Matt Brooks, founder of BlueWater Startups & Entrepreneurs organized Startup School. <span class='image-credits'>Heather Burt</span>

Startup School set to energize and educate entrepreneurs

Striking out on your own as an entrepreneur "is both scary and lonely," says Matt Brooks, founder of
Blue Water Startups &

Entrepreneurs, a local organization that meets once a month to support each other and network.


On Sept. 30, Blue Water Startups is holding its first Startup School: a day-long event that aims to energize, educate, and bring together southeast Michigan entrepreneurs.


"It's hard to get entrepreneurs to commit to anything long term," Brooks says, so the Startup School packs a lot into one day.

"It's a drinking-from-a-firehose approach to getting inspired, networked, and plugged in to the entrepreneur community,"
--Matt Brooks

He borrowed the idea from a similar program in Silicon Valley.


"It's a drinking-from-a-firehose approach to getting inspired, networked, and plugged in to the entrepreneur community--and learning lessons from a good handful of entrepreneurs who have made it."


The nine-hour event includes two keynotes, five entrepreneur spotlights, and two workshops--different formats that offer practical advice and allow entrepreneurs to share stories and learn from each other. Startup School takes place at St. Clair County Community College, with a TED Talks-type atmosphere in the 300-seat theater, and roundtable discussions and other events at the Fieldhouse.


The keynotes feature Paul Singh and Dana Duncan of Results Junkies, who travel around the country in search of investable startups, and Dan Casey, CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County (EDA).


"To grow a sustainable economy, we need more people to start businesses," Casey says. "Programs like this one are a catalyst to creating a culture of entrepreneurship."


For the past two years, Singh and Duncan "have been traveling through North America touring communities just like Port Huron, finding success stories of small businesses," Brooks says, as well as finding that "there's the beginning of an exodus from the coasts."


Brooks says it can be frustrating to hear people paint the Blue Water area as only farms and factories--and nothing else.


"We think it's important to shine a spotlight on a wide variety of success stories," including companies in software and robotics, he says. "We want to spread the message that you don't have to be in one of the marquee big cities to build something big."


Dennis Riedel, a St. Clair High School graduate, is one of the Startup School speakers. He cofounded Chef's Cut Real Jerky, a beef jerky maker that became a $100 million enterprise this year. Nearly all the speakers have local ties--they are either from the Blue Water area or are running their businesses here.


Brooks is an entrepreneur himself--he runs the co-working space Loft 912, as well as companies that provide website development and online marriage preparation courses.


"I juggle a few chainsaws," he says. At first, even he didn't appreciate how many entrepreneurs were in the Blue Water area.


At Blue Water Startups' first meet-up last fall, he wasn't sure how many attendees to expect, but 30 people showed up.

"Programs like this one are a catalyst to creating a culture of entrepreneurship."
--Dan Casey

"We knew right from first meet-up that there's a lot of entrepreneurs throughout the area who have just been holed up in their home office or spare room of their house, or making something in their basement--tinkering with whatever their idea was," he says. Without this community, "they would have been by themselves, building their ‘secret startup.'"


The monthly meet-ups allow entrepreneurs "to celebrate each other's successes, pat each other on the back, share some lessons from the road, and help to lessen each other's learning curves," Brooks says. While many of the area's entrepreneurs might be somewhat hidden, they also might be unaware of organizations that are equipped to help them succeed, he adds.


"There are many resources to support entrepreneurs, but they don't always know about them or how to get engaged," Casey says. "We need incubators, co-working facilities, and maker spaces to help these fledgling startups get off the ground. Startup School is a good way to expose entrepreneurs to these programs."


The Community Foundation of St. Clair County, St. Clair County Community College, Northstar Bank, Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce, and EDA are supporting Startup School.


"We really believe in the mission of Blue Water Startups," says Thelma Castillo, president and CEO of the chamber.


Blue Water Startups "built a sense of fellowship among entrepreneurs but also serves as a conduit between the entrepreneur community and the organizations that are excited, ready, willing, and able to help them out," Brooks says.


One resource that entrepreneurs might be unaware of is someone from the Michigan Small Business Development Center, through EDA, "who is able to connect with these entrepreneurs, help them put a business plan together, and offer expertise to put them on the right path," Castillo says.


The Blue Water Chamber of Commerce was built by entrepreneurs 100 years ago, Castillo points out. "It was where they could come together, share ideas, and discuss what was going on in the community." Now, she says, "we need to give a better platform to our entrepreneurs. We want to be there to help them in any way possible. They're the ones who are going to help us grow the region."


So far, attendees have signed up for Startup School from beyond the Blue Water area, including Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Flint. The southeast Michigan region and the Blue Water area more specifically have a great opportunity "to attract talent and investment and entrepreneurial activity," Brooks says.


Castillo says she hopes Startup School attendees will benefit from the discussion and the networking, and "hearing that there are more entrepreneurs than they thought--who are successful." She wants them to see that "there is success at the end of the rainbow."

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