Sons of Athens
This is the first part of a two-part interview series between Matt & Shayna Hobbs (Co-founders of Sons of Sawdust) and Johnelle Simpson (Coordinator of Work Based Learning & Great Promise Partnership for Clarke County Schools). In this interview, Matt and Shayna from talk about why they chose to build their company in Athens and share their insight about how the community helps them succeed.
Interview by Johnelle Simpson
Johnelle: Where are you from and where did you grow up?
Matt: I'm from Tifton, Georgia. And I also grew up in Tifton, too. It's about three hours south of here, right in the middle of the state.
Shayna: I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. And that's where we met and got married.
Johnelle: When did you come to Athens and what brought you here?
Matt: We moved to Athens probably about five years ago, right?
Shayna: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matt: All of our family migrated here and we were in a really hard spot.
Shayna: We came here to visit a couple times and just fell in love with it and there was just something about Athens that was calling us. I think it was the creative spirit here—community. We felt something that we hadn't felt before and we've lived in a lot of different cities and there was something about Athens that was speaking to us.
Matt: Yeah, it definitely felt like we were drawn here for a reason. And that was before we even started the business.
Johnelle: Is that creative spirit what kept you here, or why'd you stay?
Matt: Yeah, I think so in a lot of ways. The people were so welcoming in the city and there's a lot of really cool stuff going on. I think that's part of what drew us here and kept us here as well. And we didn't realize until we were here for probably a year or two, just all the people who have found success in Athens, whether it's music or art. And it was really inspiring just to see some of the big names, people that have come out of Athens.
Shayna: I think what kept us here was community. We had been looking for that for a long time and we found some of our people here that just embraced us. Then when we stumbled into our business, same sort of thing, just a community came around and supported us and believed in us and that's why we put our roots down and this is home for us now.
Johnelle: It's been a great pleasure to check out your space here. What has been the biggest influence on your work?
Matt: I think for me the biggest influence on my work is just the inspiration I've gotten from my grandfather. He passed away about eight years ago. He had Alzheimer's. When we were kids he just believed in us and he wasn't afraid to give us a hammer or a power tool and tell us to make something. He's the inspiration behind who we are and what we do and even to this day, continues to inspire us. I know that if he was here, he would be really proud of what we're doing and he'd be having a blast hanging out with us in the wood shop, building stuff. He's my biggest inspiration, by far.
Shayna: I'd say for me, the biggest inspiration is to provide hope for other people. I'm inspired by others that are looking to us and we're really honest about our story and where we came from and the hardships that we walked through, which we were near homeless and on food stamps and in a really dark place before we started our business. When we're honest about that and we share our story with people, they're so inspired—people from all over the world. That in turn, I think, inspires us to keep going. We want to keep sharing our story and encouraging others to find their paths.
Johnelle: So is your influence today the same as your influence when you first started your work and has Athens played a big role in that change?
Matt: I think the influence for me tends to be the same as far as just getting inspiration from my grandfather. The bigger part of that is just he was a man who gave himself freely. He poured into other people. He would pick up guys who were in the halfway house, he would take them around and do community service projects. And that's a big part of our story and who we are and even the people that we bring onboard is people who are going through a hard time. We bring them on to give them a chance.
That's what Athens was for us when we started our business. It was people who were willing to give us a chance, find out who we are. To this day I tell people all the time, we wouldn't be where we are without Athens and without this community. They have supported us, they have loved us, they have purchased our products and Athens is like a big hug. You show up here and that was our experience anyway, was just like the community really embraced us and loved us. They saw the potential in who we were even when we didn't. They loved us through the early stages of our business. We're just really excited to be part of this community and to even give back.
Shayna: Yeah, I was actually going to say a similar thing about giving back. I think that's where the focus has continued to change over the years and Athens is impacting us. We're seeing the needs and now that we have a little bit of a platform, we want to give back, we want to help turn this area of town around by having our showroom here in Hawthorne. We hope that five years from now, this is a great place for other businesses to come in. We want to encourage other entrepreneurs and business owners locally. Definitely Athens has played a big part inspiring us.
Johnelle: Great. Well I heard you touch on it a little bit when you talked about Athens being one big, great hug. What do you think from your perspective are some of Athens greatest assets?
Matt: What do you think?
Shayna: I think there is this warmth here, like you said. I think that, that's a great way to describe it. But there's other cities that we've lived in that we've felt really, I don't know, not-
Shayna: ... isolated, maybe, or perhaps there's a lot of competition and people get clicky, almost like high school or something. Athens has its pockets of different types of neighborhoods and different people, but when it all boils down to it, we all are champions for Athens. And I think that's one of the biggest assets, is that everybody in this town just loves it and they believe in it. That's where we can all come together. Even though everybody may not be the same or come from the same background, but I think there's a big heart for Athens.
Johnelle: I've got to clear my throat. You're choking me up over here.
Matt: It's the questions you're asking.
Johnelle: Thank you. I might change my career. You mentioned that before you strategically placed your ... what's the word I'm looking for? Showroom. You mentioned it before, that you strategically placed your showroom here on Hawthorne Avenue. What would you like to see Athens be in the next 20 years?
Matt: That's a good question.
Shayna: I feel like I see some other cities that I think Athens could be that, but I also know that Athens is special and unique, so it's not going to be like anything else. It's going to be completely unique. But I do hope and believe that it just can continue to grow, that more people can come in and start small businesses. There'd be more diversity, there'd also be more coming together as a community. But I see, yeah, so many great businesses. More excellent, small business like locally owned restaurants and more venues and more places to shop and support people locally is what I see.
Johnelle: Tell me about your specific Athens community. What's great about it and what does the community need most?
Matt: I think for me just, there are so many creative people in our community, our friends, and they spur us on to do greater things and inspire us to do greater things and they're people who are knife makers, who are photographers, woodworkers. There are so many amazing people here with such great talent and a lot of them are close friends. So it's great—you go out to dinner and you can talk about the struggles of business, but also the ways that you're doing things right.
For me I think the community, it's the other conversation you know, not only as a creative person, but also as an entrepreneur and a business owner. We're having these conversations with other people that are like-minded and be able to glean information from them. It's amazing. It's really helped us. People are not shut down. Other business owners or creative people, they're not shut down, they're not cocky, they're not trying to keep their secrets to themselves. They're open to share how they were successful. And I think that's helped us a lot along the way.
Shayna: Yeah, I totally agree. That's what our community revolves around is a lot of our close friends are other makers, musicians, artisans or entrepreneurs. It's exciting because you feed off that energy. You have the same –not only feel free to share your struggles and say, "Hey, I'm really struggling with this, this month." Or, "How did you guys hire people." Or, "How did you guys move forward in this?" You learn from each other and we're –Matt and I have always been that way, we always want to gain more knowledge and learn more. So it's great to have a community that lets us do that, but we can also share and pour into them.
It's also really family based. We have two young kids and I feel like Athens is a great place to have a family. A lot of our friends are family people and love their children and we just come together and have meals and hang out and it's wonderful.
”There are so many creative people in our community that spur us on to do greater things. They're people who are knife makers, who are photographers, woodworkers. There are so many amazing people here with such great talent and a lot of them are close friends.“
Johnelle: What are some of your greatest needs as a business to stay here in Athens and to grow?
Matt: I think the continued support of the community. Purchasing our products. And that's the thing, there's a choice for people to either spend money locally or to go outside a community and go to Atlanta and spend your money out there or even beyond Atlanta, online. I think just the continued support of the community and people that are willing to walk through that door and purchase our products. That's what keeps us in business.
And so far, we have felt that support, but the minute that people stop choosing to purchase our products and go somewhere else, then that's when we're in trouble. So I think that's the biggest thing is just having people continue to see our vision for our business, continue to support it and allow us to continue to grow. The more we grow, the more we'll be able to impact this community.
This storefront where we're sitting right now, this is an opportunity zone. This is not a place where most people would open up their business. And we're trying to make a statement by being here and showing we believe in this area and we want to bring it up. But if people don't come in and support us then we have to shut it down. So it's really important the community get behind us and other younger businesses that are opening up and starting up. Every penny counts. And when they're going to purchase your products, it keeps you in business.
Johnelle: As you grow and as you continue to expand and make an impact on the community, how does this community continue to inspire you?
Shayna: I think just their enthusiasm for handcrafted things or for history or family stories. Athens is just the kind of town that just embraces all of that. Even its quirky, funny ways. It's just, I don't know, there's a laid-back feel here. There's not a lot of pressure ... you know in a bigger city, you sometimes feel this intense, go, go, go. Athens is really laid-back and I think that just inspires us to remember to, "Yes, we have to work, but also to live life to the fullest."
Johnelle: All right. Awesome. This is the fun and exciting part of the interview. You get a chance to tell us what you're currently working on that excites you the most.
Matt: We love ... back it up. One of the things that we are most excited about working on right now is been about a year in the works, is a deconstruction project actually over in Augusta, Georgia. It's a house that was built in the 1790s. It's the oldest house in the county and what we do is we deconstruct old buildings and we reclaim the wood and we build furniture out of it. And this particular house, been condemned by the city, it's the city is about to take the landowner to court because the house hasn't been torn down. And so he reached out to us and was like, "Look, I really need your help. I don't want this house to be demolished and all the wood lost forever or tossed into the landfill. Would you guys be willing to come over and help save this structure?"
And so we just got the go-ahead last week to go over and deconstruct the house. And it's the oldest house that we've ever deconstructed. And it's pretty crazy to think about this house pre-dates the Civil War. 1790s, that's a long, long time ago. And we're going to get to go in there and save the wood. Bring it back and build really awesome furniture out of it, so pretty awesome. Really excited about that.