Kansas City has some great startups. One of them is Neighbor.ly a new civic crowdfunding platform. Nieghborly encourages people to get involved in the civic projects that they are passionate about. By crowdfunding for civic projects people can decide if they want to support a new neighborhood beautification project, or getting manholes replaced. Literally, that’s how the idea for Neighborly came about.
Jase Wilson, Neigbor.ly’s CEO and Co-founder was eating at one of his local favorite spots with the startups advisor Patrick Hosty. They got into talking about a recent bond referendum and a woman in a neighboring seat chimed in on the conversation. The conversation got heated and the issues at hand were sewer repairs and zoo animals. The woman was in favor of the sewer repairs but the same bond deal included new animals at the zoo. The woman wasn’t interested in the animals at the zoo. Hosty enjoys taking his daughter to the zoo and wasn’t concerned with the sewer repairs.
A light went off in Wilson’s head, an idea that would allow Hosty to support the zoo animals and the woman could support the sewer repairs.
The civic crowdfunding model is successful in Europe where people don’t quite think the way we do here in the U.S. The downside to civic crowdfunding in the US is those people who are sticklers about feeling the government and taxes should just handle all of these types of projects.
Earth to the people, that model hasn’t worked for years. The biggest capital projects get done while the smaller ones like the sewers and the zoo animals get tabled, time and time again, year after year. Civic crowdfunding allows citizens to get involved and take ownership of civic projects.
We got a chance to talk with Wilson about Neighor.ly in the interview below.
Neighbor.ly is the civic crowdfunding platform for US cities, neighborhoods and civic-minded institutions. It lets people, companies and organizations invest in places and civic projects they care about. It helps cities, neighborhoods, and civic-minded orgs raise capital for improvements without relying as much on debt, and saves money on capital that does has to be repaid. We’re starting to think of it as a tool to pony up down payments on awesome new civic infrastructure, like streetcars or bike shares.
Jase Wilson (CEO): 9 years as entrepreneur; 9 years of web design / dev; city planning degree from MIT; wrote thesis on using web-based technologies to increase citizen engagement; aspiring civic philanthropist and civic VC; Severe ADHD I’m sorry what were we talking about? http://linkedin.com/in/luminopolis
Briston Davidge (COO): 9 years as entrepreneur; 10 years web dev; gifted urban gardener; animal rights activist; we call him ‘the wolf’ like Winston from Pulp Fiction. He solves problems. http://www.linkedin.com/in/bristondavidgeChris Parrott (CFO): 10+ years complex financial modeling experience; CPA; local agriculture advocate; he builds commercial real estate tax modeling software as a hobby if that tells you anything. http://www.linkedin.com/pub/christopher-parrott/b/23/780Shaul Jolles (CBDO): serial entrepreneur; real estate developer; community organizer; he makes big things happen but has little patience for talk without action. http://www.linkedin.com/in/jollesPatrick Hosty (Advisor): 10+ year bond broker / dealer experience; 6 years experience with municipal bonds; Series 7, 24, 53, 79; active fundraiser and philanthropist; he has a preternatural sense for how public finance operates now, what works and what doesn’t, and is a huge inspiration for where Neighbor.ly is heading http://www.linkedin.com/in/host
Neighbor.lyis made with love and bbq sauce in the heart of downtown Kansas City (Missouri). Specifically, OfficePort coworking space in the heart of the Crossroads.
Thriving. We’ve been on the nose of a bottle rocket for a few years now, with a talented yet down-to-earth high tech talent pool, incredible but under-appreciated cultural & educational resources, and the support of amazing entrepreneurial foundations like Kauffman which has recently shifted attention back to its home town. Google Fiber just lit the fuse. It’s going berserk here.
When we started Neighbor.ly‘s parent company (Luminopolis, a civic software firm) 9 years ago there didn’t seemed to be much going on down in the Crossroads neighborhood where we’re based. Now we see some of the growing pains SoMa San Francisco faced in its hyper growth days, including transformers blowing in spectacular fashion just yesterday. The understandable outcome of packing 100 year old buildings up with hundreds of high tech firms in a few blocks radius. Just like when parking becomes an issue, a good problem for a city to have as a growing pain.
Neighbor.ly isn’t a new idea. It’s just a variation on themes already well established by Spacehive.com (civic crowdfunding in the UK) and Kickstarter. The inspiration came from a few key events earlier this year. Rob Goodspeed (http://goodspeedupdate.com) did a mini conference on using internet tools in city planning around the end of January. I was there doing a talk on open source online engagement tools. He did a talk on civic crowdsourcing, and showed examples of crowdfunding working for civic purposes in other parts of the world.
I came back to KC and attended a bizarre public meeting. We’re trying to build a streetcar, it’s our 10th (TENTH!) attempt in about as many years. But this time the Mayor’s office had a pretty brilliant plan to get it done. The method of paying for it involved creating a special taxing district a few blocks on either side of the proposed route. But this particular meeting was supposed to be about how they would change parking ordinances based on the line. The organizers were trying so hard to keep it on that topic. But the people in the room – the property and business owners in the proposed district – were NOT happy about the funding plan. The meeting kept circling back to how it’s a good idea but it wasn’t going to be paid for in such a way.
That night I was on Kickstarter and watched Double Fine break some record. They had gone way over a million for a video game that they wanted 400 grand for.
The next morning I had breakfast with Patrick to talk about something else entirely. We were at YJ’s, our neighborhood’s favorite snack bar and source of countless innovations. He was in the middle of explaining a recent bond deal. A neighbor overheard and began to talk to him about the problem with that particular bond deal. She didn’t vote for it because it lumped much needed downtown sewer repairs together with civic amenities she didn’t want to pay for, like new animals for the zoo. On the other hand he wasn’t very concerned with the sewers but loves taking his daughter to the zoo. It became sort of heated so I went about eating my egg sammy and it finally clicked – a way for people to vote with their dollars for the civic projects they care about. A way to turn local obligations into global opportunities. Something like Spacehive but geared towards American ideals and local governments. I made a quick slideshow, showed it to Shaul who got it in front of the Mayor’s office. They sat through about 5 of the 20 slides before saying “do it”. And Neighbor.ly was born.
Funding for civic projects. Especially projects that seek federal dollars, which increasingly use local match as a selection criteria. We help communities pony up down payments on new stuff, which sometimes can in turn help to pull in the dwindling federal dollars.
Besides bbq? A genuine interest in helping communities help themselves. Deep passion for cities, the Web, and above all the people who imagine, make, and inhabit both.
There are countless since I’m always fascinated by the examples, lessons, and life experiences shared by everyone I meet. A few strong examples come to mind:
Anne Spirn, my thesis advisor and mentor while at MIT. An exceptionally gifted author, professor and photographer by trade but really more of an all around oracle in practice. She opened up whole new ways of thinking, especially through keen observation of the cosmos in action.
Joshua Schacter, the guy who built Del.icio.us. He let me interview him for my grad thesis, not too long after he had sold it to Yahoo. It was maybe a 30 minute conversation but he taught me more about the way markets work than I could glean from a year of studying business econ.
Brad Nicholson, a self made real estate magnate living in KC. He’s offered countless and often priceless bits of advice over the years, the most memorable being to “always respect the capital.” Basically, view money through the lens of the hardest dollar earned. Even when you arrive at a point when your existing money earns your new money, remember having to wait tables or clean toilets earlier in life. When it comes time to spend, forget the easy money, think instead of the worst customer you waited on or the dirtiest toilet you cleaned. Is the expenditure worth the hell it took to earn THAT dollar? It applies whether it’s income or money directed on behalf of investors — it needs to be thought through from the standpoint of someone working their ass off to earn it. A powerful jedi mind trick for growing and staying rich.
Adam Blake, a young serial entrepreneur from KC who made it big in college doing real estate deals. He’s since built multiple growth companies including Brightergy, a solar panel company that’s growing like a weed. He’s down to earth despite having accomplished more in his early twenties than many will do in their entire careers. He’s a few years younger than me which has been oddly motivational – basically proof that success can happen at any age, starting whenever you decide to focus on making it happen.
Fundraising! We formed Neighbor.ly, had a few pitch meetings, lined up commitments for what we needed to make it happen fast, and proceeded to build, wrongly assuming that’s the way fundraising is supposed to work. We collected checks from a few of the investors which provided the initial lift. But then we started getting mixed signals from our lead investor who was late getting his commitment in. He assured us at multiple points that he’s ‘still in’ but would have some vacation or would need some other change to the agreement before proceeding. Eventually he just stopped responding. He left us high and dry with a half built product. We’re revisiting fundraising and will find a way to make it work, but it’s been a huge challenge to remain focused on product when the funding question looms in back of mind. It was our first fundraising attempt and we’re assured that what happened is more common than we thought, though that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. We made big mistakes, mostly naive ones. But we learned from them and try our best to never repeat them so it’s been priceless experience anyway.
Managing fear! This startup stuff can be pretty scary at times. There’s a roller coaster factor to it, definitely not for the faint of heart. Fear seems to operate a bit like venom, spreading quickly, paralyzing. Staying positive, focusing on the outcomes we DO WANT, remaining mindful of the outcomes we don’t want, and letting small doses of healthy fear keep the adrenaline flowing has already helped to overcome what we initially imagined as impossible.
Continuously make the system better. List the projects we have lined up beyond the two test projects (there’s a growing backlog). Help communities greenlight tough projects through generating down payments for cool stuff. We have some exciting partnerships rolling out soon that will slingshot us. Eventually… rewire public finance.