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Know Y: Young and Entrepreneurial (a.k.a Doin' Stuff)

"What's venture capital?"

Kevin was a student at the Arts Institute in Novi. He had ambitions of starting his own music label or clothing line, and his eyes lit up after I had described how the founders of my company, Google, got their start in a garage in Menlo Park. When I realized his enthusiasm far outweighed his understanding of business basics, it struck me: In a region where we have a dying industry on our hands, how well are we were equipping Gen Ys to be entrepreneurs? The opportunities in this economy are mainly in the small business sector, so how are we to get those skills into the hands of people with Kevin's drive?

Back home in Ann Arbor, I had friends on the other side of the spectrum. Ross MBA students participating in business plan competitions that were drafting operational plans, learning how to secure resources, and going after real seed money. The university's Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE) had come to speak to our office about the programs and incubators it sponsored. Ankit Mehta, program director for UM's MPowered student-run entrepreneur group, told me that the CFE is supported out of the engineering school, which sponsors Techarb (a workspace to develop entrepreneurial ideas), offers a curriculum to get your certificate of entrepreneurship, and sponsors a trip to the Bay Area to meet venture capitalists and pitch them on your business idea. Ankit went on to rattle off a slew of additional programs available to UM students including MPowered's Career Fair, the 1,000 Pitches competition, and the Zell Lurie Institute, which caters to the MBA set. And then I asked what happens if you're not a student. "We encourage people to do this while they are students because as soon as they graduate, you lose all resources."

And if you're locked out of the Wolverine 'circle of trust', what then?

I thought of the Workantile Exchange that set up shop on Main, a2geeks' New Tech Meet-ups where local start-ups share their plans for world domination, or even the SPARK board. How had the young owners that I knew around town built their businesses?

I spoke with six locals who run brick and mortar operations successfully, without certificates, incubators, or pitch meetings in Silicon Valley. Some have even been labeled "masterminds" by this publication.

One: Al McWilliams, Quack! Media

The first to challenge me on the idea of entrepreneurship was Quack! Media's Al McWilliams. He was disgusted by the word. "I never use the word 'entrepreneur' in reference to myself, and I think that people should stop using it because it's such a self-righteous word. It's like calling yourself a DJ. Screw you, you just play with iTunes all night." So I suggested revolutionary, instead. "No! Revolutionary is the worst. Unless you're talking about the violent overthrow of a government, you shouldn't use revolutionary. I'm just a dude doin' stuff."

The dude doin' stuff' got started making videos to pay a few bills and has since grown those projects into a media company that offers services ranging from production to distribution to representation.

"When you think about starting a business," Al says, "it's a very selfish endeavor. Not selfish as in 'money', but from the stance of, 'I want to do whatever I want, when I want. All day. Every day. I'm not going to give my time to somebody else. Why would I do that when I could work for myself? This fits the typical Gen Y profile like a glove. In the workplace, we're categorized as loathing hierarchy, craving immediate involvement and recognition, and doing this all in our own good time."

Al went on to say, "When you think about being super selfish, the most important thing about where you start your business is where life is awesome, right? Because you might not have a lot of money. In fact, you're probably not going to have any money. It's going on seven years that I'm putting all my money back into the business. You weigh money versus quality of life and say, 'I'll take quality of life'. Ann Arbor has an urban downtown lifestyle and then you go a couple miles and you're in the woods. You can't get that everywhere."

It seemed Al's only business obstacle had been the cost of a downtown location. That's something my next business owner could agree with.

Two: Curtis Sullivan – Vault of Midnight

Down the street, Curtis Sullivan had a similar take on the cost (and politics) of operating a business in Ann Arbor. "We opened Vault of Midnight in 1996 when I was 23, with no money. I mean, no money. At first, no one wanted to rent to us. We even had one developer tell us, 'We don't want your type of store here'. They just don't understand this business." Curtis' business (comic books and memorabilia) is not your typical Ann Arbor fare catering to the wealthy over-40 crowd, which could explain why he's found it difficult to get into the club. But does it take selling glassblown baubles to belong on Main Street?

"We add a lot to this city, and acceptance into 'the club' has nothing to with numbers. We've been posting solid profits for years, but decision makers downtown want to gentrify everything." When I asked Curtis for an example of something that's changed since he grew up here, he cited the removal of street performers from the Art Fair. Sounded to me like age discrimination would be another cautionary tale in the 'obstacles' column of opening shop in Ann Arbor.

Curtis also explained to me a trait that I would later discover in each of the business owners I spoke with. "Some people are supposed to be painters – so they should paint. You've got to do what flips your switches. For those that put $3M into a business just because they can, it's just vanity. Not real business." 

Ah ha! Can you see it? Right there is the division. On one side, your 'get-rich-quick-schemer' entrepreneurs. On the other, your 'dudes-doin'-stuff-because-they're-passionate' entrepreneurs. The first group uses 'flowchart' as a verb, has their venture capital lined up, and plans to sell to the highest bidder and retire to the Caribbean. The latter has their whole selves invested in their business, has figured things out by tenacity and ambition, and has no 'exit strategy' because they can't imagine life outside their destiny.

Three: Sava Lelcaj – Sava's Café

Walk over to State Street, and there's a restaurateur who falls into that latter category. Sava has been in the restaurant business since it was legal for her to work. Even with this experience, running her own restaurant (first in Hazel Park and then in Ann Arbor) was challenging for someone so young. At 23 years old, no one would even give her a business loan. Eventually she was able to set up in Ann Arbor. "I was the only employee for the first few months, picking up every single product on my own, still going to Eastern Market every Saturday at 6 a.m. I had this locavore idea before I knew it was trendy – but it meant I was hauling ass down to Detroit every weekend because that's what I knew."

"The risks that you take as a young entrepreneur are different. I really got taken advantage of in the space across the street (Sava's first location was next to Mr. Greek's on State). I was in a very unstable lease, but then I wizened up, realizing I signed the worst lease in history and we moved over here (former Zanzibar location)."

Steadily, she learned the charms of Ann Arbor (a menu with two vegetarian dishes won't cut it in this town), took feedback, watched food trends, and found quality local purveyors in Frog Holler and Knight's meat.

Sava's advice to other young folks interested in starting their own business, "Go learn the industry. It may not be what they want to do. Some of the worst days in my life were having to do with business. Where there wasn't enough money for rent, and you're thinking, 'What am I going to do?' Most people are not ready to do that. They're three months in, saying, 'I'm not rich? Oh, time to jump ship.'"

Add to the list of entrepreneur must-haves; sacrifice, understanding of the community you plan to serve, and nerves of steel. But again, Sava is another who doesn't consider herself a textbook entrepreneur. She thinks of it lovingly as being a 'slave to her business'. All the same, she gets to walk into her own business every day and follow her dream.

Kate Rose is an MSU grad and native Michigander. Her day job is at Google; her views here are her own. Her previous article for Concentrate was Know Y: PSA For The D.

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All photos by Dave Lewinski

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