Deep down, we’re all entrepreneurs who want to end up on the front page of Forbes. I mean, of course we do this because we love it – but let’s be honest, we also do it for the Vine.
So, when we found an entrepreneur who, at 21, is already on his way to appearing on the cover of a major magazine, we wanted to be the first to interview him and share his inspirational story with our network.
Meet John Henry, the 21-year-old based in Harlem who, after realizing he didn’t want to be a doorman forever, built and sold a home services empire in two years.
His background is atypical of a young business owner. If you took away his sheer determination and innate ability to connect, you would have a child who was a first-generation American, whose parents looked for work wherever they could find it. He didn’t have an elite upbringing or unlimited opportunities. What he had was a father who worked as a clothes launderer who always reminded him that the inside of the coats he pressed should be as expertly taken care of as the outside.
His father taught him never to forget the details.
Here is his story.
[New Haircut] Tell me about yourself. Where you grew up, how you grew up…
[John Henry] I grew up in a small surfing town. My parents are from the Dominican Republic, and I grew up watching my parents struggle to find work. Even though they struggled, whatever they did, they did it well and with pride.
[New Haircut] Did you always want to be an entrepreneur or did you fall into this path?
[John Henry] I didn’t know I wanted this because I didn’t know it was possible.
[New Haircut] When did you know it was possible?
[John Henry] Well, I was working as a doorman and I saw a lot of wealth and a ton of business people coming in and out. It seemed as though everyone who was big in tech was either in that building or in the area.
One day, a resident that lived near my building asked me what I was doing with my life. He asked me what I did after work – if I spent time on Facebook or other time wasters – and I answered yes. He then offered me an opportunity to do something different. He said that if I brought clothes to his laundry plant, he would give me a deal where I was paying very little and could make a profit. I thought about it and decided to give it a shot.
[New Haircut] If you look back on one of your greatest successes or propellers to success what would that be?
[John Henry] I’ve always been attracted to the idea of greatness, so when I got this opportunity, I worked as hard as possible to succeed. Even with my job as a doorman, I met influential people because I cared about every single person in that building. I knew their names, where they lived, and their children’s names. That stuff is important to me, and it translated into how I did business – and ultimately how we grew so fast.
[New Haircut] If you could change anything about when you first began your company what would it be?
[John Henry] Funny story. I learned about the importance of design very quickly. My first logo was of John Henry the steel-driving-man . I ordered thousands of dollars of branded material and then someone pointed out to me that it looked like the communist logo/arm and people started calling us the “Commie Cleaners.” Looking back on it, it’s funny. At the time, not so much.
[New Haircut] Who was your first customer?
[John Henry] A gentleman in the building I was a doorman at had a buddy who needed laundry services and, when I started, I didn’t have a van. I pretended like I had a van but, in reality, I was waking up early as hell in the morning, traveling from Harlem to Brooklyn, picking up his clothes, taking them on the subway to the middle of Brooklyn, then waiting and bringing them back– all the same day. I was doing all of this for one client.
After I had hustled for a few small clients, I landed my first large account which was the movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Again, a resident in the building recommended me. I met the wardrobe supervisor and had no clue how to answer the questions he was asking me but was honest and told him I would work hard.
He looked at this 19-year-old kid and… yeah. I didn’t hear from him.
Then, two months later, he called me and offered me the job. That job led to “Boardwalk Empire,” then to “Law and Order”… and then I was pretty much doing the dry cleaning for all of the major productions in the city.
[New Haircut] So you were successful at this stage, but how did the sale of your business come about?
[John Henry] At this point, I had a full-time staff that I completely bankrolled, including someone who helped with creative and our CTO.
[New Haircut] Wait, a dry cleaner had a CTO?
[John Henry] Yeah. I didn’t want to build another dry cleaner. Tech companies influenced me, so we built this app so that people could easily use our services. When we first released it, we hired PR. We had bloggers write about us, and it crashed. It was a mess. We had to slowly pull it back and hope no one noticed. In the end, it changed the way we worked. We started working in a more agile manner by taking two-week sprints, getting feedback from customers and iterating. We started moving much faster. And then, right around this time, a competitor was acquired.
The guy who acquired our competitor asked us to sit down for coffee and we talked about the success of technology-infused companies vs. brick and mortar stores. Right there, over coffee, he asked me if I would be interested in selling. And, at that point I wasn’t sure.
[New Haircut] So when did you decide it was the right move?
[John Henry] Well, I talked to my team and we put together an awesome pitch deck. This actually wasn’t the first deck I had put together. I had created a sales deck before – for a meeting – and it was a mess. I did it myself and it had tons of words on it. I went into the meeting, read directly from the deck and, needless to say, I didn’t win the sale.
But anyway, this deck that my team put together was awesome and we started pitching to other people. All week, we set up meetings with potential buyers and left our original interested buyer until the end. As the week went on, we practiced and iterated on the deck based on the potential buyers’ feedback. Then, when Friday came along, we pitched to the original interested buyer and he offered us our asking price – no negotiation.
Pitch decks are important. We learned that your capabilities are going to be perceived only as well as your pitch deck is. Your business, attention to detail, and creativity are literally manifested on that pitch deck. So, yeah, having a strong deck was hugely important for us.
[New Haircut] Ahh… the power of a good product, a great pitch deck and practice! So now that that deal is done, you are starting an accelerator. Why?
[John Henry] I have a good network and a love for Harlem, but I notice that innovation here is stifled. Things are approached in a very traditional way, still. My two buddies and I (my CTO and a friend who is one of the co-founders of Nvite), first wanted to start a co-working space, but then realized we could have a greater impact if we started an accelerator that provided teams with capital, space and mentorship as long as they were based here and contributed to the spirit and community of Harlem. Our idea became very community-driven.
[New Haircut] When are you launching?
[John Henry] We’re launching in the spring and we have very big names on board as both sponsors and mentors.
[New Haircut] So what startups are you following now?
[John Henry] I follow a lot of the guys I met as a doorman, like Genius (who used to be RapGenius), or Startup Health, which is a company whose goal is to digitally accelerate 100 healthcare companies by the end of the year.
I have my eye on big companies like Google Ventures to keep the pulse on what’s coming out, but I also like to learn about small companies as well. I want to know about the companies that TechCrunch isn’t writing about. I don’t like to get too caught up in their version of entrepreneurship that talks only about the top companies.
[New Haircut] Really cool! Any last comments?
[John Henry] Yeah! We are very excited to have New Haircut contribute to our accelerator and speak to some of our startups on the art that they are completely nailing pitch decks.
And yeah, we are taking Harlem by storm. I am excited. We are opening the accelerator. I am opening a restaurant. I am a partner in around the corner. We are really building a great community in Harlem!
And there you have it. Entrepreneurship isn’t about age or opportunity. It is about heart, hustle – and oftentimes, a great pitch deck.
Thanks for the sit-down John Henry!
Have questions for us about creating a great sales deck or investor pitch deck? Contact us here. Interested in learning more about John Henry? Follow him on twitter @johnhenrystyle.