Entrepreneurs behind Greenville’s Atlas Local are cultivating community, not co-working

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Above (from left to right): Chris Merritt, Matthew Smith, and Matt Cook of Atlas Local

In recent years, a plethora of co-working spaces have opened in Greenville, each one promising to provide freelancers and startups a place to work and collaborate. But Matthew Smith, the founder of Atlas Local, believes many spaces have failed to cultivate a lasting, impactful community of thinkers and doers.

“Traditional co-working operates a lot like a gym membership,” he said. “You know that 100 people will fit in the room, but you sell 300 passes and pray to God they don’t show up at the same time. That’s a good model for desk real estate. But it’s not so good if you’re looking to build a community that has potency, power, and effect in the community. That’s a priority for us.”

Smith, alongside Chris Merritt and Matt Cook, opened Atlas Local in January. It’s not so much a co-working space as it is a small community of about 30 creative-minded people from various industries, ranging from technology to accounting.

Located in the newly renovated Brandon Mill in the Village of West Greenville, the new space features 45 desks, seven private offices, and a large conference room for meetings and private phone calls.

Membership ranges from $300 per month for individual desks to $500 per month for private offices. Drop-in members get access to Wi-Fi, parking, and common spaces for $100 per month.

What separates Atlas Local is the degree to which it curates its co-work community.

“Like a business full of employees, we have a culture we hold dear,” Merritt said. “A bad egg could spoil the breakfast, so we treat the first three months of every new member as a trial period for everyone. … We’ll all know if it’s a good fit or not.”

According to Smith, new members have to commit to their space for a year. “It pushes them to really dig in here,” he said. “We’re not looking for people who want to sign up and leave after a month. That’s not community.”

The average Atlas Local membership lasts for two years, according to Smith.

“This isn’t a model you’re going to see everywhere. It takes a lot of passion and belief in your own city,” Smith said. “By no means do we have an elitist mentality. We just know who we are, because we’ve been doing this for a while.”

A growing trend

Atlas Local is a continuation of CoWork, Greenville’s first shared workspace.

In 2007, Smith, a designer, and several freelancers started sharing an office space in downtown Greenville. “It was really just a way to get out of the house and share rent,” Smith said. “We didn’t even know that it was called co-working at the time.”

In the following years, co-working became a growing trend across the nation and people started to approach Smith about joining the space. In 2011, Smith and his colleagues relocated to 1040 W. Washington St. under the moniker CoWork.

With 25 desks and a conference room, the space became a hub for Greenville’s budding group of startups and freelancers, including Merritt and Cook. “We were the only space in Greenville at the time,” Smith said. “It took off out of nowhere.”

CoWork was absorbed by Greenville-based coding school The Iron Yard in 2012. When the partnership ended in 2014, Cook and Merritt took on leadership roles beside Smith, who had decided to restructure the business.

“Things had gotten stagnant, and we needed to let it grow or let it die,” Merritt said. “But we really just needed people to champion each section of the business. The three of us emerged as the ones who would keep it alive.”

Atlas Local’s new space in Brandon Mill features 45 desks, seven private offices, and a large conference room for meetings and private phone calls. Photo by Will Crooks
Atlas Local’s new space in Brandon Mill features 45 desks, seven private offices, and a large conference room for meetings and private phone calls. Photo by Will Crooks

In 2015, several CoWork members started hiring for their startups. Merritt, Smith, and Cook knew they’d need to eventually expand, so they proposed an expansion to the building’s owner, Trey Cole. But it didn’t work out.

They immediately started searching for a larger space. “We hated to leave Trey. He was our landlord, but he was also a member of our community,” Merritt said. “The decision to relocate ultimately gave us more space and a new identity.”

As co-working became a trend, the trio felt like their name was no longer synonymous with their mission. “We had great SEO, because ‘co-work’ became a term. But it quickly lost its potency and efficiency when other spaces started popping up throughout Greenville. It became too vague,” Cook said.

Greenville has become a co-working hotspot over the years. There are five co-working spaces in or around downtown Greenville. That includes recent additions The Wheelhouse and Textile Hall, which opened last year, and older groups such as Endeavor and OpenWorks.

“We respect other places in the sense that they’re businesses. However, we don’t want to be that,” Cook said. “That’s why we eventually lost our brand recognition. Our name just no longer represented who we are and what we do. It needed to change.”

“We want to promote the city”  

As CoWork underwent rebranding, leadership changed. Cook and Smith became general partners, and Merritt became the managing partner and majority owner of Atlas Local.

Despite the new name, their goals remained the same: provide a community for Greenville’s thinkers and doers and foster their talents.

“I’d say we’ve just refined it more. The vision behind the new brand is that we’re in this together,” Smith said. “We’re a group of people who love craftsmanship and labor hard over the stuff we care about. Some people work for themselves. Some work for teams. But in the end, we’re all working for each other’s success.”

Pathwright’s Paul and Mark Johnson have grown their online education startup out of Atlas Local since 2012 and recently rented a private office.

Photo by Will Crooks
Photo by Will Crooks

“I don’t think we would have launched Pathwright without Atlas,” Johnson said. “While they didn’t contribute seed funding or help with projects, they created an environment where you’re able to work side by side with friends and people who work within the same industry. It’s extremely energetic and exciting.”

Atlas Local also holds community outreach events. The space currently holds a free public event called Zero Day on the first Friday of every month from 9 a.m. to noon. Members and residents can speak for up to 20 minutes.

“It’s a time for people to practice thinking,” Smith said. “They can share ideas, opinions, and whatever else they feel like discussing. We’ve literally had people present on everything from fly fishing to a chapter from ‘Jurassic Park.’”

Atlas Local might also revive CoWork’s old technology conference and networking event, Grok. “The idea was to start conversations and find like-minded people who can solve industry-specific problems,” said Merritt, who helped manage the event under The Iron Yard from 2012 to 2014.

“We want to promote the city, and Grok is a great way to do it.”

The event garnered nearly 500 attendees from around the Upstate in 2014, according to Merritt. Any future events will likely feature keynote speakers, small round-table discussions, and more.

What’s next?

The future of Atlas Local isn’t as certain.

Merritt has dedicated his time to the new space for now but plans on returning to the design and development world soon. And Cook currently works at Fathom & Draft, which Smith started in 2015.

“Keeping true to our community is our core ethos, our highest priority. We’ll expand where our DNA can be carried on,” Merritt said. “Many businesses fail because they don’t know who they are. We don’t take the next steps lightly.”

Several people have offered to start Atlas Local chapters across the country, but Merritt has turned them down. “Most of the places we would consider expanding to are pals of ours that wish they could be part of our community but are in other states,” Merritt said. “Expansion is a lot more about the heroes that can champion a new swell of great people.”

“The space grows around them, not the other way around,” he added.

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