The Round House brings new opportunities for Opelika entrepreneurs
By Alison James
The Round House is making space for start-ups.
Entrepreneurial types now have a place to gather in downtown Opelika with the realization of Kyle Sandler’s concept to create a space where graphic designers, web designers, software engineers, writers and other creative types could hone their skills, benefit from mentoring and bring their genius to life.
Sandler, a Baltimore, Md., native, met his wife Allie through Twitter. After doing podcasts together, they began dating. They now have one daughter, and it was settling in a place with good schools for her that brought them here – near family and Allie’s hometown of Birmingham.
With a history working at Google and initiating droidguy.com, Sandler was looking for a good start-up community – which he defines as “like-minded individuals, other entrepreneurs … a community where the current and established businesses are supporting and mentoring the younger companies and leaders have emerged who had success in entrepreneurial activities in the past to help lift up other companies and help them succeed and be successful” – to launch his newest endeavor, nibletz.com. A lack of opportunity in Auburn led him to initiate the start-up in Memphis, Tenn., but a desire to cut down the commute and spend more time with his family eventually opened his eyes to the opportunities in Opelika.
“Opelika embraces creativity a little more,” Sandler said.
Sandler said he connected with local movers and shakers, including Richard Patton, John Marsh, Allison Kovak and Barbara Patton, and finally found the perfect spot for The Round House – in vacant space inside “The Station” on South Railroad Avenue. Sandler said the space is still undergoing some renovation, but it will retain an unfinished feel by design.
“When you’re building a start-up … you want this raw, growing feeling,” Sandler said.
The Round House, which Sandler describes as “like a library where you don’t have to be so quiet,” features “the Terrace” – an open co-working area with collaboration space; “the Lab” – a co-working room featuring white board space and individual study carrels for work space; a conference room; and other office space, among other utilities and amenities, not the least of which is the fiber 1 gigabit Internet, which Sandler said did not drive his decision to locate in Opelika but was certainly a nice bonus.
Innovators can reserve space at The Round House at several cost levels, like “community member” for $50 a month, which includes mentorship opportunities and use of the terrace and conference room; “blue line” for $75 a month, which also features set desk space and office hours every two weeks with an Entrepreneurial Engineer; and “green line” for $150 a month, which includes 24-hour access to the facility, weekly office hours and reserved desk space all month long.
Sandler said he was inspired about what he saw in Chattanooga – how they made use of the fiber Internet to create an incubator, an accelerator and start-up space. It made Opelika a natural fit.
The coworking aspect of the start-up space allows collaboration across fields which is essential to the idea behind The Round House, and the not-for-profit company is one that fits into a growing movement to provide a central hub for entrepreneurs and innovators across the nation – like Innovation Depot in Birmingham.
“We’re going to be that spot for Lee County,” Sandler said.
Sandler worked with Patton of the Chamber of Commerce to provide some special opportunities for eighth graders involved in the Young Entrepreneurs Academy at Opelika Middle School. Sandler and The Round House provided design services for, and supplied the printing cost of, business cards for each student in the program.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to have something like this in our community,” said Patton. “It’s nice to have people who are interested in young entrepreneurs.
Sandler also opened The Round House to the students to use over their winter break.
“The first week of winter break we did work,” Sandler said. “Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday was open session, and a lot of the kids came every day to actually work … But as an off-trade, we decided we would let them play video games on the 1-gigabit Internet in the second week.”
Sandler said that even though YEA! is officially over for this school year, he also plans to open working space up for the students one day a week after school for those who still want to move forward on their businesses.
Mentoring is also a huge part of what goes on at The Round House, and Sandler said the hard part is “having to tell somebody that their baby’s ugly.”
“Because sometimes it is,” Sandler said. “When you’re working on a project at home, your parents or wife or mom or dad is going to think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, no matter what.”
Another aspect of The Round House will be a three-month co-work-based accelerator: six companies across the country will move here and receive an investment and will work through growing their business and finalizing their product. The program will wrap up with a presentation to investors – and then, Sandler said, the hope is that additional incentive will keep the company in Opelika for about two more years.
“Hopefully they’ll be hiring more people and then they’ll decide Opelika is the place for them,” Sandler said.
With hundreds of people expressing interest in office space at The Round House, Sandler said he is already looking at expansion options. He said he expects it to get “really buzzing” over the next couple of months.
For more information visit www.roundhouseoa.com.