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The Young & Entrepreneurial: A Q&A with Jon Citrin

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The biggest piece of art work in Jonathan Citrin's office is the one that gets the most attention, and that's the way he likes it.

The piece is called "December," by Ferndale artist Todd Borroughs. It depicts the face of an older man against a dark background. It focuses on the man's wrinkles, eyes, and arresting gaze. It shocks as much as it entices and one can't help but make eye contact with it in the waiting area of CitrinGroup's downtown Birmingham offices.

"One of my employees said half the people who see it hate it. Maybe we shouldn't put it up?" Citrin says. "I don't care if they hate it as long as it stirs up some emotion."

That's Citrin, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who started his own financial services firm seven years ago and today employs four people and 10 independent contractors. They work on a second-floor office overlooking Old Woodward Avenue just north of the Uptown Palladium 12 movie theater. Citrin has the corner office and works from a chair he says "is hard to get stressed out in."

Not that he sits in it much. The stylish-yet-casually dressed young man is high energy, full of ideas to change the world, and possessed of a savant-like brilliance that makes you think he could actually do it. After going to college at Tulane and New York University, and working on Wall Street and a number of financial firms around the world, he came home. His firm recently moved from Southfield to downtown Birmingham, a literal stones throw from the house he grew up in and now close enough where he can casually walk to work.
 
"There are some mornings I see my dad walking by with his dog," Citrin says. "I'll say 'Hey!' and wave, but he can't see me through the tinted glass. Normally, I will walk to my parents and say 'Meet me for dinner'. It's an amazing lifestyle to live where you work."

Citrin recently sat down with Metromode's Jon Zemke and avidly chatted about his hometown, entrepreneurship, and even Mick Jagger. Here is a condensed and edited version of that interview.

Metro Detroit is one of the places hit hardest by the financial crisis. And yet, your financial services firm has grown steadily in spite of this. How have you accomplished that?

For us it's been a non-group-think mentality. We watched a lot of movies, like Lord of the Rings and The Matrix and read a lot of books that have nothing to do with Wall Street. The goal is to pull us out of this Wall Street world of do what everyone else is doing. We have worked very hard to infuse a thorough process that enables us to take the right amount of risk and capitalize on opportunities. We invest on a process, not a whim. It's when we build the process is when we let our creativity come into it. When I meet investors, at first they look at what we do and say, 'This is different and uncomfortable.' The people who have succeeded over the last few years are the ones who were already set up to think creatively and think about things a little differently.

A lot of homes in the region are being sold for fractions of their traditional value. Could this phenomenon set the stage for homeowners to have more disposable income 5-10 years from now because their housing expenses are minimized, and in turn provide the local economy a boost?

I think so. This was a correction, and slowly it will lead people to a better place. There is going to be pain, but we're resilient. Detroiters are nothing if not resilient. In the end, we'll look back and say we're better off, but in the moment it never feels that way. It's awful.

Metro Detroit's wealth is more trust fund than 'nouveau.' It sets up a dilemma where local entrepreneurs are left looking at seed capital through a window because they don't know how to open the door and the people who own the store don't know how to make a deal work. Is there a way we can make that connection and maximize the potential of this region's old money?

That's a great point. It's going to take some pushing, shoving our way in. The catalysts that can get us there are young entrepreneurs. If we can show some growth, then that old wealth will look and think that's interesting. Then we will see an even greater boom because those people will start to invest.

So it's one of those things where the first step is the hardest to take?

Yes, but it's going to be huge when you gain a little momentum. We have some amazing ideas and people. If we can get past that first step the momentum is really going to come.

CitrinGroup is 7 years old. Name one mistake you made in that time you would like to make sure other entrepreneurs avoid?

As a young entrepreneur, my biggest mistake was my ambition. It was my greatest asset and it cost me the most in terms of time and money. If I could go back seven years, I'd tell myself to be patient. Don't try to conquer the world in a day. Slow down. It will all come.

Name one of your big visions?

Impact people's psychology when they invest. My goal is not to be a wildly profitable firm. It's to affect real change in the investment industry, doing it through the individual and teaching the individual how to do it right. Our firm's mission statement is to change what people think of a financial advisor.

You have said Metro Detroit should offer more incentives for entrepreneurs to start businesses here. Give an example of an incentive that might fly under the radar of local leaders?

Some sort of local group of entrepreneurs who get together and help each other. Not dollar-wise, but advice and support-wise.

Almost like an Alcoholics Anonymous but for entrepreneurs?

That's a great name. Entrepreneurs Anonymous. Create a subculture of entrepreneurs.

You teach finance at Wayne State. Do you think we should be teaching business or entrepreneurial courses earlier, say in high school or grade school, to help steer more young people toward being their own boss?

Absolutely. We do an inadequate job of fostering creativity and entrepreneurship in our schools. We need to do it more and more, earlier and earlier.  

Can entrepreneurship be taught, and if so what makes a good entrepreneur?

It's important to start teaching the concept of independent thinking early. Coming up with your own ideas and not being afraid to follow them. You have to start really early. If you don't start with these kids until they're 15 it's almost too late. We don't teach kids to live in the moment, and as an entrepreneur that's what you do.

What would convince your students to stick around and use their entrepreneurial skills here in Michigan?

Some component of it is just jobs. But if there was a buzz around here where they felt some sort of energy, they would be much more likely to stay. We need a force that will pull people here. The opportunities will come when the energy is there.

Internships are seen as the newest tool to staunching Michigan's brain drain. You have employed and hired interns. Do you believe the hype that a new worker is more likely to plant roots in the place they intern at?

I do. The more you work in a community, the more people you know. It creates roots. It just forces people to become more entwined in the community and they fall in love with it.

What is the right way to engage an intern and what is the wrong way?

Interns are unfortunately treated like, just do this work and shut up. Or you're young and inexperienced so don't tell me what to do. That's a huge mistake. One, the intern is not learning anything. Two, you're not getting the benefit of having this person in your office. You hired them because they are smart and add value. When I was on Wall Street a lot of people would use interns to cold call. I didn't want that. I wanted my interns to be involved with me, and lo and behold the people with the freshest perspectives had the best ideas. An intern can be your best asset.

Which way do you think southeast Michigan companies tilt?

The wrong way. We really need to swing that pendulum the other way so our young people get excited about working here.

What could the local businesses do to make Metro Detroit more attractive for young people?

We really need more entrepreneurs to speak up and say I am doing great things and things are going well. Look at the news. Stop telling me about the fire on the east side of town and tell me about the guy who started a business. Let's start focusing on the good stuff and more of it will come. You are what you think about.

New entrepreneurs often struggle when it comes to building the teams to run their businesses. What advice would you give them to help them overcome those obstacles?

Two pieces of advice: Before you start hiring you have to know what you need. Take your time. Think it through. Make it a strategic hire. Two, I would also say, throw out all of the bullshit interview questions you would normally ask and think of your team in a whole different way. Think about who you want to be in 5-10 years and ask questions to make sure the person can get you there.

You recently moved your office from anonymous suburban Southfield to downtown Birmingham's vibrancy. Give an example of how this decision has unexpectedly helped your business?

I assumed it would have a positive impact on my employees. I would have never imagined it was so much. They love it. I am starting to hear them say 'I think I might move to downtown Birmingham'. And we have only been here a month. There has been a deeper mental shift and it's been a good thing.

Downtown Birmingham employs some of the most progressive urban policies geared toward young people in Michigan and yet it attracts more of a mature, wealthier crowd compared to the likes of Royal Oak and Ferndale. Do you have any idea why this happens?

That's a damn good question. ... I don't know. I don't feel like it's because anybody doesn't want the other. It's just sort of an evolution.

What is one of the things that made Metro Detroit attractive for you to move back to and how can we exploit it to help convince more former residents to become Mich-agains?

I moved back because of family. But there is something else about Michigan. A subtle unity. To me it's just a great place to be.

You have lived everywhere from New York City to New Orleans. How important is this broader perspective when doing business in a place as provincial as Metro Detroit?

It's very humbling. To go around the world and learn about other cultures and people and see how it's done otherwise. Then to learn how specialized it is here. Then you realize how good you have it. This is a pretty incredible place.

If you could require every entrepreneur in Michigan to read one book, which would you choose and why?

John Kabat-Zinn's book Wherever You Go, There You Are. It's about mindfulness and being in the moment. The book is very simple. It teaches you to enjoy life.

Who is more entrepreneurial, Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney?

Mick Jagger. I see him as 'I am going to be myself. Take me or leave me.' As an entrepreneur you have to have that streak where you are true to yourself.


Jon Zemke is Metromode's and Concentrate's News Editor. He conducted this interview in person in Citrin's corner office overlooking Old Woodward Avenue on an sunny September morning. His last story was An Early Adopter: A Q&A with Pete Bonner.

All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos

Jonathan Citrin in front of the painting "December" by Todd Borroughs

Jonathan in the CitrinGroup offices on Old Woodward in Birmingham

Jonathan in the CitrinGroup offices on Old Woodward in Birmingham

Jonathan in the CitrinGroup offices on Old Woodward in Birmingham
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