Rebuilding Main Street with Ownership

Rebuilding Main Street with Ownership

[Editor’s note: Originally published as a members-only article in the GEM.]

Making commercial property ownership simple and affordable for small businesses, withco recently came out of stealth with its $32 million in funding ($4 million seed + $28 million Series A), reported TechCrunch. Lead investors are Canaan, Founders Fund, and NFX, with participation from Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments, LENX (Lennar’s venture arm), Ken Chenault, Thirty Five Ventures, Will Smith’s Dreamers VC, BoxGroup, Not Boring Capital and Quiet Capital.

As a rent-to-own model in partnership with sellers/brokers, the company pitches “institutional speed and certainty to sellers and life-changing control and wealth to small business owners.”

As they say, “We want to make it exciting to be a small business owner in America again.”

A win-win-win for small business owners, commercial real estate, and capital markets–withco feels as close to a sure thing as I’ve seen in quite some time. First, it’s deeply mission-oriented. That was utterly apparent when speaking with co-founder Kevin Song several weeks ago, and comes through in the public messaging. Second, its just makes sense…small businesses should be able to own their own real estate, and not be beholden to far-away landlords driving up rents. For business owners who already own their buildings but do NOT want to, keyway is for you. Lastly, withco’s investor list (seen at bottom of the about page) is truly out of this world…including Venus Williams, Will Smith, Kevin Durant, as well as a few incredibly impressive GEM members in Guy GalJerry ColemanDrew Uher, and Shaival Shah. It’s clear withco will be the most well-funded and connected company in this sector to give it a leg up in the quest to become a category king. This will be a fun business to watch develop and grow, that’s a certainty.

Residential brokers often complain about recruiting challenges. As I’ve stated before, the reason is simple…the vast majority of brokerage brands mean nothing. When a company doesn’t truly stand for anything or even have a stance/opinion…well, money is the only differentiator.

Take a storytelling lesson from Kevin Song:

My story is my family’s story.
And my family’s story is an American one.
Maybe you’ve heard it before.
It goes like this.

Immigrant parents leave home, in hopes of giving their kids a better one.
They land in New York to make a new life.
They start a small business built on big dreams.
They work relentlessly until they have regulars.
They sponsor little league and give young moms a little help when they’re in a pinch.
All these little things make a big difference on their block.
But their neighborhood changes fast. The rent changes faster.
The family puts up a fight, but it isn’t a fair one.
Their small grocery store is replaced by a bank chain.
And their big dreams are replaced by a new reality.

It’s a story as old as Main Street America.
And once big business lays eyes on a particular property, it’s a relatively short one after that.
Happening seemingly overnight, like scaffolding going up around the local corner store.
And for every family like mine in Brooklyn,
There’s countless others, from Orlando to Oakland,
Who have watched the fruits of their labor be picked by someone with deeper pockets.

People in this country still like to romanticize small businesses like my parents’
Believing success and longevity still go to the hardest worker, not the highest bidder.
But if you’ve met my parents, or any small business owner for that matter,
You’d know that a lack of work ethic has never been the problem.
The problem is a system that doesn’t reward, but punishes entrepreneurs,
Cashing out the value they create in our neighborhoods to whoever pays the most.

Whether you’re the son of immigrants who’ve experienced its effects firsthand like I have,
Or just someone who has watched the gridded streets of their once-vibrant neighborhood start to look and feel like aisles in one big mall,
Gentrification can feel inevitable.
And that feeling of inevitability can quickly turn to indifference.
And once that happens we’ve lost our chance at change.
And the dream is dead.

I started withco to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
And to ensure the next generation can dream the way my parents did on distant shores.
Even in a system that is rigged against them.
It’s what keeps me up at night, and gets me out of bed in the morning,
Defining me more than I care to admit sometimes.
And while my family’s story certainly isn’t a novel one,
The experience, along with a lot of help and learning since, has inspired what I believe could be a novel solution.
A simple approach to combat a problem that’s anything but.

Here’s how it works.
We identify amazing small businesses all over the country.
Then we find a way to buy the building they’re operating out of.
The business owners give us two things. Rent and an open line of communication.
Once they’ve completed a lease term, we gift them the down payment and the building is theirs.
Along with full control of their shop’s future. Not to mention their family’s.

And so far it’s working.
We’ve partnered with OJ, Linda, and Samik to name just a few.
We’ll partner with 100 new small businesses in 2022 alone.
And we believe this is just the beginning.

I said above that this solution is a relatively simple one. But make no mistake, simple doesn’t mean easy.
It will take partners who believe in what we’re doing, and the importance and urgency of it.
It will take a heroic effort from our growing team.
More Pablos, Sallys, Stus, and Valeries who are willing to fight like hell in order to give these small businesses a fighting chance. To take control of their own businesses, and in the process, their own destinies.
It will take a renewed belief from all of us, about what’s possible when we play on equal footing.
When we remember that the strength of a community truly does lie in its corner stores.
And that the heart of the city has never been where the buildings are the highest.
It’s always been where the people care the most, and dream the biggest.

Tell a meaningful story. That, my friends, is how you solve your recruiting problem.

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