Getting to Know ... Michael Tavani

Staff Photo: Christine Troyke Michael Tavani has helped grow the family's soccer camps since they began in Duluth a decade ago. He's also the co-founder of Scoutmob.

Staff Photo: Christine Troyke Michael Tavani has helped grow the family's soccer camps since they began in Duluth a decade ago. He's also the co-founder of Scoutmob.

Michael Tavani, the younger brother of Duluth boys soccer coach Gregg Tavani, has been helping bring the family's summer soccer camps to Gwinnett for the last decade. Outside of the annual camps, Tavani is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of Scoutmob. In this installment of "Getting to Know ... ," Tavani talks with staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including being the youngest of three boys, using law school to figure out he was going to become an entrepreneur and founding a successful company.

CT: You grew up in Atlanta?

MT: In Dunwoody. Actually my parents live in the same house. We moved down here in '79 and they still live in Dunwoody. But then we've been doing these camps in Gwinnett since 2002. Gregg's at Duluth, so that is our connection with Gwinnett.

CT: What's it like growing up in the Tavani house?

MT: (Chuckling) Well, I was the youngest of three boys.

CT: You were the only one born here, right?

MT: My parents moved to Atlanta in the summer of '79 and I was born that September.

Yeah, we have a pretty close family and then being the youngest of three boys, we all played sports. My dad coached all of us. I think he coached me the least. I joke that I was the best player because he coached me the least. But yeah, he decreasingly coached each one of us.

CT: I assume you started playing soccer young. How long did you play? Do you still?

MT: I started when I was 4. And I think my dad coached me the first year and then some other coach said, 'Hey, he's a good player and we're starting a team.' So I kind of left my dad and went to this other team. I played all the way through high school and competitive club soccer.

It's changed a lot, the landscape of youth sports. I just remember that my first couple of coaches were dads. They were the dad who knew the most about soccer -- or maybe even just the most about sports in general. Now you have someone like Gregg, who has been coaching for 15 years and has the highest license, coaching the equivalent of what we used to have a dad for.

So, yeah, I played all the way through high school. I actually followed Gregg. He graduated and I was there the next year. We never overlapped. So there was a Tavani on the Dunwoody soccer team for eight straight years. And my parents were the presidents of the booster club.

Actually, we were just talking about how we haven't seen the old coach who we were close with. So we were going to try to connect with him and see how he's doing.

CT: There's really no question you would play soccer, right?

MT: Believe it or not, our oldest brother, he played when he was younger, but for whatever reason he ended up veering off. He wrestled in high school. I don't know how it got to that point, but, yes, there was no question that I would play. Plus, being short, you're limited with how many sports you could actually be good at. Soccer was one of them.

CT: Where there other sports you played though?

MT:Yeah. It's funny, I played basketball and I was pretty good until I stopped growing. I remember playing the the church leagues and being really pretty good as a point guard. I think I tried out for the eighth-grade team -- and we had a pretty good basketball program back then at Dunwoody. They won state actually when I was there.

I remember I tried out and I got to the last cut and the coach said if anyone drops out, we'll bring you on. Then I realized, I'm not growing anymore. That was my window for basketball and it was all soccer from that point. But the great thing about soccer, it's a really athletic sport. You even see it in other sports, professional athletes that grew up playing soccer, like Tony Parker, Steve Nash.

So I think we were all pretty good athletes and soccer keeps you in shape.

CT: Was it a year-round sport for you?

MT: It was. I don't think it was like now where it's truly like 10 months of the year. And during the high school days, there was no such thing as club soccer in the spring. So when high school soccer was going on, you didn't really play club.

Now they're getting to the point where the best high school players are playing really high level club soccer instead. The thing is, it's unfortunate because high school really is, if you don't play college, it's the best camaraderie that you'll ever get. You have a stadium at your school. You have your fellow students coming to watch you. You have big crowds. You don't get that at a club game.

CT: So where did you go to college?

MT: I went to the University of Georgia. I have no regrets on the decision at all. I loved Georgia and the HOPE scholarship was great. But I remember when I was making the decision, the only other school I applied to was College of Charleston. There wasn't even a soccer team at Georgia and at College of Charleston, they had a well-established program. Their coach was Ralph Lundy and we went to camps of his growing up. He was the model of soccer camps actually when we were growing up. He had an away camp at West Georgia and one in North Carolina. We used to go every year.There was a possibility of maybe I would go there (to Charleston) and walk on. It's tough to get a college scholarship. I could have tried to play there and I decided to go to Georgia. That was the end of my competitive soccer career and it was tough to swallow.

CT: What did you get your degree in?

MT: Journalism. Growing up, I was kind of the creative one in our family. I always used to do videos. They would be short, 'Saturday Night Live' type skits we would do. So in college, I figured I'd get into film. Toward the end of college, I started to realize the only way to get into film, and this is pre-YouTube. Now things are a little more democratized. But t the time, you either had to move to L.A. Or New York. You weren't going to get into film here.

This was probably the entrepreneur in me that I didn't want to be getting coffee for people for 10 years and say you're in film, but really you're just getting coffee. And then you're finally in film after 10 years.

So I decided not to pursue it. Plus, I had family in Atlanta and I wanted to come back. I ended up just getting a job. I was in the entrepreneurial closet for the first 25 years of my life. I didn't know that was an option (as a career). Looking back on it, if I was 22, that's the best time in the world to start something because you don't have a family or lots of bills. It's not weird to be living on someone's couch or at home with your parents. It gets harder the older you get.

CT: What job did you have after college?

MT: Well, the first job I had was at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. For two or three months. I didn't like it at all. It was this management trainee program. The first Friday of the first full week that I worked, I went out to dinner with my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife. I remember saying, "If this is what work is going to be like, I don't like it. This is not fun."

So I pretty quickly ended up getting a job at the Atlanta Hawks. I thought I had hit my dream job. I was in the marketing department. I loved sports. Working for the Hawks.

That probably was an eye-opening job, realizing that sports is a tough industry to be in, especially pro sports. Because you only have a couple of teams per market and the senior people at each of those teams, they've been there for a long time and they don't move. They don't move because if you get to that role and you're the head of marketing at the Hawks, there's not many other jobs higher. You can go to another team in another city, but you have to uproot everything.

I ended up getting a job at WUSA, the women's professional soccer league. I liked that one a lot more. Probably three months into the job, and I was the low man on the totem pole, I remember one morning getting an email saying everyone get on a call later this afternoon. The whole league. I get on the call and they announce the league is going out of business, effective today.

I was an intern and I asked a guy who was just the role right above me, "What are you doing?" He said, "I don't know." I realized, if he doesn't know what he's doing and I'm lower than him ... long story short, I decided to go back to school and decided law school was the best option.

I didn't necessarily want to be an attorney, but I figured it would be good to go back and get another degree. To me, the biggest value of law school is it gave me three years. I had worked for a couple of years, had some experience and then was able to kind of take three years off and clear my head and say, "What do I want to do?"

When I went to law school, a lot of people, the goal was to be top 10 percent in the class and all of that. My goal was to figure out what I wanted to do.

I would come home from class and just spend all day online. This was 2005 and I started a blog. I was really exploring what am I passionate about. That's when I fostered this, "I think I'm an entrepreneur. And I think after law school, I'm going to do this." I think a lot of people thought I was crazy.

CT: Did you get your law degree?

MT: I did. I finished law school in 2007 and I got married that summer. We were on our honeymoon and I brought a bunch of magazines that I was planning on relaxing with. A lot of business magazines, start-up magazines. I remember I'm reading them and I leaned over and said, "I think I'm going to start a company when we get back to Atlanta." She said, "You're crazy."

And I did. It was tough to tell people at first. That was the hardest part. I just gave this advice this past weekend to someone who thinks they want to start a company -- the hardest part is jumping in. The best analogy, I think, is jumping out of an airplane and you don't know how to work your parachute. You have to figure out how to work the thing on the way down. That's what it's like. Because you don't know what you're doing at first. As much as you think you know and you think you'll learn, you don't know what you're doing.

But had I never jumped in then, I don't think I ever would have kicked this whole thing off. The best idea I had at the time, which is the one I ran with, wasn't the million-dollar idea, but it was at least enough to get me excited about doing it.

The original idea, I lived in this apartment building where they had a flyer that the concierge would write each week. It was one page and it what was going on in Atlanta. A restaurant that opened or a sporting event going on.

It was on one sheet of paper. This is 2007 and I'm thinking there has to be a website that's this simple. I felt like in two minutes, I was more knowledgeable. I had a couple of ideas of what I might want to do that weekend.

I wanted to do a website that was so simple it was just one page. I started this site called Peachtree360 and it was just me out of my apartment doing everything. Probably six months in, I got an email from a guy who says I stumbled across your site, I really like it. I wasn't making any money doing it, but the idea was to continue to grow the user base. At some point and time, I would figure out a way to monetize it.

I never got to that point. This guy sends an email and is interested in the site. He wanted to meet for coffee.

We had a good conversation and he was starting a company that was kind of similar. He said, "Let's meet again."

I was thinking, "Where is this going to go?" I'm doing my thing, he's doing his. But after meeting a second and third time, we decided, we're both doing this alone, maybe we should do this together. Turns out that he was the co-founder of the next two companies I started, including Scoutmob.

It's weird how it worked out. It was a chance meeting.

It's really hard starting anything. You need kind of a wingman, someone to spread the tough times out. So it was good to have someone else.

Just the nature of having a co-founder made it feel a little more real. Now it's not just me in my apartment waking up and moving 10 feet to my computer for the day.

CT: What was the genesis of Scoutmob? Was it a progression?

MT: Yeah. In some ways I joke that I'm still on my first company because the first idea I was working on by myself kind of morphed into this thing we started together. The thing we started together was called this company called Skyblox. We were doing WiFi at local businesses. On paper, a lot of smart people thought it was a good idea.

We did it for about a year and a half and we poured everything into it. Basically what we were doing was when you go to a Starbucks and you get a splash page, we were selling that to local businesses. They could put whatever they wanted on the page, whether it was new hours or a new menu item or an event. And we were giving them the WiFi to go along with it.

That was 2008, iPhones had just come out, more and more people were using WiFi. So the idea is now everyone who is connecting to WiFi, whether it's on a phone or a laptop, they're going to be able to see what's going on at this business.

It was kind of a digital sandwich board.

We had moderate success in Atlanta. Neither of us are sales guys but we were both selling it in Atlanta, mostly intown.

Then we tried to launch to Denver and Chicago. We hired real salespeople in both markets that were much better than we were and they weren't able to sell it. We had to take a deep look into the mirror and say, "Do we have anything if they can't sell it?" Maybe it was just our passion as the founders that was allowing us to sell it.

I remember this clearly. We took a walk around the block and had this heart-to-heart conversation. We said we're running out of money -- it was all self-funded at that time -- and we have a couple of more months that we can do this. If it doesn't work, we're probably going to have to go get real jobs.

That fear of going to get real jobs, when your backs are against the wall, caused us to work even harder.

We had three months, this is the summer of 2009, so a year and a half of Skyblox and it had kind of plateaued. We had a lot of ideas of what was working with local businesses. The economy was not doing well and local businesses were struggling to attract new customers. People were eating home and not going out as much.

Probably the real turning point was there was a friend of a friend who really liked Skyblox. He was in Florida and he was interested in investing. He had never invested before and he wanted to get into start-ups but he didn't want to do them himself. So he thought maybe he'd invest in some guys who were. He kind of liked us and he liked Skyblox.

So he comes up from Florida and he has all these questions related to that old business. We said, "Hold on. Before you give us all your questions, we have a new idea." We pitched him the new idea, which ultimately because Scoutmob. It took him a couple of days to get comfortable with it and then he said, "Alright, I'll invest a little bit of money in you guys." That allowed us to kick off Scoutmob. That was the summer of 2009.

We spent six months working on the idea and we really focused on the brand. Then we launched January of 2010. And it kind of took off from Day 1.

We were finishing up the website the night before it was to go live and we were saying, "Is this going to work? Are people going to care?"

It was like 5 in the morning. We were going to send out our first email at 7, so like two hours. It was January, so it was cold. We're walking to our cars, leaving our web developer's house and I remember saying to Dave, who is the other co-founder of Scoutmob, "How many people are going to do this?" We took guesses. If 100 people did the first deal, then it would be a success.

And at the end of that first night, 1,000 people had claimed that first deal.

Because we had know what it was like to not have something, it was pretty obvious when we did.

CT: Who did you email initially?

MT: On the old business, Skyblox, one of the things we did toward the end -- it was probably one of the smarter things we did -- was when you connected to WiFi at local restaurants and bars, we had an email box. We started kind of a newsletter of five things to do in the city. This was my background coming in on things to do in Atlanta. I think our email list got up to 7,000. That's who we emailed it out to the first day.

No one knew our name so our thinking was the only way we're going to be able to break through with people is if we really delight our customers and you didn't have to pay for anything. All you had to do was show up with your phone and get the deal for free.

I think people thought there had to be a catch. That's why people liked it so much and were sharing it.

The afternoon we launched, I got an email from a friend of a friend of a friend saying you have to check out this site, Scoutmob. It was pretty neat that on the first day an email had already circulated back to me about it.

CT: Has the web design and the catchiness of the copy always been the same people?

MT: Our first two hires were a designer and a copy writer, that first summer when we raised that little bit of money. The reason why is we had an appreciation for design and just a neat brand we wanted to be a part of. We spent a lot of time thinking of the design and the copy. And they're still with us four years later.

That's been a big part of it. We probably get 10 emails a week from people that say I can't tell you how much I love your copy and your design.

CT: What was the first city you expanded to after Atlanta?

MT: New York launched that summer. It's a huge market and our thinking was, within the start-up world, Atlanta is not considered one of the biggest or best places for a start-up. If we could come out strong with our second city, saying we feel confident in what we're doing.

It was tough at first. New York is the type of city that's used to getting the best of everything. So in Atlanta, it was unique because Atlanta hadn't really seen anything like this.

But New Yorkers get every movie premier and stuff so they were kind of skeptical at first. It took a little bit of time to break through, but once we did, New York is probably our fastest growing city now.

CT: How many cities now?

MT: Thirteen. San Francisco was our third one then we tackled the rest. Our most recent was Nashville.

CT: What do you like to do with your free time -- if you have it?

MT: It seems like there's less and less. I just recently had a second son. So the combination of work and family, those are my two things. But if I have free time, I love to read business-related stuff. And I like to start projects, whether it's companies or little mini-businesses.

I started this video interview site called Ondoers. I've been interviewing people in Atlanta who have done interesting things. It's kind of a long-format interview. I really enjoy it. I actually like watching those interviews myself. I emailed this filmmaker in Atlanta and he said, "Yeah, let's do it." He had a really great film style. So I do that for fun. I have this little black book of ideas. I have way too many ideas for the time I have.

CT: And you still have some responsibilities to Tavani soccer, too.

MT: (smiling) Yes, that's a big responsibility. My role at Tavani soccer has evolved to all of the design, the website, the registration, the brochure, the T-shirts, the emails. It's actually played out nicely. My dad does all the back office stuff, the administrative and organizing the finances. I do all the technology side. Gregg does all of the soccer side. Gregg is obviously the face of Tavani soccer. And it works out well. Because Gregg can't build a website. He's a coach.

Most soccer camps don't have the most advanced technology or website. We kind of pride ourselves that we've always done the registration online. The first maybe two years, 90 percent of our registrations came via check in the mail. I remember the shift when we started seeing more online. Now we don't even allow you to write a check.

We still send out a brochure. As digital as we've gotten, it's nice to have a physical reminder when you get that in your mailbox.