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Shaun Abrahamson’s mission to fix our cities

Shaun Abrahamson’s mission to fix city problems with technology started with an innocent conversation. “I was working at LAB Miami, minding my own business,” he said. “I had been, at that point for about 7 years, doing angel investing. I would talk with some founders, some investors, and one of the founders who I started to talk to was Stonly Baptiste. The first few conversations were really around how you find and how you advise founders. Quickly it was clear to me he was asking an unusually large number of questions. He was relentless, actually.”

The conversation got specific: as cities around the world are growing, a new host of challenges and opportunities is emerging specific to urban areas. Could they invest in solving them? That’s how Urban.Us was born.

“One macro trend is that urban populations will double by 2050,” he said. “The other trend is that most large cities in the world have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, also by 2050. So that sets up an interesting question, if cities are already 70% of emissions, and populations are going to double, and we want to cut emissions, that sets up an interesting opportunity.”

Within a few weeks of talking, Abrahamson and Baptiste had an event on the books. “We believe that most of the companies that are going to solve problems related to those two trends don’t exist yet.”

What’s been your experience launching a fund in Miami?

Early on, we weren’t entirely sure what we were going to discuss or why we were going to have an event. Stonly put up a webpage which said, “Here’s the current temperature in miami. And this is the date. And we’re going to talk about cities and we’re going to talk about startups.” Most people were like, “Sure, we’ll come to Miami and talk about startups.”

We had our own perspective on people globally doing interesting work. In Miami, it was a very physical manifestation of being in the LAB. Every time we’d talk to someone, they’d say, “Oh, have you talked to so-and-so?” The geographic network just wasn’t our experience. A lot of the networks extend into the U.S., Latin America, Europe. Our network today is probably first San Francisco and the Bay Area, and then New York, and Miami next.

What advice do you give founders looking for investors?

Thinking about how you build a company, my perspective is that as long as you know your customer, there isn’t a “better” place to be. There are things in Miami that are done better than in other places. If you think about hospitality, healthcare, anything related to travel — there are things that fit better in terms of the likelihood of you finding early customers who can be knowledgeable about the market.

If you’re building a company for a certain set of customers where Miami has a high concentration of those people, that’s better. If you don’t, you have to think about building online first.

There’s a few examples of companies that have built pure online businesses. In that case, the shift goes from investors, to customers to talent.

Was it easy to recruit talent in Miami?

How has Urban.Us invested in Miami startups?

There’s not a specific reason, but we haven’t done any deals here. Most of the deals are in New York or the Bay Area. We’ve invested in a company in Nairobi, in Denver. It’s mostly been about the opportunity they are solving for. That’s the biggest driver. Do they have a harder time getting funding? Outside the Bay Area and New York — anyone wherever you are — if you’re not in those areas, you’re going to have a harder time.

Be in a top three tech hub if you’re going to be a tech startup. There are few investors except at the high end — if you’ve invested in Uber, you can do whatever you want. No one’s going to ask if you pick a company outside those places. If you’re a venture firm with a great track record, you can lead a deal that’s very contrarian because it’s in a different geography. But overwhelmingly, most funders don’t have the political capital or social capital to lead those types of things. That’s the point where Miami is. It’s not a talent issue. But who are the people who will take the risk, knowing they’re doing something outside the norm?

What has to happen for Miami to be one of those hubs?

Nothing changes people’s perceptions like success.

What urban challenges are you most interested in?

There’s a difference in my mind between tech startup, fast-scaling stuff, and other things that are important, but will just never scale as quickly.

What would you like to see happen in Miami’s startup scene?

I’d like to see a successful sale or realized result. Also, more successful funding from outside Miami. It’s helpful to have validation from outside Miami. And I’d love to see more roadshows. I’d love to see more founders here go out and pitch investors elsewhere. I think those are things that are quite doable immediately.

One of the challenges I see is an identity crisis. Thinking about Miami as a natural gateway to Latin America, it’s a simple positioning and it sticks. But it comes at a cost. Because it looks like there isn’t room for anything else.