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Hype takes center stage at Techweek Detroit

Matt Burns, the senior editor at TechCrunch, was about to take the stage at Techweek Detroit when the minute-long, Kid Rock-inspired video for Opportunity Detroit blared across the big screens behind him. For a moment, it seemed like the coastal technology reporter forgot he was about to interview Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert.

"That's quite the opening," Burns said. "It's like we're at a wrestling match."

Techweek Detroit was pure Detroit 2.0. Big on tech with equal parts grit and glitz. Heavy on the hype. And that's a good thing.

Building tech communities in Michigan often relies heavily on playing the Midwest nice card. Think lots of nerds doing cool things in polite, quiet little enclaves like Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids -- all of them nudging the tech world forward at their own speeds.

Techweek Detroit, and most of the events that revolve around the Quicken Loans family of companies, always have more of a fast-paced feel to them. They are tackling big things, whether its renovating large sections of downtown, building/funding cutting-edge technology, or working to eradicating blight. When presenters at the Techweek Detroit say they are working to make the world a better place, it comes across as far more sincere than the techie cliche the TV show Silicon Valley likes to make fun of.

Techweek Detroit isn't the place where startups secure seed capital for startups or investors score exits. It's the type of event that is meant to get people excited about doing those things in Detroit. It’s about showing off the city's cool factor in a half-renovated building where construction resumes as soon as the conference ends. It's about showcasing momentum whether its millions invested in buildings, or maturing startups like Are You A Human, or up-and-coming entrepreneurs like UpTo CEO Greg Schwartz.

Midwestern tech startups are stereotypically light years behind their costal counterparts when it comes to marketing themselves and whipping up hype about their products (and their valuations) -- too reliant on being quietly cool. That's not the case with downtown Detroit's tech scene. While the loud colors and (at times) forced quirkiness that have become synonymous with the Quicken Loans family of companies, it works for those firms because they own it. It's who they are. They're proud of it. They want the world to know about it.

Like it or not, this sort of hype creates real momentum. Excitement even. The type that attracts idealistic young people and enterprising angel investors. It makes Gilbert’s proclamations of eradicating blight in Detroit within five years seem plausible when so many leaders have made similar promises previously, and always come up short. So while the Quicken Loans hype machine might be a little more pro wrestling-like than some are comfortable with, it’s good to have a local organization that knows how work a hype machine.

Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.
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