He was 12 years old when he began working in the mill. The kid swept floors, cleaning up among the 150 people who worked in the sprawling red-brick colossus just off of Pendleton Street. When he was 20, on a dusty baseball field behind the factory, he pitched a four-hitter against Wake Forest. Beat ’em, too, 4–0.
Three’s Company // (left to right) Matt Cook, Matthew Smith, and Chris Merritt, the enterprising owners behind Atlas Local.
It was so, Joe—back when Joseph Jefferson Jackson spent his teen years at Brandon Mill. Today, “Shoeless” Joe wouldn’t recognize the place, now alive with a hyper-creative geekhive that buzzes with brainiacs who also swing for the fences. They work in the heart of the mill, in a place called Atlas Local.
Open Mind // On the first Friday each month, AtLo hosts Zero Day, which allows its members to speak on any topic of their choice for 10 minutes.
Atlas Local, nicknamed AtLo, kind of takes its name from an Ancient Greek word for “enduring,” or “upholding.” Founded in 2007 as CoWork Greenville, Atlas Local rebranded when the three owners decided that “co-work space” had become shopworn. “I love the hell out of this place,” says managing partner Chris Merritt, 30. “It saved me, in essence. I’d probably be sitting at a desk, in a suit and tie, or in a mental ward.”
In a sense, AtLo is a mental ward, the cranial commune welcoming and infectious. “You should hear this word community a lot because we’re not desk-leasing people—we’re community builders,” says Matt Cook, 30. He’s a partner among the three Millennial-bearded entreprenerds who moved into the 5,000 square-foot-space in the center of the half-million-square-foot mill.
On a balmy winter morning, Merritt, Cook, and founding partner Matthew Smith relax on comfy couches and chairs in the middle of the room while their clients/tenants hover over keyboards. Most of the twenty-somethings wear headphones as they stand or sit at long, simple wooden desks.
Projects they create go to Walmart, Playstation, all over the Internet, and to nonprofits all over the world. Working for one group, about to leave for the Philippines, an employee puts together an animated-film storyboard. Over there, somebody’s developing a grocery app. In another corner, a couple of guys are tinkering with a solar-power startup. “Almost no one here has just one thing,” says Smith, who also runs Fathom & Draft, a design firm, and Really Good Emails, which does just that.
Same’s true for Dodd Caldwell. The 38-year-old novice beekeeper, chewing-gum aficionado, and startup junkie runs three companies. He’s president of Rice Bowls, which began in Spartanburg in 1980. The nonprofit helps feed children in more than 50 orphanages in eight countries. He also runs MoonClerk, an online platform for small businesses to accept recurring payments. And he owns Loft Resumes, which turns curricula vitae into works of art.
Rice Bowls and MoonClerk employ 11 people, including Caldwell. That’s enough to justify their own office, but Caldwell’s been leasing from Atlas Local since its CoWork days. “We started off small,” he says, “and what I really saw was that, at a place like this, you get a lot of the advantages of working in a larger office without some of the disadvantages: some of the politics and all of that—but you still get that diversity, maybe even more of a diversity of ideas and opinions and feedback. It’s a little less myopic working here.”
Caldwell says he’s seen AtLo’s population morph from mostly gig-economy types to more multi-employee firms that don’t want to lease or buy their own standalone offices. The average age here was around 29, with typical leasing times lasting just over two years, Cook says. “Now we might be a year or two older on average, and the tenure might be lower because we’re adding new people.”
At 38 and bending the age curve, Matthew Smith, a Colorado native, is the poster adult. In 2013, he co-founded The Iron Yard, the now-venerable tech incubator/accelerator. While Iron Yard grew to 16 campuses, CoWork simply moved to larger rooms, tapping an expansive market of people willing to lease communal workspace. Depending on how much of it members use and how often they use it, rates range from $100 to $500 a month.
Brain Train // Area companies at AtLo, like Rice Bowls and Fathom & Draft, care for clients across the world.
About that: Listen in on the banter between the three—Smith and Cook, who sips a mug of excellent coffee that tenants get gratis, and Merritt, who flits in and out of the conversation.
Smith: “Working from home is a pain in the ass. For a lot of people, it’s really rough to work around all these other responsibilities, like laundry or a honey-do list or whatever.”
Cook: “The stress of, I can’t deal with my work being in my home. I personally can’t handle the fact that that desk is where I do my work.”
Merritt: “Don’t shit where you eat.”
Smith: “It’s not a work-life balance, it’s just life, it’s creating the right kinds of constraints in life so when you come here you can also leave your labor-brain here. And you can go home and feel like you can relax. When your work can travel with you really easily, then it becomes important to find a place.”
A shared place for sharing: not the kvetching kind of therapy, but the interactivity that drives innovating businesses and the collaborationists who work for them and run them. Take Zero Day, for instance. AtLo plays host to the group-share experience the first Friday of every month. “If you’ve ever gone on any long hikes, Zero Day is a concept where you stop the crazy trekking and just enjoy the day and maybe you go take a shower, you just pause,” Smith says. “If you’re hiking the Pacific Crest trail, pause, just see what’s around you. We thought, oh, man, we need that in business because you’re constantly trekking, you’re constantly moving forward. You’re constantly pushing the bottom line, where are we going next?”
“At a place like this, you get a lot of the Advantages of working in a larger office without some of the disadvantages.”
That’s where a bit of, let’s call it, cultural regulation comes in. During Zero Day, participants get 10 minutes to speak their minds. “And we’re strict about it,” Cook says. “The sharing is something closer to, ‘This is what I’m working on,’ ‘Here’s something I’ve learned recently,’ ‘Check out this cool video game,’ ‘Hey, do you want to learn how I do beehive maintenance,’ or ‘I don’t know how to get rid of this terrible client.’”
Collective Conscious // Atlas Local’s space is broken into long wooden desks, attractive conversation areas, and hip office and conference rooms. Its 40 members and counting run the gamut from web developers and illustrators to nonprofit creators, marketing gurus, and more. Its culture is one of openness, camaraderie, and fun, fostering a rich experience of community.
In other words, just as any company develops an ethos, Atlas Local does, too. “This is more similar to a business where you hire employees who are a good culture fit than it is a space that you just let people come and use,” Smith says. Adds Cook: “It is not okay to come in here and just, ad nauseum, tap people on the shoulder and be like, ‘Hey, what’cha doin’? What’cha workin’ on? Got anything I can work on?’ That’s the wrong type of person for our space. There’s a culture of good people and sharing with each other. If you are coming in here, and you are just overflowing with things to share because you’re passionate about what you’re doing, and you nerd out about this kind of thing and that kind of thing, and you’re running three businesses—that’s the kind of person you want.”
Those sentiments actually seem to resurrect the same sense of community that began in 1900, when 66 cottages were built around Brandon Mill to house its first wave of workers, with lanky Joe Jackson earning less than $3 a week. Until it closed in the mid-1970s, the factory churned out duck cloth and, during World War II, medical gauze and twill uniforms. In 2013, Pace Burt, bought the property for $1.9 million, and his Albany, Georgia–based Burt Development Co. spent $45 million to renovate it. In addition to the main mill, the nine acres also include an engine house, boiler house, machine shop, cloth building, cotton house, fan house, and pump house. Now, of the 182 apartments at the West Village Lofts at Brandon Mill, 120 are leased.
Atlas Local sits on the ground floor of the four-story building, one of three or four other businesses in the development; AtLo’s across-the-breezeway neighbor is the Greenville Center for Creative Arts.
What’s the Big Idea // Value-added amenities at AtLo include access to a game room, gym, bike parking, free beverages, and, yes, a sauna.
“What I like about those guys,” Burt says of AtLo’s trio, “is they were able to hit the ground running. We spent four months trying to put a co-work group together like that, but we just weren’t getting any traction, and then these guys popped up. It was perfect timing. We brought them over, and they loved the idea of being interactive with the building.” By that he means that AtLo’s lessees, whose number likely will rise fast from its current 40 to 70 or so, enjoy access to the main floor’s incredibly hip common space.
“There’s something about taking an old space and re-imagining it for a new purpose that makes you feel the energy of creativity, preserving the past and creating the future. even a space can convey that.”
—Tiffany Deluccia, The Unstuck Group
“Our value-added amenities, no one can touch them,” Merritt says, smiling over what could sound like braggadocio. “You show me a co-working space that has this game room and a gym and a sauna and bike parking and free beer and these people. That’s right, print that, we got a sauna! Ain’t nobody got a sauna!”
Tiffany Deluccia feels the warmth the minute she pulls off Draper Street into the mill’s freshly asphalted and landscaped parking lot. “I love the connection this place has to the history of the city, that we’ve taken something old and are infusing it with new life,” she says. “We see it play out a history of its own. I enjoy coming down here, every day that I come, and feeling like you’re connected with the history of the city but also current with what’s happening right now.” Deluccia, 29, director of marketing and communications for The Unstuck Group, which consults with some 200 churches nationwide, works just as the entirety of the company’s staff does: remotely. Like most of the others here, she’s bright, ambitious, service-oriented, and young. She was another member who moved from CoWork Greenville’s West Washington Street site to AtLo’s fourth incarnation in the artsy-nascent Village of West Greenville.
Think Tank // Currently leasing to 40 “locals,” AtLo expects its co-work community to increase in the coming months.
“I worked for about a year from home, exclusively, and then just eventually I was going to coffee shops so often to get out of the house. You can only go to so many coffee shops. I started looking for other options,” she says. She didn’t have to look far—she and Merritt attended Wren High School together in Piedmont. Again, a connection to people. And to the future and to Greenville’s past. here’s something about taking an old space and re-imagining it for a new purpose that makes you feel the energy of creativity, preserving the past and creating the future, and even a space can convey that,” she says. Says Smith, who may consider expanding his business model to other funky, sun-bright, wide-open spaces around town rather than moving yet again: “It’s the intangibles that make this place invaluable. It’s the ability to be around all these other people, asking interesting questions, bringing up interesting issues, creating an environment for just fun and awesome work.”
Atlas Local, 25 Draper Street, Greenville. atlaslocal.com