Growing companies, uncovering talent

Of all the verbal gems thrown out at last week's speaker series event on growing companies it's hard to top this one: "fear is good."

No, it's not as alliterative as Gordon Gecko's "Greed is good" line from the movie Wall Street. That was fiction. And it was the 1980s.

The introduction of fear as an asset into the discussion was simply a killer moment, and it represented something very now and real in today's marketplace.

All seven young entrepreneurs who were part of the panel inside a cozy auditorium inside the M@dison Building talked of taking personal financial and professional risks to start up their businesses. Most of them talked about following their passions, making good connections and building reputations. You'd expect them to say that.

But fear? Not so much.

It was Dan Ward of Detroit Labs who took the leap. "I live in fear all the time," he said. "Fear is good. If you relax you might create a cool culture, but not necessarily a good business."

The answer came after a member of the audience asked the panel -- which had just spent about an hour answering questions formulated by Model D news writer Jon Zemke, also editor of SE Michigan Startup -- when was the best time to quit your day job and start up your own company. 

Brian Balasia of Digerati and Suzanne Vier of Simply Suzanne both said: "wait as long as possible." Ward and Detroit Labs partner Henry Balanon said that they waited until revenues began coming in, or had set up "deals that looked like they would turn into revenues." Their business creates apps for mobile devices and the web.

Another audience member said he also felt fear. He said he was fearful that Detroit's cultural shift from a manufacturing-based economy to one led by social innovation would be under threat by a rejuvenated auto industry.

Reid Tatoris of Are You a Human said he doesn't envision new tech grads trending in the direction of the Big Three.

"I don't see them looking for work at GM or Ford," said Tatoris, who's company is changing CAPTCHA technology, used for verification on websites. Zemke wrote about the startup in January. "The people we're attracting, the competition is Silicon Valley (not Detroit automotive)." 

Ward said the auto companies will have a hard time recruiting talent for "a suit and tie" environment "with beige walls." He said one of the employees at Detroit Labs "wears a Hawaiian shirt to work each day and always looks like he just got back from vacation."

But Detroit's history as an industrial powerhouse can also come in handy for innovative businesses, Vier said. "The food business in Detroit is taking off because Detroit is a manufacturing hub. The distribution networks are here. That definitely helps."

Another member of the panel, Joe McClure of McClure’s Pickles, said his business has also been helped by Detroit's industrial legacy. "We just moved into a building that belonged to the American Axle Plant. We're still in a growth phase but now we have room to expand." 

The panel also included Jim Xiao of Venture Partners, a company whose "social mission includes investing in our own backyard." Xiao said Detroit was the ideal place for his company and other startups because "you can just do more here than in other environments. You can get a house, create a fraternity and bring people together (as a startup). You can't do that in Seattle or Austin."  

When Xiao talked about "fraternity" he was also talking about "talent," something every one of the panelists knew plenty about.

Balanon said that Detroit had "lots of talent, but it's all spread out. When we get more density, we'll uncover more talent."

Tatoris said that Detroit has the capacity to deliver on talent if a startup is looking for that "one person. If you want to hire young people with less experience, we have them. But if you're looking to hire 10 people, it's still lacking."

Balasia said that there is "a plethora of talent here, but a lot of it is siloed. The city is full of opportunities. And it has a gritty cache' (from coast to coast). Talent wants to be here. Capital will follow good ideas and passion. And there's plenty of both in Detroit."

The Growing companies Speaker Series was presented by Model DMetromode and SEMichigan Startup, with support from MSHDADetroit Venture Partners and Huntington Bank.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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