When I graduated from the University in 1995, I had little idea of what I wanted to do professionally. I had a general impulse to get training and skills, so I went to work at an investment bank. It didn’t take me long to conclude that I was more interested in our clients than I was in my job. What drew me to these companies were the entrepreneurial stories of their founders. I realized that the real creation of value was coming from these visionary entrepreneurs and not the lawyers and bankers. Pretty soon I left to throw my hat in the start-up ring.
So at the ripe old age of 23, I founded my first company, Community Connect Inc., with four other friends. We started the company out of my apartment, and I ran it as CEO for more than 12 years until we grew the company to about 150 employees and then sold it to a publicly traded media company. Having started a company at such an early age with so little experience was an incredible challenge, but I was fortunate to have the support of some amazing entrepreneurs. Their mentorship, combined with hard-won experience, has made an enormous difference in my career. When I speak to recent graduates who want to someday start or run a company, I tell them to seek out mentors who will help them develop professionally. Find someone who has built a career like the one you want, and engage with him or her until you get a good sense of how things are done.
Right now, there are some phenomenal entrepreneurs building successful businesses in Detroit, just a stone’s throw away. There’s Brian Balasia, the co-founder of Digerati who graduated from the University in 2003 and proceeded to build a business helping other businesses use technology to increase productivity. There’s Brett deMarrais, who graduated from the University in 2009 and is now the CEO and Founder of Wedit, a crowd-sourced wedding videography business set to clear six-figures of revenue this year. And there’s Phillip and Ryan Cooley, whose destination restaurant Slow’s BBQ has revitalized the Corktown neighborhood. Phillip and Ryan are now working on a 28,000-square-foot incubation space to house new enterprises.
These entrepreneurs and their success have given rise to a new sense of opportunity and excitement in the region. Josh Linkner, managing director of Detroit Venture Partners and founder of ePrize, recently told us how happy he was with the dozens of innovative companies they’ve been seeing. DVP has already invested in seven companies, with many more on the way.
For those of you who would like to follow in the footsteps of Brian Balasia, Brett deMarrais, Phillip Cooley, Ryan Cooley and even Josh Linkner, there’s the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, which, under managing director Doug Neal, is one of the best in the country. There’s Bizdom U. — an entrepreneurship accelerator funded by Dan Gilbert and based in Detroit. And there is the Venture for America Fellowship, which will be offered to roughly 50 of the top college graduates in the country. Venture for America Fellows will attend training camp held at Brown University next summer with experienced entrepreneurs and investors before beginning work at a start-up in Detroit or another low-cost city. After two years, one Fellow will receive $100,000 in seed investment. Applications are now open at www.ventureforamerica.org/apply.
The path to entrepreneurship has historically been less clearly marked than other paths. Indeed, that has been one of its defining features. But the country, and Michigan in particular, needs its best and brightest to become entrepreneurs who build businesses and create jobs more than ever. You will never be more able to take risks than at this stage in your career. Entrepreneurship is much like other professional paths in that you tend to get better at it over time, but the decision to start must be yours. The challenge is there for you, and the time to start is now.
Benjamin Sun is a University Alum and a member of Venture for America’s entrepreneur board.