Normally, the worst advice anyone can give in business is "If you build it, they will come." However, the city of Detroit, in particular the Detroit 2.0 movement, is a classic example of "build it, and they will come," and this has helped create an Entrepreneurial Field of Dreams in Detroit. And "they" are coming -- "they" being entrepreneurs from outside the city, entrepreneurs with no ties to the city, entrepreneurs who just have a vision and are looking for a fertile field to plant that vision.
Back in 2007, Quicken Loans Founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert launched Bizdom U, an entrepreneurship accelerator located in Detroit, with the goal of creating an entrepreneurial hub by launching waves of scalable, growth-oriented businesses located within city limits. At this time, the seed capital/accelerator model was still in its infancy. Y Combinator was only a year old, TechStars wouldn't get started until 2007, the first Startup Weekend didn't happen until 2007. Across the nation people were simultaneously working to crack the startup code and create an attractor for entrepreneurial activity.
It wasn't just the training and funding parts of the equation that were lacking; when we launched our first class in January of 2007, things were so underdeveloped near our office that our best choice for lunch was the Wayne State University cafeteria.
We were not alone in our vision of trying to build something in Detroit. Wayne State had developed Tech Town. Quicken Loans announced it was moving its entire team of Michigan-based team members downtown. The Detroit Development Fund and Invest Detroit started to make funds available to new markets and companies. Dan Gilbert started investing and developing Detroit real estate at a pace that is normally only seen near the end of a game of Monopoly.
Now, there are signs that "they" are indeed coming. In the past few weeks, I've met with young entrepreneurs from Arizona to New York who are pulling up stakes and moving to Detroit. All of the ground work laid by those who were willing to build it before they came is now reaching a tipping point. And those who are willing to come are finding opportunities for entrepreneurial growth.
In Detroit, we have investment funds and seed capital groups like Detroit Venture Partners -- which recently added Michigan native and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson as a General Partner -- dedicated to investing in interesting and exciting businesses based in Detroit. In the city, we have real estate plenty -- not only of the kind suitable for plowing under and turning into farmland -- but actual renovated loft spaces managed by companies and individuals who are finely tuned to what entrepreneurs need. Look at what the WEBward Avenue folks are doing at the historic Madison Theatre building (re-dubbed M@dison) to see the future bursting between the cracks. These buildings are located in a vibrant urban core, with bars, sushi joints, high-class restaurants with huge bills and small entrees, and a couple of hot dog places that have been battling for decades for coney dog supremacy. These buildings are walking distance from theaters, music venues, and recently rebuilt world-class sports facilities.
To a certain extent, I'm playing a broken record here. But it's a broken record worth hearing, and certainly better than the same old song and clichés about Detroit. Thanks to the hard work of people willing to invest their time, effort and fortunes, it's a fertile ground for an entrepreneurial revolution.
"If you build it, they will come" is terrible advice for businesses -- but it has turned out to be a great plan for revitalizing Detroit.
They are indeed coming.
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