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Gathering community around culture
Naj Austin is shifting the narrative around what it means to gather.
If you dream of starting a company and want the inside scoop of what it’s like running the day-to-day of the business, you've come to the right place. In our series Startup Diaries, we ask new founders to take us to work for a day, and reflect on what they discovered during the process.
Today, we went to work with Naj Austin, the founder and CEO of Ethel's Club, a social and wellness club designed with people of color front of mind. Austin's mission is to shift the narrative around what it means to gather by creating an inclusive, identity-led community focused on emergent culture, literature, and art.
While coworking spaces have taken over the U.S. seemingly overnight, there is a noticeable lack of such spaces that were created with people of color in mind. Many of these clubs are noticeably homogenous and are not always accessible or inviting places for people of color to work, network, and create in.
This is precisely why Naj Austin decided to create Ethel's Club, a forthcoming Brooklyn-based private membership club and workspace for people of color. The Club already boasts high-profile investors such as Roxane Gay and, since getting started in January 2019, has a waitlist of over 4,000 people. Last week, when Austin opened up membership applications, demand flooded the site and crashed it within seven minutes—proof of how necessary a space like this is. Her response? Announce an in-person gathering to apply for membership in real life. The next day.
In an ever-gentrifying Brooklyn, carving out spaces for people of color—who represent a majority of the New York City—is not only necessary, it's overdue. Austin brought us along to work to give us a look at what a typical day for a young solo founder launching a social club in New York City can look like.
7:30 AM — Late July in Brooklyn is nice because the sun usually wakes me up before my alarm does. I wake up and brush my teeth while checking my emails. I’ve tried to not look at my phone first thing in the morning, but it’s a hard habit to break. After I shower, I do my cursory twitter scroll and get my news intake for the morning.
8:15 AM — I throw on joggers, an LCD Soundsystem tee and Nikes—my corporate outfit. I walk to our local coffee store with my boyfriend Patrick, and grab an iced coffee and walk to the train.
8:45 AM — The first location of Ethel's Club is only two stops from my apartment in East Williamsburg, but it’s hot, so onwards to the subway. As a quintessential millennial multi-tasker, I start answering emails on my walk over.
9:00 AM — I’m meeting our interior designer, Shannon, in the space and we’re finalizing some of the key items. Shannon arrives and we go over outstanding design choices, color palettes, fabric swatches, and re-measure a few areas. Our problem du jour is figuring out the best way to optimize outlets for our members and ways we can build delight throughout the customer experience. We came up with some pretty fun answers, so she gets to work on that, and I take a phone call with a potential hire.
11:00 AM — Our constructor arrives and we discuss a few custom pieces we are building for the space. After we chat, I leave them to measuring and go to grab lunch (Mediterranean wrap) before heading into my meetings in Manhattan.
12:00 PM — After lunch, I answer a few emails, help my web designer make some choices about iconography, and take a phone call with a photographer we’re working with to take photos for our new website. I confirm all information and details with our models and work on other production punch items like props and styling.
1:00 PM — I have a call with my real estate attorney and my broker—we’re signing our lease in a week! We finalize our asks for the landlord and talk about other permits and licenses we need to open this Fall.
1:30 PM — I head into Soho to meet with one of my angel investors to update them on our progress and to touch base mentally. As a solo founder, it’s been incredibly helpful to have investors who invest more than capital. Mine have been immensely helpful since day one and collaborating with them as we bring Ethel's Club to life has been exciting.
2:00 PM — I have two partnership calls, one for coffee and the other with a curator for the art that will be inside of the club. I usually take my calls while walking to my next meeting, but this one I’m able to take in a cafe.
3:30 PM — I head to another meeting with a potential investor and stop for my second latte of the day. This meeting takes about an hour and it goes really well! We leave on a positive note and I update my investor list with any notes from the meeting.
4:30 PM — I head back to Brooklyn and while waiting for the train, answering the emails I’ve missed from the past three hours.
5:00 PM — I prepare dinner (ricotta lemon pasta with a side salad) and update our investor presentation. The product and brand are always evolving, so I make sure to always incorporate and write down any new learnings.
6:00 PM — Patrick comes home, I put on a record (Stevie Wonder) and we sit down for dinner.
7:00 — Music and “light” working; we’re mostly in conversation. Patrick’s a strategist so I enjoy picking his brain about what we’re trying to accomplish at Ethel's Club, that day/week/month. He usually has great insight and he helps me refine some of the content for our new website.
9:30 PM — Netflix time. We’re on season seven of 'No Reservations.’ We usually watch an episode, add the city to our growing list of places we want to visit, and head to bed.
10:00 PM — Tonight I put on a face mask and read two articles I’ve had bookmarked for a few weeks. Then, bed!
What was it like keeping track of your day?
The past couple of days have been kind of nuts. It’s funny because I think I often forget how much I do in a day. At the end of the day I’m just tired and eat dinner and go to bed.
It’s interesting because when I opened my notes this morning I had to scroll like three times and was like, “oh, I did a lot.” Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like that. So that’s been really interesting to me. I’m curious to see if this is something I keep doing for a personal kind of thing.
How did this day compare to a normal or ideal day?
We were wrapping up a photo shoot so it was a little bit more involved in terms of being outside of my norm. Normally it’s more meetings, phone calls, or working on something product-wise. But this day we were on set with models while also doing everything else.
If you’re reading it, it looks a lot more all over the place: we’re at the shoot, then I had to go to the city for a meeting, come back, finish the shoot, talk to the photographers, pay the models, and all that. So it’s a bit of an outlier, but more or less par for the course.
How do you normally stay organized and on task?
I live and die by my calendar. I’ll block off times for specific things, like when I should be working with a designer to fix edits on the website, and what I should be doing at what time. I pretty much stay organized through that only because I’m the only person on the team right now and it’s easy to self-manage that way. It’s helpful in terms of understanding highs and lows or days that are going to be long or much lighter. I also have a very robust to-do list.
Is there anything you’d like to change or do differently?
Right now, not really. But when I send out my offer letters to the new employees coming to the team we’re going to use Airtable to manage everything. That’s the tool I’ve used before and it makes it easy to communicate about what everyone’s working on. But right now it’s just me, and the to-do list and my calendar are more than fine.
How does your life as a founder compare to what you thought it was going to be?
There’s a lot more having to shift your brain in terms of creative to administrative to like, talking to my lawyers and team, and then going to do something completely different where I’m not a founder, I’m just a person. My brain shifts throughout the day and I didn’t think it would be so much.
Like yesterday, I think literally wore fifteen hats. And I hate that expression but it does a good job of explaining it. I was a producer, a model-caster, administrator, there was a lot happening. So, that I wasn’t necessarily expecting, but it’s part of it. Some days you only wear one—those are my preferred days—and it kind of runs the gamut in between.
What are your current business goals and how did this day tie into that?
Our goal right now is to open the space by November 1. So everything we’re doing every day is to push to make that happen. Yesterday the shoot was for a new website that will actually allow members to apply and join Ethel's Club. So that was a huge deal because we’ve been in stealth mode, quietly building. We finally have to make it real.
There are a lot of small parts that go into that. Next week I have a couple of meetings and phone calls for the programming and talent that we’re going to have within the space. We’re making sure we can actually book those people and that they understand the series they’re going to be a part of. I’m also working with our interior designer and ordering furniture and looking at paint swatches. It’s all these small things that go into bringing a physical space to life but there’s also the digital component as well.
Do you have any words of advice for new founders?
Approach each day like a new day. Something I struggle with is waking up with all of the anxiety from the day before, but things move so quickly in a startup and it’s not really worth your time to hem and haw over what happened three days ago. It’s most likely not worth your time.
Let’s say yesterday the photoshoot went horribly wrong. Instead of stressing, I’d find new models and do a different thing. What happened yesterday can’t always have huge implications on the next day, or you’re not going to get anything done.