The Gathering Spot, a private networking club for the Black community, launched its first location in Atlanta in 2016. The second location opened in downtown DC in March 2021. It’s built around physical locations but it’s not to be confused with a co-working space.
“I think one of the ways to misunderstand what we're doing quickly is to overemphasize the brick-and-mortar piece,'' Wilson says. “You need space in order to have events or make some experiences happen, but it has never been lost to us that the actual thing we're trying to solve for is how to connect people.”
The club had to pivot during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its Atlanta location closed temporarily and the DC spot’s opening was delayed. But founders Ryan Wilson and TK Peterson persisted. They moved the Gathering Spot’s events, conversations, and networking online, and used its platform to support and help Black people and businesses during the pandemic.
“It was an interesting moment to test this thesis that we’ve had for a while, that it really is about the community that’s here,” says Wilson. “We spent a lot of time and effort on the spaces, but even without them, folks understood that what makes The Gathering Spot special are the people that are here.”
Donovan X. Ramsey sat down recently with Ryan Wilson, one-half of the Gathering Spot. The pair discussed Black people’s deep need for community, how the Gathering Spot leveraged that need to create a successful business, and how community kept The Gathering Spot going, even when members couldn’t gather.
Ryan Wilson: I went to Georgetown for undergrad in Washington, DC. Stayed and went to law school at Georgetown. And the reason why I wanted to be a lawyer was always connected to this idea that I thought it was the best degree that I could have that could be used to help my community broadly. But I got to law school and I just didn't love it the way that I thought I was going to.
Then, between my first year and my second year of law school, I was working for a firm in Atlanta. It was the summer of the Trayvon Martin case. And so, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin's murder, I got an email from some friends that I'd been doing some community organizing work with in DC that said simply, "What are we going to do?" I responded back to them with the idea of starting TGS.
I didn't know what to call it at that point, but I knew that if we could create a community that also had some space tied to it, that we could use it to tackle that issue and really anything else that we wanted to do from there. And so from the minute that I wrote that paragraph, I knew that TGS needed to happen. I had 2 years left of law school and I started working on the business every night until I graduated.
Wilson: As a student organizer, I saw how important space was on Georgetown’s campus. We had access to space for us to organize and have meetings. We were able to bring in different thought leaders to campus on a regular basis. I could be around folks that were studying different things, that had different interests than me. Immediately after I finished undergrad and moved off campus, that entire universe that was really special to me just went away. All of a sudden, the work that I was inspired to do became a lot harder.
When I got that email, I had already been thinking about the fact that those were all pain points for me, but not having the space to respond or a space to go after such a difficult moment in our community, that was really the thing that kind of tipped me over to start to work on the idea.
Wilson: It was tough. Our first round was over 3 million dollars and we received 97 straight nos. It was deeply painful, it was our first time as entrepreneurs and I was 24 years old. We've gone on to raise other rounds, but that first round was super hard because it is difficult to get folks to believe in something that they haven't seen before.
But you really should be looking for those nos to a certain extent, because the nos actually become validation that you're working on something that the market hasn't seen. So to the extent that folks haven't seen it, that really is the gap that exists in the market. So we kept going, it was 97 times until the first person said yes.
Wilson: I almost didn't believe it, honestly. When you get no so many times—and I had yeses that ended up being nos—so when I heard the first yes, honestly I thought it was a slow no. You don't really fully know until the docs are signed, until the wire is sent.
But I was grateful at that moment that we were on a path to making the vision possible. Our business is capital-intensive up front. You need a lot of money to get in the game. And it was huge to have someone decide that they were going to go on this journey with us.
Wilson: You'll see creators, entrepreneurs, folks that work for some of the biggest companies in town, all calling the club home. Our test from the beginning is, how do you create an environment where a person that wears a suit and tie every day is next to a person that's wearing a T-shirt and jeans? And what happens when those two people meet and really have a context to know one another? So what you would experience is folks from all over working on really cool projects.
And then you would experience programs. We're programming 20-plus times a month, really speaking to who you are as a professional but also who you are socially. So in those programs—and again that's kind of going back to this reference point of college—we're bringing in thought leaders, we're doing different workshops and fireside chats, and we're also doing social events.
You could spend your entire day at TGS because, from complimentary breakfast in the morning all the way through programs that we're hosting in the evening, there's something to do and people that you'd like to meet. It feels like home.
Wilson: Yeah, so you completely get it. We're in the community business, genuinely. Our retention rate last year through COVID was 99 percent. I share that with you because if folks understood the business as a space-driven business, then when the space wasn't available because we closed for several months, their affiliation with it would have changed.
With respect to the other clubs and other concepts that you'll see out there, I'd argue that many are trying to solve a space question; it's more about access to whatever is built. I'm more interested in access to and facilitation of an experience that connects you to people. Because particularly for the issues that exist within our community, we've got to continue to create context to know one another better.
I grew up in the AME church and that is what the church provided to me growing up. It was a central hub that I could use to explore a lot of parts of who I am. And so that's also part of what we're doing at TGS.
Wilson: To understand the history of Black people in this country is to know that, at many points in our history, there were actual bans on Black folks gathering. So, we don’t take lightly the idea of bringing Black people together. In terms of how you do it, I think it’s about honesty and authenticity in how you communicate and engage, leaning into the actual needs of members. We also have a team that focuses exclusively on connecting members, on relationship-building between people within the community. We learn a lot through that process because we learn where folks' pain points are and are able to point them in the right direction to resources, or people that may be helpful to them.
Wilson: I maintained long before COVID hit that we were in the community business, but the pandemic put that notion to the test. We did a massive pivot to take a lot of our activities that would happen in person online. We created new platforms and resources for folks that frankly needed them. “We all we got" became a mantra.
So before government programs came out, we were focused on trying to build whatever resources we could into the business that would help members be able to weather the storm. Again, not knowing how long that storm would be. We built a fund for folks that needed help immediately to get through the challenges that COVID presented. We started producing more content, we went from 20 programs a month to, in some instances during the pandemic, 20 programs a week. We were doing a lot to connect folks virtually. We introduced daily calls that were focused on motivation and inspiration. Members of our community were sharing the best ways that they were getting through the experience.
I'm really proud of our team and really grateful to the membership for sticking through.
COVID couldn't change why we did the work that we do each day. It could possibly change how we did it or where we did it, but it wasn't going to change why. So we tried to keep that top of mind as we were adjusting to the new world that was presented with COVID. But the why didn't change. That was our North Star throughout the most rough parts of the pandemic.
Wilson: Yeah, I mean we're called The Gathering Spot. You're called The Gathering Spot and you can't gather. I've game-planned for a lot, you don't game-plan for a pandemic. And it was stressful because I wanted to make sure that we were the best resource that we could be for a lot of folks that were going through a ton of transition. Transition out of the office, transition to kids being at home, transition for your business losing revenue. There were just a lot of things going on and we were trying to fight those fires as a community at every turn.
Wilson: This has been a place of real growth for me as an entrepreneur. Transparently, at the beginning of this journey, I was not taking care of myself at all. I dug into long hours and it was rough for a number of years. We were undercapitalized; we had to kind of grow our way into having the business be sustainable. So I wouldn't have had a good answer for you at all several years ago. Now I'm married, and we welcomed our first child last year, so I'm a father.
I take very seriously now being in the best physical and mental shape that I can be in and make time to make sure that I am strong in those areas. So I can't go the way that I used to go in the beginning of this journey because I've got to prepare for a marathon and not a sprint. So that, to me, looks like prayer, it looks like being at the gym several days a week, and it looks like spending time with my family and being intentional about making sure that's built into my schedule as well.
Wilson: So I'm constantly reading different things. But I don't think that there's a magic bullet really anywhere, but there's going to be points of inspiration and things that I keep with me. Sometimes things that are just in songs.
A quote that I say to my team on a regular basis is a quote from a Little Brother song, one of my favorite hip-hop groups, and a song that no one really probably knows. It says, "Do you really want to win, or look good losing?" That quote changed my life because I apply it to really any instance where there's something that's about to be hard. I start to think, "Man, do I really want to win or look good losing? What does it take to win?" If we're going to win, that's a different test than looking like we won.
One other thing to this knowledge piece though, particularly as it relates to Black folks: Black folks are way too over-mentored and way too under-resourced. And I think that we've got to be careful about continuing this narrative that it is knowledge that explains the gap, when really it is resources to me that really explains the gap. Overemphasizing this notion that almost suggests that Black folks know less than everyone else, particularly in a space where no one knows what they're doing, is something that we've got to stop doing. It suggests to folks that there's a perfect day to start a company and that there's some sort of perfect amount of knowledge that, I'm sorry, that will never exist, and frankly does not exist in other communities.
Wilson: I'll tell you what my dad told me. My parents are entrepreneurs, and I grew up inside of their companies. We were at a moment where we thought we needed a million dollars and that number had grown to 2 million. It ended up being more than that. It ended up being over 3 million. But at this particular moment, it had just jumped to 2, and I started talking to my dad about maybe producing a smaller version of the club. He said to me, "Small ideas will keep you small." And then he went on to talk about how you have to fight for the best possible version of your idea. I still live by that quote. It encouraged me to always fight for the full vision or version of whatever it is that I wanted to accomplish.
Wilson: A new initiative we're calling Connected Cities, where we're going to build 5 clubs throughout the country. Atlanta, DC, LA are our first 3. We're going to add New York, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, and Charlotte. And so I'm going to keep building Gathering Spots throughout the country. The goal is to create a national network of private clubs that our membership base has access to and to continue to program through all of them.
I'm excited for what’s next. We've been open a little over 5 years; I think these next 5 are going to be a really exciting time in the business's history.
“COVID couldn't change why we did the work that we do each day. It could possibly change how we did it or where we did it, but it wasn't going to change why. So we tried to keep that top of mind as we were adjusting to the new world that was presented with COVID. But the why didn't change. That was our North Star throughout the most rough parts of the pandemic.”
Whether you’re in the midst of business turmoil or triumph, it can be easy to get distracted from your “why.” The best way to stay focused on your North Star is to write—and then regularly review—a vision statement for your business. Check out this resource to help craft your vision statement: How to Write a Vision Statement—Mailchimp
“We're in the community business, genuinely. Our retention rate last year through COVID was 99 percent. I share that with you because if folks understood the business as a space-driven business, then when the space wasn't available because we closed for several months, their affiliation with it would have changed.” Had Wilson and team been unclear about the core of their business, they would’ve missed an enormous opportunity to retain and grow their customer base during the pandemic. Ask yourself these questions to determine what business you’re really in:
· What problem do you solve for your customer?
· Why do customers come to your business instead of your competitors?
· What is your primary product? (Not your revenue stream or means of distributions)
“I think it’s about honesty and authenticity in how you communicate and engage, leaning into the actual needs of members. We also have a team that focuses exclusively on connecting members, on relationship-building between people within the community. We learn a lot through that process because we learn where folks' pain points are and are able to point them in the right direction to resources, or people that may be helpful to them.”
Understanding your customer’s pain points is crucial to the success of your business. and can drive your pivot. Gathering both qualitative and quantitative data from your users can inform brand extension opportunities and tell you if and when to pivot. Here is a helpful primer on conducting user research: Everything you need to know about conducting user research—Courier
"Do you really want to win, or look good losing?" That quote [from a Little Brother song] changed my life because I apply it to really any instance where there's something that's about to be hard. I start to think, "Man, do I really want to win or look good losing? What does it take to win?" If we're going to win, that's a different test than looking like we won.”
Refusing to budge on the original plan for your business may result in you “looking good losing.” But success in business is based on results, not the appearance of results. Don’t let ego or stubbornness prevent you from “winning” by embracing a pivot.
“My dad once said to me, ‘Small ideas will keep you small.’ And then he went on to talk about how you have to fight for the best possible version of your idea. I still live by that quote. It encouraged me to always fight for the full vision or version of whatever it is that I wanted to accomplish.”
Think of pivoting as an opportunity to get to the best possible version of your idea quicker. If your marketing efforts are in need of a pivot, check out this guide: How to Pivot Your Marketing Strategy When Priorities Shift—Mailchimp