Market Your Problems. Not Just Your Assets. – Detroit Launch City

This is a guest post by Jason Lorimer. Jason is an entrepreneur @CulturaHQ, advocating on behalf of those with the ambition to do more than just entertain ideas.


It is my first time in Detroit and I am riding shotgun down the main drag that is Woodward Avenue with a long-enough-to-keep-safe lens equipped camera in hand. I sat on the edge of my passenger seat ready to capture some of that choice disaster porn I had heard so much about. In between snapping pictures of what looked to be bombed out buildings, I was struck by the feeling that I was witnessing something truly unshroud. Glide down one street akin to Park Avenue, make a sharp right turn and find yourself smack in the middle of an episode of The Wire. It felt like I was witnessing weeds bursting from cracks in the cement. Burgeoning culture at its boiling point. I was intrigued. Detroit moved me.

The Motor City has all the moving parts to be a Midwest start-up hub. Creating jobs, tax revenue and adding to the culture of entrepreneurship born on the backs of your blue collar blood line. What you need is entrepreneurs, more than you have and the kind that see building the next soup of the day mobile application as a waste of their ambition. These passionate, persistent folks are out there looking to be intrigued by a problem and supported in a way that makes solving it possible. You can attract and retain these entrepreneurs, thousands of them from across the country. Around the world. And you can do it without relying on tax payer subsidy or other market negative solutions. I will show you how.

Duplicate and Drown

Cities tend to make the mistake of trying to replicate the tech mecca that is Palo Alto, and the surrounding towns collectively known as “The Valley”, as it exists today. More than a few times I have read and overheard officials in different cities say “What we need is an anchor company. If only we had a Facebook, investment and talent would follow.” This is true to the extent that any company growing as fast as the worlds largest social network is always looking to hire but Mark Zuckerberg did not move from his Harvard dorm room out to California simply because you can trip and fall over a computer programmer on your way to lunch. It is safe to say he traveled across country in pursuit of what Silicon Valley represents. The smartest people tackling problems side by side and sharing in the sense of community that comes from succeeding and supporting in the same.

“Import” Is No Longer A Dirty Word

A vibrant entrepreneurial community is an evolution. It is where the void that is commonly experienced  problems intersect with the oxygen of ideas, entering into the bloodstream that is a supportive network of entrepreneur advocates. In addition to supporting your existing start-up community, you must import these solution-minded people from other parts of the country to spark your movement and to do that you have to market the problems your city faces and not just the assets you sustain. Entrepreneurs are a special breed. They look at the things most people discard as annoyances and say: I can fix that. You need entrepreneurs and they need you.

Urban Incubation. Global Application.

The problems your citizens face are not unique to Detroit. They are relevant to any urban environment in the US or abroad and as such are what one engaged in such things would refer to as market viable problems. That is that the prospective solutions for those problems have application in a mass market. In my work I communicate with dozens of entrepreneurs each month about their ventures. I find that most of the problems being addressed by these upstarts are a slight variation on something the market has already proven out. Another wards, a niche vertical of a business model made widely popular by a company you know.
A Groupon for this or a You Tube for that. It is as if the inspiration for these models are coming solely from Tech Crunch. Some would argue that this is actually a function of the early stage capital infrastructure but for the purposes of this article, let’s just focus on the opportunity that exists in packaging and presenting the problems encountered by your citizenry to attract those hungry for unique problems to solve.

Pick a Problem. Any Problem.
First, you must look to your citizens for intriguing problems to solve and there are any number of ways to do that. I prefer to enable people to participate in a mostly passive manner. Here is one way. I am working on another here in Philly as I write this. The key is interaction points where people in your community can tell you about the problems, big or small, they encounter. Ideally as they are affected by them as this is where insights are most valuable. Now, after reviewing and cleaning up the way these problems are presented, aggregate them into a live feed on a website and broadcast them to entrepreneurs around the world.

Stand up to the Crowd

When these ambitious folk come about your website linked from one of the hundreds of large tech start-up sites online who will follow and report on a city-fueled platform such as this (especially coming out of Detroit where the National press have found a disaster darling six years post-Katrina), they will see information about your city side by side with your problems listed. You should surely highlight those assets you have touted for years but now, in addition to the tax incentives, low cost of home ownership and beautiful waterfront, you will list your problems or more specifically those problems your citizens see in the course of their daily lives. Remember entrepreneurs like problems and with the click of their mouse, they can open a particular problem and create a crowd funding profile. Something similar to what you might find on Kickstarter. My suggestion would be to integrate this into what you are already doing with Kiva Detroit but it can surely done stand alone. By leveraging your existing network of advocates, giving citizens and expatriated business folk, you can raise say ten thousand dollars to relocate a potential founder to Detroit for an incubation period of 90-120 days. It will be easier than you might think. You also have supportive institutions to look to like that of the Knight and the Kauffman Foundation. In addition to capital it is important to support the incoming entrepreneur with the personal logistics of temporary to permanent relocation. Jack Miner at Tech Town made me aware of the Detroit Orientation Institute, an organization that might be perfectly equipped to lend a hand in this part of the process.

Incubate and Connect

Now that the entrepreneurs you look to support are incoming with solutions on the brain. Full of ambition and feeling supported in their personal efforts, you must also incubate their professional venture. I will leave you to determine what you consider incubation but for me, as I know these folks that would line up to be part of a platform such as this, you need only house them, preferably with fellow entrepreneurs, while connecting them to your existing network of entrepreneur advocates. Open office space in Detroit at the moment is a commodity I imagine and as for facilitating interaction between the new and existing entrepreneurs and mentors, you need do little if any more than create a directory where people can profile themselves and integrate their Twitter profiles and email addresses for communication. Set it up and get out of the way. My City of Brotherly Love has a great example of what I am talking about in something called We Work In Philly.

The entrepreneurs will work for those first months along side their fellows, sometimes splitting off into teams no doubt and iterating concepts in hopes of arriving at what they deem a minimum viable product. That is the bare bones version of the solution they wish to eventually scale into the market. You could if wanted have a demo day every few months where entrepreneurs could pitch early stage investors but I don’t see it necessary. If they are building something that solves a real problem in a usable way, finding investment need not be a dog and pony show.

Seed to Stay

Looking to local early stage venture capital funds and angel groups, those ventures deemed market viable by each individual investment entity will receive enough capital to incubate the start-up out in Detroit for 6-12 months. In most cases, these are going to be relatively nominal investments in the 100 – 200k range.
If an investment fund were focused on investing locally and so inclined, they could model an investment vehicle after the Start Fund. A mechanism first established by uber-angel investor Yuri Milner in where 150K convertible notes were and continue to be given to each accepted start-up into the Y-Combinator accelerator program. Mr. Milner wisely sees that particular start-up shop a filter for his investments. Your city is of course not an incubator so this arrangement with an investment firm, should there be one, would be specific to those companies they deem viable. If you wanted to do it, I would pitch it as a “First Look” deal like television studios have with independent producers. The twist here, and as it happens it is already being done in your own cities start-up accelerator, is adding a residency clause to those companies you seed.
In returning for being the first investors, along with all the other standard fare like right of first refusal and discount share options, your seed round will require the new company to stay and build in Detroit.
Regional economic and workforce development right on your doorstep.

If it seems as though I am overly simplifying the process, you have likely been too long mired in bureaucracy or are accustom to building industrial age businesses. Three hundred page reports and exploratory committees a thriving economy does not build. As it stands, I fear that Detroit flush with tax breaks and subsidies sits mostly in the cross hairs of those that tinker with the boom and bust economy the average Joe now knows all too well. If nothing else, Detroit, rooted in the can-do spirit of factory workers and fisherman, steel workers and small business owners, has the perfect sort of ethic in place to drive the next generation of start-ups out into the world.

If you want to reach out, email me here and follow me here. A big thank you to @HayleyBierkle for first showing me around Detroit and for helping me with drafts of this article. Your city would hard pressed to find a more brilliant and fervent advocate so be sure to say hello to her on Twitter and should you run into her down at Cliff Bells.

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7 Tips for Scoring Your First Article


My first big shock in my journey into the startup world came after my roommate and I built our first product together. We pasted the link all over Facebook, tweeted it out, and told our friends and family about it. I even spent a week hand-drawing three hundred pictures to make a traditional animation commercial for our website and put it on Youtube. And after all that effort, my roommate and I were still the only ones using it a month later. That’s when it hit me –

Nobody on the Internet cares or knows about what I’m doing.

And that’s how it will always be at the onset of anything, because ours is the generation of noise. There is an incredible amount of noise on the Internet, even in a subject as specific as ‘startup.’ So how do you cut through the noise and reach your target audience? These 7 tips should help you get started.

1. Do your homework

There are a slew of blogs out there about how NOT to suck at Public Relations. http://proprtips.com/ is a great one, as the author is a journalist for CNET and hears pitches all the time. http://dearprflack.com/ is another blog where contributors share their PR horror stories. http://badpitch.blogspot.com/ has great general advice about Public Relations.

2. Do your homework

You can’t just cold call or email people and expect to siphon value from them without building a relationship and offering them value first. Before asking someone to write about you, your product, or your service, read their ‘About Me’ and find out what kinds of stories they cover. They might write about tech, but do they write about mobile apps? Do they do product reviews or write an advice column? If they can tell that you’ve read their recent work and you can spell or pronounce their name correctly, you’ll already stick out from the flack.

3. “Be the ball”

You need to think like your target market. Imagine, or better yet, ask what their problems are. Use their keywords to search for a solution, and see what blogs or news sites come up. Ideally, this is where you’d like your product or service to be talked about. Find out who writes about the topic relevant to your market and start building that relationship with them.

4. Less is more

Coming from a philosophy background, it pains me to say “less is more.” But when it comes to PR, lesser known blogs or news sites may be more likely to listen to you. You could spend a month trying to get one email response from a Lifestyles columnist at the New York Times, or you could be building relationships with all the mommy-bloggers that your target market reads and trusts.

5. Take notes

You won’t remember everything about every relationship you try to build. Use some sort of CRM tool or note-taking tool to give you that superhuman memory about everyone that you interact with. Take notes after every point of interaction, whether it be an email or a phone call. The more details you remember about your interaction with people, the more trust you can develop.

6. The ask

Don’t waste anyone’s time with fluff; the language you use talking to writers should be completely different from that which you use to market your product. Let them know what your product or service does in exactly as many words as necessary and no more. Thank them for their time and definitely don’t harass them if they don’t respond in five minutes.

7. Stop reading

This is something I struggle with all the time – I love reading about how to do things so much that I never do them! You can’t learn skills by reading facts; procedural knowledge and propositional knowledge are handled by different parts of your brain. So stop reading and start practicing. Experiment with different ideas and measure what works and what doesn’t work.

Bonus tip: Write your own publicity. Look for a blog or news source that is taking guest authored articles and see how you can help… This was a guest post written by Austin Ball.

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Moment of Clarity – Why Being in the Trough of Sorrows is a Good Thing.

“Will I be able to keep food on the table? Does my startup even have a chance at succeeding? How am I going to increase sales? Does what I’m working on actually matter?”

You encounter these sort of questions when you’re in the “Trough of Sorrows” (as Paul Graham so eloquently stated).

Being in the “Trough of Sorrows” is a good thing.

These sort of questions often stand between entrepreneurs and a full night of sleep. The questions build an uneasy tension that resides just below the surface, often concealed by a fragile ego.

There seems to be pressure in the startup community to keep a stiff upper-lip and not admit any weakness. These questions mixed with slowing sales or other obstacles can lead you right into a feeling of helplessness. You can very easily get stuck in the “Trough of Sorrows” where nothing quite seems to be working the way that it should be. It can be a ridiculously hard thing to break out of, but most entrepreneurs have had to go through it at one point or another.

The first time I experienced the trough of sorrows, I dreaded every second of it. It’s not a fun position to be in. The second time I had to go through it, I had a change of heart.

A Moment of Clarity – Breaking free

My Moment of Clarity came to me when I was at my lowest point. Sales were drying up and growth was becoming stagnant. I looked at my bank account and wrote out the tiny balance on a piece of paper. I figured out that we were going to run out of money in 6 weeks. The trough forced me to take a step back and take an objective look at our strategy. I realized I could either be depressed about the number, or let it fuel me.

You see, the trough of sorrows is a metaphorical fork in the road. You can either fold up shop or you can persevere. There is no middle ground. It’s almost refreshing to have a black and white outcome for once. If you can make it through the trough, you’ll be able to conquer any other situation. When you’re in the trough your instincts will tell you to fold, but if you’re sure of your business (after taking an honest look at it), that’s your cue to and double down. Do whatever it takes to make things work.

Since I knew exactly where we stood, I became fierce. I was determined to not let my company die. I went into overdrive and kept hustling until that tiny bank account doubled. Then it doubled again. And again. All of this happened because of my moment of clarity. I was no longer hostage to those poisonous questions and could see things clearly.

Whenever you go through your trough of sorrows, know you’re not alone (almost everyone has gone through it). Search for your moment of clarity.

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