The Art Of Business: A Q&A with Jesse Cory

Jesse Cory is the exception to the rule, or at least the conventional wisdom, in Metro Detroit.

He is a young entrepreneur who turned art and the Internet into a local, job-creating start-up. He transformed a small, tired building on the outskirts of downtown Royal Oak into a centerpiece for what makes the city so cool. He got involved in Kwame Kilpatrick's downfall (remember the Kwame Mug?) and his career didn't suffer. In fact it played a key part in helping it flourish.

Royal Oak has always been that place for Cory. After moving from downtown Detroit to New York City in his late teens, early 20s he moved back to Metro Detroit and started to plant roots in downtown Royal Oak. To Cory, downtown Royal Oak was always that place with a little bit of rogue mystique when he was growing up.

"When I was young I was attracted to the things that were a little bit different than the culture I grew up in," Cory says. "I grew up in Romeo and there wasn't a lot going on in Romeo. Downtown Royal Oak had a lot going on that interested me, like Noir Leather and Off the Record. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Royal Oak."

Today he splits time between his Internet-marketing business/art gallery in Royal Oak (Ohm Creative Group and 323 East respectively) and creating Internet start-ups/selling art in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn in New York City. He set aside some time while toiling in his partner's live/work loft in NYC to speak to Metromode about Metro Detroit's creativity, entrepreneurship, and Kwame Kilpatrick.

Having both 323 East and Ohm Creative Group under one roof seems like something you'd find in San Francisco or New York. What inspired you to try this business model?

Running a creative marketing agency in a gallery can have a lot of great benefits. It's a pretty relaxing experience. If you are ever having a stressful moment you can walk out to the gallery and take in the art and just kind of refresh yourself.

Do you think your firms represent a new aesthetic of sorts? What are you doing that other local firms aren't?

We take our knowledge from Internet marketing and parlay that into things that are more culturally unique in the art world, not only in Metro Detroit but in New York, Miami, and LA. We've been able to branch out beyond the traditional marketing agency by having all of those artistic resources.

Both 323 East and Ohm have a reputation for appealing to a younger demographic. As you get older do you worry whether your approach will remain relevant?

I don't worry about that at all (laughs). We're constantly exposed to what's new and we're keeping our eye on that. We're a pretty nimble group.

How do you see your firms evolving over the next 10 years?

We're not just going out there to get clients. That's one part of our business model. But the bigger part is finding ways we can own our own Internet model. In the next several years we want to exclusively work for ourselves.

You've partly credited the rapid growth of your business to its physical brick and mortar location, which is interesting since conventional wisdom dictates that the web is where it's at and the more mobile you are the better.

It's really about quality of life. People want to live and work in a place they enjoy. It always starts with people. If they are happy and motivated in their day-to-day [job] then you have the ability to do great things. That's part of why Royal Oak is a great place. People really enjoy being here.

But isn't finding an affordable place for a new business, especially in a pricier address like downtown Royal Oak, much easier said than done? How were your businesses able to make this leap and still land on their feet?

We looked at a bunch of office spaces where the drinking fountains are in the hallway, the bathrooms are down the hall, and you can't open the windows. They were in the same price range but they didn't fit our personality.

This place was in disrepair. Every chance we got we invested in the renovation. We did it by trade and bootstrapped it. With a little bit of creativity, drive, hard work and elbow grease you can turn any space into something beautiful.

Internet marketing is making the transition to smart phone technology, such as apps for iPhones, etc. How do you see this movement impacting Internet marketing agencies like Ohm Creative Group? What are you doing to leverage this trend?

We're currently transitioning our platforms to work on all mobile devices. The Internet changes every couple months. With new technologies presenting themselves you have to be able to evolve. That's just part of being a nimble business.

What's one thing you would like to see the older, more established business community in Metro Detroit do to improve the local entrepreneur ecosystem?

Give out grants worth a few thousand dollars so people can develop their ideas into technology, like an iPhone app.

One of the big complaints around here is that there are far more entrepreneurs and start-ups than seed capital to invest in them. What advice would you give a creatively inclined person pursuing the start-up dream but who can't find the funding to get it off the ground?

It doesn't have to start with funding. You really need to build a team. It's more about finding people who share your ideals. As long as people have their heart in it, they will work for next to nothing and continue to encourage innovation. People who say 'I have this great idea and I need money for it', that's their first mistake. It's putting the cart before the horse. You need to go out there and innovate.

World-famous graffiti artist Banksy recently left a handful of stencils (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each) around Metro Detroit. Most of them have been destroyed or removed from their original context. What does this say about the art scene in southeast Michigan and how the overall local population reacts to art?

People went out there and tried to take it because they know the value. The value of street art is really in the exhibition in which it was placed. The great thing about Banksy coming to Detroit is that it spurred so much conversation about art in general. It even propelled street art further into the mainstream in Detroit.

Where do you stand on the controversy surrounding 555 Gallery's removal of Banksy's work from outside the Packard Plant?

Taking that piece took away the opportunity for more people to experience it where it was placed. A lot of people really wanted to have that opportunity. They stole it from art enthusiasts who wanted to go out there and have that experience.

Name one lesson, idea, or mindset local entrepreneurs should take away from graffiti artists?

Graffiti is immediate and it's fast. That is the equivalent of a nimble business that it gets a product to the market quickly. A good idea can manifest quickly.

Ohm Creative Group made a splash when it produced the Kwame mug shortly after his first jail sentence. The former mayor has hardly stayed out of the news since, but we haven't seen any new Kwame merchandise. Will there be some artistic follow-up?

I'll leave that one to the reporters at the Free Press who wrote the "Kwame Sutra," which we sell at 323 East. We want to differentiate ourselves from novelty items, but we used a lot of the money we made from that to renovate 323 East and pay the rent.  

It's hard to imagine Dave Bing inspiring the same response. Are crooked politicians better for the mug business?

Crooked politicians are definitely better for merchandising (laughs).

What would you ask Kwame if there was a guarantee of an honest answer?

On the serious side I would ask about Tamara Greene. But I would probably first ask him about the Manoogian party.

Downtown Royal Oak has experienced some significant changes over the last 20 years --increasing density, adding condos, attracting more retail and young people. It has become one of Michigan's most-promising urban centers. What is your take on its evolution?

I first came to Royal Oak as a teenage skateboarder with long hair and coping at places like Noir Leather and Off the Record. That was a really inspiring place for me as a budding, creative youth. As the community continues to change it still has it roots in mom-and-pop businesses like Noir Leather and Incognito. As new businesses and residents come in, it's a very positive sign for a small community to continue to embrace creativity.

This interview was conducted over the phone and condensed by Metromode's News Editor, Jon Zemke. His last feature was Early Adopt Or Die: A Q&A with Melih Oztalay.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Signup for Email Alerts