New Economy

Start Garden could be the push Detroit needs toward some green entrepreneurial shoots

About two months ago, something amazing was born. It is called “Start Garden,” and it is a model of how Detroit should be looking at its entrepreneurial culture.

Or lack thereof.

Now, I’m not saying we lack entrepreneurs. Although that argument surely could be made, and many have done so. What I’m saying is that Grand Rapids, which is where Start Garden is based, is making some impressive moves in terms of supporting this unique start-up fund. And I’d like to think that Detroit has the moxie, the people and the industry here to do something similar.

First, some background. At its most basic, Start Garden is a $15 million seed fund that selects two ideas each week to invest in. One of the ideas is chosen by Start Garden team members, the broader community selects the other. Each investment receives $5,000 to start. The fund’s ultimate goal is to invest in 100 companies during its first year. Its founder is Rick DeVos, whose past projects include ArtPrize, 5×5 Night, Momentum and Spout.com.

I had a chance this week to talk to Paul Moore, the fund’s marketing director. He and Start Garden’s other staffers have been with Mr. DeVos for a while now, going through the successes (see: ArtPrize) and failures along the way. They knew what worked and what didn’t when they launched Start Garden about nine weeks ago.

What they knew worked…Well, they knew they needed some money to give potential entrepreneurs the momentum they needed. Did they need to give these newbie business people hundreds of thousands of dollars? Not at all; they just wanted to give them a push in the right direction.

“The responses have been just awesome. The public has been killing it,” selecting some amazing projects for Start Garden to invest in, Moore said.

One of Moore’s favorite projects that the public selected was ReindeerCam.com – a site that lets you watch a group of what are described as “Santa’s reindeer” go about their everyday lives. Granted, most of the time the boys are just sitting there eating. But around Christmas time, more than 1 million people tuned in to watch the pre-holiday prep. That’s entertainment – and a site that could turn profitable mighty quick, especially when CNN comes rolling up and your site goes viral.

“They won us over with their ‘Screw it; let’s do it’ approach to entrepreneurism,” Moore admitted. “They’re just smart as crackers.”

I’d like to note that Start Garden also knew it needed more than just money to help its winners succeed. They needed a community of supporters. First, they needed the mentors. That came from a variety of sources, particularly the large corporations around Grand Rapids, including significant companies such as Steelcase. Secondly, they needed the city’s support to ensure there was the right environment in place to give these seeded ideas a place that wanted them to grow. And, finally, they needed a state where people were willing to take a chance on a new industry…because you just don’t know what is going to take root in Michigan until you try it.

“It’s an entire region of incubation,” Moore said. “The people around here just want good things to happen.”

Here’s the part I especially like – the entrepreneurs who work with Start Garden have the support of an entire REGION. I’m willing to bet that a lot of business owners in Detroit don’t feel like they have any support other than their friends or family … let alone the support of the city, the larger business community or the greater community. And what impresses me about Start Garden is not only how many people have applied – and it’s in the hundreds – but that so many people want to be involved.

Let me be frank – Start Garden is a for-profit business. Projects that demonstrate success and continued growth can ultimately receive as much as $500,000 in additional investments BECAUSE the Start Garden investors also will get their money if the thing or app or website or what have you eventually goes big.

It’s an ecosystem, Moore explained. Every part is necessary. Every part has its purpose.

Every week, it seems, I see or hear about some great new idea or business in or around Detroit. I see the “Detroit 4 Detroit” project get 150 citizen philanthropists to sign up to raise $250,000 by year’s end. I see projects like Dan Austin’s book about Detroit’s lost landmarks be fully funded within two days – and the money keeps pouring in for this awesome tome.

What I don’t see is the ecosystem. I don’t hear about the mentorship. And I don’t feel the citywide support. Maybe it’s there – please let me know what programs exist, the cities or the people making it happen. I’d love to get to know them.

Otherwise, I’d like to support the creation of an Eastside “Start Garden.” Sure, we have venture capitalists here. Let’s get them to venture just a little further.

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One comment on “Start Garden could be the push Detroit needs toward some green entrepreneurial shoots

  1. I'm curious what you think about HatchDetroit and their efforts to grow entrepreneurs in Detroit. There were over 900 applicants for the competition last year.

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