Detroit carries two conflicting stories: one of hopeful optimism, the other present-day realism. Both of them are true, but at NewCo Detroit last week we saw optimism win.
During NewCo’s kickoff last week, Paul Riser, managing director of TechTown Detroit, highlighted his organization’s work supporting Detroit entrepreneurs with investment and advice. His dissection of the tension between what entrepreneurs need and what markets want has ramifications beyond the realities of one tough city. Entrepreneurs anywhere have to be optimistic — the best ones, after all, are creating something new that they’re bringing into the world — but they also have to be realistic.
That conversation served as a ideal intro for the next day’s company visits. NewCo festivals are a mix of a sprint (each session lasts only an hour) and a marathon (visit six companies in a day). Most attendees constructed their own schedules of where they wanted to go, but we also started something new: programmed, guided tours in which a group of likeminded people follow the same route together on a luxury bus. Our two tours this year were one focusing on companies with women leaders (Detroit Experience Factory, dPOP!, Build Institute, Walker-Miller Energy, and Detroit Creative Corridor), and a “Detroit 2.0” journey focusing on some of the companies that are focusing on Detroit’s future (TechTown Detroit, Detroit Venture Partners, Third Man Records, Shinola, and Michigan Urban Farming).
No one person can give a personal overview of a whole NewCo festival. They’re too big. Detroit had 46 organizations open its doors, and since I’m one person I was only able to squeeze in six visits. After attending several of these citywide NewCo festivals, I see that the best thing about the meetup we hold at the end of the festival is that you can learn about all the great companies you couldn’t visit. The worst thing about the meetup? You learn about all the great companies you wish you could have visited.
As you’d suspect from a city with Detroit’s history, NewCo Detroit was a celebration of companies that make things, ranging from Detroit Grease, which turns diesel waste into biodiesel and compost, to Third Man Records, which will soon open the first new vinyl-record pressing plant in the U.S. in decades. As a sign of the creativity in the city, even the taglines for these companies are inspirational, like this one for Rebel Nell: “graffiti jewelry that empowers women in Detroit.” And many of the Detroit NewCos aren’t just building products and services; like Downtown Boxing Gym, they’re building up people, too.
As much energy as there was in the sessions, there was also a sober realism about the significant challenges facing the city. There was no denial. But I left NewCo Detroit with a sense of a city with a rich history zeroing in on its future. Detroit is the Motor City, of course, but it’s also the Motown City, and Paul Riser from TechTown is the son of one of the musicians who made that great label. As Paul noted during our chat, Berry Gordy’s record company quickly became a place where budding local musical entrepreneurs could experiment safely and competitively. NewCo Detroit showcased 46 organizations that are either providing such a platform or making good use of one. As Paul said, “To make a new company work, you need effort and optimism. You need them both.”
Photos: Danielle Kaltz