opportunity to work with a variety of businesses across sectors.
The city's mission to improve economic development by expanding its financial-technology sector has fueled a surge of high-paying, white-collar jobs.
Indeed, the area's broad network of fiber optic data lines are crucial for fin-tech companies. Download speeds are 60 percent faster in Alpharetta than the national average, according to the city's economic development director, Peter Tokar. Overall, nearly 60 percent of U.S. companies in the payment-processing industry are located in Georgia.
2. A community of bountiful resources.
Alpharetta's business community has benefited handsomely from the Alpharetta Technology Commission, which the city first launched back in 2012. The commission provides consulting services to local startups and plans to launch an incubator called the "Innovation Center" this month. The center will focus on tech companies in the finance, medical, and information fields.
In addition to cheap office space and a "pitch room," where local startups get the opportunity to pitch their models to outside investors, the center will also house a small business accelerator.
Peter Tokar, who serves as the president of the Alpharetta Technology Commission, tells Inc. that he's worked in partnership with Priority Payment as well as the computer gaming startup Kano, to provide 100 computers to Alpharetta schools this year. The "computers in a box," as Tokar calls them, will help teach children how to code. (Priority CEO John Priore and Kiewiet both serve on the Technology Commission's board of directors.)
"We've been working with the Commission to bring some of the issues that we were struggling with to the mayor and to the city council, and they've been really responsive," says Kiewiet. "Alpharetta is growing."
Other resources, like the Mobile Monday Atlanta network, aim to promote wireless business models across the city.
3. Small city with a big sibling.
Alpharetta may be small, but it's less than 30 miles away from Atlanta. That proximity comes with benefits, like access to talent pools that stem from universities like Georgia Tech, or major venture capital firms such as INVESCO Private Capital, which currently counts $4 billion in funding.
"If you wanted to be a country star, you'd go to Nashville. If you wanted to be in finance, you'd go to New York. If you want to be in finance technology, you go to Atlanta," explains Kiewiet.
He notes that by living in Alpharetta, you can still enjoy the perks of the Peach State's capital city--without some of the more expensive drawbacks. "It's much cheaper than going downtown, and the labor pool is better here."
Another big advantage: Business owners have direct access to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. That means direct flights to almost any major or minor city in the U.S.
Starting up in Alpharetta also allows businesses to operate in a smaller, more connected ecosystem. Like Silicon Valley to San Francisco, says Tokar, "Alpharetta and Atlanta are bookends of a tech corridor."
It's worth noting, however, that the cost of living in Alpharetta is generally high. The median home sales price in Atlanta is $256,485, compared to $329,825 in Alpharetta, according to real estate site Zillow. And, as Tokar notes, the average income of a family in Alpharetta is over $100,000.
On the other hand, the city's public school systems are strong: Around 95 percent of students graduate from high school, with around 65 percent taking Advanced Placement courses.
What's more, relaxation isn't hard to find. "The social atmosphere has improved a lot," says Kiewiet, nodding to new co-working spaces, cafés, and nice restaurants.
On their days off, entrepreneurs also have access to over 700 acres of parks, and can choose from more than 150 local events, from music festivals to farmers markets.