One year after the launch of the First Step Fund at Invest Detroit, we fondly recall Mark Twain’s comments on his own ill-timed obituary. The reports of Detroit’s death are greatly exaggerated, indeed. In this year, we saw over a hundred fascinating start- ups companies, strong entrepreneurs and the spirit that makes our city what it is: indefatigable.
In March 2010, the First Step Fund was launched with support of the New Economy Initiative: a band of social entrepreneurs who decided to take charge and impact the status quo. By March 2011, the Fund has made twenty five investments in promising start-ups that are well on their way to change the world. The entrepreneurial spirit that defines these start-ups is typical ‘never say die’ mindset.
a) Detroit’s entrepreneurs are solving some ‘real problems’ – market pain that yearns for an elegant solution. Take the example of Coliant Corporation based in Warren, MI. The company has grown 30% year-over-year over the past four years, sells products in 20 countries and has a network of more than 200 dealers. John Swaitek, the founder and CEO spent a decade of his life at Chrysler and broke the mold. Who said there are no entrepreneurs in our large anchor companies?
b) The unstoppable spirit: Erel Ergün, founder of OWN has launched a elegant Point of Sale iPad product for retail stores and coffee shops. Verdi is an unstoppable mad man (in a nice way, I mean. Believe me you want all your entrepreneurs to be mad!) who was relentless. He must have called me, texted me, facebooked me – heck, he even called my team member’s mom at 9 pm one night. We challenged Verdi – can you get a purchase order for us? Prove that your technology is not a “solution searching for a problem” – but solving a market pain. Verdi went and got not one, but two purchase orders. We invested – I ate two helpings of humble pie for dinner that evening. I mean, here is a guy who can move heaven and earth – at twenty something years of age! Clone this man, will ya!
c) Detroit’s entrepreneurs are cool – they are visionaries: Ask Terence Willis CEO OF IC Datacommunication or Antonella Solomon, CEO of Launch Learning how they felt when Fortune magazine calls them visionaries of Detroit. Both of them have started companies in TechTown and are the future leaders of Michigan. And we at the First Step Fund stand behind them in our modest way, to support their start-ups. Jake Sigal is another “cool” entrepreneur who has launched a technology company that makes internet radios. I am too old to know what that is (but lucky enough to invest in his company). See for yourself here ….even NPR endorsed Livio Radio.
And most of the entrepreneurs I met were positive, upbeat and a force for the good in the universe. No one complained that our city is dying – or looks like a war zone! Detroit’s entrepreneurs are convincing and logical (look, we invested, what more can I say?) – and their approach to building businesses and raising capital is grounded in reality – an approach that is ‘get it done’ solution oriented, not emotional, nor any inappropriate door-kicking tactics. The First Step Fund saw several opportunities that came in with their own set of challenges. But what was fun was how we solved these problems quickly. These solutions were largely driven by the entrepreneurs – and we were glad to make these investments. And speak of our culture, most entrepreneurs did not know much about cap tables, stock options or vesting. But they asked me the magic question – “How can I get this money back to you, so that you can help the next entrepreneur in line?”
Mahendra Ramsinghani manages Invest Detroit – First Step Fund which brings fuel to Detroit’s entrepreneurs. In the past 12 months, the Fund invested in 25 start-ups. These companies have generated $6 million in revenues, garnered over 85 patents, leverage additional $12 million in investments and impacted 120 jobs. Over 40% of the funds investments are in minority- or women-owned companies.