Curious about Cofound Harlem’s Results? Here’s the Full Breakdown. by John-Henry Matos

Curious about Cofound Harlem’s Results? Here’s the Full Breakdown. by John-Henry Matos

From the very beginning, my partners and I at Cofound Harlem have been completely candid that “Cofound Harlem is an experiment.” We wondered what would happen if a group of 20-something-year-olds took on the bold and seemingly insurmountable task of helping to transform an entire neighborhood by starting tech businesses there. With some connections, little resources, and no experience – we began.

What was initially supposed to be a monthly meetup ended evolving into a ‘Startup Accelerator’ with a cool community twist. We offered: 1) $50k of In-Kind Resources (not cash) 2) Free Office Space for 9 Months and 3) World-Class Mentorship from some of the strongest NYC-based companies and organizations. Google, WeWork, the Mayor’s Office, etc. In exchange, we took zero equity but asked that the companies HQ’ed in Harlem for a period of 4 years after the nine month program. A bold move as far as accelerators are concerned.

The scrutiny came almost immediately after launching the program publicly. “How are they going to crack the diversity problem?” “What about the gentrification in Harlem” “What is the mass of the Sun?” — It almost felt like the public assumed, and demanded, that we had perfect answers to some of the toughest problems facing our community. And true to our experimental nature, we didn’t, and still don’t, have the answers.

But we did learn a number of neat things along the way, and part of any worthwhile experiment involves sharing its’ findings.

There’s Value in Specificity – Have you ever heard of the frog in boiling water analogy? If you place a frog in already-hot water he’ll jump right out to avoid the danger. However, if you place the frog in warm water and gradually bring the water to a boil, it’ll never know what’s coming until it’s too late.

It’s tempting to confuse activity for progress. For me, seeing entrepreneurs hack away at their desks while eating ramen feels like we’re winning – but are we really? Taking this critical approach, large in part encouraged by one of our very own portfolio founders, allowed us to be objective about results.

From what we observed, in order for accelerators to successfully attract top-tier talent (and they must in order to win) it helps to have extremely tailored value propositions. This usually comes in the way of an industry-specific or location-specific focus, which makes it much easier on the accelerator organization to offer a more laser-focused and effective mentorship roster for their portfolio companies to take full advantage of. A big lesson for us to keep in mind for next time.

Navigating Politics Has Been a Real Factor – Harlem is a unique place. The small village has become an international brand synonymous with ‘Black Mecca’ in the US and arguably the world. As a result, strong cultural roots and the local politics that come along with it are especially prevalent here. And rightfully so, as gentrification and displacement is occurring here at alarming rates. “Where are you coming from?” “What are your intentions?” and most importantly – “Who’s backing you?” have been very real political realities that we’ve had to maneuver. If Cofound Harlem were purely a private-sector play then this element could be mostly side-stepped. But because we are a Public-Private-Partnership, interfacing with local Real Estate developers, community leaders, and politicians – all paired with a recent change-of-tide in power due to the election season – and you have one complex picture to navigate. The best way to deal with it can be summed up in the words of the late Daniel Rose: “You can get anything done if you’re willing to give away the credit.”

Community Development Takes a Village – There is a tendency in organizations (and in young arrogant founders 🙂 ) to be exclusive and compete. In Economic Development type of work, this creates an unnecessary duplication of efforts and leaves many potential partnerships untapped. Aggregating resources across local players, despite our differences in approach, is a big value-add that we missed out on this time around. However, there are local organizations like Silicon Harlem that have executed on this phenomenally well – and that paves the way for more collaborations to happen in the future. Pick your niche, double down on it, and partner for the rest.

We’ve Done Well By The Numbers. All in all, out of four portfolio companies: Localtarian failed, mostly due to low commitment from the founders. Bandhub secured VC, is continuing to grow, and is now monetizing. Croissant is also securing their seed-round, are sustainable, and have expanded to four different cities. Revue.Me (now Creatr) has pivoted from Media-Tech into Ed-Tech and are re-releasing their new product under their new brand. In total, that’s a 75% hit-rate! With another 800+ members in our Uptown Tech Meetup and the formal support of great organizations here in the city, it seems we have something going for us at Cofound.

In the end, you can only connect the dots looking backwards. There were many things I wish we could have delivered on more strongly for the companies. We were scrappy, at times disorganized, and learning as we went, but that’s been the beauty of it all. It’s been tricky to implement the four year commitment in a meaningful way but it’s actually unclear if that is the most effective vehicle for what we set out to do in the first place. Upon starting, we conceived the best possible model that we could, given our level of awareness at that time. Now we are more experienced, better connected, and more strongly positioned to reconfigure our model and give this whole thing another whirl.

Thank you all for having been a direct and indirect part of it.

With Much Love and Encouragement,

John Henry

Chairman, Cofound Harlem


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