"What's venture capital?"
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?
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
office about the programs and incubators it sponsored.
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
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
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
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'
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
money. It's going on seven years that I'm putting all
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
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
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.'"
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