At the age of 22, the New York born, Florida raised son of undocumented Dominican immigrants, accomplished what most entrepreneurs dream of– he built and sold an on-demand concierge service in just two years.
“I often say, opening up doors for others opened up doors for me,” says Henry, who, in spite of his accomplishments, puts everyone at ease with his outgoing demeanor, and infectious optimism.
Henry returned to New York City as an adult to pursue a career as a jazz musician, taking odd jobs to make ends meet in between gigs. He eventually found work as a doorman, holding doors and hauling packages for Wall Street’s elite. Having come from humble beginnings, the post was his first introduction to wealth.
“But it didn’t feel obtainable,” he recalls.
That is until he switched jobs, and relocated to a high rise in Brooklyn, where the millionaires were far less homogeneous.
“There were millionaires who were creatives,” he remembers. “There was a professional dating coach. A professional rock climber. Musicians. Entrepreneurs. Writers. You name it.”
At the Brooklyn high rise, he developed a relationship with a resident who would change his life. The man, an ex-con, had served 18 years in prison before creating a multi-million dollar laundry service empire.
“He was sentenced at 19 years old. Out at 37. By the time I met him at 44, he was already a self-made millionaire because he understood the value of time,” Henry says.
The tenant also recognized the potential in the friendly doorman with a knack for remembering names and anticipating needs. He made Henry a deal. If he brought clothes to his laundry plant, he could pay very little to have them dry cleaned and turn a handsome profit. Henry would only need to establish a clientele.
In order to do that, the ambitious doorman turned to what, or rather, who, he knew– other doormen.
“I started going around here in Harlem for no other reason than it just resonated with me,” he says. “I went to all the doormen in my cheap suit, with my cheap briefcase and my cheap business cards and I was like, ‘Hey, my name is John Henry. I’m a doorman too, and I understand that you’re the key to the building.”
He knew from experience that residents complained about their service providers to doormen, who were in a unique position to recommend companies, almost like an unofficial concierge.
“I’d come around everyday, before I went to work. I’d buy them a coffee. That only cost a dollar, but it built a relationship. Eventually they started passing me on to the other residents.”
Henry’s unique strategy created a steady stream of clients before fate, once again, intervened. This time, another resident in his building suggested that Henry cater his burgeoning dry cleaning service to New York’s television and film industry.
“He said, ‘Dude, I’ve been working in film and TV for the past 25 years and I’ve yet to find a dry cleaner that can meet our crazy demands’,” Henry recalls.
That resident went so far as to follow up his suggestion with an invitation to visit the set of The Wolf of Wall Street.
“I met Leo DiCaprio,” Henry says, “I met Scorcese. But more importantly I met the wardrobe supervisor who was in charge of all the clothes.”
Henry was later fired from his doorman position, but as luck would have it, the wardrobe department called him the day after his termination to offer him the contract.
“After doing a great job with [ The Wolf of Wall Street] they said, ‘Here’s a new account’,” Henry recalls.
That account was Boardwalk Empire. Then came Law and Order. Person of Interest. Orange is the New Black. White Collar. Girls. Power. Spider Man II. Ninja Turtles. Even Broadway’s Mamma Mia.
A-list clients followed, among them Will Smith, Mike Tyson, and Spike Lee.
“One year in, I put up a store front in Harlem. I was 20 years old. I had 13 employees. I was growing the business. We were making money,” says Henry who dropped out after his first semester of college. “I got my MBA on the road.”
Learning the business on the fly, Henry continued his expansion, adding a fleet of vans and additional services, including housekeeping and dog walking.
“My last big move was bringing in a CTO, chief technology officer,” Henry says. “He built some software because I saw things were headed in the tech direction. Then we became an on-demand laundry startup.”
Henry later created an app and changed the name of his company to Mobile City. Before Mobile City reached the two-year mark, a private company approached Henry with an offer to acquire his company. After weighing several additional offers, Henry sold Mobile City to the original buyer, who met them at asking price.
Though he can not reveal the amount for which he sold his company, Henry says it was enough to buy his parents a home in Pennsylvania and provide for their retirement. The sell also gave him funds, and the time, to contemplate his next move.
“I realized that I’m not passionate about dry cleaning,” he admits. “What I am passionate about is the process of growing a business and the freedom that entrepreneurship gives you. I realize that that business gave me all the skills I need and the confidence I need to take on anything”.
For now, he’s taking on Harlem, citing the culturally rich neighborhood as robust for economic revitalization, from the bottom up. A week after the sell, he and two other entrepreneurs started Cofound Harlem, a unique business accelerator that aims to bring 100 new businesses in Harlem in five years. The 9-month program provides startups with $50,000 in resources, world-class mentors and free office space. Cofound Harlem takes 0 percent equity in participating companies, most similar programs take at least 7 percent, and in exchange, founders must agree to remain in Harlem for at least four years.
“We’re going to grow the entrepreneurial eco-system,” he says. “What I believe in doing is using entrepreneurship as an engine to make change,” he says.
To learn more about CoFound Harlem, visit cofound.co or follow John Henry on Twitter @JohnHenryStyle.