OZworks Group, a Community for OZ Stakeholders, with Chris Cooley

Chris Cooley

Can an online membership platform bring different Opportunity Zone stakeholders together and help make the OZ initiative a bigger success?

Chris Cooley is director and lead connector at OZworks Group. He has extensive experience consulting in the collaborative workspace industry, both nationally and internationally.

Click the play button below to listen to my conversation with Chris.

Episode Highlights

  • The three main benefits of OZworks Group: 1) executing faster; 2) access to resources; and 3) building relationships.
  • The value in bringing together all of the different types of Opportunity Zone stakeholders in one central community.
  • What’s inside OZworks Group, including video courses, weekly live support sessions, expert resources, members-only events, and much more.
  • The launch events and growth of the OZworks Group platform over the past two months.
  • Membership, sponsorship, and scholarship opportunities provided by OZworks Group for stakeholders in the Opportunity Zone ecosystem.
  • Early success stories from OZworks Group members who have found new clients, expert help, and other valuable connections.
  • What it’s like when you join OZworks Group, and how you can get access to preferred pricing as a podcast listener.

Featured on This Episode

Industry Spotlight: OZworks Group

OZworks Group

OZworks Group is an online network and community space where OZ-aligned individuals can connect with each other.

Learn more about OZworks Group:

About the Opportunity Zones Podcast

Hosted by OpportunityDb.com founder Jimmy Atkinson, the Opportunity Zones Podcast features guest interviews from fund managers, advisors, policymakers, tax professionals, and other foremost experts in opportunity zones.

Show Transcript

Jimmy: Welcome to the Opportunity Zones Podcast. I’m your host, Jimmy Atkinson. If you are an Opportunity Zone stakeholder, and maybe you’re an investor, maybe you’re a fund manager, or a deal sponsor, maybe you’re an attorney or a CPA, or you’re involved with your local community on some level, OZworks Group is a private online network where OZ-aligned individuals like you can connect with resources specific to your Opportunity Zone strategies and goals.

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OZworks Group’s purpose is to build sustainable and scalable communities that align with Opportunity Zones. And I’m pleased to be joined today by the director of OZworks Group, Chris Cooley. Chris joins us today from Rochester, New York. Hey, Chris, how you doing? Thanks for taking the time to join me today and welcome to the show.

Chris: I’m good, man. Thanks for having me. I’m stoked. Let’s do this.

Jimmy: Fantastic. Yeah, we’ve been trying to get you on for a while, but we had to launch OZworks Group first before we decide to do this interview. So, now, we’ve got the launch under our belts, and I’m really looking forward to this episode in this interview with you today.

One disclosure before we proceed that I feel like I should make before we continue just so it’s clear, I am a co-owner in OZworks Group. So, with that out of the way, let’s dive in. Chris. Can you tell our listeners what is OZworks Group exactly and why is it so valuable?

Chris: Yeah. I mean, you went through the nice little byline there in the beginning, but this is an online network, right? It’s a community space. So, it’s a place for individuals, opportunities zones specific aligned individuals to connect with each other. And really there’s three major benefits to this thing, right? It’s about executing the OZ strategy faster. We know there’s a timeline to this thing.

And so, a lot of people are finding it challenging to, you know, get into something with a timeline, an expiration date. So, what we wanted to do is make this something that you could dive into, learn, or are we could understand exactly what you need and then connect you with the right people so that this can get done in a quicker pace. So, that’s one.

Two would be the access to resources. So, I kind of mentioned that, but you know, this whole program, any business is about scale and sustainability. So, we want to make sure that people in this industry have that opportunity to make something that’s actually gonna last. And then third is building relationships. So, this whole world is a little spun up, right? And crazy in the sense that we can’t get in-person conferences going, and it’s kind of hard to meet new people.

And so, that paired up with the timeline for the program and being not able to mix up with people and form relationships and do business, it’s like, “What are we going to do?” So, we launched this community, and this is the place to be mixed up, but in a real good way, right? In a way that actually helps you execute these types of projects. So, executing faster, accessing resources, building relationships and trust so you can do business in a faster way. That’s what it’s all about, man.

Jimmy: Yeah. That’s fantastic. And it’s working out pretty well so far. And I want to dive into what that community platform looks like and some of the success stories that have come out of it a little bit later in today’s episode, but first, I want to back up for a minute. Chris, can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you come from? What’s your background? And how did you become involved with Opportunity Zones?

Chris: Yeah, you know, I have a crazy background and I like to give people the cliff notes. So, in the past, in about the past six, seven years or more, I’ve been doing consulting in and around the collaborative workspace industry. So, co-working, incubators, you name it, physical, flexible workspaces. And so, I’ve helped launch those types of projects all over the country and quite a few internationally.

The cool thing was about two years ago, I was working on a big site down outside of Atlanta. And it was a property where part of the complex or the compound actually fell within an Opportunity Zone. And I’ll never forget it. I was out at dinner with my clients and they started telling me about this Opportunity Zone program. I had already been contracted to work on that building to build out a collaborative space. And so, they were telling me about this Opportunity Zone thing and how you could invest and eliminate capital gains in the property, but also in the businesses within that property.

So, I like couldn’t even finish my steak, man. It was like, my jaw was on the table because it seemed like a fusion of these two concepts was just like a match made in heaven. So, I started to explore and research OZs for my client per their request, and that’s how I bumped into Ashley Tison and I had a great conversation. But we put things on pause for a little while because I was working on the project and he was doing everything at OZ Pros with you all. And so, he called me last summer and I was like, “Hey, dude, all that community…” You know him, “Hey, dude, all that community building that you do and that you specialize in, I think we need that in the Opportunity Zone industry.”

And I think we needed on a virtual scale because of COVID and all that. And so, I did some thinking about it and realized, hey, you know, we’ve done this as an additional revenue stream for physical collaborative workspaces, why not do that and think of this space as a virtual co-working space? And that’s the way we’ve built this. There’s a culture behind it.

My background and my philosophy is all based on, you know, a physical space or a virtual space, and a fusion between that and culture, which is all about people. And so, that’s one of the things that I’m really happy with. I’m really proud of with this community is that we really set a culture of leading with a giving hand and that has really spurred and turned into just incredibly genuine relationships and projects that are coming out and spinning out of this just, you know, a few months into it. So, that’s my short version. I’ll give you the long version on the next podcast.

Jimmy: That sounds great. Well, thanks for sparing us for the time being.

Chris: No problem.

Jimmy: We’ll do a deep dive with Chris Cooley into his background at a later date, maybe. But no, you’re absolutely right. The OZ industry really does need something like this. We saw a need for a community platform that could bring all these different OZ stakeholders together. There are so many different types of people who are interested in Opportunity Zones for one reason or another.

And I kind of rattled off several of them at the beginning, but there are the high net worth or ultra-high net worth investors with capital gains who are looking to take advantage of some of the tax incentives but then they want to know what some of their investment options are.

There are fund managers who are looking to accrue capital into their investments.

There are deal sponsors who are looking to get their deals in the pipelines of some fund managers or possibly set up their own funds.

There are community organizations who are looking to attract capital to their cities or counties or states.

There are service providers who provide a lot of the services that can help all of these different stakeholders execute their strategies, whether they are CPAs or tax attorneys or real estate attorneys or business attorneys or other types of consultants.

And the problem has been that if you’re one of these stakeholders, it’s kind of hard to find all of the other stakeholders or the people who are interested just because it’s such a new program. The industry is growing up right before our very eyes and new people are being turned onto the program, learning about the program, learning about this incredible tax incentive and policy initiative every day. There’s more and more people who are first discovering it and they don’t know where to turn.

And we’re hoping that OZworks Group can become that place where this industry really comes together and can meet and network with each other. So, Chris, let’s dive into the platform now. Can you walk us through what it is exactly, and once you get inside the platform, what does it look like?

Chris: Yeah. I’ll do my best here to sort of paint a clear picture for you. But if you think about this, I mentioned it’s kind of like a co-working space, a virtual version of a co-working space, right? Where you enter, right, it’s a membership platform, so you pay, you get in, and what you find inside are a whole, whole bunch of resources. The key component here is that once you become a member, there’s three critical areas that we connect you with.

One is our team. So, myself and a team of other connectors who know everyone in the platform because we do intake interviews with every single person. So, we get to know them. I mean, I know who snowboards, who likes to go hiking, who lives in certain areas of the country and why, who has grandkids. Like that interactive and truly relationship-building quality is something that we really focus on, right?

So, we have connectors in our platform from our team to get you introduced to people immediately. We have peer support. So, on a weekly basis every Friday, we have a Zoom session where literally members just come in, we send people out into breakout rooms, they get to meet each other. It’s kind of like speed dating or something.

And then we also have topics. So, we do, we’ve been calling this thing the Pitch-O-Rama, right? So members actually get to do a six-minute pitch and then get feedback and we post those videos on the platform. So, there’s also expert support. So, there’s service providers that are in this platform that we will introduce you to. And again, it’s based on the sort of presence that you have, how well we think you would align with them. And it’s open-ended, right?

We want to introduce you to as many people as we can, as quickly as we can so that you can really start to identify where you want to do business and who you want to align with. So, there’s also other cool stuff in there, I mentioned Ashley Tison. He’s been really gracious in offering his video courses. And as he puts some new ones out, we’ve been offering them within our platform.

We’ve got, you know, people from the national community, there’s information, there’s content, there’s articles. We post some of your podcasts, right, Jimmy, and they’re in there so that we can highlight them. So, we’re always putting people in touch with the resources that they need rather than having to go scour the internet to try and find them.

And so, it’s events, we’re also launching a couple of special series just for members only. So, there’ll be more like panel discussions, not your typical webinar. Everything we do is all about being a little bit different and being super interactive so you’re there, you’re present, you get to ask, you get to meet people. And yeah, just that’s what it looks like inside. Did I miss anything? I get pumped about this and it kind of start going down a totally different path.

Jimmy: No, Chris, I think you did a good job kind of summarizing what’s inside OZworks Group. You mentioned different events and we just had our OZ Pitch Day at OpportunityDb last week. And you helped me run a couple of the adjacent within that OZ Pitch Day event, and you also hosted the happy hour. So, thank you for doing that for me and for the attendees of that event.

Chris, I want to turn our attention now to our launch events. We just launched this platform a couple of months ago. It’s been a pretty quick run-up to where we’ve gotten to today. Could you briefly recap those events that you put on, our two grand opening parties that we did and discuss the growth of the network over the last couple of months since we launched?

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Well, in total transparency, we were kind of doing this in a small way, right, to test things out. So, our intention was to have these sort of mini-events or VIP-style events to invite people who we believe would be a great fit. And so, you know, I would say that we greatly exceeded our expectations. Our target was to have like 25 members in the first couple of months. And we’re less than three months in, and we’re pushing members 100 right now, like within a couple, over 100.

So, you know, the goal here is to scale our membership up to 1,000 by the end of the year. And I will say that, you know, the goal here is about quality, not necessarily quantity. So, you know, we’re always working to maximize our processes so that we get to know everyone. And that way, we can still provide that concierge service that really makes this different and unique.

So, you know, we’ve got aim on 1,000 members. We’ve got spots for 12 sponsors and NES Financial has come on as a founding sponsor for us. So, I want to thank them and show my gratitude toward them for showing like the sort of early adopter mode for us. So, that gives, you know, companies an opportunity to be present. I will say that, you know, our sponsors are plugged into our network because of a need. When our community asks for something, we provide it. It’s not an unsolicited sort of marketing opportunity, you know, and that is again, a differentiator.

So, the events were great. We earlier than expected, decided to do rolling enrollment. So, anybody can go to the website right now at www.ozworksgroup.com and sign up. Now, we will be doing some other special events, so I would obviously encourage people to stay in touch with that and stay in tune with that. But yeah, it’s been great, right? I mean, Jimmy, you’ve been here side by side and I appreciate you and your support of this whole thing as well. And you know, the first few sessions were amazing and looking forward to having more.

Jimmy: Yeah. They have been amazing and it’s been a fun ride so far. Tell us a bit more about those grand opening events that we did. If you could actually just kind of give us like a play-by-play of what happened during those events, what they look like.

Chris: Yeah. So, what we did is we did just a brief intro of the platform and we send people into…I just say we send people into a blender, right? I wanna say we had 80 people on each of those events if not more. And what we ended up doing was we paired everybody randomly in breakout rooms.

So, people had sort of like, when I say the speed dating thing, that’s what that was all about. So, we gave everyone a little bit of an experience and we teed up a question that said, hey, okay, talk with this person that you’re being randomly paired up with about what resource you need right now. And maybe within just this little three-minute introduction, you can come up with a way to solve those challenges that you have or even find resources.

So, what we did is we wanted to show people the value and the experience of OZworks Group even outside of OZworks Group. And that was just really cool. I mean, I had people that ultimately signed up for a membership saying, “Hey, between that event and the Zoom event that we did for an intake interview and the Friday session, you know, the three things that I participated in all within the first week, that I’ve made more positive strides and faster strides than I have in 30 years of attending networking events.” That’s what one person said to me. And so, that’s great to hear.

You know, even in our onboarding and our initial events, we were able to provide a lot of value to people and, you know, forge some friendships, relationships, business collaborations, all the above. So, yeah, it’s exciting. And I get extremely pumped up about knowing that we’re truly supporting people in getting things done. It’s a great feeling.

Jimmy: Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s incredible. I want to hear more anecdotes like that in a few minutes here, but I want to talk about the membership that we have currently and the sponsorships we’re doing, and also the scholarship program that we’re starting to set up. So, we’ve got close to 100 members right now as of the date that we are recording this in mid-March and we’re shooting for 1,000 before the end of the year.

We have NES Financial who’s come on as our founding sponsor so to speak. And we look to add many more of those in the fashion that Chris just suggested in his previous answer. Chris, what are we looking to do with the scholarship program though? How are we going to reach out to possibly underserved members of different opportunities zone communities to attempt to get them involved in the conversation?

Chris: Yeah. This is something that I’ve…and we’ve talked about this Jimmy from day one is the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in and around the Opportunity Zone program itself. I mean, this is ultimately the true purpose and promise of the program is to stimulate, you know, economic influx in these areas. And so, very early on, we talked about a vision of, “Hey, let’s get this platform launched. And at the same time, let’s be talking about forming a DEI, you know, diversity, equity, and inclusion committee that can help drive this.” So, we’re just going to basically shut up and listen to what’s needed out there.

And we knew early on that, you know, we were going to have a certain type of demographic in OZworks Group, and I’m happy already to see that it is starting to be a much more diverse group, but we really wanted to make an effort and take action to make sure that we’re doing all of our due diligence and making sure that this program is accessible to anyone and everyone. And so, one of the things that came out of that is a scholarship program concept, and we’ve already got quite a few interested parties that are, you know, regional, economic development associations, cities, and other government entities that want to stimulate growth in Opportunity Zones. And in some cases, already have funding to do that.

So, what we did is we carved out a scholarship program with the intention of having the cities and the regions be able to offer a resource that can help educate their businesses, their developers, their asset managers in their areas so that they don’t have to educate them because that’s what they’re being asked to do right now. So, we said, hey, why don’t we take this on, we carve out a cost per scholarship sponsee, right? You sponsor them. We will do a workshop.

And in that workshop, we’ll talk about the benefits of Opportunity Zones. But rather than drill them with tons of workshoppy information, we’ll move them directly into OZworks Group so that they can start to learn by being involved in the community itself. So, rather than create sort of like a separate entity for different regions, we wanted to create a program where we could get everybody into this. And it’s already been an amazing conversation. We’ve got members that have joined the committee of all walks of life so that we can start to tap on the doors of other groups and make sure that we are fully accessible.

And a lot of it’s just from a promotional standpoint, like from accessibility standpoint. In a lot of cases, it’s not even necessarily financial for people to get in, it’s about letting people know that this exists, right, and in all different pockets. So, that’s another piece of what we’re doing that I’m really excited about is making sure that you know, when we talk about putting everybody in a blender, in a really positive way, that we truly are putting everybody in it, you know?.

Jimmy: Yeah. No, very good. I think we do want to be as inclusive as we can. And I think that scholarship program will help. I want to talk about these Friday sessions you brought up a couple of times. And so, you know, OZworks Group is not just this static community platform where people post content and comment on content. There is that, but in addition to that, we also do a lot of live interactive online events. And we’re hoping to do live interactive in-person events later this year in 2021. Chris, talk about the events that are facilitated through the OZworks group platform.

Chris: Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up, you know, because the static content is great and there is some content in there that is unique to our membership group, right? But the real value that people are getting out of this is the Friday sessions and some of the other events because what we’re doing is, like I mentioned in the beginning of this conversation, we’re carving out a different structure. We’ve got a structure to each of those Friday events. It’s basically, like I mentioned, we have a breakout session or individuals to meet up sort of haphazardly or randomly, I guess I would say. So, we match you up, we ask a question, you get three, four minutes to meet somebody new in the platform, and then we come back and we do a Pitch-O-Rama. I know you love that name, Jimmy.

So, we’ve got six-minute pitches that members can present. And this is an option that’s available to any member. And that then gives them a platform to be able to either source funding or just present or practice their pitches so that they can be super, super professional when they participate in your next pitch day, which is like 20 minutes long, right? And so, then we come back and we do breakout rooms that are topic-specific. So, people can actually bounce between rooms during those sessions and hear from experts that are in those areas. They can talk to their peers about some of the concerns that they have or challenges that they have. And it’s just another great way to build that rapport amongst other people who are like-minded and in similar positions that you probably are.

So, you know, this is a component that we see a total spike you know, in activity on the platform. This platform isn’t meant to necessarily be something that, you know, you’re on 24/7, although it can be. I get messages all day long from different people. But it’s really designed to be useful and interactive. And so, that’s what those Friday sessions are for, and that’s what all of our upcoming community member programs will be as well.

Jimmy: Fantastic. And I do love that name, Pitch-O-Rama. You are right about that.

Chris: You named it, so you better like it.

Jimmy: Yeah, that’s a good point. Okay, Chris, so this all sounds awesome. This OZworks Group concept that you’ve helped put together with Ashley Tison and myself, but does it actually work? You’ve shared one anecdote already about that gentleman who got a ton of value out of the onboarding process, getting to meet you and your team and the Friday sessions.

But I’m curious, do you have any other success stories you’d like to share or case studies from members? Maybe you have a few other anecdotes that you could share with us today.

Chris: Yeah. I do have a few and I love hearing these stories. The feedback has been great so far. And so, you know, we had one gentleman who, you know, signed up, and like the first event, the first day and within one hour of being on the platform, so people were just kind of pouring in at that point, you know, and he said within the first hour, he had actually booked a client, he’s a service provider. And so, he referred to some other service providers and within a week, you know, these people are able to connect and actually, you know, book clients out of that.

So, from a service provider perspective, it’s been great. And it goes the other way too. So, the member who connected with that individual, you know, to source that service said, “Hey, I’ve been looking for this service for weeks.” Right? And so, within that hour, you’ve got two people that are really benefiting right away. That’s one.

You know, another one I would say is great. And there’s a couple of testimonials on the website that you can watch. But you know, another person had set up an Opportunity Zone with their own gains after selling a successful company, and it was set up improperly, it was set up all wrong. And so, within that week, this was from the second event that we did, within that week, this guy had gotten a new lawyer, a new CPA, and a potential business partner out of just being present at these events and being present on the platform. So, those are a few other anecdotes.

And I mean, I’ve also been setting up individual conversations with members who have, you know, bigger aspirations and bigger ideas that can plug into what we’re doing at OZworks Group. So, I’m always encouraging people to come to me with ideas to say, how can we better provide additional resources and use this community in a way that can help our members build too?

So, yeah, there’s been some great stuff coming out of this and, you know, I’m just really happy that, like I said, people are finding their way and doing it in a faster, more concise fashion. And also, in the same breath, they’re forming friendships. Like, someone said to me that, you know, “I feel like this is my group of friends now.” You know, so it’s neat to see, man, and I’m excited to see it go to 1,000 so I can tell even more stories about it.

Jimmy: Yeah, absolutely. I’m excited to see that as well. It’s been awesome so far to see how in just such a short time, again, we just launched this platform a couple of months ago, and we’re not even up to 100 members yet, but just to see the number of success stories and hear the success stories from the members, it’s been really powerful. It’s been incredible. And I’m looking forward to continuing on this journey with you, Chris, and with our other partner, Ashley Tison to continue to build this out and to provide more value to those Opportunity Zone stakeholders over the coming months and years ahead.

We’re almost out of time here today, Chris, but if somebody is interested in joining OZworks Group, I want you to walk them through, what is that process like? What does it look like when they join? This isn’t as simple as just setting up a LinkedIn account or a Facebook account, there’s a little bit more to it than that you’re offering an onboarding process and there’s a concierge level of service that is provided when somebody first enters the platform. Is that right? Can you talk about that a little?

Chris: Yeah. It’s really straightforward, at the same time, it’s really high touch. So, when you sign up, you will be almost immediately contacted by our team just welcoming you to the platform. Part of that welcome message is to sign up an intake interview. There are intimate group sessions, so we have a max of three people in those groups. So, you get to meet others, and then you get to talk a little bit about your project.

And what we do in that interview is we ask a lot of questions. And we also have you point out exactly what you need. So, we have some visuals that we use so that we can make direct introductions within two days of that interview. In fact, that’s something that we guarantee is that you will be connected to the resources that you need within two days of that intake interview.

A lot of people come to the intake interview because they’ve signed up and it takes maybe like a week. We have intake interview sessions lined up every week. So, you’re able to get in pretty quickly. But in some cases, you know, there’s a little bit of a delay. People’s schedules don’t work out. So, you know, it might be a week later and they come into the intake interview and say, .”Oh, I already connected with like three or four people.” You know, so when you become a member, you have access to the platform and we’ll be contacting you right away to set up that process.

And what we do during that intake interview is we also show you sort of best practices, how to use the community, there is an app for the community. So, I like to have that on my phone. I get notifications on a daily basis, on an hourly basis really, just people asking, hey, can you connect me with this? I’m having this challenge. And so, yeah, the process is really straightforward. It’s sign up, log in, set up a profile, we’ll contact you and get your intake interview set up. And then, hey, the Opportunity Zone world is your oyster, I guess at that point. But yeah, that’s pretty much it, man. It’s easy.

Jimmy: Oh, fantastic. Well, Chris, thank you for joining me today. Before we go, I wanted to offer our listeners some preferred pricing. So, first of all, if you’re interested in learning more about OZworks Group, you can visit www.ozworksgroup.com. And when you’re ready to join, we are offering special pricing just for “Opportunity Zones Podcast” listeners.

To access that preferred pricing, please visit this special link that we created just for you today, opportunitydb.com/ozworks. That’s opportunitydb.com/ozworks, and there you’ll find access to that preferred pricing if you’re ready to purchase a membership to OZworks Group. Chris, thank you for joining me today. I appreciate it.

Chris: I appreciate you, man. I appreciate everybody who’s been a part of this so far and look forward to the future.

Jimmy: Awesome. Thank you.

Jimmy Atkinson

Jimmy Atkinson

Hi, I'm Jimmy Atkinson... I founded OpportunityDb in August 2018. I'm a veteran Internet entrepreneur with a background in economics and Web marketing. I previously founded ETFdb.com. These days, I am passionate about impact investing and tax-advantaged investment opportunities. At the crossroads of these two ideals is the opportunity zones program, a place-based tax policy intended to economically transform some of the poorest areas of the United States with new real estate and business development.

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