Detroit's start-up scene may be as young and zealous as the start-ups that comprise it, but make no mistake, the city has a deep-rooted, roll-up-your-sleeves culture that has shaped its entrepreneurs from day one. And it's nothing like Silicon Valley, New York or Boston. We asked to a few of the Motor City's finest to share the moments that define their company's —and their city's—working culture.
"When there are doubters, you work a little harder," says Jake Cohen, Detroit Venture Partners' Vice President. "Just the other day, I was on the phone with someone from Sequoia Capital and he was telling me which industries were attracting money on the West Coast--like somehow I wouldn't already know. I think a lot of us have a chip on our shoulder here. People think that our start-ups aren't real, and that we don't know what it's like anywhere else--they think we just got stuck here. But there are a lot of people here who could be anywhere else. It's a choice."
"That blue collar work ethic that's been around here for decades is still very much a part of our businesses," says Detroit-native Nathan Hughes, recruiter for Detroit Labs, an app developer located in the heart of the city. "We all support each other. Like, our building has free coffee, but there's a new mom-and-pop coffee shop four blocks away that we all buy coffee at just to support it. It's that kind of thing."
"We've had some accidental marketing that has gone very well for us as well," says Alex Schiff, the co-founder of Fetchnotes, a note-taking app. "We had an e-mail snafu. We accidentally sent a test e-mail to our whole user base." That e-mail said: "This is my test, bitches." "We were, like, 'No, no, no!,'" he says. "But it actually helped us triple our user engagement. It worked very well in a way that we did not intend in the slightest."
"We find that companies, because they're not being approached every week by a start-up with an idea, they're a lot more approachable and amenable to trying out your ideas, especially if they're free or low-cost," says James Vreeland, founder of Gumshoe, a gaming platform. For example, the Henry Ford Museum let Gumshoe pilot its app with them. "Unlike Silicon Valley, the culture in which everyone is trying to hustle their idea doesn't exist here. The folks who are here just bring so much more Midwestern grit and passion to it."
"The energy here is infectious, especially at this specific moment in time," says Matt Mosher, founder of recruiting service Hired My Way, founded in 2010. "We're all big fish in a small pond right now. Why would you want to go somewhere else and just be a dime a dozen?"
"There is no doubt that there's a different culture in Ann Arbor than Detroit," says Erick Bzovi, founder of HealPay, a data-driven billing engine based in Ann Arbor. Detroit is like San Francisco and Ann Arbor is like Palo Alto, he adds. "There's a movement to get people to move to Detroit. That whole city is a start-up. In Detroit, everyone is looking for a big win. It's like a race."