Albert Wegner, a partner at Union Square Ventures, recently wrote a moving post about finding and living our purpose.
Despite the question ‘What is your purpose?’ proposing deep self-reflection, a challenge he dually recognizes, Albert’s writing inspired me to ask the guests who join me on 33founders the same question.
As 33founders has evolved, my highest goal is to give individuals an opportunity to share their lives outside of their titles; Unveiling their personal dreams for the world.
Brad Hargreaves, the Founder of Common and Co-founder of global education institution General Assembly, is the first individual I asked about purpose.
My purpose is to solve problems. I love solving problems. It’s what I live for. The bigger and hairier the better.
After spending time with Brad there’s no better declaration to describe his work.
His latest venture Common was born out of recurring General Assembly students seeking flexible, safe and affordable housing.
According to Brad, between 5,000 to 6,000 General Assembly students spend three months in major cities taking courses in subject areas like product management and digital marketing.
Between skyrocketing rent (the average studio in New York goes for $2,600 a month) and not wanting to commit to long term leases, students are often left to Craigslist to find housing and roommates.
To solve the problem, Common enables individuals to rent a room in a community centered space.
With many co-living startups failing to hit the mark, Brad firmly believes that community, as well as non-negotiable practices, will set Common apart.
How do you look at every aspect of that product and customer experience and say ‘How do we make it better?
This is what you can expect for the first property launching in Brooklyn this October.
- One person per room – Always! This isn’t your college dorm round two
- Two people per bathroom
- Shared supplies, such as toilet paper and paper towels, that are delivered weekly
- Weekly cleanings
- A shared kitchen similarly stocked with basic supplies
- A community dining hall that can easily be converted to a work space
Common partners with real estate owners and investors to purchase buildings located in emerging neighborhoods. This enables them to uniquely design and exercise control of each of their properties.
Keeping General Assembly students in mind, Brad hopes Common will appeal to a more diverse demographic rather than solely targeting recent college graduates. Ideally, he hopes the community will be a good fit for individuals who are starting and seeking new careers, as well as those participating in an accelerator or an educational program. The co-living spaces also make it possible for explorers not to be tied down to a single location.
Despite eagerly awaiting photos of the first community building in Brooklyn (they should be available in September!) the most impactful part of my time with Brad is the way he recounted his evolution as a founder.
From his first startup Aloysius Properties, an antique furniture reseller he started at Yale, to the wildly successful General Assembly, and now Common Brad identifies gaining perspective as the greatest lesson from the last nine years.
It’s never as good as it seems nor as bad.
“As an entrepreneur, you really have to own that, especially if you’re going to be a serial or career entrepreneur. There will be really good times and really bad times. You have to tell yourself in the good times that it’s not as good as it seems… and during the bad times that it’s not as bad as it seems.
You get better at telling yourself that. You make better decisions the more you convince yourself that’s true.”
Among those thoughtful decisions, and one that stems from experience, is not oversubscribing Common’s Series A funding.
The team announced a $7.5 million Series A led by Maveron this past June. Lowercase Capital, Slow Ventures, 500 Startups and Brendan Wallace, Founder of Otter Rock Capital, also participated in the round.
Brad’s decision not to overcapitalize was grounded in two main value points.
- He wanted a reasonably priced round with an acceptable valuation. Common is pre-launch and the team is eager to prove their model to ensure long-term success.
- Despite many startups raising significantly larger Series A rounds, Brad wanted to focus on Common’s daily operations rather than committing to what he described as a “fundraising process:” Spending a few months raising capital and collecting term sheets from numerous venture firms. With that in mind, Common’s Series A was closed in two weeks.
“A lot of the people in this round are my friends. They’re people who will really go to bat for Common. I want them to be properly incentivized to do that and part of that is getting them into our company at a relatively reasonable price,” he explained.
The decision for Maveron to lead the round was simple for Brad. In addition to working with the team as a venture partner, the firm was the first institutional investor in General Assembly back in 2011.
“The people at Maveron are incredibly earnest. They know what they do well. They partner with entrepreneurs they like and do right by them,” he shared.
The ability to identify one’s strengths, as Brad asserts about Maveron’s consumer-only focus, is a guiding principle in his life.
For both himself and the individuals he works with, Brad believes that cultivating a sense of self-awareness is crucial to finding our purpose.
He recently elaborated on this in a great post “The Two Things a Startup Founder Does,” when he said: “The best founders know what they do best.”
The worst thing founders can do is convince themselves that they understand something they don’t.
When it comes to hiring, and filling in those gaps, these are the two most important traits Brad seeks in new team members.
- Self-Awareness: Leaders who understand what they’re good at and focus on it. This is particularly important for individuals working at startups.
- Humility: Any individual in an organization should possess the freedom to tell someone, regardless of their title, if they’re doing something right or wrong.
Building relationships, growing the team, and designing the upcoming Brooklyn space are Brad’s top priorities as he prepares for Common’s first property launch this October.
We want to make this a sustainable business not just a social experiment.
Looking ahead, he faces the typical entrepreneurial dilemma balancing the team’s grand vision for Common as well as the tasks they need to achieve today.
“The greatest challenge of an entrepreneur’s journey is balancing being incremental and being visionary. When you’re tackling one of these really complex problems, like education or housing, you have to own the big vision – What is the giant macro problem that you’re solving? What does this look like in 20 years? At the same time, you have to be incredibly incremental, almost scientific, with how you take individual steps toward that vision,” he explained.
If you don’t have the big vision you are optimizing toward nothing.
Fortunately for us, Brad does have the big vision and the first incremental steps will be proven this fall as Common opens their doors to the Brooklyn community.
To learn more about Common and Brad’s journey as a founder, tune into his episode of 33founders and follow him on Twitter here.
You can also be the first to know when applications open for the Brooklyn community by signing up for Common’s newsletter.
Here’s a glimpse of what we discuss:
- The genesis of Common
- A glimpse into the first Brooklyn living space
- The decision to partner with Maveron
- Why we should create a new definition of founder
- Why self-awareness is critical to your success
Image credits: NY Through the Lens.