Vince Chmielewski never meant to start his own business. What is now VC Web Designs
has always been something he sort of stumbled into, but hasn't quite fallen for yet.
The Ypsilanti resident got his start while studying computer science at the University of Michigan in the 1990s, playing around with websites for family and friends. He ended up trading a new website to a local photographer for free family photos his sophomore year in college. It led to a long succession of referrals that has steadily grown into a sizeable business over the years.
"He was client No. 1," Chmielewski says. "Then through word of mouth I added one here and there. There was no intention of making a business out of this. It started off as just a side project to keep my skills sharp."
Today, VC Web Designs (also known as VC Web Services
) employs four people full-time and another six independent contractors in downtown Ypsilanti. Chmielewski, 39, was the first person to graduate from SPARK East
two years ago. VC Web Designs now has a storefront on Washington Street just south of Michigan Avenue.
And yet, this isn't Chmielewski's full-time job. He still works as a project manager of web projects at the University of Michigan while running his company from his laptop. Amazingly, that flexibility allows him to do both jobs without neglecting his wife and two-year-old son.
It also helps that Chmielewski
served in the Navy before going to college, and trained as a tri-athlete. He knows more than a little bit about regimenting his life and maximizing his time. Still, Chmielewski is coming around to the idea that maybe being his own boss is the best option for him and his family. He likes his day job at U-M, but he could now see himself doing something else one day.
"I would like to make this my only job, but I am in no hurry," Chmielewski explains. "It has been growing pretty steadily from the beginning. If it continues to do that then I suppose I will have to make the choice to stop doing one or the other."
Chmielewski recently invited Concentrate's
Jon Zemke to VC Web Design's offices in downtown Ypsilanti where they talked about entrepreneurship, bicycling and how choosing the armed services over college can be the best choice for some who hope to excel in higher education.
VC Web Designs was the first company to spin out of the SPARK East Incubator. Put into perspective how much that program helped you build your business?
The space they provide is reasonably priced. We paid $250 a month, which you can't beat because it includes all of your utilities and high-speed Internet and networking opportunities. I am confident we would have gotten to where we are today, but it definitely sped the process up a bit. It cut our growth time by a year or two.
You set up shop in downtown Ypsilanti, a place that has built up a lot of buzz in recent years as an up-and-coming urban center. Where would you like to see downtown Ypsilanti be in the next five years?
I'd like to see more businesses come and stay and some more people to come to downtown to just hang out. It's starting to happen, especially at night. During the day it's a little quiet.
You have a good job at the university, and your own company, and a young family. Have you ever thought, 'What was I thinking?
Oh sure. Several times. Daily sometimes. That thought comes up when I am doing emails at 11 o'clock at night and want to go to bed. But I enjoy it overall. Otherwise I wouldn't be doing it.
Has your wife ever suggested you might be doing too much?
Yes. Although, I try to keep a good balance. I try to do work from home when I can. Mostly I am doing work early in the morning or late at night when she is doing other things.
You're running a web design/Internet marketing company in a very competitive industry. How do you make sure your company gains traction when just about anyone with a laptop and a spare room can offer similar services?
There is a very low barrier to entry. Up until a year ago we grew almost solely on word of mouth. Satisfied clients is the best way to build a brand. Unlike a lot of those startup web companies working out of a garage, we have a higher skill set than they do. Everyone here has a technical background. These aren't people who majored in English and decided to drop out and build websites.
You joined the Navy before attending U-M. Did pursuing your degree in your mid 20s instead of your late teens make a difference in your college performance?
I would say so. I learned some skills in the Navy that I use today. I am little more regimented. Studying wasn't an issue for me. The Navy teaches you to be more detailed oriented, which helps in computer science. A lot of people I went to class with that went to college straight from high school struggled with the transition from high school to what U-M demands.
Is it a path more college students should take?
I would say it helps most people. In my freshmen and sophomore years a lot of my classmates were in the party phase and not taking seriously a lot of things they probably should have. Down the road I am sure they wish they had.
It's amazing how much difference in maturity there is between 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds. I have often looked back at my own college experience and thought that if I had started in my mid 20s instead of my late teens, I would have done much better.
It allows you better focus on what you're there for.
Not only focus but prioritize better. It seems like it's one of those things the educational system doesn't accommodate for as well as it should.
Some kind of break from the academic would benefit most people. After high school you have been in school for 12 years straight.
How did you end up making the decision to join the military first?
Mostly it was to help pay for college. But I had known for a while I wanted to be in the military. It seemed like the right thing to do. Most people in my family had served at one point or another.
You said a lot of your fellow computer science graduates from U-M who headed to Silicon Valley are no longer there. Where did they end up?
Some moved back to the Midwest. Some just went to random places.
Can you give me a for instance?
I have a friend who ended up in New York City. Another ended up in Florida. The rest ended up in Michigan or the Midwest.
How long did they stay out there?
A couple of years. This was during the dot-com bust. People were getting crazy offers and then they found themselves out of a job a year or two later. I had some friends who weren't computer science majors who ended up in that field because it was so lucrative. They had a hard time with it after the bust.
Did any of them end up starting their own business like you?
One is trying to. The others have not.
What advice would you give this year's crop of computer science graduates looking to chase the start-up dream?
Keep learning new skills, especially in the web world. Things change pretty quickly so keeping your skills sharp is pretty important.
You're an avid cyclist. How far does Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti have to go before it becomes a truly bike-friendly place?
I'm not sure the cities themselves can do everything that is needed. A lot of it is people have to get used to the idea. There is still some hostility to cyclists in general, probably less so in Ann Arbor. It's improved quite a bit since I was in school.
How far away are we from being truly bike-friendly?
In 10 years we could have a Seattle-type atmosphere. Seattle is probably the best city for bicyclists in the U.S.
Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate. He is also the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature was Got Talent? A Conversation with Kurt Riegger.
All photos by Doug Coombe