Ever since Switchyards was announced last June, I’ve been getting questions about what exactly it is. Everyone wants a label. Incubator, collaborative workspace, fund, accelerator, train station, etc, etc. It’s parts of all of that - a mashup intentionally. The lines between all this stuff are very blurry nowadays. Putting a system around starting companies is changing every week. Hopefully, this clears it up.
As I laid out all of the pieces of what we’re doing, it became clear to me that Switchyards is a homage to the old city clubs that were popular in American cities in the early part of the 20th century. Common interests always tied those clubs together. We’re the modern version with startups, design, culture and pride for Atlanta as our common themes. These old city clubs produced results (sometimes in the form of Olympic medals), had kick-ass names/logos and set-up shop in beautiful Downtown buildings. Oh, and let me get this out of the way…
Nothing against those clubs but we’re the furthest thing from that. Our only requirements are that you be a doer and passionate about brand/design. Everything else is optional.
This next year is all about nailing the look, feel and culture of the Switchyards Building - all centered around a very intentional theme — consumer brands and design. Events and programming will help set the tone as well. Note: we close on the building in March and will open this summer after renovations are done.
This phase is about curating the best like-minded talent, ideas and companies. The right mix will be able to launch a bunch of ideas. Launching is an important first step, but it’s not the only step…
Creating density around a certain type of startup allows us to get really good at the tactics that make them go - grow into sustainable, delightful businesses. It's our one thing - our unfair advantage. Consumer companies are more art than science and need more (and increasingly smarter) at-bats to break-through.
"A club is an association of two or more people united by a common interest or goal." Coffeehouses were the original clubhouse. With the introduction of coffee-drinking in the middle of the 17th century, clubs entered a more permanent phase. Not much has changed actually. Now I know why Mark Twain said, "there is no such thing as a new idea."
Popular city clubs in the early 1900's included social clubs, university clubs, shuffleboard clubs (St. Pete’s was started in 1924), women’s clubs, gentlemens clubs (definition has changed) and athletic clubs. The social or cultural element was just as important (if not more) than the main theme. The goal of athletic clubs was to mix athletics with society. Athletics was the conduit. The Los Angeles Athletic Club, as an example, was founded in 1880. Not only did many members win medals at the 1932 Olympics, it had a significant impact on Los Angeles society and early Hollywood.
While I studied the other city clubs in Atlanta in the early 1900's (ie: Concordia Hall, in Downtown Atlanta — building still standing on Mitchell St. — which later became the Standard Club), I’m focusing this history on the Atlanta Athletic Club for a few reasons: I consider it the mold of what a true old-school city club was like, it grew to prominence in Downtown over 70 years but didn’t survive the subsequent growth of the suburbs, and the old AAC building was located 30 yards from the current Switchyards Building.
The Atlanta Athletic Club was founded in 1898 by mainly professionals in their 20's, who worked in real estate or the law to serve the leisure needs of the burgeoning city.
Their original downtown club was located on 56 Edgewood Avenue. In 1908, the club hired its first athletic director, John Heisman — of Heisman Trophy fame. What was most interesting is that during the club’s early years, many of Atlanta’s great companies were founded — Coca-Cola, Atlanta Steel Hoop Company (Atlantic Steel), Georgia Electric Light Company (Georgia Power) and Industrial Aid Association (Life Insurance Company of Georgia). Many of the executives joined the club.
It later moved to 37–39 Auburn Avenue where the installation of the telephone drew the most attention (it was before many private homes in Atlanta had them).
In 1924, the Atlanta Athletic Club moved again into the old Lyric Theatre , originally a Vaudeville theatre, at Carnegie Way and Cone Street. The 10-story 140,000 square foot building had an indoor pool in the basement, the largest dining room of any city club in the country, a barbershop, ballrooms, and 60 rooms for overnight accommodations for members and their guests. Saturday night basketball games were popular social activities, often followed by a dance. Seriously. Dinner and dancing on the rooftops was a very popular attraction. It sounded awesome.
More than the physical moves away from Downtown, what’s most disappointing is that nothing filled the gap. I’m 35 and grew up in Atlanta and I literally don’t know a member of a single city club here. There's room for a new one.
It seems so obvious to me. Bring back the best elements of the urban city club and make it 100% focused on things that matter to our generation of company builders, passionate Atlantans and design-lovers. What can happen with the right combination of culture, talent, design and social programming?
Special time — This is the best time in history to be starting/doing in Atlanta.
Atlanta — Our city is central to what we’re doing. Pride in the city. Can we be the generation that catapults us into the world's great cities?
Lots of things go into making a great city. It involves culture — the art, the music — and the landscape. It also involves the buildings that surround the people and the plazas where they gather. They are crucial to a city's identity. It's part of the reason you want to visit Paris and New York. - Thomas Wheatley, Creative Loafing, "Atlanta needs a design director"
History — We’re paying tribute to the vanishing city social clubs. We love history. Especially local history. We have major respect for the ingenuity that came before us. The building will have an old school feel to it. We're talking newspapers in the lobby.
Fun - Work isn’t just work anymore. We (founders) are looking for jobs (and homes) that are consistent with our lifestyle. You’ll spend more time at Switchyards than you will at your home. Make it an unreal experience - a fun and inspiring place to break bread and start companies
Design — Great design everywhere you turn — the building and the companies. It’ll be the differentiator in startups over next 5–10 yrs.
Focus — We need to be the best place to start this kind of company.
Downtown — This is the only area of town where we could do this — walkable, old building, history, amenities, Marta, Streetcar, MLS/Hawks games, etc.
Athletics — we might build a super small gym but no this isn’t a workout facility. But, we’ll pay homage to athletics as we hope to become the unofficial headquarters of our MLS team's supporters. Oh, and also the resurgent Hawks. We’re squarely on the bandwagon. Both stadiums are a short walk away.
Diversity - The club will be as diverse as all Switchyards events have been. And not just in gender, race, etc. but in talents, backgrounds and quirkiness. One thing is for sure, it won't be based on last name or standing. It'll be based on doing & a common interest/passion in design and Atlanta.
Results — Be effective. Old city clubs had pride in producing top amateur athletes. Let's do the the same thing for startups.
Passion — Only do shit you believe in.
There’s something kind of charming about Atlanta, but it still has stuff that all the major cities have– a good art museum, amazing restaurants. Atlanta has really, really good food. I think Atlanta can kind of be an underdog among major cities, but I have really high hopes for it. It’s got a fight to it that I like." — David Kowalski, Brick + Mortar
Over the next few weeks, we’ll lay out all the pieces that make up the Switchyards Downtown Club — programming, prices/membership levels, amenities, upcoming events, tours, maps, directions, etc.
If you want your mug (or name) honored permanently in the lobby of the space, join 550 others and become a Founding Member.
Check out a bunch of other links on our Field Notes page.
And lastly, I’d love to hear from you. This is very fluid so all feedback/questions/thoughts are valuable. I might be slow to respond, but I will eventually.
Let's build something amazing together, Atlanta.