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Sunday, 09 December 2012 23:09

Business ecosystem thrives on Start Garden’s ‘gritty’ culture

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Atomic Object’s Michael Marsiglia and Shawn Crowley talk programming with John Grace Atomic Object’s Michael Marsiglia and Shawn Crowley talk programming with John Grace
GRAND RAPIDS — When seasoned advisers help out startup businesses, the benefit of that relationship goes both ways.

That’s according to Kim Klap, director of portfolio relations at Start Garden, a Grand Rapids-based $15 million seed fund and startup incubator started by Amway scion and entrepreneur Rick DeVos.

“When they come to our space, they are tapped into that really lean, vibrant energy of people that are just gritty,” Klap said. “Maybe they see things from a different perspective.”

Every week, Start Garden selects two ideas to receive at least $5,000 in funding. The Start Garden team selects one idea, while the other is picked by popular vote. The ideas then have between 60 and 90 days to design and conduct an experiment proving their business concept is viable, scalable and necessary, after which time they will either receive additional funding or not.

While Start Garden does provide a system for funding startup ideas, the benefits it provides go beyond just cash, its advisers say. Start Garden was developed to provide entrepreneurs with guidance from established companies. Paul Moore, Start Garden’s marketing manager, says the social capital generated through the network Start Garden is developing outweighs the funding provided to ideas. Klap agreed.

“They’re tapping into that network (of advisers) and that network continues to grow,” Klap said. “Beyond that, it’s getting interest and experience behind what you’re doing, and it begins to create this supportive culture for people who are starting ideas.”

Some of the organizations Start Garden partners with include Varnum LLP, Tiger Studio and Atomic Object, as well as Grand Rapids-based Vantaura Energy Services, whose president, Bryan Houck, has advised several Start Garden-funded ideas.

A self-described serial entrepreneur, Houck told MiBiz he is aware of the challenges that fellow entrepreneurs face. He said he’s also familiar with the Start Garden team, having worked previously with Klap. This network of first-degree and second-degree connections is exactly what Start Garden hoped to foster, Klap said.

“The idea is that we could maintain a very small team that’s building the ecosystem and working with these investments, but also reaching out into the community to start creating a culture where businesses and people like these advisers can come around the investments,” Klap says. “Mike (Morin, also a portfolio manager) and I can then leverage relationships that we’ve had in the past with companies, or we can try to go out and find those that we need to support them.”

Klap said a large part of the challenge in providing effective, helpful advice to the funded projects is simply finding the right people for the job. She said Start Garden’s network of advisers and partner organizations must be as diverse as the projects that Start Garden funds, which have ranged from a reindeer webcam site to a company that produces insoles specifically for adolescent athletes.

Some of the needs are more universal, like legal advice on how to develop and defend intellectual property or implement a search engine optimization strategy, she said. However, other needs are more specialized.

“When you’re talking about how you’re going to take a product to market, you really need people who are experts in those distinct areas,” Klap said. “It’s really about reaching out and continuing to grow this adviser network so that we can make connections that are really meaningful.”

Sometimes that specialized help comes in the form of getting a different perspective on a problem. That was the case with one of the ideas Houck worked with, Design a Dream, the brainchild of Shannon Gales, a wedding dress designer and owner at Vue Design. Her idea was a modular bridal gown system that allows customers to create a like-custom dress without paying the premium for a truly custom-made dress.

“She was looking for a way to protect her intellectual rights of the wedding gowns, and she’d been advised by an attorney that trying to get copyrights on fashion design is pretty tough,” Houck said. “I suggested that she instead look at her product as a system instead of a gown, and you can easily get a patent or copyright on a system. So she changed her focus with that.”

Design a Dream went on to receive an additional $20,000 in funding from Start Garden.

Interactions like the one between Houck and Gales are what Klap and the Start Garden team are trying to foster as they work to create what they call an entrepreneurship ecosystem in West Michigan. While many adviser relationships are built by organizational partnerships with Start Garden, other connections between projects and advisers are made by referral or by area professionals who are curious about what Start Garden is and does.

“Part of it, I think, is our new space here; we’re very visible,” Klap said. “So, we’ll get people who walk in and say, ‘Hey, what is it that you do here?’ or ‘I’ve heard about this.’ Or it’s referrals with people reaching out and wanting to get involved.”

In either case, the goal is to provide a symbiotic relationship where the startup benefits from the experience of the established organization while the adviser benefits from exposure to the fast-paced startup culture.

“I think it provides an all-around experience that maybe they’re not getting in their own office walls,” Klap said of the advisers. “They can participate, meet new people and be exposed to new ideas this way.”

Also, there is the added incentive of satisfaction of helping out a fellow startup, Houck said.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur going on eight years, and I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing a lot of things, both good and bad,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of help along the way, and I feel like it’s time for me to turn around and help out some of the folks that are trying to do the same thing. The benefit is then more subjective: the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping out.”

Read 3920 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 December 2012 14:47
Carl Dunker

Contributing reporter

cdunker@mibiz.com

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