Lessons Learned from The Garage's First Year

"It needs to be like Zion from the Matrix trilogy where you find Neo and the rest of the tribe."

One year ago this week, we received the coveted City of Atlanta certificate of occupancy and introduced our baby, The Garage, to the world. It was an idea three years in the making that would open new opportunities while fundamentally altering how we operated Sandbox Communities. Fortunately, we lived to tell about it and thought we'd share this behind-the-scenes view.

The Early Vision

In 2014, I was invited to a coffee conversation that put me on the path to where we stand today. Fresh off my tenure at Hypepotamus, David Tyndall wanted to get my thoughts on how to help Tech Square get its mojo back.  Our conversation led to what has become our current business partnership, Sandbox Communities. 

As part of the private sector group that owns the properties at the middle of Tech Square, David shared their plans to build a 25-story apartment tower which would be marketed to the Georgia Tech students and become known as Square on Fifth (SQ5). He drew my attention to the new tower's plans and showed me a space on the ground floor that the architects were suggesting could be dry-good storage units for tenants.

David had a different vision. He saw this as the perfect opportunity to create a rough and ready underground convening space for folks at Tech Square.  He said, "It needs to be like Zion from the Matrix trilogy where you find Neo and the rest of the tribe." For the better part of two years, we continued to shape this vision, putting ideas to paper and exploring business models to make it work. 

 

Building Our First Tangible Product

For a company dealing in the business of ephemeral events and digital media, we embarked on building a physical manifestation of "connected awesomeness" smack dab in Tech Square. We had to stay strong in our conviction not to overbuild and overdesign the space.

Working with architect Gary Fowler, David and I sketched out a concept for a physical space that was built for breakthroughs - all while feeling like someone repurposed a boiler room. Equally important, it was a space designed for multiple uses that could meet the current shift in workspace expectations. We wanted people already at Tech Square to see this space as an extension of their current offices and the equivalent of the neighborhood hangout. 

The Garage was something different since it would serve as a collaborative workspace that folks could rent out entirely for private functions. That meant, it needed to have a variety of elements that could be used at the same time either by the same group or many different small groups and individuals. Interchangeable combinations of huddle rooms, conference rooms, work bars, sofas, high-top tables, outlets everywhere, and blazing fast Wi-Fi is what we needed to piece together.

Fortunately, J. Cornelius approached me with a fair deal on some great event equipment from the Polygon ATL event space he was winding down. That way,  we could open without a completely empty space. The lot included four moveable whiteboards from the original Hypepotamus space in the Biltmore, which was a heavy influence for the spirt and soul we sought to create here. We rounded out the furniture with simple restaurant chairs and tables to complement the hand-me down lounge sofas and chairs from the old Globe bar and restaurant (in the retail space soon to be The Canteen). Unexpectedly, we had a windfall collection of Tech Square memorabilia.

 

The Dog Catching the Car

Life a year ago was a harried marathon sprint for us. The Garage was almost finished and we weren't close to being ready for its birth. We were in the midst of our original program team members transitioning out (Anna Branscomb, Jake Dudley, and Charlton Cunningham) while bringing on a new core team (Cliff Hoffman, Rachel Ford, Heather Rule, and Jared Serfozo). The seemingly never ending punch list of final construction fixes joined with the stark reality we now had a substantial monthly lease payment to cover. 

In hindsight (and admittedly at the time), it's pretty clear we went about expanding our business offerings in a backassward way.  There was no branding, cursory market research, no substantial expertise in managing an event venue, and rough ideas for how to balance the collaborative workspace usage with private events. Fortunately, we were customer funded and had runway.

We were already in the wagon barreling down the hill, so we gave it all of our naive ambition. We enlisted our friends at MediaSauce to help us nail the branding using their neuromarketing expertise and super talented design chops to chisel this in stone on BookTheGarage.com:

Built for Breakthroughs | Smart Space | Smart Place

We operated with an open door policy for the collaboration workspace in the beginning, keeping the place staffed 8am-Midnight seven days per week and open to anyone who gave us their name and email address. We wanted to see what the natural usage patterns wanted to be. After two months of that, we launched the Sandbox ATL community member network and gave those who joined the benefit of accessing The Garage during the week when it wasn't in use for private events. Since SQ5, Centergy, and TSRB tenants all received memberships courtesy of a partnership arrangement we made with the respective building owners, we quickly enrolled several hundred members. By the end of the year, we had surpassed 800. 

A Relay Race of Sorts

We said thank you to Cliff Hoffman after his two-month launch gig came to a close and hit another phase of goodbyes and hellos in the summer with Rachel Ford and Heather Rule moving on to exciting opportunities. Around that same time, we welcomed Rachel Zick on in a part-time content creation role, Alex Rhodeen stepped in to help us hone our membership sales for a couple months, and we continued to call on Brett Rakestraw to help with graphic design and audio editing.  For the first time in our company history, we took a deliberative approach to hiring to fill our major gaps, resulting in Ian Edelson and Nona Dowling joining the team

Our part-time student Welcome Desk staff gave us the most stability over the first year when it came to the day-to-day operations. I can't thank them enough for making sure The Garage was ready for whoever needed it. 

All together, we ran the Fall season gauntlet and closed out the first year with the different puzzle pieces of Sandbox Communities assembled and running full steam ahead.  It wasn't easy especially with the team member turnovers, but we survived the transformation that comes from opening an event venue/collaborative workspace. 

Celebrate by Giving The Garage Away

In January as we discussed the first birthday of The Garage, we decided the best present would be the one we gave away to someone else. On MLK Day, we launched the GiveTheGarage.com initiative.

This monthlong effort gave everyone the opportunity to nominate a breakthrough charity or social impact business to win a free 4-hour event venue rental ($3,500 value). Nominations have closed and we'll be narrowing the field down to a handful of finalists. On February 7, we'll announce the finalists and let the general public through online voting decide which one gets use this space for own breakthrough. 

You can join us on Wednesday, Feb 15 for The Garage's First Birthday party, which is when we'll announce the winner of Give The Garage. RSVP here

Let's Quantify the Year

Being in the event venue business for an entire year, we've learned a lot. Sometimes through bloody knuckles and bruised egos. Other times by seeing things go exactly as planned. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what we've learned in the first year is by showing you how many different ways people have used The Garage. 

As you can see, The Garage is built for breakthroughs of all kinds. Most important to us, it is in constant use and always flowing with energy. We're proud of our first year and excited for what the second will bring. Be sure to check out BookTheGarage.com if you are looking for a smart space in a smart place for your next event. 

So what questions or thoughts do you have now that you've scrolled through this unintended complete history of The Garage's first year?