Corey Hart returned to Grand Rapids last September to find that support for entrepreneurship and startup companies had grown well beyond what it was when he left for California a decade earlier.
The Forest Hills native and serial entrepreneur now wants to help move the local entrepreneurial ecosystem forward even more with the formation of a Grand Rapids chapter of Startup Grind, a “global community of entrepreneurs” that has more than 600 chapters in 125 countries worldwide consisting of 2 million entrepreneurs.
In bringing Startup Grind to Grand Rapids, Hart wants to fill what he sees as gaps that remain in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, despite all of the progress over the years.
“Things have incredibly improved. The number of resources out there are leaps and bounds from when I was starting out,” said Hart, who cites organizations such as Start Garden and SpringGR, a mentoring and networking organization for entrepreneurs, that have formed in Grand Rapids over the last decade.
Hart envisions Startup Grind working as a clearinghouse to help people make the move to the next level after graduating from a training program. Startup Grind also can “be kind of that traffic cop,” directing entrepreneurs to the resources they need, whether locally or elsewhere.
The new chapter can provide entrepreneurs a global network to tap for help and advice to further build and grow their young companies.
“I’m just trying to amplify the community aspect in our ecosystem and provide a space where people can come regardless of where they are in their journey and meet others that are feeling the same pain,” he said. “This is community-building. There can’t be enough of that.
“We are an open resource for people to use as much as they need or want to.”
Hart wants to partner with other support organizations in town. He already has had conversations with representatives at Grand Valley State University’s Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Grand Rapids, and others.
In seeking partners, the “resource agnostic” Startup Grind will refer entrepreneurs to the best place they can get help.
“I want to be partnered with everybody,” he said. “All I’m here to do is just help raise the water.”
Shorouq Almallah, director of the GVSU Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, welcomes a partnership with Startup Grind. She doesn’t see the organization as redundant or competitive to what’s currently available in Grand Rapids, and views the new chapter as offering one more option for entrepreneurs and startups to use.
“We all bring different perspectives, different value propositions,” Almallah said. “This is going to be a nice addition to West Michigan.”
Almallah particularly likes the network of entrepreneurs across the U.S. and globally that are involved in Startup Grind. That network can bring far broader perspectives to the region, providing more opportunity for local entrepreneurs to connect with peers elsewhere and perhaps access prospective investors, especially when they need later-stage funding, she said.
“He has a niche,” Almallah said. “We do operate in a global environment in terms of doing business with other countries or collaborating with other entrepreneurs internationally. The opportunities, perspectives, products and services that this can bring is very powerful.
“We run in a small circle in West Michigan, or even Michigan, so expanding the circle is going to be really beneficial to many entrepreneurs in the area.”
Hart initially caught the entrepreneurial bug from his father, who was in the hospitality industry.
He worked in the music and radio industries early on and then opened a nightclub and restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids. Churchill’s and Moxie Bar & Bistro on Ionia Avenue opened just as the recession was hitting more than a decade ago. Hart closed the business in early 2009 and moved to San Diego with his girlfriend.
In California, he got involved in a restaurant company and then a food tech company where he eventually became a partner and COO. That took him to San Francisco in the search of venture capital, a field that was “absolutely new to me.”
In San Francisco, he found a mature entrepreneurial ecosystem that he was able to get involved in within a few weeks of his move.
“It didn’t take long to network and get introductions. I was just really impressed how open the ecosystem was in San Francisco that I could get networked so quickly and so fast,” Hart said. “The ecosystem in San Francisco, if you have a good idea and you’re putting yourself out there, and you know your business and know your industry, it’s not hard. Everyone’s just trying to push and pull you. Everyone (has this) ‘let’s all move, let’s all build this now and climb this mountain together’ type of attitude.”
Hart hopes to advance that same kind of thinking in West Michigan with Startup Grind.
He left his enterprise in California last year and decided to return to Michigan as he was about to become a father. After returning, he learned from talking with people around town about how the local entrepreneurial ecosystem had evolved over the last decade, but was “still a little siloed.”
Hart heard about Startup Grind from company founders he met in San Francisco while “tying up loose ends” and preparing to return to Grand Rapids. He saw that Startup Grind lacked a chapter in Michigan and applied to form one in Grand Rapids, then went through an interview process and a nine-week class for chapter directors in November.
‘Top of the funnel’
Startup Grind differs from other entrepreneurial and startup groups through a short set of values, including “make friends, not contacts,” Hart said.
“This is a community of people curious about what entrepreneurism is. It’s a lot of founders, co-founders, engineers, marketing people, anybody from any walk of life, even if they don’t even know that they’re called an entrepreneur,” Hart said. “What I’d would like the Grand Rapids chapter to be is the top of the funnel for all of these curious people.”
That starts by organizing meetings and events to connect people who are looking for marketing help, a technical co-founder, or expertise in social media or crowdfunding, Hart said. Startup Grind will host monthly “fireside chats,” then move into events such as panel discussions and workshops “once I have a bit of a following,” he said.
“We’re really just trying to connect people,” Hart said.
Startup Grind’s website will also contain content through blogs, podcasts and videos.
Hart, who formed and runs Startup Grind as he works full time, plans to seek sponsorships to underwrite the programming and has started the organization with the help of interns from Grand Valley State University.
In 2021, he hopes to take a cohort of startups to San Francisco for Startup Grind’s annual conference called SG Global “to plug them in to see this is what a crazy ecosystem like San Francisco looks like,” and to meet international investors who are looking to find “really cool startups to invest in that they know are going back into their local community.