AOL founder Steve Case took his nationwide tour “Rise of the Rest” to Ann Arbor Wednesday to bring new attention to startup businesses originating in non-coastal areas of the United States.
Rise of the Rest, an initiative made possible by Case’s company Revolution, is a nationwide tour seeking to work alongside entrepreneurs championing businesses in “startup ecosystems.” During its time in a city, the tour visits innovative startups, talks with business leaders and celebrates entrepreneurs within the community. A pitch competition is thrown at the end of the day, where eight companies compete for a $100,000 investment from Case.
According to Case, approximately 50 percent of all U.S. venture capitalist investment is allocated to California, home of Silicon Valley, while Michigan only receives 1 percent of investment. More than half of this 1 percent goes directly to Ann Arbor.
“Don’t feel like you need to be in Silicon Valley, there’s great things happening here,” Case said. “Part of this is how to turn what some call the Rustbelt into much more of a startup-belt.”
Business graduate student Connor Burleigh thought the amount of venture capital Ann Arbor received was significant.
“Ann Arbor gets half of the venture of the state; that’s huge,” Burleigh said. “Communities can’t be separate, it has to be Southeast Michigan as a single ecosystem.”
Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with Case, and discussed Michigan’s ingenuity and leadership in combining the IT field and automotive industry.
“We have that Midwestern humility, but we need to be louder and prouder,” Snyder said. “We need ambassadors for our city and state to speak up and tell our story.”
After an introductory breakfast, tour members of Rise of the Rest set out to begin a string of visits with Ann Arbor startups. They spent time at Mcity, Duo Security, A2 Engage, FarmLogs, NutShell, CaHoots and TechArb.
In Case’s opinion, one the most important methods to propel a startup community to higher levels of success is telling the community’s story.
“Not only do most people in the community not know what the success stories are, but the vast majority of people outside of those communities don’t know what those stories are,” Case said. “Ann Arbor is doing really, really well and most people in other parts of the country don’t know how well it’s doing.”
Later in the day, Case and a panel of business experts held a “fireside chat” to discuss in more detail the importance of startup communities and the challenges they face in expanding and developing. Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans Inc., and J.D. Vance, best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” joined Case on the panel. Mary Grove, director of Google for Entrepreneurs, was another panel member.
One key topic of discussion was the relationship between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Panelists noted innovation, while one of the main focuses within each city, has not managed to bring the two together. They commented on the importance of bridging the gap between Ann Arbor and Detroit and how this coalition can bring prosperity to the region.
Business graduate student Tobi Ogundipe agreed with the panelists and believes this connection is important to draw in investors.
“My biggest takeaway was Dan Gilbert honing in on the threads of connection between Ann Arbor and Detroit,” Ogundipe said. “The talent is here and the companies are coming to Ann Arbor and Detroit; it makes sense to combine these together.”
Mary Grove shared how Silicon Valley’s positive attitude toward failure and constant stream of feedback can bolster a city’s entrepreneurial culture.
“We need to create one community and one conversation,” Grove said.
The panelists also discussed Amazon’s search for a new home for their headquarters. Gilbert argued Michigan’s proximity to Canada and the nearby universities are just some of the reasons why Amazon should choose Detroit.
“If you put a pile of cash in a city, how many people will go to that city?” Gilbert said. “I think money follows, it doesn’t lead.”
Once the panel wrapped up, representatives pitched their companies to a panel of judges including Case and Vance. Eight companies were selected out of a pool of hundreds to compete. SAHI Cosmetics LLC, founded by Sheleen Sahi, took home the $100,000 personal investment from Steve Case. The company, which seeks to increase representation within the cosmetics industry, creates custom makeup that caters to every skin tone.
Tige Savage, Revolution Ventures’s managing partner and University of Michigan alum, gave advice for student entrepreneurs and commented on how starting a business doesn’t have to mean forgoing student responsibilities.
“You don’t have to have an idea to join a startup, there’s not a shortage of founders in the world,” Savage said. “But I think there’s a shortage of employees to join someone and help scale it.”
When asked advice for student entrepreneurs, Case noted the importance of choosing an idea that can impact people’s lives.
“Pick a battle worth fighting,” Case said. “Maybe it’s health care, maybe it’s water, maybe it’s agriculture, but you’ve got to do something important.”