Posts Tagged ‘entrepreneurs’

This article article appeared originally in the February 2016 edition of Workspace Magazine, published by Bellow Press in Grand Rapids.


Detroit Business Incubator Reinvents How Detroit Works

By John Q. Horn

Grand-scale manufacturing loss, staggering crime and a national economic recession sank of a lot of middle-tier cities. Detroit, for decades, was one of them.

But, an invigorating entrepreneurialism – even in small pockets on the fringes of a now-bustling downtown – is creating an innovative approach to work where the automotive assembly line that made Detroit great is being complemented by a steady line of small business owners intending to make the city greater.

When Detroit needed to rethink how it approached work – following an auto industry collapse, a federal government bailout that came with it; and a corrupt city government leading to bankruptcy and emergency management assistance – reinventing Detroit’s work identity unraveled unconventionally.

Billionaires like the late Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illich, and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske and others, have been moving people and companies toward the Central Business District by the tens of thousands into buildings that were for decades empty, aging, eyesores. This has generated a downtown pulse that once barely registered.

Equally critical to the city’s health are the entrepreneurs and small business creationists filling the gaps of a city’s workforce and its path to becoming again whole. With countless manufacturing jobs disintegrating in both the city and suburbs, Detroit required a solution outside of the billionaires. Ponyride, a collaborative bricks-and-mortar workspace, galloped onto the landscape, bringing with it a zephyr of small business generation and community-based entrepreneurship.


ponyride exeterior

Back in 2005, Phil Cooley bought real estate along a then-empty and silent Michigan Avenue, inserting in it what would become the city’s signature restaurant, Slow’s Bar BQ. Through that success, Cooley and his associates would make more investments in Detroit. In 2010, the foreclosed property at 1401 Vermont caught his eye, as Cooley said he sought space to live and work. At 30,000 square feet, the bank said it would take $100,000 for the property. But for that sweet price, Cooley would need to convert it into a multiple-use space. He met with community members for feedback. The result is the rebirth of an empty structure, named Ponyride, packed with a litany of small businesses that all got their start or grew there.

“We want a workspace that encourages people the way Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were, before they were successful, old and rich,” Cooley said. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs need to exist and create jobs. “

And that’s precisely what is happening. Kate Bordine Cooley, Phil’s wife and owner of Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery and tasting room merely blocks away, said they let the community tell them what the space should be and “organically folks showed up needing space. Bit by bit, the spaces in Ponyride have grown into what they are now. We have a café, co-working space, textiles, metal and wood studios.”



Specifically, there are dozens of work areas carved out for small business entrepreneurs to create and distribute wares. Among them is a professionally built dance space, a recording studio, a coffee café, the makers of Beard Balm, Detroit Denim (and their $250 jeans), Dirt Apparel (urban-influenced clothing), The Line Studio and their glorious furniture with concrete countertops and Floyd, a progressive furniture manufacturer catering to smaller living spaces with pieces that attach to any surface to convert to a table-bed system.

“It’s a Democratic space,” Cooley said. “Why should tech be with just tech? Or manufacturing with just manufacturing? We don’t want to isolate people. It’s not textbook to have a quiltmaker next to a hip-hop dance teacher.”

Nothing about Detroit is, or ever will be, textbook. It’s always been tough in this city.

Detroit went from hey-day vibrant, to grossly violent, to complacently desolate, to laughably corrupt, to, literally, bankrupt. This pattern required five-plus decades of sweetheart deals and immoral bookkeeping. All while the rest of the nation watched, contorting its nose as if amid flatulence. It would seem logical that the decades it took for Detroit to de-evolve should be congruent to the time it will take for the city to again feel whole – a state many considered incomprehensible.

“To throw away that infrastructure is foolish. But, also, it’s the tenants themselves, the way they share resources, tools and ideas,” Cooley said. “Lazlo (a company housed in Ponyride) has a guy working for him who just got out of prison.”

Bordine Cooley supported the assertion that co-working, especially at Ponyride, crystallizes the way new work is being done in Detroit.

“When the Jit Crew said they needed a dance studio, we gutted a room that was once eight separate offices and laid down a reclaimed gymnasium floor,” she said.

Dance studio space cost $10 per hour to rent, and includes lessons, recitals, events and parties. Most workspace is $300 per month. The waiting list is currently at 200 people with great ideas. Ponyride quickly went from incubator to white-hot oven.

Ponyride is home to The Empowerment Plan, an organic operation bringing together homeless women and puts them to work. Their finished product is a thick, down jacket that converts to a sleeping bag, designed specifically for those living on the streets. The hum of 20 sewing machines at a time is nearly symphonic, once the humanitarianism of it all washes over you.


sewing 1

Cassie Coravos, business and communications manager of The Empowerment Plan, says the organization provides twice-weekly GED classes through Pro-Literacy Detroit. It assists with online college courses, finding viable housing and involving members with financial literacy through Level One Bank. It offers resources and support, including everything from onsite temporary housing to vehicle acquisition and repair.

“Ponyride has been a great space to be a part of,” Coravos said. “We love being part of this community, but we are quickly outgrowing our space. We currently have 20 seamstresses. We want to hire more and make more coats, and we are near capacity in our current space.”

Detroit SOUP also operates out of Ponyride. It’s not so much a café, rather, an open-air forum where guests enjoy locally sources soup and salad, paying $5 for both comfort food and a vote, listening intently to at least four locals pitch their products and ideas. These range from urban farming, to legal fees for the wrongly accused, to education and technology initiatives – many born from bare-bones, grassroots projects.

People eat, listen, vote and reward. The five-year-old program has raised more than $85,000 for independent projects in Detroit. It’s a council of community-minded Detroiters and their suburban neighbors putting up $5 at a time to help fund an entrepreneur’s dream. Yeah, someone has an idea for a garden on a beat-down lot and that night’s Detroit SOUP brought in $400 for the endeavor. That’s $400 that wasn’t there before. And like the business incubator space that also wasn’t there, so is a presence of support that didn’t previously exists. Be it $10 or $100,000, in Detroit, in the right hands, it makes a difference.

Joanna Dueweke is a community activist and content strategist. She is also the director of Detroit SOUP, and she describes perfectly the position in which Detroit, and its work culture, finds today.

“Nothing about Detroit can be traditional anymore,” she said. “We have to change so the city can change and prosper in new and different ways.”

New and different should be on the welcome mat.

Like The Empowerment Plan, whose founder Veronika Scott started by herself with a modest Detroit SOUP grant, the path to crafting a dream where soon-to-be-former-Detroit women could make a warm coat-sleeping bag for their sweet brethren and sisterhood, these things take time.

Creating coworking space and connecting with a community to make it feasible is embryonic in the larger glimpse. Putting the right resources in a place like Ponyride sharpens the focus for those who want it.

“Three and a half years ago, it was just Veronika,” Phil Cooley said. “Now look at it. That’s five years. That takes some heavy lifting. I hope there is more patience.”


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Ride On

Mobile bicycle repair startup is rolling

By John Horn

Some people set lofty goals and pursue them until attained. Others, amid inaction and excessive chatter, prattle on about what they say they’re going to do.

Alan Schlutow doesn’t do a lot of talking.

Rather, the 27-year-old Royal Oak businessman is busy with the bicycle repair company he just started. A company that, in its infancy in 2009, was run out of the basement of the house he shares with his girlfriend, Melanie.  He does this while working a full-time job.

Schultow started Home Grown Cycles as a Plan B, when hours at his day job – which he actually works nights —  were rumored to be trimmed. He works as a technician in the Emergency Room of Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital, an atmosphere that can often be sea of human wreckage; a sometimes flotsam of blood and people bits.

“I was working midnights at the hospital,” Schlutow said, “and I was close to being laid off. I had always wanted my own bike company, so I started doing repairs out of the basement.”

Schlutow still works at the hospital. The lay-off was a false alarm, but it spooked him enough to kickstart his dream. As his business model evolved, he struck gold with the idea to make his operation mobile. As in, he comes to you.

Going mobile

A business that fixes two-wheeled machines needed some wheels of its own. Schlutow introduced pick-up and drop-off services to customers. In an enormous yellow parcel truck (a retired U.S. Postal Service truck, actually), he will pick up a bike, haul it back to his Ferndale shop, give to it the TLC it needs and return it promptly to the customer’s front door.

The big yellow truck is impossible to miss.

“We really do not do much advertising, just the truck mainly,” Schlutow said. “We started repairing bikes in the basement and became a corporation on August 11, 2009.”

So, he now has two birthdays to celebrate.

The truck is working well. Schlutow said it oftentimes is the one component driving work his way.  He said most customers are women of a certain age with specific responsibilities.

“The clientele is mainly middle-aged women with kids,” he said. “They do not have a lot of time, especially with the children. And they usually have no space in the car to put the bike in.”

Starting a company is challenging. It helps to have people on your side. When talking about Home Grown Cycles, Schlutow always says “we.” He could be talking about his father, who actually discovered the retired postal truck on the side of the road one day on a drive through Howell. Buddy Ben Krenke handles the company’s paper work and tax obligations. Another friend, Justin Curran, helped land a deal with suppliers. Schlutow’s aunt did the logo. This is how things get done in small business.

Schlutow rents 550 square feet in a rather unique working environment. Paper Street Motors is 22,000 square feet of industrial building at Wanda and Jarvis streets in south Ferndale. It has been hindquartered and parceled out into separate office space and raw, industrial work areas.

“I saw their flyer and checked out the shop,” he said. “There is not a lot of overhead, which is good, because bike tools aren’t cheap.”

Schlutow and his father hung walls and huge doors to create a properly dedicated workspace inside of the shop. In it, Schlutow repairs a variety of bicycles. And while they include the spring tune-ups for the MILF-y crowd, he has also worked on higher-end bikes and has done some custom restorations inside of the Ferndale shop.

There is an obvious feel to the place. It is a collection of like-minded entrepreneurs working for something better.

“Our clients are one of two archtypes,” said Paper Street owner Andy Didorosi said. “One, they have an existing small business and they have brought it here to save some money. Or, two, they work a day job and are staring a small business. They can test it out here.

“These are people who are completely fed up with working for someone else and they have to do something.”

Keeping good company

Paper Street’s client roster has a wild diversity to it. It contains Web designers and graphic designers, but there is also the two blue-collar guys working to perfect their recipe for a streak and chicken seasoning rub. There are masonry and motorcycle repair specialists. You have Monte, an auto repair guy that Didorosi says works there to feed and shelter his 11 children. One woman translates German fairy tales to English. One company makes its own mead. Everyone is under one roof, with one common goal.

And then there is Alan.

“Home Grown is awesome,” Didorosi said. “Alan’s is the perfect story. He is plugged into the community and that’s what it takes to get things like this going. His model is novel. I see him as one of the ones that will make it.”

Instead of the bones that make up that big nub of the human ankle, Schlutow’s might as well have ball bearings packed with grease. He’s ridden most of this life, working at a bike shop when he was 16. In the time between graduating from Waterford Mott and studying biology at Oakland University, he took his graduation money and upgraded his ride to a full-suspension Specialized mountain bike. He races in the Michigan Points Series. He’s not playing around and his vision for his young business is no joke.

“The whole reason we got into repair was to get into frame building,” Schlutow said. “Fabrication. I want to build my own bikes.”

Suddenly, the reserved shop owner opens a bit, and starts diagramming on a tabletop how a bike frame comes together. He talks of steel frames and geometry, the Michigan emblem that goes on the back of the seat tube, dropouts, head badges and other jargon. He sees bigger things for the business.

“We want to be able to sell our own frames,” he said. “I want to have a shop where people can come in, and hang out for a bit. We will have custom bikes that we build and repair. We can have showers and lockers within the shop where people can clean up after their rides before or after work.”

Throw Schlutow some work. Dig out your bike and call him at (248) 677-1360; e-mail him at repairs@homegrowncycle.com; or visit the Web site at www.homegrowncycle.com

More information on Paper Street Motors can be found at www.welovepaperstreet.com

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