Michael Tavani isn’t a by-the-book kind of guy. While researching the viability of Switchyards, originally a startup incubator but now a series of Atlanta-based ‘neighbourhood work clubs’, he didn’t spend months commissioning market analysis or going undercover to suss out what the opposition was doing.
‘I don’t like talking to competitors and I didn’t do a formal business plan,’ he says. ‘I don’t like to write out documents on how big the market is, or whatever.’
Michael, whose original Switchyards Downtown Club (SDC) incubator opened across four storeys of a 100-year-old building in 2016, is a good example of founder-market fit, a concept whereby the best brands are founded by those obsessed with their idea and who, therefore, gain a deep understanding of the space by living it. ‘For me,’ says Michael, ‘it’s about having passion and obsession, and my gut is always where I start.’
With prior success as a co-founder of Scoutmob, a deals site turned online sales platform, and wifi company SkyBlox, Michael had the entrepreneurial experience to back himself. But for those without the confidence that having a successful business in their rear-view mirror brings, he has some key advice: go deep and trust your instincts.
‘I have investors of Switchyards who will send me articles about potential competitors and I’m pretty quick to dismiss them,’ he says. ‘It’s good to know what people are doing, but I think that spending too much time obsessing about them is actually not great, because you end up trying to use them as an anchor versus really creating something of your own. I don’t want to be playing their game; I want them to be looking at us.’
Living the dream
The original flagship Switchyards – the name is a nod to Atlanta’s old railroads – was conceived as a networking space for creative consumer- and design-orientated startups. But even as SDC fulfilled its original brief, Michael could sense its potential to morph into something different. Flexible and remote working was going mainstream, especially among Atlanta’s young population, but also among major corporations, which were co-opting big-name co-working spaces for their staff and changing the creative energy of those hubs.
Meanwhile, in its three years of operation, the SDC building – with its trademark ‘Made with soul in Atlanta’ neon sign – had become a draw for Atlanta’s creative community: a place to connect, hang out over coffee, grab an indie mag from the in-house newsstand and compare tattoos. Now Michael saw a way to seed similar clubs strategically across the city and provide an alternative to the more generic and expensive co-working spaces.
Rather than approaching his research like an academic paper, Michael bided his time, observing and immersing himself in the Switchyards community over SDC’s first three years of operation, scoping out suitable city neighbourhoods and focusing on ways in which he could disrupt the co-working space.
‘We had this coffee shop built into the original Switchyards,’ Michael recalls. ‘And last-minute we did this membership that was $50 including unlimited coffee. Everyone smart was like, “That’s crazy, lattes are expensive,” but we wanted to create a membership for people working on a startup with a full-time job, who didn’t need an office and weren’t going to spend a couple hundred dollars a month. It was pretty groundbreaking for the industry and people loved it.’
Michael decided to take that membership idea and lean into it – in late 2019 he opened two more locations in residential neighbourhoods with the same offering. With this, Switchyards’ neighbourhood work clubs were born.
‘You can study it and research it, but you've got to just do it.’
Sounding it out
‘It’s great to socialise your ideas,’ says Michael. ‘I’m a big fan of talking to as many people as you can once you’re excited enough to actually do it. I would talk about Switchyards to my wife, to my parents, to friends over dinner.’
The other thing to keep in mind, he says, is that even if you build it, they might not come: ‘The world’s not sitting around waiting for your product. You need to find passionate users of your product, whether it’s 10 or 100. Then you need to find more of those exact same people and you need to go and talk to them. If you can’t find even a few strangers passionate about your product then, usually, you have a problem. With Switchyards, I was fortunate enough to be able to get the product right, so it became all about tightening up the messaging.’
As a business, you can learn a lot about your customer base in the research phase, Michael adds. For example, he personally undertook all the initial marketing of Switchyards, running the social media channels and experimenting with brand messaging. Spending a lot of ‘hours in the mud’, as he puts it, gave him instant feedback on what was resonating: ‘Had I outsourced that, I never would have “got it”. I just think you’re feeling around in a dark room in the early days of a startup and you, the founder, have to be the one doing that.’
Getting ready to jump
At some point, you’re going to have to trust that your homework is done. For small businesses that are unencumbered by bureaucracy and a multitude of managers, the ability to launch the business quickly and get real-world feedback fast can be invaluable, says Michael.
‘Really, you don’t know whether you have something or not until you have a real customer pulling out their real wallet. You will never know whether this thing is validated or not; you can study it and research it, but you’ve got to just do it.
‘You know, I thought Switchyards might go one way. We were kind of incubating companies within it and dabbling in a few ideas. We thought maybe one of those would catch fire, but the irony is we realised that we had something with Switchyards that could be the idea itself. But it wasn’t this one magical moment where we decided to go big; it happened by putting it out there and seeing how it was used.’
This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.