Welcome to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. This is Lisa Calhoun, general partner at Atlanta venture capital firm Valor Ventures. I’m so glad you’re here for this episode today.

Things are crazy out there. News is going absolutely nuts about the corona pandemic. Many cities like Atlanta are on lockdown and shutdown this week, so if you’re listening from home listening from the car, just know we’re right there with you. It is this strange juxtaposition of gorgeous spring weather outside. All of the plants were waking up and … a completely unprecedented situation in business, in life and for the world.

I hope you get a touch of optimism and positivity today from the interview I’m about to do with an Atlanta founder that’s making national headlines due to their growth and vision. Welcome to this show I have with me, Ryan Wilson. He’s the CEO and cofounder at the Gathering Spots, which is a Valor Venture’s portfolio firm. Ryan how are you?

Ryan:

I’m doing very well. I appreciate you inviting me.

Lisa:

I’m so glad to have you. I remember when I met you and TK a few years ago now, it seems like yesterday . . . you were looking so proud around the Gathering Spot, it was a little empty then. Today, I can never find a seat these days. And today’s another super full day.

Ryan:

We’ve been super fortunate in a really great to let the communities come together and they called this full these days. I mean it’s, it’s incredible to watch. I remember it was just me and the, the small team that we had just sitting in here bark, so, and so it’s humbling to watch people use this space every day.

Lisa:

It’s inspiring and I can’t wait for the DC opening. That’s going to be inspiring too. So bring us up to speed. The audience doesn’t know what you do or what you built your vision. Take us back to that founding vision and what you’re working on.

Ryan:

The process of starting the business started in 2013. I wanted to be a lawyer my entire life. And ended up going to Georgetown for undergrad and then Georgetown law for law school. And it was while I was between my first and my second year of law school that a lot of things started to happen, but I was working at this law firm and really just couldn’t see myself doing that work for the rest of my life.

I got an email from some friends that were built that I worked with in DC doing some community organizing work and just in an email exchange started to talk about this pain point that I had around not feeling connected to community anymore. I miss the university setting where I was able to meet people from all over the world and we had access to space and to different speakers that were always on campus.

And with that gone I started thinking about, well, how do you, how do you reimagine what that experience can be like for adults?

And that’s something that could match kind of where I was at that point in my soon to be career. Long story short, I ended up sending an initial sketch to one of my roommates from college. TK and he, was in business school when we were there, had a finance and accounting background. And what was helpful is that he was able to kind of take the concept that I had and put a business model around it. And so we opened the first Gathering Spot in 2016 and in March of that year and from a space perspective, the club is an event space where we host any number of events. I mean it’s anything from cocktail parties to plated dinners to movie screenings –over 6,000 functions since, since that point.

So the club is always busy. The second part of the club is a restaurant and bar or we’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then the last part of the club is workspace. And so our thesis from the beginning is that you bring people together through experiences, through dining and through work, but always had the community part of the business be the thing that really I think gave us kind of the most passion to do what we do each day. So four years later, we’re still here and expanding and the community continues to still grow. So we’re grateful.

Lisa:

You know, it’s true when you say breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s true. But you know what? I feel so special about the Gathering Spot as, as a member myself, is that sense of purpose in the community. That there are reasons why people gather. They go beyond just another cool place. Oh. And it is a cool place. I mean, the architecture is fabulous. I mean, everything is so on point. I remember one day the I had a friend come to lunch and he got up and went to the restroom and he came back and he said, those are the coolest restrooms in Atlanta. .So it’s even the little things, but I think that the big thing under the little things is you and TK are really united in a unique sense of community. I’d love to have you speak to that a little bit. How do you think about your founding soul or vision?

Ryan:

Oh, we’ve always said that we wanted to be in the community business, not the space business. And so while the space is super important, the community that’s here makes the club what it is each day. And when we were looking at private clubs and workspaces as we approached thinking about what the business could be, we saw that those communities weren’t very diverse. From really any perspective that’s, you know, looking at age, that’s looking at the industry. It’s looking at just like perspective broadly.

And so our youngest member at this point is 22, our oldest members, 88. Every industry that’s represented in the city is represented here. So you have the creative community. You have the startup and tech community. You have those that work with some of the largest corporations in town. And that’s important to us because although you knew you need to be in spaces where there are other people that can strongly identify with, say you’re an entrepreneur, that journey.

It’s also important for the entrepreneur to be able to meet other people that are outside of their ecosystem. And so that’s what the club is really centered on. How does the entrepreneur meet the person that is working at the fortune 500 company that could buy their product or buy the company, but also how do, how does that entrepreneur meet the creative in town that can help from a marketing perspective or hope take a campaign that they’re doing and make it go even further?

So like the central idea is always been about trying to figure out how if we can connect people better and, and take away some of the traditional boundaries that have existed between different groups of people–there’s something really powerful there.

Two other things I would say just quickly, we also saw that representation in a lot of spaces was limited. And so we focused on people of color and, and women, while everyone is welcome to, to to join a club, 60% of our membership base are women. And that’s important to us because women haven’t been certainly overrepresented in these sort of spaces throughout time. And we thought that if we’re going to to reimagine what the private club or city club model was going to be, that we needed to do it with people that, that hadn’t been again, overrepresented in the, in these spaces throughout time.

Lisa:

I–you can feel it right away. I mean, I can’t help but speaking as a woman, you can feel it right away. You and TK say” yes” to a lot of things. And I’m really grateful that a couple of years ago when I give you both a call, you said yes to hosting Startup Runway, which for those who don’t know is a pitch event for underrepresented founders. And so I just want to thank you again for that because it’s…

Ryan:

Thank you. It’s, it’s amazing to to see how it’s soared. I remember that first call and it’s amazing to see what Startup Runway is now and what it means to the city and what it’s going to mean to new cities. I mean it’s exciting to see the platform expand to new markets.

Lisa:

It launched because of you as a cohost and the Gathering Spot. And so what that made me think about is all the calls you get and how do you and TK as founders of this growing, multi-city business, how do you know what to say no to? And I’m really thinking about the other founders out there that are listening to this and when their opportunity starts to hit– how are you developing internal disciplines around how you can say yes, how you say maybe hold, how you say no?

Ryan:

This is a really, really I think important topic and something that isn’t discussed enough. Balancing that, that flexibility with discipline is also really important. An example of kind of where we’ve had to look at remaining flexible. I’ll, I’ll use our event business for just one quick example where we thought that space was better served in looking at hosting corporate functions and, and brand experiences. But event space if you’re not a super-specific can also become a party space and nightlife space and we didn’t want to be in that business. And so staying true to your, your model and your thesis is important. It’s the thing that you’re looking at is going to be, is gonna take you far away from kind of the original plan.

Ryan:

Again, depending on what products you’re building, pivoting and running in the opposite direction may be necessary. But in terms of how we say no at this point, it’s almost cliche at this point where you know, people do business with people and it is important for us. A lot of times your reputation will, will arrive way before you do. And so we take the recommendations of people that we know already and trust already really, really seriously. And at this point try to, to work in network as much as possible. There’s no great way to, to completely, you know, guard yourself against bad opportunities other than, I mean to, to try what to try to do whatever you’re doing with good people. That’s where we stay focused. I mean, we have had projects that have not gone well with good people that we later were able to kind of tweak and then make those projects better later. Staying centered on just trying to make sure that the folks that we’re working with have the same values and goals is what we do is kind of the way that I’m doing it now.

Lisa:

That makes a ton of sense. Yeah. I’m going to bring up a couple of projects and maybe we can talk through them a little bit because as you’ve grown and as you’ve looked at multiple opportunities, a couple of things really stand out for me that I think the audience would enjoy hearing about. One is A3C So you were able to bring on this amazing festival . . .

Speaker 4 (12:11):

The great thing about A3C is that it was a platform that existed in Atlanta for 14 years before. We, we acquired part of the company. And what was interesting about what was happening is that it had always been rooted in music. I believe that Atlanta’s largest export at this point is the culture and kind of the big creative aspects or what is being created down here. But there wasn’t a marquee experience that was attracting people from all over the world to have the same sort of collisions that I was talking about that exists inside of the club. So that’s music or creative people being able to meet the tech community, being able to meet the film community that’s here in a pretty significant way. And so when the opportunity came about, really what happens at A3C over a three day period is what the Gathering Spot will do over maybe a month-long period.

It’s a lot of panels, lectures, and different experiences that build a community –that the event happens every October. And so we knew from a core competency perspective that the fundamentals of what the experience were built on were not that much different than what we were doing here each day. And that given the existing business with TGS that we could help to kind of create that signature experience that will happen in Atlanta each year. And so really proud of what happened. This, this past year to 15th year was our first year producing the conference. And I think that is we approach this year, you’ll continue to see more people profiled and then again, these, these really intentional and, and curated ways of bringing communities that ordinarily don’t see each other and certainly are attending the same conferences together all, all in one place. And so we’ll be back this, this October,

Lisa:

It’s super bold move to pick up that conference, hip hop music festival experience, cultural jam and bring it into the Gathering Spot family. I’m really excited to see how that continues to develop in a really good way. Another thing that is just so impressive is given the, how many events have you run at the gathering spot? So far

Ryan:

More over 6,000, I mean, last year we hosted 2,400 private events and then probably another 200 or so member experiences. So in total 2,600 different, different experiences for people to attend.

Lisa:

So as someone wh, see it from two sides –an investor, but also a member –bringing so many of those experiences, the ones the club is doing for the members online with TJs Connects, that is, that is fabulous. And something a lot of people probably don’t know about. Tell us a little about how you see t the near term future or maybe the long vision of what you and TK are trying to build here.

Ryan:

They’re, they’re kind of two, two ways that we plan to operate moving forward. And so with our original thesis was to continue to build physical spaces and communities in different cities. And so we’re executing that thesis now, but to just connect to the platform that we created to give members and, and really everyone and the ability to be able to see what happens at the Gathering Spot on a daily basis. And so, I mean, on any given month we are recording and uploading at this point a content of experiences that are happening here. But I think what you’ll see over time is us adding content that maybe is not happening at the club that is still good information. So the platform is really powerful. I encourage anybody that’s interested to go to TGSconnect.com. It’s one of the best ways, if not the very best way to get a, get an understanding of what happens here.

And you’ll see a lot of the things that I was talking about previously, a lot of different speakers, but speakers that are coming from a variety of perspectives. We, we’re bringing people and to celebrate accomplishments that, that occurred over a 30 year period and then bringing in new entrepreneurs that recently started their companies. And so it’s developing into a really powerful tool and a way they continue to keep the community connected even if they’re not physically present. Any membership at the Gathering Spot as not really being tied to physically how many days you’re here, but really the longer-term understanding that you’re a part of a community that travels with you anywhere. It’s similar to going back to, the university context –where I went to Georgetown I have not been to Georgetown in a while and I think most people would say this about their college and university, but I still feel really, really connected to it. The reason why we call the platform TGS Connect is that it’s one of the ways to stay connected to TTS. No matter how many times you’re, you’re, you’re physically here with us, you’re still getting a chance to kind of be here.

Lisa:

No, it makes a ton of sense. It looks like a curious person’s Netflix, like the intelligent mind’s, Netflix, you know, because the programming is awesome, but then it’s really well shot. It’s really well produced, and the topics are not, not the everyday generic topics you see out in the world, but real deep dives with some of the leaders, their industries. Really exciting.

Ryan:

We take our time with what, you just connected me in some of the conversations that are on there. They’re, they’re not the short clips that you maybe will traditionally see on the internet. I mean, there are conversations there that are two and two and a half hours of a person really going deeply into their background, but also giving pieces of advice to the listeners around how to accomplish whatever their particular goal is. And so I’m really proud of what’s being built there. The community of members and, and viewers continues to grow each month. And so we’re really excited that another idea, I guess, that that was produced by our team here is being received.

Lisa:

Speaking of, of learning and sharing, what would you want to share with founders around your own fundraising journey? Any lessons learned?

Ryan:

It’s really important that as a Founder that you have a really good understanding of your business model. And I mean, again, that sounds simple, but you need to understand how your business model matches to the business models, frankly, of, of the the investment community broadly and understand that there are different products for different types of businesses. When we started, I mean, we really had no understanding of different funding sources and the best way to present information in the best models that, that appeal to certain groups. So I think it’s really important to, to, to analyze that to the ground that a little bit. I, I particularly looking at venture and private equity or, I’ll pick on banks for a second. If you’re a startup business and, and you’re in the early days and there’s not really much to collateralize a loan, the bank doesn’t really have much to discuss with you.

You know, the, so again, not a, not a complex thought, but when you’re starting, not everyone is aware of just how important it is to understand the model of the funder. It’s, it’s, it’s equally important to them that they drive a return. And conceptually when I started, I didn’t understand that and can some of these topics are kind of, it sounds funny when you talk about them now, but investing is not an act of charity or philanthropy. It’s being done to try to drive a return. And so you as a founder have to speak to that more than you have to speak to the excitement that you have about the concept. That’s important. But I think when we first started talking to folks, I would spend a long time on how passionate I was about being a founder and what the community mean, what space would be like and our design, which are all important elements that, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t spend as much time talking about our business model and how that business model would grow and scale, and ultimately how I believed and still believe that the investors will get a strong return. You’ve got to figure out how to get there and get there fast.

Lisa:

So for some of the investors that listen to the podcast and especially we have a fair population in New York and the Valley, but I wonder how you see today, and this is just a moment in time, so as we’re recording this in spring 2020, how you see today, the right next investor for the Gathering Spot.

Ryan:

I do. I think that putting aside the things I just said about model, the best investors for our business,, but really any business, have an understanding for what;s being built holistically. And again, I, that sounds like a given, but I think there are a lot of investors that maybe even make it to completing funding and still don’t really have a great understanding about what the full vision of the company is. And so, I mean, we’re looking for a capital sure. As time goes on, but we’re looking for investors similar to Valor. And thank you, Lisa, that I mean, you send us notes of encouragement and advice and, and help leverage our networks to help the business grow. A lot of times as time goes on those connections and that thoughtfulness become as important as the capital itself.

You’ll find ways to, to fund the business, but you might not necessarily find ways to to grow it in a way that makes sense if you don’t have the right strategic voices around the table. So I hope I answered your question, but I mean we’re always looking similar to how I think about doing business with members of the club or with any, anybody that’s kind of B2B and a B2B relationship with us. I look at that same ad, that same lens to how I look at it. Investors as well.

Lisa:

I am so, so proud that you let Valor be a very small part of the Gathering Spot. It’s an amazing frontier company. But you know, it’s interesting in the years that we’ve known each other, community space has been super red hot. WeWork was leading the charge there for awhile–that fell and there have been other big drops in large rounds that were invested in communities. Wwhat I can say is,, from regular interactions with you and TK, you all are steadily on it. Just building the business, building the vision and in, in some ways what goes on in the investor level is, is almost like noise and you can’t get too distracted as a founder from what’s going on at that level.

Ryan:
If there’s any advice I have to entrepreneurs out there is that make sure that you are spending as much time working on I’m making sure that the businesses is getting better each day and providing that information consistently to the investors that are in the business. They are in a better position to be able to help you when you do that. And you’ll ultimately have, I think, much easier conversations with everyone involved if you’re able to, to kind of understand what’s being evaluated and when it needs to be evaluated. I can’t say that, you know,any company is perfect at it, but it is something that we strive to get better at each quarter and each year that goes by. But I mean it’s just another thing that you’re trying to balance. I mean, you’re, you’re in the company each day and doing that work and reporting on the company is it’s tough, but, but now it’s a necessary thing to figure out how to do.

Lisa:

That’s some wisdom right there. So let’s change gears. Pull back the lens and talk about a city that matters a lot to both of us. I’d like to talk a little bit about Atlanta. So I know that you love Georgetown, but tell me how you see Atlanta.

Ryan:

I love Atlanta. I think that the city is super, super, super special because what exists here is a really rich ecosystem that I think is still relatively untapped. The thing that’s amazing about Atlanta, so if you back up for a second, every major city, for the most part, has a brand that there’s an understanding of what you’re, you’re supposed to kind of get out of that city before anything else. LA– Hollywood. DC–government and politics, New York– finance, right? So the cool thing about Atlanta right now is that we don’t really have that, that, that brand, what, what’s happening down here is a lot of different things that are all kind of coming together at the same time, which makes this, this city really interesting. So we have a huge corporate community. It’s the, I think still the third-highest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters and most large businesses have some sort of presence in the city.

Next to that you have a network of colleges and universities. Morehouse, Spelman, Clark, Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, in the city are and again have great programs that are producing amazing graduates. Sitting next to that community…You have a tech and, and a start-up community broadly that is really strong and growing across all metrics, I think every single year. And then again, I think our largest export is the creativity or the culture that exists in the city. And so you got the ability to take any of the other things that are being built and amplify it in a way that other cities can’t. So different than, than other markets where people don’t know each other across those lines in Atlanta. People genuinely do. And that I think is what’s going to make being down here, not only just like a good idea moving forward. I think a lot of businesses and organizations will see that it is necessary to be a part of this ecosystem in some way. And the longer you wait, I think the larger that an organization will, will have because this, this city is I think truly up next across all of the verticals that I just mentioned.

Lisa:

So if you were to put a hashtag on Atlanta, what would it be?

Ryan:

That’s a hard one. I don’t know. I mean we’re we’re, we’re growing. I mean we’re, we’re growing a lot. Atlanta is –and it’s all due respect to kind of other smaller small Southeastern cities–we don’t really compare much quantitatively when you, when you really start to look at what’s happening here is this is a very, really special ecosystem that I, I encourage no matter really what it, what it is that you’re doing, that this is the city day that probably makes sense for you.

Lisa:

Absolutely. No, I totally agree. Sometimes I think about Atlanta, the hashtag I wouldn’t put on the city is #inclusionpremium because there’s so many different types of people, different walks of life. You’ve got people like me that originally came from the country. You’ve got people that came from the big cities, you’ve got a lot of immigrants in the population. It’s got lots of people of color and there’s a lot of everything. And so that makes it just ..makes it rich. It makes the experience so rich. So and regards to Atlanta, if you were talking to your younger self or a founder that you really wanted to take care of, I’d love to get a shout out to one or two people that you would say they should really connect with in Atlanta to help get their feet in the right spot.

Ryan:

I will speak kind of to the founders that, that may be listening. I would really encourage them to you, you’ll make the right tech connections and connections in the startup ecosystem. I think Atlanta does a really good job of providing a lot of different platforms to get you introduced that way. I would, I would take special care though to meet the creative community. Again, there’s a really special way that that community can take whatever it is that you’re building and, and export it to places that you hadn’t imagined you could really go and especially go that quickly. So one of the people that I I don’t know if we would be here if it were not for his influence. And then Chaka Zulu has an amazing story. He was he’s been in the music industry for a very long time, managed ludicrous for really a long time.

And if you look at Chaka’s career trajectory, moving from music specifically to film now to a lot of different verticals, including the tech community. Now Chaka has a global role at Spotify, working to help bridge the gap between the music and tech community in the one way that I think is powerful. And on top of that, he he knows every, everybody across the city, He represents what I was talking about earlier in terms of just being extremely well connected across a lot of different industries. And so yeah, if you’re a founder out there, a lot of times I think the advice that we get is to just meet other people that are directly kind of in the industry. And I don’t, I recommend doing that on one hand, but I also going back to this idea of balance, balancing it with meeting people that are completely outside of the industry that you’re in, better ideas, better relationships and I, I think just like you put yourself in a, an a, a much better position in the city to have your business.

Lisa:

Awesome. Well this is before I let you go, any final thoughts you’d share with other entrepreneurs out there?

Ryan:

Keep going. This is a, is this a long, a long battle and you know, continuing to kind of stay rooted in why you started and that those initial days, I was talking to my team recently and while there’s been a lot of experiences and lot of great people and things that have happened here, I’m super excited about everything that we have moving forward in another way.

I still kind of miss the, the early days of trying to figure out if the thing that we were working on was viable at all. And so, you know, take, take as much pride and joy in that of the journey and know that you’re completely the best person to take whatever it is that you’re building. And, and get it out there. It’s again, it’s, I mean, it’s tough, but you know, you’re the person that you been waiting for and it’s a, it’s totally possible to make sure that whatever it is that you’re doing now, that it gets done in a way that is true to your vision. I heard a quote, it’s actually Denzel Washington quote that I’ve been saying recently all the time that I, I think it’s amazing and I’ll, I’ll, I’ll paraphrase some of it, but he said that dreams are proof to you, sent beforehand that it’s yours already. And so maybe I’ll leave it there.

Dreams are proof to you that whatever you’re building is yours already.

Lisa:

That’s beautiful. Ryan Wilson, thank you so much. When people want to follow your journey, what would you recommend? How should they follow you?

Ryan:

We’re online on every platform at The Gathering Spot and I encourage you to check out TGSconnect.com

Lisa:: Awesome. Thank you.

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