Photo Credit: Thomas Bresson
Naturally, I would catch glimpses of the site here and there as she created her grocery lists. One day, I noticed that the site had dramatically changed from a hacked-up default Wordpress theme to a beautiful custom design complete with branding, typography, illustrations and such.
I quickly hijacked my wife's computer to investigate. As I scrolled to the footer, I saw "Site made by Squared Eye" so naturally I clicked the link.
"Whoa, this dude's name is Matthew Smith," I thought to myself as I ogled the work of this fantastically named man. After poking around a bit, I connected with him on Twitter and we conversed about our dopplegänger-ness.
In the coming weeks I learned about the coworking space he started in Greenville, SC as well as casual event called Zero Day, held on the last friday of every month. It was a small half-day event of the cowork peeps and a few others from the community, partaking in bagels, coffee, and 10/20s (small 10 and 20 minute topical discussions). Matthew invited me up for one to meet him and the crew, so I made the trek.
The vibe at the coworking space in Greenville was phenomenal. The architecture, the desks, the people, the coffee, the layout, everything. It was a great experience and I immediately knew I needed something like this in my life.
The next spring I attended the second annual Greenville Grok, which was an extension of Zero Day on a slightly larger scale. It did not disappoint and I left the event supercharged after having many quality conversations about work and life with fellow industry workers.
I visited Greenville a handful of times afterwards and continued to be enamored with the folks there. Greenville really felt like a larger Athens - the city where my wife and I have lived since college.
Matthew always joked "When are you moving to Greenville?" while I was there, and after awhile the joke started taking root a bit in my mind. I started having serious conversations with my wife, who was surprisingly excited about the possibility of moving to Greenville and doing something new.
It's dangerously easy to get into the grass is greener on the other side mindset and that's what started to happen for us. Immediately, Athens seemed boring and old, versus the vibrant, luscious and ripe Greenville that presented seemingly unlimited opportunities.
There are always lots of factors to consider on matters as weighty as where to live, like distance to family, friends, existing roots, not to mention if you have kids - we had three at the time and as a matter of fact, just had our fourth.
After a week of conversations here and there with my wife I started to realize the truth about Athens and Greenville. Yes Greenville is awesome, but so is Athens. I've been in Athens for 10 years. I've got friends, connections, familiarity, a solid church community, and my family is only a few hours away - easy driving distance. The food scene, the art scene, and even the tech scene, are all great things about Athens. My eyes had just been covered with laziness and indifference.
I Once Was Blind, But Now I See
Once I stirred up the stagnation in my heart, something clicked and I felt this peace about being in Athens; being closer to my family. I realized the grass is not always greener on the other side, but rather the grass is greener where you water it.
I felt like it was time to ramp up my local game, stop complaining about the lack of design community in Athens, that I had yet to search for, and see what I could do to cultivate it. At the very least, pry up the corners and see if any currently existed.
After working in an office by myself for nearly 2 years doing independent work, the appeal of a cowork was massive.
I wanted to start a coworking space in Athens.
Photo Credit: Sean Pavone
I only knew a few folks in town that were candidates for such a space and I saw finding people as my first hurdle.
As soon as this moment clicked for me and I knew that Athens was where I was going to live and stay (and thrive!), I started reaching out to people. My first email was blasted off to Aarron and Gregg from Mailchimp, two Athens residents like myself, to see if they'd be interested in coworking if I got one started. After all, they work from home a few days a week and both have kids as well. Certainly they felt some sort of domestic pinch while working.
Gregg mentioned that I should reach out to some of the guys at Four Athens, a grass roots tech incubator in town. I heard of Four Athens a while back but sort of dismissed the idea and never thought much of it again. I did some digging and reached out to Jim, the project director, and asked him to meet for coffee to chat coworking stuff.
We met and I realized that starting a cowork would be tough to do when I didn't really have anyone to cowork with. That's sort of an important in this equation. In fact that is the main ingredient - coworkers creating cool things in a work-like utopia.
I knew that I needed to get some community going before I could make any solid progress on a coworking space. Jim was very gracious to promptly connect me with a number of folks around town, whom might have similar interests.
Jim email intro'd me with Jacob Thomason, who started and runs Rentpost full-time. Jacob is a talented designer and developer and I couldn't believe there was someone like this living in Athens.
We met for lunch at Last Resort, one of the amazing local restaurants in town. The weather was superb - sunny, breezy, and I was seated by the hostess on the patio shortly before Jacob's arrival. I was in a rather good mood to meet a fellow designer so I ordered a beer for a mini-celebration while I waited.
Jacob arrived and we began to share our stories and backgrounds. He told me about his time living in Asia, while he coded up Rentpost and I told him about my business partner/friend in Singapore and my trip over there for a big project. This was a type of conversation that previously only existed at conferences for me. It was very refreshing to meet someone locally like this.
I told Jacob about my idea for a coworking space in Athens and that I was considering starting a design-focused meetup to get to know the community and see who was interested. Jacob liked the idea and said that he didn't know of anything that existed beyond a few developer meetups he was a part already a part of. There's nothing like someone completely buying into the seedling of an idea to get you pumped up to press forward.
After lunch, Jacob and I exchanged emails. He told me that he loved the idea of starting a meetup focused on design, etc. and that he'd help co-start it if I was up for that. I immediately said yes.
We continued tossing emails back and forth about the logistics of starting it up. The very first thing we did was set a date for the first event. Things aren't really official until your set a date.
April 25, 2013 - Athens Design Group (Official Name TBD). We didn't have a schedule, a speaker, a name, a format, anything. I had no clue what I was doing, but felt relieved that Jacob was involved in 2 other local meetups we could borrow ideas from.
We set a date, got Jim to put our event on the Four Athens email blast and started telling people about it. Now the pressure was on to follow through. We came up with a name for the group, Transform, and I threw together a presentation about Lightning Fast Photoshop Techniques.
I emailed MailChimp to see if they'd be interested in sponsoring our first three events to handle food and beverage. They obliged and we were on our way. Check out all of the past events here
Fast Forward 1 Year
Transform went very well over the last year. My goal of meeting new folks in the design community was absolutely reached and continues to exceed my expectations. We've had some great presentations along the way and it's been a really fun thing to start and be a part of.
During the first year of Transform, I continued to pitch the idea of a coworking space to whoever would listen. I had several conversations with Jim about it and the possibility of collaborating with Four Athens, but the timing was never quite right.
Jami Mays, another designer and developer in Athens, contacted me after she heard about Transform. She had also been thinking about coworking for awhile and we started chatting about it. This was super exciting to have another person equally as passionate about the idea.
Jami and I started meeting and planning the would-be coworking space. We made lists of potential candidates that each of us knew, shopped around potential spaces, and created a budget.
We went through spurts of progress followed by periods of stagnation. Each of us would get busy with work or life and things would stall.
I sought out a few proposals on a some different spaces, but none of it felt right in terms of timing ore cost. I wasn't willing to commit to a big lease and shoulder the burden of the entire rent, while hoping to find tenants to break even. I constantly had to remind myself that the hardest part was going to be getting actual people to cowork with before the space would work.
We eventually decided, "You know what!? Let's just start a group and meet at a coffee shop to get people working together." We started a mobile coworking group that first met at a local restaurant, Big City Bread. We decided on 8am to 12pm for a work session followed by lunch together. Only 5 or so people showed up, but it still felt like progress.
An Athens reporter caught wind and came by to do a little story on us. I've never seen a reporter take notes with a pen and pad, while asking questions and making direct eye contact the entire time. Color me impressed.
Partnering with Jim
A few months after the mobile cowork soiree, Jim reached back out to me about the coworking space idea. He told me about a company owner in town who was willing to make a small investment in a space to attract more designers to the area.
Four Athens has a main building with offices plus additional spaces here and there throughout downtown Athens - all various offices that small companies can rent for cheap, but none of them had the potential to be a big, open, creative coworking space.
Jim told me about a deal he was able to negotiate with the owners of the Bottleworks on a potential space, along with the potential investor and asked me if I wanted to join forces to put things in motion.
The stars aligned and the universes hummed to the tune of coworking. Logistics for renting office space and desks already existed through Four Athens, so all I had to do was rent a desk while Four Athens backed the coworking space from a rent and admin perspective.
We began, planning, renovating, and spreading the word. I had used the term Cowork Athens to reference my vision in the past, but we both agreed the space needed a name. After a few emails back and forth, we settled on the The Quad.
My role was (and is) to be the go-to guy at the space - the Four Athens liaison, if you will. The Quadfather?
It's been 3 months since I moved from my solo office to my new open desk at The Quad. I've met new people, made new friends, and have been really excited to go there each day for work. It's energizing being around other people in the industry who are passionate about what they do.
When I made the move from my office of 2 years to the coworking space, it was bittersweet, but I haven't regretted it once.
If you're ever in Athens, hit me up, come by The Quad, work for the day, grab some coffee, or just say "Hi!"