4 August

Chevrolet Provides 12 Volts To MBAs Across America Program

Last year, MBAs Across America launched when first-year Harvard MBA students drove 8,000 miles across the country, offering free business counseling to local entrepreneurs. With the success of their journey, two of the original team members expanded the program into a nonprofit organization and will visit 25 cities this summer, including Detroit. Their vision is to help nearly 50 small businesses in the process.

Chevrolet has recently stepped up to show support by announcing that it is providing 12 extended-range electric Volts to help expand the program.

Read more at Hybrid Cars.

27 November

Steve Blank on Detroit’s Startup Scene

Earlier this summer, Steve Blank packed the house at Detroit’s Madison building, for a fireside chat with Detroit’s emergent Startup Community. Blank, a serial entrepreneur, author of The Startup Owners Manual, and lecturer at Stanford, dropped in to check out the Madison, meet members of Detroit’s startup community, and share some news about his recent efforts — training University researchers to think more Entrepreneurially:

In a partnership with the National Science Foundation, Blank has designed the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which teaches university scientists how to think like entrepreneurs and bring their inventions to market faster. Though the program has trained 100 teams since its inception last year in Silicon Valley, the program will now be expanded nationally, with the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech joining Stanford in offering the workshops. The NSF hopes to reach 200 more researchers through its new nodes at U-M and Georgia Tech.

Soon after, it was announced that Blank had invested in a venture fund launched out of his alma mater, the University of Michigan. From their website: “The Michigan eLab was founded by a team of passionate entrepreneurs and investors with ties to the University of Michigan entrepreneurial ecosystem and successful track records in venture capital and creating disruptive startups.” -Source: Sarah Schmid, Xconomy

We were thrilled to moderate this great event. Thanks again to Bizdom and Detroit Venture Partners for co-hosting.

If you missed our summer fireside chat with Steve, be sure to check out the Lean Startup Conference simulcast, in downtown Detroit at the Madison building this Monday, December 3. Bizdom is generously hosting a simulcast of the conference, they will stream the entire event live at the Madison’s 5th floor auditorium. Get registered here: http://detroitleanstartup.eventbrite.com/

View video highlights from the event below:

19 November

Freshwater: Using Enthusiasm to Source Startup Talent for Public Transit

“Scheduling? The word is music to my ears. Who else thinks “fun” when they hear “scheduling”? Raise your hands!” Neil Greenberg squints into the standing-room only audience of the Elizabeth Theater on the second floor of Park Bar, the venue for the first CONNECTION meeting of Freshwater Transit. Indeed a few cautious hands go up, outing their owners’ passion for scheduling and fellow transit-nerdiness. Greenberg launches into another salvo on the nitty-gritty of transit planning and operations and the crowd begins to relax. He’s gregarious, jokey, the avatar of that overzealous high-school math teacher who doesn’t just want you to learn that algebra, but wants you to really believe in it. In Neil Greenberg, founder of Freshwater Railways (now re-branded as Freshwater Transit) the audience has found a speaker so unapologetically geeked out on transportation that even the most mundane detail leaves his mouth packing an oratorical punch. And tonight, Neil has not asked people to come out to merely sit as his audience. Instead, he is asking them to be his business partners…

Freshwater began as one of those crazy ideas that makes perfect TED-talk fodder. Indeed, attendees at this year’s TEDxDetroit may recall Greenberg’s presentation, pitching quality design concepts as a vehicle for re-imagining the City’s deeply dysfunctional public transit. That’s Freshwater’s big-picture idea; since transit policy is an awkwardly uninteresting topic for many people, Greenberg set out to re-brand the idea of Detroit’s public transit itself.

It wasn’t easy to figure out a hook. Most people rarely pause to consider the back-end of transit; scheduling, operations, funding sources (except when they have to vote for a millage) and are not particularly literate in the vocabulary of transit policy. Hence, though many Detroiters are legitimate stakeholders in improved public transit, they often fail to recognize that transportation systems are fundamentally a political issue that can be influence through their participation. This is particularly troubling given that fuel has become the second highest household expense after rent, and those costs have made cars increasingly unaffordable. That means that for many Detroiters, the ability to seek employment, gain access to healthcare or make use of public institutions is geographically restricted to the ever-shrinking routes of a notoriously unreliable bus service.

But how do you get people to start caring, and more importantly, how do you get them involved? Greenberg’s solution was simple; make the vision for Detroit’s future transit system specific and concrete. Though perhaps unfamiliar with the devilish details, most people know how to read a bus map, and maps inform the way they imagine the importance of transit in their daily commute. Drawing on his professional experience making transit maps for other cities, Greenberg laid out a sweeping vision for a metropolitan and regional transit system in Southeast Michigan consisting of light rail lines and expanded bus service that could connect key economic hubs and expand commute opportunities for millions. He posted these maps on his website fwrail.org and low and behold, people started to take note.

Proposed route for Relay Bus - visit Freshwater for full schedules.
It wasn’t long before Greenberg and Stephen Maiseloff, Freshwater’s organizational partner, started dreaming bigger. They printed posters of the visionary route maps and began hanging them in public places. They made Freshwater fare tickets and handed them out to people. Some people were confused, then elated. Can I really take the bus to work? The psychological effect of these relatively minor acts is hard to overstate. People began thinking about transit in a different way, and functional public transportation in the Motor City moved from the scrap heap of pipe-dreams to become part of the conversation.

But now it seems that many of these questions about the future of transit are coming to a head. It’s no secret that Detroit has a budget problem, and but now there are rumbling about the City’s public transit systems being put out for private bidding early next year. Mayor Dave Bing had already proposed transit privatization during previous bankruptcy threats, and many on the City Council have come around to his thinking. In part, this is in response to legitimate pressure from state and federal officials that governments take the lead on regionalizing transit systems. Greenberg speculates that city manager’s are operating under the illusion that by privatizing the service, especially the economically vital bus service, they can achieve the same benefits through a private operator without having to fund it with public dollars. “That’s ridiculous,” says Neil. “There’s an 87% budget gap once you’ve factored in fare revenues. There’s no privatized Metro transit system in the country that pays for itself. Public transit is a public good, and it requires public investment.”

Based on over a decade of professional experience in the transit industry, Greenberg believes that privatization could prove disastrous for Detroit if executed with opportunistic haste. Standing on the stage at CONNECTION, Greenberg turns turns towards his audience with an expression turned suddenly serious. “We are going to face a choice in this city about what happens to the future of our transit system. I don’t believe in the leadership of the lowest bidder. I believe in leadership by people who have a vested interest in the future of this city.” The crowd’s applause is heartfelt, yet cautious. What exactly was being asked of them?

The Freshwater Transit approach has now moved from dreaming big to a much more tangible form of audacity. “Our plan is to form a public, not-for-profit corporation,” Greenberg said, measuring the incredulity in his audience’s eyes, “And then, bid on the contract to run the bus system. With your help, we can do it. I’ve worked in transit for the past decade, I have the experience, but we need the team. So tonight I’m asking you to join me. Are you in?”

Entrepreneurs know the problem of sourcing talented collaborators for start-ups. You are asking people to work harder than they’ve maybe ever worked before, with a significant likelihood that nothing will come of it. You are asking them to bet on you, and bet with their time, money and yes, their future hopes. That was what Neil Greenberg asked the crowd above Park Bar that night, to bet on him, his passion and experience, to tell their friends and family about Freshwater. But not just that, he asked them to literally join him — not in some abstracted social media “Like” or “Follow” sense — to join him and Stephen and others as partners in running Detroit’s transit Freshwater is awarded the City’s bus contract. To a crowd of relative strangers, it’s a pretty amazing ask.

*The author would like to thank Hannah Kelley and Detroit’s TRU, as well as everyone who participated in the Freshwater event. If you’re interested in learning more about Freshwater (@fwtransit), regular CONNECTION meetings will be held starting the Monday after Thanksgiving at 7:00 PM at Park Bar in Detroit.

3 January

Leatherface Jerky Company

“What are you guys doing?!” Steve, said as he walked into the house. He could tell right away that we were cooking something…

“Jerky?!!?

In the oven?!?!”

The air was moist with the smell of brown sugar, soy sauce, and liquid smoke, erupting from the cracked oven door. Approximately  3 dozen, or 7-8 lbs of beef, cut into thin slivers of meat was suspended by skewers inside the 375 degree appliance.

It was my very first enterprise, Leatherface Jerky Company. I, along with two of my closest friends Armando and Stafford, would spend each hour after school at the grocery store, and then destroying my mothers kitchen. Well, until she had enough and we had to rotate through Stafford’s house, much to the delight of his little brother Steve.

We would cook the meat through the night, and then equally divide the meat into brown paper bags. A sharpie would scribble “$15″ on the front and back of each bag, and as many bags as we could fit would be stuffed into our backpacks to be taken to school and distributed in the hallways between class.

We did okay, I mean what do you really need to spend money on when you are a sophomore in high school? Not even gas. So we reinvested all of our revenue. We bought more meat, more soy sauce, more liquid smoke, and more brown paper bags. We were first to market, so we had a pretty good run, but pretty soon this other kid, Harvey — his dad was a hunter, began showing up with his own bags of venison jerky. He had a real smoker, and his dad had a better recipe, so Leatherface quickly became a flash in the pan.

I wasn’t concerned, that Christmas we had gotten a Compaq Presario, and it came with a 8x cd burner. I was one of the very first kids that had access to one, and pretty quickly Sean Parker and I had partnered on my next venture. I could make $10-15 a mix, and since most mixes were usually very similar, could crank out 3ish a night.

But you need a place to listen to your mixes, and while a discman with 10 second skip protection is good, if you really wanted the girls to notice you you needed a ‘system’. This thrilled my mom, finally I was out of the kitchen (where the computer hutch was too) and into the driveway.

After designing subwoofer enclosures, and installing systems, I partnered with newegg and began to build desktop pcs. Then came the ages of 18-21 where I found limited success in the ‘hospitality’ (and a quick dabble in ‘pharmaceutical sales’) industry. Next came the certified bartender training company, a management holdings company/consultancy, a web design development company, and finally (FINALLY!) I am hitting my stride at the helm of a digital agency.

From here, it sure looks like entrepreneurship is a part of who I am, it defines my character, and is as much a part of who I am as my freckles and baby browns. Hindsight is 20/20. During the entire timeline contained in this story, for nine years from 2000-2009, I was lost. I was operating under the impression that I was to go to college with a program that was strong in my interests (mechanical or electrical engineering) to learn some good stuff, and go out and get a job working for a company that would provide a steady income and a very monochrome existence (no offense to all you drones out there that enjoy working for the man).

Only once, when I was building computers, did someone (my father) pull me aside and say “you know what, there is another option available to you.” Not one high school teacher, mentor, counselor, or college level professor, in 9 years ever tapped my shoulder and said,

“Not everyone is wired to work for someone else.”

So whats my point? To be bitter? Hell no; I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot during my 9 years in the desert, and I love my life. My point is this, there may be someone that looks up to you, that has a few quirks, that may appear on the outside to be wired a little ‘funny.’ If you come across someone like that in your life, I want you to point them to Grow Detroit, and encourage them to reach out. Take them to i3 Detroit, or any other number of Hackerspaces. Take them to a Makerfaire, or a local TEDx or ignite event, or spend just a few dollars and buy them an issue of Make magazine. Or even easier, find an entrepreneur, send them an email, and just ask them if your pipsqueek can buy them a coffee.

Michigan needs a bit of work, and we’re gonna need to all work together. We continue to hemorrhage talent, and most importantly we have a new generation on our hands, whose existance has been tracked since conception and some of them will be hungry to shape the world,

So lets all feed them a little jerky eh?