We’re Not WeWork
When Ryan Wilson and TK Petersen set out to raise money to create the Gathering Spot, he got 97 straight noes. Which just proved how badly it was needed.
By Saul Elbein
Ryan Wilson and TK Petersen graduated from Georgetown University Law Center with JDs and a sense of frustration. Where, they wondered, does an entrepreneurial adult go to find the intellectual and community smorgasbord, the sense of bridging silos and disciplines, that they had found so easily on campus.
Their answer came in 2014, when they introduced the Gathering Spot, a community center-cum-coworking space based in Atlanta that Wilson said, “mimics that feeling of being at college” but is pitched at the rising cadre of young black and female entrepreneurs traditionally shut out of the city’s country clubs — even though they have helped make Atlanta one of the most dynamic cities of the 21st century. Members paid $200 a month for a buffet of activities and pre-screened friends from across Atlanta’s tech, entertainment, and corporate sectors. And then, just as the Gathering Spot was expanding into Washington D.C and Los Angeles, the pandemic hit.
Saul Elbein caught up with Wilson to discuss his niche, how he got funded, why he thinks Atlanta is the most exciting city in America — and why Covid has made gathering more important than ever.
Saul Elbein: It strikes me that you couldn’t have picked a worse business to be in for Covid than something called a gathering spot.
Ryan Wilson: Actually — I’m grateful to say that, as a business, we’ve been fine. This business has always been about community, about people. What better way to stress-test that than a global pandemic, when you can’t come together. In fact, we actually continued to grow from a community perspective last year, because our main offering is connection to other people. That was always how we saw the business.
What did you do to adapt?
Well, we ended up closing for two months, and we shifted a lot of content online. We already had a platform where out content lived, and we just moved all of our activities online. We had the online platform up pre-Covid, so folks could watch wherever they were, so we added a ton more online content. In the first couple weeks [of lockdown] we shot like 18-plus conversations.
But for me, I would always tell our team, Our mission could not change, no matter what was happening around us. The setting could change, but that was it. We were pushing back against the notion that community could be canceled. But even though the term social distance — well, it was really physical distance. So how do we connect people, build community?
What did you do, in addition to going online?
We kept all our employees on, and we continued to cook meals for them — people could come in and grab food. We had a campaign combining the services of a bunch of our businesses into a subscription box. A lot of our small business members were getting devastated, and we followed the lead of some faith businesses that said, ‘We’re pausing dues till you can come back.’ [Instead of canceling dues] while we were closed, we funneled dues into a $100,000 fund called We All We Got, and redistributed to other small businesses in the Gathering Spot community.
Black-owned businesses were overall the hardest hit by the pandemic. So we said, ‘If we can continue this together, we’re going to put that money to work.’
Did anyone push back on that, complain that their dues for a space they couldn’t use weren’t just still getting charged but were going to someone else?
Not really. No, I mean, they just didn’t. But that was part of that framework: this premise that at the end of the day, we — this community — are all we have.
You’ve talked about how one of the initial problems in raising funds was in getting investors to see what the Gathering Spot really was.
Right. We’re not a workspace solution, like WeWork. Instead, our business is centered around curating experiences for people. That turned out to be important during Covid. Because if we’d taken the approach that space was the main value proposition, we would be out of business. If it was, “Here’s a place where you can come sit in a chair,” well, I’m not saying that business plan was flawed, but in this environment it didn’t match. Because our mission was different than that, we had paths forward that, say, a movie theater didn’t have.
Why is that?
They may be passionate about connecting people through movies, but invariably what they’re selling is a space to come consume content in. If you can’t do that, there’s no reason to come. On the other hand, we are trying to create context. We’re trying to build networks that give you access to other communities the same way that your college did.
When you say ‘context’ …
Think of it like this. If we’re strangers, and I walk up to you on the street and just say, “Hey,” it’s like, wait, why am I speaking to you? That’s not normal behavior anymore, and we’ll have to spend a while talking to even figure out why we’re talking. But you say, “I saw you at the Gathering Spot.” Oh, okay. Now you share something.
You’re in this room, which means you’re the kind of person who’s in this room.
Which means I should get to know you for some reason. There aren’t a lot of places to go and do that, right? But we’re in the business of community. Our three verticals are: we like to eat together, we like to socialize together, we like to do different activities together. But my litmus test is: if you’re at the bar and look left and look right, you should want to say hello to those people, and it should be diverse. There are people here who have super made it and some who are just getting started. Sometimes I introduce people—and I have a full-time team that curates events—but mostly we just give them a context and space, and then let them come up with whatever they come up with.
So how hard was it to actually get the capital to get that started?
Very. It was very hard to find investment. Our first ask was $3 million, and it was 97 straight noes.
Yeah. And I mean, we had to develop a process. I didn’t know 97 people to tell me no. We built a network of no. After every no, we’d say, “Hey, can you tell us someone else to tell us no?” And surprisingly people did. When people were responsive—“Oh, that’s a cool idea, even if it’s not my thing”—we’d ask them to refer us to other people.
So — for those first few meetings, I imagine, you’re running on adrenaline. But how do you keep the faith over, say, meetings 20 through 98, as you just keep getting told no?
This is what I look for in entrepreneurs now: You have to have this enthusiasm about your idea, where you almost know that it needs to exist. So when people said no, my reaction internally was, they were crazy, and I was not crazy. I had to say to myself, all the most disruptive companies had a moment where people said, “Wait, what?” I knew we were seeing something that the market didn’t see, and that was part of the reason why we needed to keep going. So every no became a sign that ‘Oh, wow, folks really don’t see this coming.’ If we’re really onto something, the market shouldn’t readily just nod their head to this.
But you have to frame things in ways that keep you encouraged. And so like the mental hoops that I was doing was to say at, every no, at every person who didn’t really get what we were proposing, “Hey look, it could be worse, right? We could be walking into these rooms and folks are like, ‘Oh, I totally understand. No, I still don’t want to invest, but I totally get what you’re doing.’” Because then, no, we’re not doing something really new. If you’re pitching something new, it should be a bit uncomfortable.
What clinched the sale, then, for number 98?
One person finally said, “I’ll gamble with you.” But there were a lot of transitions in that process. Pitches one through thirty just weren’t that good. It wasn’t clear what it was; we were hedging. The next thirty: we had a better understanding of the pitch, but we weren’t focused on the central investor’s question of, “How are you going to get me my money back?”
You’d be surprised how many pitches, including our own, talk about everything but that. I thought at first if I could get you excited about the concept, I could push you through the analytics, the business plan. And in addition to making clear up front how investors would get their money back, we just had to get into a mental place where we could say, “This thing will open in 2015.” Like, the train is leaving the station either way. You going to be on or not?
Why did you guys decide to open first in Atlanta?
First, there’s just no better place to be black, 24, having an idea and needing capital. Like I was. Second, what other city has such a huge concentration of Fortune 500 companies—all of them sitting next to an emerging, quite legitimate tech and entrepreneurial community and a ton of colleges and universities? From a music and film perspective, the world is consuming things that have been built and curated in Atlanta. But what’s most special about the city is that people know each other across those verticals.
Right, there is no city industry. “Atlanta” is sort of the industry of Atlanta.
In New York, finance guys are mostly friends with finance guys. There are all these cities kind of defined by one thing — like San Francisco and tech, or DC and government, or LA and Hollywood. And then everybody else in that city is just not heard. But Atlanta, we are a tech city, we are a payment city, we are an entertainment city. I don’t get why more people aren’t here.
So after that initial $3 million ask, did you raise more money?
No. We capitalized just for construction, and the business was profitable the first year, because it had to be. We started doing community circles, workshops, giving people a preview of the experience, asking them about the problems in their lives. “Hey, where do you hang out?” “What are you missing in your group?” And we would say, “The Gathering Spot is a place where no matter what you’re coming to do, you’re welcome to gather.”
Talk about the resonance of that word, “gathering,” in the communities you serve.
Well, it was once illegal for blacks to gather in Georgia and across a lot of states. Huge efforts have been exhausted, in the past, to keep women from being with one another. It’s powerful to know that, as a young entrepreneur, I exist in that continuum and can openly say that I curated this space for these particular perspectives. It’s not a hidden thing; it’s not lost on our members. And we don’t take gathering for granted. It’s still a revolutionary act to get together.
So you’ve tried to create a space where entrepreneurs from these traditionally marginalized groups—black people and particularly black women—feel at home. Practically speaking, how did you do that?
Well — 80 percent of my leadership team are women. So their perspective was at the table from the beginning. This is the sort of conversation we have to just be real practical about. If you want women to be included in experiences, you have to be intentional about making sure that women are creating those experiences.
When you put it like that, it sounds trivially obvious.
Yeah. Like, what do you do? You try really, really hard. But also, we abandoned the notion a long time ago that spaces are neutral. Every space has a curator, and that curator was thinking about somebody when they designed that space or the experience. Our goal was just to make that curation process more inclusive. Really often, there’s no diversity at the table when the design decisions are made, and at the end you end up saying, ‘Well, goodness, we did it for everyone!’ And then if some group isn’t there, well, how convenient.
So it’s like, if you think a space is neutral, it was made for you.
Right. And here’s an example of the kind of blind spot that can lead to. A member of the club approached me, annoyed, and she said: “In your bathrooms, everything is free — toilet tissue, hairspray. Except you have to pay for feminine hygiene products.” She said, those should be treated like everything else you give away for free.
What did you say?
“Oh, shit, you’re right.”
How has it felt to watch the rest of the business world wake up to these ideas over the last six months?
One of the more frustrating pieces of the summer was all these companies suddenly discovering black people for the first time in their history. It felt like last year folks were discovering new values — and that was just weird. I’m glad they could get to a new place, but for us … we weren’t having some kind of review of who we were. We didn’t discover any new values last year. It was more about trying to meet the needs of the communities where we were focused.
What did that look like?
We reopened, socially distant, after George Floyd died to any organizer in the city who needed a space to organize. That was really cool. We watched a lot of, well, the hip and cool meeting the legendary and epic. That lasted a while, and then we were heavily involved with the presidential election and the effort to flip Georgia blue. President Biden has been to TGS a number of times, and about ten days before the presidential election, [then-Senator] Harris visited the club.
Does Covid change where you go from here?
No, it’s like I said — Covid can’t change your “why,” as in why you do what you do. That shouldn’t be able to be easily compromised at all.
It has been, over the last year, for a lot of people.
Sure. I’m not trying to be cavalier. We spend half our time trying to make sure that folks survive the economic hardships. And for us — we hosted 2,400 events in 2019, and … not anywhere near that last year. We’ve experienced economic hardship too. But the principles why a business owner gets into the business, those are things you stay wedded to. We believe that if we focus on staying connected and triaging where there’s massive need, then this will pass.
Do you ever think about the counterexample — if you just battened down the hatches in March and waited it out on your own?
Yeah. If I had done that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because we’d be out of business. No question.