Successful alumni discuss the impact of TechTown’s Retail Boot Camp

This story is part of a series, supported by TechTown, focused on the entrepreneurial landscape of Detroit. 
TechTown is an entrepreneurial hub that aims to strengthen the city’s neighborhoods and economy. To further its mission of providing a meaningful and equitable revitalization of Detroit through launching and sustaining small businesses, TechTown’s Retail Boot Camp program provides entrepreneurs with tools to launch brick-and-mortar businesses. The program has been the catalyst for many small businesses, including clothing boutiques, restaurants, and resale shops, to name a few of the program’s alumni.  
The program is made possible with support from JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, New Economy Initiative, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, and the Walters Family Foundation
During 12 weeks of sessions, participants learn about developing quality retail operations and routines, visual merchandising, point-of-sale and e-commerce systems, pricing, navigating brick-and-mortar regulations, the design-build process, crisis management, and identifying startup costs and funding sources. After graduation, participants receive another six months of post-graduate coaching from the TechTown team. 
“Retail Boot Camp is a deep dive and that isn't just with the business, it's also with the participant,” says Christina Devlin, one of TechTown’s Retail Strategists and a coach for Retail Boot Camp. “Everything from finding the right location and negotiating your lease to opening your doors and beyond — our goal is to prepare entrepreneurs for the entire journey of opening a brick-and-mortar location.” 

For Aisha Blake and Ben Lippi, co-owners of board game store Opal Grove Games, the goal was to create a friendly, local game store but the pandemic stalled the next phase of the business. After the world started to reopen a bit, Opal Grove Games was able to host events across the country. In order to purchase wholesale, however, the business needed a physical location.  
Blake and Lippi had some business acumen from fellow entrepreneurs they knew, but neither had much retail experience. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we wanted something to start filling in those gaps,” Blake says. “We wanted coaches to guide us and friends we could compare notes with. We wanted a realistic picture of what creating the space we envisioned would look like in Detroit.”” 
Blake says Retail Boot Camp acted as a crash course and the true beginning of Opal Grove Games. “Retail Boot Camp helped us pull all of our ideas into a more cohesive plan and helped us forge the connections we needed to take our business to the next level,” she says. “We got direct feedback on our services, projections, and pitch. Working through the boot camp modules also forced us to reexamine the decisions we’d already made,” says Blake. 
The program’s workbook helped break down logistics step-by-step, allowing the co-owners to refine their business vision. The biggest lesson learned, says Blake, was the importance of flexibility. 
“We developed a more experimental mindset and felt much better equipped to handle unexpected issues.” 

After graduating from the program, Opal Grove Games opened up in the lower level of 3545 Michigan Ave. in Detroit. 
“We would never have known the space was available if not for our coach, Christina Devlin,” Blake says. “She also let us know about the application process for the Downtown Detroit Market, which was absolutely instrumental for us in terms of both marketing and revenue. We were able to meet a ton of local gamers, expand our inventory, and iterate on our processes throughout the busiest time of the year for our industry.” 
Looking ahead, the business hopes to open in a permanent location, to host workshops and private parties, small rental rooms and serve refreshments and local baked goods. “Long-term, we want to be the go-to resource for running board game parties at conferences and retreats,” Blake says.  
Frederick Paul II, owner of Detroit-based sneaker exchange store Fahrenheit 313, says his business idea began back in 2015. While cleaning his apartment, he saw dozens of sneakers spread across the floor and had a lightbulb moment. The avid sneaker collector listed two pairs of shoes on eBay for some extra cash; those quick sales made Paul realize there was a market for reselling new and pre-owned sneakers. Fahrenheit 313 began online in 2016, offering fellow sneakerheads a chance to buy, sell and trade sneakers at affordable prices.  
Paul used lessons from his college advertising course to build a Wix website and a launch campaign, posting rare sneakers and Detroit-themed hats online. The next goal was to open a physical store.  
“As a first-generation college student, I lacked the financial portfolio needed to secure traditional loans and credit,” Paul says. “I knew I would need grants and other funding sources to make my dream a reality.” 
After a yearlong search, Paul found the perfect home for his business on Livernois Avenue, aka Detroit’s Historic Avenue of Fashion. But before making the leap and purchasing a space, Paul applied to TechTown’s RBC during the summer of 2018 to understand the ins and outs of opening a brick-and-mortar.  
“I made some lifelong friends throughout the program […] and I won the $5000 pitch competition in which the funds were used to pay the security deposit for my space, purchase a POS system and secure some inventory needed to open,” Paul says. “I started hosting sneaker pop-ups around Detroit, reinvesting $3,500 to buy inventory for the grand opening.” 
“With the help of some family and friends, I built out the storefront in eight months without any contractors.” 
In March 2020, Fahrenheit 313’s retail location opened at 20114 Livernois Ave. Paul says Retail Boot Camp was supportive of his dream since his business’ early days. “From day one, I felt like the team at TechTown understood exactly what I needed to succeed and they began to offer tailored support in those areas,” he says. “Whether that was by connecting me with an accountant or hooking me up with a POS system, they always helped me find a way to overcome each obstacle that stood in my way from opening.”  
In the future, the Fahrenheit 313 owner hopes to put the brand on the map globally, taking the spirit of Detroit internationally. The goal is to become much more than a sneaker store, too; Paul hopes “to secure strategic partnerships with other brands and companies that will allow us to create innovative campaigns, activations, and events that step outside of the box from what’s to be expected and has ever been seen from a sneaker store,” he says.  
Even after graduating from the Retail Boot Camp program, Paul says the networking and relationships he made throughout have been helpful and resourceful. “From maintaining those relationships and staying in touch, when I had a question or needed a resource for a specific topic when trying to open my store, I already had a list of professionals I could refer back to,” he says. “Each time I reached out, I was met with so much optimism and willingness to help because they saw my commitment to my passion because I was in the program.” 
And it’s equally as important to the Retail Boot Camp team to maintain those relationships. After all, Devlin says, coaches and participants spend nine months together between program sessions and the six-month post-graduate coaching.

“Our alums know that we are always just a call, text, or email away when they need someone to listen, support, and/or connect them to resources for wherever they are at in their journey,” she says. “Entrepreneurs often feel like they are on an island alone, and we are here to remind them that they aren't alone and there is an entire team supporting them and rooting for them.” 
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Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected].