A local grassroots organization helps connect entrepreneurs and startups for the benefit of all
In 2007, Ann Arbor resident and senior product engineer Rob Patterson paired up with friends John Baranowski, Kevin Zalewski, and Chris Sonjeow and began brainstorming how to turn a one-off creation — a customized book that Patterson had made for his wife in 2004 — into a business. The co-founders launched LoveBook Online in Patterson’s house. Now based in Rochester, the venture allows customers to create personalized gift books for the loved ones in their lives.
All four members of the group had day jobs during the launch phase, which meant that they were working on LoveBook at night, and oftentimes without a sense of direction. “In our very early stages, we felt it was important to get involved in the startup community to get a better understanding of how others were doing business,” says Sonjeow, LoveBook’s chief marketing officer. That’s when Grow Detroit became a resource.
The brainchild of co-founder Alex Southern, Grow Detroit is a community platform that was created “with the idea that we would host events at the most promising, up-and-coming companies in southeast Michigan,” he says. Since 2011, he’s worked with fellow co-founders Ajay Kapoor, Erick Bzovi, and Jordan Skole to run the organization largely with his own capital and no official nonprofit status. The four co-founders simultaneously work to advance their full-time careers. “I had worked for some really fast-growing startup companies in Los Angeles … and some other communities as well, [but I] refocused back in this area,” says Southern, who is originally from metro Detroit, and is also the executive director of Vectorform, a startup focused on creating digital products and customer experiences in Royal Oak. “[I] realized I didn’t see any type of true community or any connection for young people who were passionate about technology, business, [or] entrepreneurial activities [here].” After attending the business conference Future Midwest in 2011, Southern felt so inspired by the enthusiasm of the attendees that he decided to collaborate with Kapoor, Bzovi, and Skole to create Grow Detroit. All four felt the organization was sorely needed. “I thought, [Detroit is] such a commuter area … there has to be a way to connect people together, and events became that kind of driving force for connectivity,” Southern says.
Planting the Seed
Kapoor, vice president of digital transformation and strategy at SharkNinja in Boston, considers himself a “serial entrepreneur.” In 2011, he moved back to metro Detroit, where he’s originally from — although he’s since returned to Boston for his current position — and began looking for a community of peers that could mentor one another and share best entrepreneurial practices. Not having such a community led him to Southern, Bzovi, and Skole.
Grow Detroit partnered with national organization, Techonomy, to bring curated events to DEtroit.
“I think the key was I had experience at community grassroots build-outs like this in the past,” he says, adding that he frequently leveraged the connections he’d made while founding or assisting startups across the U.S. — including the Startup Leadership Program in New York, Chicago, and Beijing and ENTER (Entrepreneurs’ Exceptional Resource) in Boston — to inform Grow Detroit’s practices and cultivate new networking opportunities. For example, when President Obama signed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act in 2012, Steven Robert, the former chief information officer of the Troy-based software company Billhighway, attended the ceremony as one of Grow Detroit and Startup America’s “champions.”
Yet Grow Detroit’s main focus has always been events, which either Southern or another champion hosts. Southern calls these, “fireside chats,” and they often feature founders or C-level executives of startups and growth-phase companies. The Grow team asks the guests to share their main obstacles, advice, and ways to connect with other mentors, peers, resources, and potential employees. “People were talking about [having] a hard time finding a job in Detroit,” Southern says. “When we started peeling back the layers, we were finding companies like Mango [Languages] that had 40, 50 open roles. And [they were] having trouble finding talent to fill those jobs.” One reason for that, Kapoor says, is because the entrepreneurs Grow Detroit typically reaches are in their 20s or 30s and aren’t as aware of available resources.
“Grow Detroit is a great starting point for entrepreneurs who are looking to get an understanding of how to set up their new companies,” Sonjeow says. “It’s also a great place for veterans to share their knowledge and be introduced to new projects that pop up in the area.” Detroit’s startup community has exploded since 2011, and resources are easier to find, so Grow Detroit is focusing on keeping the momentum going. Southern says some options include leadership dinners and expert panels. Meanwhile, LoveBook sold its one millionth product over the 2017 holiday season.