D:hive Detroit was there to be everybody’s friend. A welcome center, a job connector, a home-finder, a small-business developer, a tour guide, all encompassing, all things to all people, all Detroit, all right now. The plan was to connect newcomers and long-time residents to the budding startup and cultural communities in downtown and across the city. But after three years of funding from the Hudson Webber Foundation in partnership with the Downtown Detroit Partnership, D:hive is splitting into two organizations: Detroit Experience Factory and the Build Institute. Hudson Webber funded D:hive as a three-year experiment so it could assess its work and then decide whether the city still needed a one-stop welcome shop. “It’s really terrific and evidence of its success that the three-year trial has expanded into something more permanent,” said Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership. “You can feel that shift from when something is greater than the sum of its parts to when the parts are greater,” said Jeff Aronoff, D:hive executive director. “We’re at a point where it’s more effort to keep them together.” One unexpected success was the Build business-planning classes, which D:hive started offering almost as a side note. Initially, the nonprofit was more focused on the tours and welcome center aspect of its mission, but demand for classes grew from one course in January 2012 to four classes quarterly. By January 2015, the Build Institute will have turned out 400 graduates, some of whom have become the bold-faced names of Detroit’s growing small-business community. Lisa Ludwinski was one of the earliest Build graduates, using the program to develop Sister Pie, which won the $50,000 Hatch Detroit grand prize this fall. Kirsten Ussery co-founded Detroit Vegan Soul with partner Erika Boyd as a caterer; it’s now a full-service restaurant in West Village. “D:hive helped me by providing the peer support and hands-on exercises necessary for me to first determine whether our business idea was viable, and secondly, to put together a business plan,” Ussery said. “Before taking the Build class, I really didn’t understand the financial pieces of a business plan, such as break-even point.” The eight-week courses have become so successful that there is often a 100-person waiting list. By placing Build Institute under its own banner with funding from the New Economy Initiative, director April Boyle intends to expand the number of classes and bring them directly into city neighborhoods. “I see us as a full incubator in the next 12 to 24 months,” Boyle said. “We’ve just started to scratch the surface.” Boyle is still looking for space — somewhere in the greater Midtown or Corktown areas — and finalizing the investment from NEI and other sources. She anticipates having three full-time employees plus contractors who teach classes. D:hive is a $500,000-a-year program, and Aronoff expects that Build Institute and Detroit Experience Factory will need $250,000 each to run effectively and successfully. The new Detroit Experience Factory brings Jeanette Pierce full circle. When D:hive was founded, it enveloped her existing nonprofit, Inside Detroit, to handle tours and connections, which she grew from 8,000 people on tours in 2012 to nearly 15,000 this year. “The Experience Factory will continue to offer connections to jobs and residential, plus more tours,” Pierce said. “It will continue to be the soft landing spot. Nothing is going away.” That includes a storefront welcome center. Pierce, however, is not certain whether it will remain at the D:hive location on Woodward Avenue. She is seeking a space downtown because DXF will continue to be a program of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.
Directors launch new businesses
D:hive is also spawning two new businesses. Its design director, Andrew Kopietz, is starting his own graphic design and branding firm, Good Done Daily. A Build Institute grad, he already has several clients, including Wayne State University Press, Eastern Market Corp. and the recent Dlectricity. “I’m taking a lot of the positive momentum I got here and moving it into my own practice,” Kopietz said. “It’s going to focus on working with nonprofits and family and community foundations, maybe things that are city-centric.” Meanwhile, Aronoff, who left his position at Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone law firm to become the executive director of D:hive, is starting his own firm that will help local entrepreneurs raise money from local investors. Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation last year that allows individuals to invest in businesses through crowdfunding. Unlike with Kickstarter campaigns, where patrons are essentially donating to the person, equity crowdfunding comes with legal terms and debt to be paid off. All four D:hive principals will continue to work together to support Detroit, they said. Amy Haimerl: (313) 446-0416, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @haimerlad