Come on down
Group that helps startups breeds success, wants offspring
Detroit is open for business — that’s the message entrepreneurs Liz Blondy and Claire Nelson want to get out.
Blondy and Nelson co-founded Open City last year, an informal meeting group that aims to pair aspiring business owners with resources, information and a supportive community.
After a summer hiatus, Open City resumed meetings this week. The group meets on the third Tuesday of each month at Cliff Bell’s restaurant, 2030 Park St.
After seeing businesses established by three Open City alums, Blondy and Nelson are setting their sights higher.
“This year we want to find 10 people who want to open a business in the city of Detroit in the next six months,” Blondy said. “We want to work with them, introduce them to the city, to lenders, to landlords and to each other, so they can share resources.”
Blondy and Nelson are both Detroit business owners — Blondy owns doggy daycare Canine To Five; Nelson and husband Francis Grunow are the proprietors of Midtown’s posh home accessories store Bureau of Urban Living — who learned things the hard way: how to write a business plan, how to secure funding.
“I spent a lot of time talking to other business owners,” Blondy said. “And I got a lot more information and encouragement from them than I did from any book, Web site or counselor.”
The idea behind Open City is to offer would-be business owners a casual, no-commitment environment to gather information and test the waters, and in the process, to build a community that earns strength through numbers.
Open City’s focus is on downtown and Midtown Detroit, Blondy said, with the intent of creating a bricks-and-mortar business density that can take on a life of its own.
Kelli Kavanaugh and Karen Gage went to Open City meetings before opening Wheelhouse Detroit, a bike-rental service on the riverfront.
“As far as looking at startup funding, it was valuable,” said Kavanaugh. “We got funding from the Detroit Microenterprise Fund, which they had talked about as a possibility.”
They learned what it took to get a loan — a good business plan — and about the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a U.S. Small Business Administration group offering counseling by experienced business owners.
A survey of early attendees had shown interest in such practical matters, Blondy said. Meetings regularly attract between 70 and 100.
“When people wanted to learn about writing a business plan, we brought in Joel Welsh from StartUp Nation,” she said. “When people wanted to learn about financing, we brought in three financing sources, one from a traditional bank, one from a nontraditional bank and one from a venture-capital firm. We tried to do panels with existing business owners.”
But, Blondy said, aspiring business owners had needs beyond the practical — a desire for support, and a sense of community.
That was the case for Dave Mancini, who opened Eastern Market’s Supino Pizzeria in mid-August.
“I’ve lived in the city for 11 years now, and I’ve always thought about opening a restaurant in the city, specifically a pizzeria,” he said. “When I did my initial scouting, there was no suitable place. … I was thinking of going to the suburbs, and it kind of took the heart out of me a little bit.”
Then Wheelhouse co-owner Gage advised him to visit Open City.
Within a week, another meeting attendee had called him to recommend the Eastern Market location.
“You hear about all these ideas, and it makes you think maybe there is something going on,” he said. “It’s an exchange of information where people are looking out for other people.”