Blog: Emma Wendt

Moving from the west coast to the third coast is a major life change, one that Emma Wendt, entrepreneurial services connector at Ann Arbor SPARK, has handled with resourcefulness. Among many ideas, Emma writes on how Michigan winters make for good local food and networking, and how an ABC (Anything But a Car) philosophy builds a closer community.

Why Southeast Michigan Should be Packing in the Start-Ups

Silicon Valley doesn't have a monopoly on entrepreneurship.

Ironically, I'm more immersed in the startup community here -- which is small but vibrant -- than I ever was in the Bay Area.  This past December, I started working at Ann Arbor SPARK, an economic development organization.  I meet with local entrepreneurs, coach them on their business ideas, and connect them with resources at SPARK and elsewhere.

Southeast Michigan is an unexpectedly great place to start a company.  Housing and office space are cheap.  UofM and other institutions churn out lots of ideas and talent every year. If you can give those students a reason to stay after graduation, you'll likely find much more loyalty in your employees -- both because there aren't competitors like Zynga and Pinterest poaching them, and because I've noticed loyalty is a fairly strong Midwestern value. 

For the tear-jerking appeal of why you should live and do business here, check out this Pure Michigan ad.

Entrepreneurship is also an important part of rebuilding our economy.  We can't expect to be employed by a Big Three auto company and retire there after 30 years with a stable pension.  Many will turn to creating their own opportunities.  Ex-Pfizer employees, for example, have started several companies here. 

Entrepreneurship isn't going to save us on its own, but it's an important part of the puzzle. One of the reasons I love working with startups here is that there's more at stake. Building companies from scratch is partly about bringing a cool idea to market, but it's also about fundamentally reshaping our community.

This is especially true in Detroit, where the need for revitalization is far more dire.  The city has seen significant entrepreneurial activity, including through Dan Gilbert's Detroit Venture Partners and his drool-inducing renovation of the Madison Theatre building (which I got a sneak peek of in November as part of LiveWorkDetroit); or through events like Detroit Startup Weekend.

Every successful startup needs a support system.  That's alive and well here, perhaps partly because the community is small and tight-knit.  If you're looking for space for your new business in Ann Arbor, check out Tech Brewery, or SPARK's incubator space.  For freelancers, the Workantile Exchange is a good option.  I'm a fan of collaborative spaces that promote design thinking, so I'd highly recommend a shared work space if you're still small enough.

Want help with your investor pitch?  Try the New Enterprise Forum for presentation coaching. Michigan's Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) and the Great Lakes Entrepreneur Quest can help with your business plan or provide other services.  UofM students can take advantage of a number of resources, including through MPowered and space at TechArb.  If you just want to meet like-minded people, check out a2geeks or Beer:30.  The region runs a number of competitions to reward promising new businesses, like Accelerate Michigan, and the Clean Energy Venture Challenge, where I mentored a team developing an app to find electric vehicle charging stations. 

Please comment below to fill in the many organizations and programs I missed!

One of our biggest gaps is investment dollars.  There are a number of venture capital firms in Michigan, but definitely not at the density or scale as Silicon Valley.

At SPARK, we help fill in that funding gap for early stage companies.  Grants, microloans, and investments are available to startups with high growth potential in the high-tech space.  Building a company you think would be a good fit?  Fill out a Business Idea Submission Form, or apply for a microloan.

We're also facing a shortage of tech talent, which is why SPARK is piloting the Shifting Code program to (re)train coders. At the Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship last month, it seemed like every other person was looking for a technical co-founder.

Besides teaching new skills, though, we need to ensure that our community as a whole is supportive of new businesses.  Even if you aren't an entrepreneur or an investor, you can still help out:

1.    Connect with newcomers

While Ann Arbor is generally a friendly Midwestern town, it can take time to get connected here.  Make sure those who are new to town or new to the startup scene can find you.  Better yet, seek them out, and fold them into your networks.  

2.    Create spaces for entrepreneurs to live, work and play

As I mentioned in my previous post, walkable communities are thriving communities.  They attract the young people we need to sustain our entrepreneurial endeavours.  Check out this in-depth video on a lively downtown by local urban planner Kirk Westphal.

3.    Reward failure

An economy historically based on large, risk-averse companies doesn't generally breed innovation.  Startups need to try, fail, learn, and repeat to succeed.  If we reward entrepreneurs for failing and learning, they'll keep trying.  A Portland ad school used over 100,000 pushpins to remind students to fail harder.

4.    Invest
If you have money and believe in new ideas, try investing some of it in Michigan.  Our entrepreneurs are hungry for that capital, you're competing with fewer other VCs or angels, and startup costs are generally lower than on the coasts. 

Funding is important, but investing in our community means more than just money.  It's also the time we take to connect with and support each other.

Are you another newcomer to Ann Arbor or a similar place?  If you've been here for many years, how have you found interacting with those just moving to town?  Please share your stories on what's worked, and where you still need to grow.