In anticipation of the 2013 Techonomy Detroit conference on September 17, we are profiling Detroit tech startups helping to drive the city’s re-emergence as a center of innovation.
Techonomy has not lost faith in Detroit’s resilience, and based on our conversations Detroiters still believe that their street fighter’s mentality gives them edge against daunting odds. The city’s tech startup scene has emerged as a harbinger of Detroit’s scrappy, can-do spirit, and has generated a dollop of renewed optimism.
An infrastructure of new institutions has emerged to bolster the city’s entrepreneurial spirit. Investors like Detroit Venture Partners, supported by Rock Ventures, have sought to rebuild the city by supporting innovation and financing successful tech-focused efforts. Detroit is home to an outpost of TechShop, the Silicon Valley innovation incubator where people of all skill levels can use industrial tools and equipment to build their own products. Meanwhile, entrepreneurship accelerator Bizdom offers seed funding to help grow tech-based local startups, and Venture for America has pumped a steady stream of young ass-kickers (armed with degrees from the country’s top universities) into the city’s startup ecosystem.
Workfolio was founded in Detroit, but today also operates out of New York. The company aims to make creating online professional profile websites intuitive for everyone in the working world. Techonomy spoke with Workfolio Founder and CEO Charles Pooley about personal branding, how he got into DIY Web design, and what sets Detroit apart from other cities.
How does Workfolio work?
Workfolio is a Web application that allows anyone to create a beautiful website for their career and work. Workfolio lets you import your LinkedIn information and recreate it in website form, with a custom domain and visual elements like an interactive career timeline.
What makes your company different from other do-it-yourself Web design templates?
Most website builders out there don’t have a specific focus. Workfolio is specifically focused on the regular professional who doesn’t have a creative portfolio or a blog. We like to use the analogy that those other website builders are broadswords, while ours is a dagger.
More and more people realize that a personal website is a key component to personal branding. We know that 90% of first impressions now happen online, and so that’s reason enough to grab your own domain and put a website there that promotes yourself.
What inspired you?
I spent weeks trying all the various off-the-shelf website builders to build a website for myself and realized that most of them are geared for businesses, not individual professional websites. I thought, gee, if I’m struggling even though I’ve been doing this for awhile, how many other people are struggling? Afterwards, we commissioned an independent survey and we asked hundreds of professionals out there: do you want a personal website? Do you have one? If not, why not? And we found out that the number one reason is that people just don’t want to start. They have what we call the blank canvas problem. Whenever you sign up for this kind of service, you pick a template and then you’re stuck. You’re left on your own to arrange images and text. Workfolio is designed to solve this problem.
So how do address the blank-canvas problem?
One of the ways we help solve the blank canvas problem is by something we call content automation. Certain sections, like the “currently seeking” and “career achievement,” are auto-generated from just a few clicks. This dramatically decreases the time it takes to create great looking website content.
What’s in store for Workfolio in the next couple of years?
We have a very aggressive development roadmap. There’s a whole personal branding movement taking place, and we think we’re a big part of that. We see ourselves as not only building a business but also an institution that has responsibilities for education, for philanthropic work, to help people and create meaning in their lives. I think in the future, there’ll be a lot more horizontal and vertical expansion of the concept.
What has it been like creating a tech startup in Detroit?
Very easy on the one hand, and very difficult on the other. The easy part comes in the cost structure of everything in Detroit versus anywhere else. It’s very easy to find office space. There’s also a very tight-knit community that has been developing there, a culture forming in Detroit that’s very open and creatively free. A challenge when we were starting was the lack of capital, and I know Dan Gilbert’s group and others like DVP (Detroit Venture Partners) have helped with that. Detroit also suffers from a little bit of an inferiority complex, but hopefully that’s changing. I very much want to see Detroit bring itself back; I think all of us who are from there owe it to the city to try to figure out what we can do to help.
What is something the rest of the U.S. should learn from Detroit?
Detroit has a certain toughness. Detroiters are doggedly determined people, and that’s an extremely critical trait for any entrepreneur. You have to believe something and go make it happen; nobody’s going to make it happen for you. A lot of people just bail out on their ideas—they’re looking for something kind of fast. I think Detroiters, once they commit to something, there’s a blue-collar work ethic more than anywhere else I’ve been to in the country. There is this drive. If you can make it in Detroit, you can make it anywhere.