“Detroit is a blank canvas.” I cringe every time I hear this phrase, even though it’s used by people who mean well.
To say something that references “emptiness” regarding a city founded in 1701 is both unfair and inaccurate, as it implies that there’s nothing here—or worse—that there’s nothing worth talking about here.
By suggesting this, the speaker disregards momentum building around the Detroit 2.0 movement, which is in full swing. Dan Gilbert, my partner in Detroit Venture Partners, has purchased nearly four million square feet of commercial real estate, setting off a trigger reaction for private investment downtown, where sports, business, technology, and the arts converge. Over the next few years, we’ll witness the positive effects of our city’s revitalization from within, as fallout from this tipping point of innovation.
Rather than refer to Detroit as a blank canvas, perhaps it makes more sense to call it an unfinished one. There are already splatters of paint on the board demonstrating promise, as well as blunders that need to be fixed. However, there is still enough white space left for someone to come in and make a mark, which will leave a lasting impression on the painting. People innovating and using creativity to win are making some of the most impactful brush strokes; the end result is a more beautiful painting for us all to enjoy.
Entrepreneurship requires you to hunker down and get started. It’s true that the landscape in Detroit is more worn than others you might find. That being said, there’s a strong case to be made for starting a business here, stemming precisely from these long-standing challenges and problems. The following elements are like buckets of paint, a toolkit of brushes, or even a paint-by-number guide: they make it easier for someone to add to the canvas.
Talent: This area is chock full of people who are hungry for an opportunity. New graduates make up the first camp—those born and bred in the region are educated in a local network of world-class universities, leaving ready to enter the business world. The current market has forced many of these graduates to launch their careers elsewhere, causing a “brain drain,” but this trend can be stopped by providing jobs locally. Unfortunately for the economy, there’s a large group of professionals who are out of work. Engineers, laborers, techies, sales associates, managers, consultants, and a whole host of others now need jobs, many of whom have years of business experience under their belt. For a savvy business owner, this second group provides a capable workforce. Why pay more to fight over average talent elsewhere when you could have your choice of hirable, less expensive A-listers in Detroit?
Space: With more than 130 square miles and too many vacancies to count within its borders, Detroit boasts land. Lots of it. No other major city would have empty skyscrapers available for purchase, let alone for pennies on the square foot. Similarly, no other major city would have vacant lots, begging for parks, gardens, and public art pieces, let alone with herds of new downtown residents awaiting them. Just as a brush needs a painter to bring it into action, so too does this land require someone to make use of it.
“Small” Town: Although Detroit is one of the largest American cities, it retains an attitude of a “big city, small town.” When someone starts a business in New York or Los Angeles, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Here, new businesses stand out and we take notice, welcoming newbies with open arms and celebrating their entrepreneurial fire. Because of this, it’s often easier to get face time with head honchos here than it would be elsewhere, which makes your business’s goals more quickly attainable.
Something Bigger: It’s rare to be in the right place at the right time, but when you are, the sparks just seem to ignite out of thin air. At this moment, Detroit seems to be “right,” as it’s experiencing a truly fresh start through revitalization. It’s not just an up-and-coming downtown center that’s drawing talent; it’s the chance to help change the landscape of a region that is in dire need of it and the opportunity to make a long-lasting impact. Being a part of something bigger than oneself is special and adds another layer of importance to anything your company does. Instill a sense of purpose—and pride—in your employees by being a part of something meaningful. Put passion first, and dollars will follow.
Yes, Detroit is in a sense wide open, awaiting those who want to take advantage of opportunities for growth. Yes, the city has much room for improvement in a variety of areas, many of which have long been ignored. No, that doesn’t mean it’s a blank canvas, and it definitely doesn’t mean we should refer to it as such. Instead, we need to realize we have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a noticeable brushstroke on a canvas whose final version affects us all. Let’s seize it.
Josh Linkner is The New York Times bestselling author of “Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity.” He is the CEO and Managing Partner of Detroit Venture Partners, focused on rebuilding urban areas through technology and entrepreneurship, and will speak at the September 17 Techonomy Detroit conference.
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