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5 Lessons From the Founder of a Platform That Funds Community Projects

5 Lessons From the Founder of a Platform That Funds Community Projects
Image credit: Jase Wilson

For Jase Wilson, it all started with a love of cities. He had a passion for understanding how they were built, and ended up studying them in college. Along the way, he nurtured a deep appreciation for open spaces, parks and playgrounds.

Wilson recently shared with me his journey of moving from civic activist to the CEO of Neighborly, a civic mini-bond investment platform. Before Neighborly, Wilson had a feeling that some kind of invisible force guided the financing behind how cities were built, and that these forces also influenced how infrastructure was funded.

During a conference in which he heard a presentation on civic crowdsourcing, things started to click. What if there was a way to create public good and shared value through a community-investment platform that allowed citizens to directly fund projects?

Neighborly was born. The mission is simple: take a complicated and often murky market -- municipal financing -- and make it easier for people and businesses to invest in the schools, streets, parks and playgrounds they use every day.

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The platform also makes it easier for cities to fund projects that communities want without having to wade through the fickle bond market to do so.

Here are some of the lessons Wilson learned as he navigated this often complicated market.

1. Persistence does pay off.

Whatever goal you have as an entrepreneur, it’s going to take a lot of persistence to make your vision a reality. If your concept involves delving into a complicated market, it may take a while before you capture investors’ attention.

Therefore, Wilson advises you to buckle up and be persistent. You may be in for some rough patches, and you may have to make some difficult decisions along the way. But the hard work will be rewarded.

For Wilson, it took seven months between the first conversations with investors and the day he actually received a check.

“Normally, you have it within the first few months,” Wilson says. “I think that a big part of what made this work was just believing that it would work and not giving up.”

2. Position yourself to capture big-name investors, then listen to them.

Wilson made the difficult decision to relocate his company from Kansas City, Mo., to San Francisco. The geographical change had benefits: being closer to Silicon Valley helped to bring in much-needed seed money through some of the area’s well-known investors.

Neighborly recently announced it had raised $5.5 million from venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale’s Formation 8 and actor and investor Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures.

“Relationships with well-known and respected investors can be hugely beneficial to a company,” Wilson says. “Obviously, having big names invest in your company can be useful in attracting other investors and customers. But there’s more to it.” 

Kutcher and Lonsdale have been crucial to getting the company on a sounder footing. “They and their teams are incredibly smart people, and they’re really dedicated to their founders,” Wilson says. “They’ve been very influential in helping us to understand how to navigate, introducing us to their networks and really being voices and advisors in the process of creating a venture that modernizes public finance.”

3. Always ask why.

According to Wilson, it’s important to question everything. Asking why is the key to getting the bigger picture and looking at a complicated issue from a different perspective. “Ask: ‘Why is it the way it is? Why is it as complicated as it’s become?’” Wilson says.

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He began by looking at the history of the market, and specifically at how municipalities fund projects. Public financing was originally community oriented, but has since evolved into a much more complicated creature. According to Wilson, having this historical background was vital to seeing how things can be improved.

“It’s global. It’s unimaginably complicated. It’s something that very few people in the public understand anymore, or even know exists," he says. "And ask, ‘Why? Why did it become this way? And how can we simplify it? How can we return it to people?’”

4. Trust that it will work.

Every company has its own story, but most will go on a rollercoaster ride as they navigate the road toward success. As a founder and CEO, there is a lot to handle. Dealing with the stress and emotion of these oscillations can leave you drained.

Wilson’s advice is to “just trust it.” He explains: “Having confidence that it will all work out will help you avoid feeling like you are staring into a black pit of despair one day or climbing the highest mountain the next.”

“There were moments where it seemed like, ‘What the hell have we done? What’s going to happen next?’” Wilson says. “And it was all in our minds. If you can, figure out a way to trust that it works, and then do everything in your power to make it work. Doing so will keep you on a more level road and help you move forward faster.”

5. Have a big dream.

Think big. Have a wild dream and go for it. Wilson is shooting for the stars: he hopes Neighborly will go interplanetary -- maybe even in the next 10 years. “Because Mars is going to need significant public investment to really get off the ground, right?” Wilson says.

But before that can happen, he has a few smaller objectives in mind.

“In the meantime, Neighborly is a platform that revolutionizes the way public goods are created and the way investments happen in communities,” he says. “It’s a platform that creates value and helps communities to capture some of the value, and reuse it in other interesting ways.”

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His initial goal was to create a platform to help communities unlock a new source of capital for projects, but also to be a financially sound investment for outsiders. Now that the company is on its way, he hopes to see Neighborly go global in the next five years.

“There are many parts of the world that don’t even have public finance, at least not at the community level,” Wilson explains. “We’re very excited by the chance to bring about a new era of civic innovation and help communities make decisions about the nature and the scale of the projects. And not to be beholden to external finance.”