Diane Mastrull: CoFounders Bridge aims to help business growth by connecting old and young entrepreneurs

In a Center City office, CoFounders Bridge meets. "This is not an investment club," says Herbert Cohen, one of its founders. "This is a brotherhood/sisterhood of entrepreneurs helping each other." ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
In a Center City office, CoFounders Bridge meets. "This is not an investment club," says Herbert Cohen, one of its founders. "This is a brotherhood/sisterhood of entrepreneurs helping each other." ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 31, 2012

They were a very uncool-looking group in their sports coats, dress pants, skirts, and grown-up shoes - the uniforms of the over-50 and accomplished professionals that they are.

The hip setting, a shared workplace on the edge of Northern Liberties, had something to do with how much they stood out.

It was typical tech start-up decor: bean-bag rooms, white-boards, Ping-Pong and bicycles. The attire of those toiling that June evening was T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.

The contrast was the point, actually.

The "old" had arrived to help guide the young as part of a new nonprofit initiative aimed at enabling more business growth in the Philadelphia area by connecting generations of entrepreneurs.

CoFounders Bridge emphatically is not what so many efforts to aid early stage companies are - a funding venture.

"This is not an investment club," said Herbert Cohen, one of its founders. "This is a brotherhood/sisterhood of entrepreneurs helping each other."

CoFounders has been hosting monthly get-togethers throughout the city and suburbs since February, each of which lasts about two hours. They will increase to twice a month in September, Cohen said.

At each, early stage entrepreneurs are invited to present their business ventures and solicit help at no charge.

At the July meeting, Evgeny Pogorelov was an attention-grabber with his novel idea: to enable shoppers to find the perfect-fitting jeans without trying anything on or even leaving the house.

"This is my first venture," said Pogorelov, 24, born in Ukraine and now a city resident with an undergraduate degree in finance and an M.B.A. in entrepreneurship. "In hindsight, I picked a sticky problem, but one I think is worth solving."

Fit of Passion L.L.C. is not open to the public yet as testing continues to perfect its algorithms. How it works is, a shopper would enter information on Fit of Passion's online questionnaire about the type of jeans he or she likes to wear. That would include brand and the preferred fit (snug, loose) on certain areas of the body (butt, leg, waist). Fit of Passion would then search its database and suggest a variety of jean brands and styles that would match the shopper's favorite.

The aim of Pogorelov and partner and Upper Dublin High School classmate Aaron Johanson is to reduce the laborious effort involved in jeans shopping and give consumers more choices.

"Just the math and data that goes into solving this problem is immense," Pogorelov said in an interview last week.

But his burning question for the CoFounders Bridge group was: "What's the quickest and cheapest way to get the word out?"

The advice was not what a technology-oriented twenty-something might have expected. He was urged to think beyond the Internet to traditional media: catalogues, magazines, and even television advertising. Pogorelov also heard how to better define his potential market and build a deeper database by contacting the half-dozen or so manufacturers in China believed to make most jeans on the market.

"It was a very valuable two hours," Pogorelov said of his CoFounders Bridge experience. "Two hours with that group was like a month in a class."

It was no less useful for a more-seasoned entrepreneur. Lorraine Keller is on her fourth start-up after an 18-year career as a scientist with Rohm & Haas. Her latest venture is Technical Vision, a medical-equipment design-and-manufacturing company specializing in mobility devices for the visually impaired. Currently at the prototype stage, Technical Vision needs help in developing a marketing strategy, which is the question Keller put to the CoFounders Bridge group earlier this month.

Keller was told her intended approach - getting word out to the elderly - seemed misguided. Focus instead on reaching their children or nieces or nephews, who would be of the same age as many of the CoFounders Bridge members, she heard.

"People in their 40s and 50s are very interested and willing to spend money on products and services to help their aunts and uncles," John Vairo, 59, said after the meeting. He established CoFounders Bridge with Cohen.

For Keller, the value of the session didn't stop at the advice she received. It was the chance to meet executives in fields such as publishing, architecture, and accounting that she would not routinely encounter in her science-oriented sphere.

"If one doesn't expand one's network, it's very difficult to establish business," she said. "You never know who you'll meet and what value that person will be in the future."

Entrepreneurs must be invited to present to CoFounders Bridge. That job is largely handled by Vairo, who was a founder of a software consulting company in the 1990s that sold out to a public company in early 2000. Since then, the Lahaska, Bucks County, resident has been mentoring entrepreneurs and making a number of contacts with venture capital groups. So finding CoFounders Bridge invitees has not been difficult, he said.

The CEO crop is also robust, thanks in large part to another Herbert Cohen production - Executive Leaders Radio, a six-year-old business show accessible through a number of radio stations from Princeton to northern Virginia. It plans to go national by October.

The show has featured in-depth interviews with more than 4,000 CEOs. A guest's appearance usually is followed by a pitch from Cohen to "give back" to the next generation of business leaders.

Among those who agreed to do so was Jeffrey E. Mack, a partner in Newmark Knight Frank Smith, one of the region's largest commercial real estate firms with $1.6 billion in annual revenues.

Mack, 57, who began his career in property management and selling janitorial services, said he wished he had had the benefit of the kind of seasoned, plentiful, no-strings-attached guidance that CoFounders Bridge is offering. Instead, he had to learn the business ropes "through osmosis" and a few people generous enough to mentor him, he said.

He agreed to lend his expertise to CoFounders Bridge for the good of something bigger than an individual entrepreneur's dream.

"If the older generation of successful CEOs can help someone start a new company and help make it successful, it's going to help our whole overall economy here," Mack said. "If they can't do it here, they're going to do it in San Francisco or Boston. We want them to invent and stay and grow in Philadelphia."


Diane Mastrull: More Information

CoFounders Bridge welcomes those starting businesses, as well as high-level executives who already have extensive business experience. Those interested in joining the nonprofit can contact membership@cofoundersbridge.org.


Diane Mastrull:

Herb Cohen of CoFounders Bridge explains how business professionals lend a helping hand to entrepreneurs. Watch a video at www.philly.com/business


Contact Diane Mastrull

at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

|
|
|
|
|