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20 People to Watch - Michael Tavani: The entrepreneur

Scoutmob’s co-founder wants to build the city’s next big startup incubator Downtown

Atlanta’s historic buildings have long fascinated Michael Tavani. Several years ago, the 34-year-old Scoutmob co-founder decided he wanted combine his curiosity with the city’s authentic structures and his interest in startups. That could happen this year as the Dunwoody native considers launching his next project: Atlanta’s next big tech incubator.

“I’ve always wanted to combine those things once the timing was right,” Tavani says. “It’s not just getting a space and building IKEA desks. There’s enough of that in Atlanta. The entrance to your building and your lobby is basically like your website’s landing page.”

Until recently, the timing was never right for Tavani’s startup space. The Brookhaven resident has focused instead on building the 45-person online deals company located on the Westside. But a golden opportunity presented itself last February when the Flatiron Building, the city’s oldest standing skyscraper, was placed on the market.

The potential of the 11-story, wedge-shaped structure adjacent to Woodruff Park intrigued the Scoutmob exec. He thought it’d be a perfect place for budding entrepreneurs to launch consumer-focused startups — think Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare — which he thinks the city lacks. Without those kinds of companies, Tavani says, Atlanta’s startup scene will never grow into what exists in Silicon Valley, New York, Austin, or Boston.

So he fired off a tweet: “The Flatiron Building is for sale for $3.8M. I want to put together a group to buy it. Who’s in?”

Within hours, the 140-character message generated a surprising amount of interest from his nearly 2,000 followers. They chatted about the possibility of crowdfunding the historic structure and filling it with emerging tech entrepreneurs. Tavani quickly realized the idea’s promise and has since pursued a deal while also searching for other locations throughout the historic neighborhood, and the city.

Tavani’s foray into what he calls the “wild west” of Downtown commercial real estate hasn’t been easy. Many families that own the city’s older buildings have been holding out for premium offers and covered property taxes by renting space cheap to reliable tenants or just letting the properties sit vacant. He says that mindset has prevented entrepreneurs who want to move Downtown from making reasonable deals.

“It doesn’t make sense to take all the risk to be in a part of town where you have to turn things around,” Tavani says. “If you pull everything off, it’ll be amazing. Otherwise it’ll be a failure.”

While an initial deal with the Flatiron Building’s owners has stalled, Tavani says it isn’t fully out of the picture yet. The project could now happen elsewhere in Downtown, Old Fourth Ward, or on the Westside. He’s keeping mum about the latter two sites.

Tavani is confident that his consumer startup space will open in 2014 — the startups are already selected and financiers lined up. Tavani’s final step is to find a home that fits his vision. If he does things right, his project could become a catalyst for the next great consumer startup.

“Why shouldn’t Atlanta be at that level?” he says. “All the resources are here, but we’re not that. We have all the tools to do that. I want to help create that.”