Detroit Harmonie’s Get Funded Challenge and Entrepreneurial Community Building

I’ve gotten to know Zakaria Shaikh through his work at Startup Michigan. I thought his post on his Thoughts on Detroit Harmonie’s Get Funded Challenge and Entrepreneurial Community Building was great and it is reposted here with his permission.

It’s not every weekend that I have the opportunity to be surrounded by entrepreneurs working on transformational ideas in the city of Detroit. Last Saturday, I was invited to judge Detroit Harmonie‘s Get Funded Challenge, a social entrepreneur pitch event with entrepreneurs competing for $50,000 in funding. I have judged a number of university-, corporate-, and state-sponsored business plan competitions and pitches over the years, but this pitch event was distinctly different. This was certainly one of those “you had to be there to feel it” events. Here are my thoughts on the parallels between what I thought DH did right and its application to entrepreneurial community building in Michigan.

As a background, I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about the lack of a robust statewide, entrepreneurial community in Michigan– primarily the need and how to go about developing one. I noticed many aspects of the Get Funded Challenge that illustrated key, but often overlooked, points to consider in developing a stronger entrepreneurial community.

1. The DH Board did a phenomenal job in engaging a great breadth of stakeholders in Detroit. A representative from the White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities was present. The Mayor’s chief of staff kicked-off the event. Detroit-based corporations were engaged as sponsors or as participants. Small- and medium-sized businesses were in attendance. (Ann Arbor-based Zingermans had a great cheese-tasting table there– If you were trying to get to the table, I apologize. I was the one holding up the traffic there, and asking the Zingermans’ rep questions about the cheeses and tasting each one.) There were many students from colleges and universities present. And a diverse group of entrepreneurs were also there- engaged, networking, exchanging ideas about startups and community projects, and just having a good time.

Detroit Harmonie engaged with all stakeholders in Detroit. I bet not everyone understood the organization’s vision from the website, press releases, or executive summary and just showed up for the celebration (more on this below), but I am willing to bet that by the end of the night, after experiencing the pitch event, great food, diverse people, and live music, everyone understood clearly what DH was about, what makes its activities critical to Detroit’s revitalization, and five reasons (five pitches) to support DH.

So, engagement with all stakeholders is critical. If some don’t get it, there’s nothing like some food and entertainment in a great venue to put on some “show and tell”. There are many storied, Michigan-based corporations and family foundations— has the startup community (and I put myself in this boat) engaged with them sufficiently to help them understand what Michigan’s startup universe looks like, its community and economic impact, its challenges, and the types of resources needed to support these job creators? If you are passionate about this, send me a note and I will put you in touch with a kickass group of entrepreneurs heading this project.

2. Another great aspect of the event was its premise. It was very simple, at least in the way that I interpreted it: let’s come together to celebrate entrepreneurs who are making things happen in the city. Who doesn’t want to be a part of something like that? Think about the city-, county-, or state-wide impact Michigan startups are creating everyday. Did a company close a large financing round, expand its facility, and start hiring people? Did a company exit and its alum are now out there investing in or starting up new ventures? We have many such  examples in Michigan. All these activities translate into quantifiable community and economic impact worthy of a celebration. So, pick a reason and celebrate. Repeat.

3. If you are not an entrepreneur (universities, EDCs, incubators, accelerators, VCs, law firms, corporations), listen up. Put entrepreneurs in the driver’s seat. DH’s founders and over half its board are entrepreneurs who are committed to Michigan, community-minded, visionary, and working everyday to build a robust community. There is no substitute for this sort of leadership. If you are a public or private organization that is serious about nurturing a statewide entrepreneurial community and making Michigan a go-to place for entrepreneurship, then go find the visionary, community-minded entrepreneurial leaders (and there are quite a few around the state) and ask them how you can help. And then help them. Have them lead and get out of the way.

This post is way longer that I expected. But hopefully the point is abundantly clear: to nurture a statewide entrepreneurial community, all strata and stakeholders of the city/county/state must be engaged –very few people will turn down food, entertainment, and a great cause; make the intersection of the strata/stakeholders an opportunity to celebrate something– in other words, make it a fun event that appeals to the human element in all of us and not just another boring meeting; and develop/support entrepreneur-led community-building efforts- there is no substitute for it.


FinServe Tech Angels in St. Louis, MO

I’ve been getting lots of emails from readers of this blog and Feld Thoughts about my Startup Communities book effort with stories of their own. For now, I’m going to keep posting them (with permission of the authors) as I explore a way to open this site up so people can self-publish their own stories. In the mean time, please keep them coming – they are enormously helpful as I continue to work through both the book and my theory about how Startup Communities work. In addition, it’s great exposure for your startup community and some of the comment threads have been outstanding (please weigh in if you have thoughts and/or are doing similar things in your startup community.)

Today’s post is from Kyle Welborn, the founder and executive director of FinServe Tech Angels in St. Louis, MO.

I want to start by saying that I am not yet a leader in my city’s entrepreneurial community, but I am trying to be. I left a day job in September of last year to launch a new angel group in St. Louis, MO. In building this new angel group, I am trying to capitalize on St. Louis’ strengths. I think it is much harder and more expensive to build entrepreneurial capacity from scratch than it is to focus on an area where my community already has some domain expertise. In St. Louis, we have a large cluster of people who know the financial services industry. According to our chamber of commerce, 84,000 St. Louis residents work in the financial services sector. In fact, two of the three professional sports stadiums in the city are named after large financial services companies headquartered here, the Edward Jones Dome and the Scottrade Center.

My belief is that entrepreneurs ultimately decide where to locate their business based on three things: where do their customers live, where can they hire great talent, and where can they raise capital. No region has all three of those elements for every business industry out there. However, I believe St. Louis has the customers and talent necessary for financial services technology entrepreneurs to succeed. I decided to start building an industry focused angel group to fill in the missing capital void for these start-ups. It is way too early to know if this idea will work or not. My group is only up to 10 members, and to date, we have not yet made an investment. However, I have gotten people to join, built a Board of Directors, and we are in due diligence on several companies.
There are several other cities trying to improve the start-up eco-system by focusing on their strengths as well. Cincinnati is leveraging Proctor and Gamble in running an accelerator program called the Brandery specifically focused on consumer products companies. Rock Island, Illinois is tapping into John Deere to help their entrepreneurs find new uses for old patents. Not every city is going to be Silicon Valley or Boulder. However, every community has something that its city’s big corporations are good at, and focusing on these strengths seems like the right way to start building a successful start-up community.

Action in Ann Arbor, MI

Late last year, my partner Jason Mendelson and I took a trip to Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. Jason is an alum, I was merely an interloper. We each had an awesome time and wrote two posts about it – Entrepreneurship in Ann Arbor, Michigan and College Is Like A Sandbox.

Yesterday, our good friend Roger Ehrenberg, also a Michigan alum wrote a post titled Thoughts from Ann Arbor. He covered a bunch of stuff we saw, but also found a few new interesting things.

Regardless, it’s pretty clear that Ann Arbor is working hard at building out a robust startup community around the base of the University of Michigan. I’ve always had a mental model that Ann Arbor is a cool college town that had a lot of similarities to Boulder. It’s fun to see it really come alive on the startup front. And I loved the punch line from Roger’s post:

“While I’ll deal with my view of the next generation of data scientists in a subsequent post, I am incredibly interested in helping to build a dedicated program towards this end at Michigan. All the pieces are there. It just requires some cross-departmental cooperation in order to bring it to life. This is one of my missions for my alma mater: help to pull together a data science program that empowers student/practitioners to solve tomorrow’s problems today. It can be done. It must be done. It will be done.”

Can you name a few famous University of Michigan entrepreneurial alumni? I can. Some might surprise you.


Columbus, OH – Building the Startup Ecosystem

Today’s post comes by way of Brian Zuercher, the CEO of FlyMuch.com in Columbus, Ohio. In it, he describes his experience returning to Columbus as an entrepreneur four years ago, some background on Columbus, and two specific lessons that he’s learned: (1) stop trying to be Silicon Valley and (b) take the long view.

Reid Hoffman describes entrepreneurship as jumping off a cliff and assembling the plane on the way down, and this seems to hold true for entrepreneurship no matter where you live. The difference for an entrepreneur in Columbus, who decides to jump off the cliff, is that he or she will also need to wear the hat of entrepreneurial eco-system builder. In other words, the entrepreneurs need to assemble the plane, and source all the parts (recruit crazy people to work for you), find thermal updraft (funding), and convince some passengers to ride this extremely risky flight (evangelists, government, etc.).

It’s been almost four years since I returned to Columbus after a decade gone for school, work and more school. We returned to Columbus for many of the reasons people return to where they grew up. The one difference in my thought process, albeit naïve maybe, was that I believed you could start a company anywhere and make it happen.

Now that I am in my 4th year back, I know what is in front of me and it’s a decision many entrepreneurs in Columbus and cities like Columbus will face. Entreperneurs will have to wear two hats for their foreseeable future. One hat is that of the entrepreneur for their company and the second hat is that of the entrepreneur for their community. The main challenge this creates for entrepreneurs is time and stamina. The difficulties and stress associated with entrepreneurship are already tough, so the key is to know the hurdles in front of you before you start.

First, a little background on Columbus.

Columbus, OH has many of the ingredients that are not easily replicated in other cities. We have one of the largest universities in the country in The Ohio State University, a relatively large base of experienced corporate IT staff, and generally a nice (lower cost) place to live. With the exception of mountains or an ocean, we are ahead of most cities that are trying to build entrepreneurial eco-systems.

There is a unique size to cities like Columbus. Cities like Columbus that have just shy of a million people in the city and another half million in the metro area, have a small enough size that navigating the network to find people is still relatively easy, but still enough people to warrant corporate investment and workforce build.

Within two weeks of my return to Columbus I had coffee with an incubator representative, attended Startup Weekend, and created my first company. The problem in cities like this is not getting to the right people; it’s what happens next. We started our company and had revenue and traction in the first few months. This sounds like a story most entrepreneur’s dream of. The challenges started when there was really nowhere for us to go after that. We tried to get some local incubator funding, but the committees voting were scared of web market and it’s uncertainty. Additionally, most angels in Columbus had backgrounds as Doctors, Lawyers, Corporate Execs, etc., but not as ground up entrepreneurs, which ultimately meant they were extremely risk averse and not interested in funding any deals that did not have obvious cash flow break-even tangible products.

It’s easy to get frustrated when you get into these situations. The easy answer is to just move to somewhere like Silicon Valley where the ‘get it’ crowd around new tech and funding is already at critical mass. There is a ton of bad logic in making a decision like that, and I continually fight my own pull towards it.

There are two lessons I have taken away from my early experiences in Columbus.

1. Stop trying to be Silicon Valley. Columbus is constantly being ranked the ‘Next big tech city’ or whatever. It makes me want to vomit when I hear this, because inevitably the next week some local paper says puts out a headline that says, “Is Columbus the next Silicon Valley?”. The answer is and should be NO. Columbus is going to be – Columbus version 2.0. It is our job to stay true to the steady, smart backbone that built cities like Columbus, but begin to shift the future economic engine to entrepreneurship. One nice thing about Columbus is its lack of parochialism. Most people ‘from Columbus’ are first generational. The city was relatively small until the 70’s and 80’s, so the benefit is a lack of legacy rewriting. The community is ready for chapter 2 to be written, but it’s not going to be the next Silicon Valley (unless you can move some mountains and an ocean closer).

2. Take the long view. We do not live in a long-view world, so making investments today that will have maturity years from now is really painful. Most people think it’s the money, government or big wins that will make the eco-system build. I would argue the longest and most painful, but ultimately the most important ingredient is Culture. We are trying to change generational thought processes of risk, process and opportunity and it doesn’t happen overnight. To take the long-view you need to celebrate the wins incrementally and set achievable goals that don’t jeopardize the long-term progress.

Finally, some signs of progress.

We recently started WakeUp StartUp, a monthly pitch breakfast for entrepreneurs. What is unique about this meetup is that there is only one requirement: you need an ASK. The ASK doesn’t have to be funding, it can be customers, employees, advice, etc. The first two events we maxed out the venue and it’s continuing to grow with submissions and attendance. The most important aspect of WakeUp StartUp is that the entrepreneurs run it.

I am bullish on new entrepreneurial eco-systems and the people building them. My advice to entrepreneurs is to treat your community like a startup your investing in. This let’s you transfer your hats you have to wear a little more smoothly.

Our motto here is “why the hell not Columbus.”


Florida Innovation Hub in Gainesville Florida

In the book Startup Communities I spend some time talking about how universities can be powerful feeders into a startup community. A blog reader sent me a note pointing out the Florida Innovation Hub at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL as an example of what is going on in the community. They’ve got a nice glossy video describing the Florida Innovation Hub.

This is the first of 7 structures on a 20+ acre plot of land dedicated to entrepreneurship and commerce. It’s a great example of what a university can do to help a startup community.


Notman House – Montreal Co-Working Space

I’ve written a lot about the importance of entrepreneurial density. This is especially true in large cities, where it is even more important to have tight clusters (or neighborhoods) of entrepreneurs.

Recently I received an email from Ildar Khakimov about the Notman House, a Montreal co-working space in the heart of the city aimed at being the home of web entrepreneurship in Montreal. Ildar is the volunteer community manager for Notman House and justifiably proud of what they are doing.

Several of the members of the Montreal startup community, including Real Ventures and the Osmo Foundation are responsible for the birth of the Notman House project. Several specific people who drove this project are John Stokes, Alan Macintosh and Mark MacLeod.

Notman House has some great public spaces and regularly hosts events for the startup communities. There’s a wiki, email mailing list, and Hackademy. A web cafe and offices for rent round things out.

Notman House is a very large historic property which is joined by a tunnel to an old hospital. Currently the hospital space is not used, but there is a goal to transform it into a place where startups would be able to work in teams for a period of several months. You can easily envision an accelerator being housed here.

Co-working spaces are quickly becoming a main stay of any startup community. Montreal is off to a good start with Notman House.


Chicago’s Startup Community – New Reasons To Live In The Windy City

Troy Henikoff, one of the founders of Excelerate Labs and one of the leaders of Chicago’s startup community sent me an update on what’s going on in Chicago. It’s pretty awesome and is a great example of what happens when entrepreneurs take a long term view to building their startup community. Here are a few of the things going on that Troy mentioned.

BuiltInChicago – just over a year old and has over 6,000 entrepreneurs and 15 – 20 blog posts a day on what is happening in Chicago

Technori Pitch – sells out a 500 seat auditorium each month to hear 4 – 5 startups pitch

TechWeek Conference – a week-long festival celebrating the technology, web and interactive communities

Entrepreneurs Unpluggd – Awesome event each month to hear from 3 entrepreneurs on a variety of topics

CodeAcademy – a 90 day intense in person curriculum that teaches people to be coders

1871 – a new 50,000 sq ft co-working space opening next month it is totally entrepreneur focused and is a 501(c)3

FireStarter Fund – 42 successful digital tech entrepreneurs start an innovative fund to help early stage Chicago companies with capital and access to mentorship

Excelerate – Forbes ranked us the #3 accelerator in the country this year – applications are open until March 16th

The BuiltInChicago site has a great summary of 2011 along with a list of Chicago companies. It seems like it’s time for me to get my butt to the airport, hop on a United flight, and spend a few days in Chicago.


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