Three years ago, Serbinski was living in San Francisco, enjoying the spoils of a startup he had just sold to Lifetime TV. He was looking for something to do when his now-wife suggested they move to her hometown of Detroit.
“I kind of laughed,” Serbinski said. “I said, ‘Why would I go to Detroit?’ “
A few days later, regretting his snark, Serbinski Googled the Motor City. To his shock, he found a burgeoning startup scene. He soon landed a job as partner with Detroit Venture Partners, a $55 million early-stage venture capital fund launched by Quicken Loans billionaire Dan Gilbert, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Why would I go to Detroit?” is a natural question. It was certainly top of mind when I moved to Michigan in 2011 to help launch an online news startup that focused on innovation in Detroit. It is, after all, a city now synonymous with bankruptcy, crime and abandoned buildings.
Rarely mentioned is the fact there’s no shortage of people, nonprofit organizations and companies – including those from Silicon Valley – that want to see Detroit succeed.
“Detroit was one of the greatest cities in the world,” Serbinski said. “It has an iconic brand.”
Last year, Google established a Tech Hub in Detroit to help startups and entrepreneurs connect with investors in Silicon Valley. (Google co-founder Larry Page was born in East Lansing and graduated from the University of Michigan.) Microsoft Ventures, which provides seed money and technology to startups, recently set up operations downtown. And last month, JPMorgan Chase pledged $100 million over the next five years to fund job training and economic development projects.
‘Good energy here’
For now, bettering Detroit is a project that’s still in beta.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Marc Weiser, founder and managing director for RPM Ventures, who splits his time between San Francisco and Ann Arbor, Mich. “There is more flash than substance right now. But there is some good energy here. You can feel it.”
Clearly, the quality of life in Detroit doesn’t match that of San Francisco. Who wouldn’t choose views of the Golden Gate Bridge over Windsor, Ontario? But Detroit has something that the Bay Area is quickly running out of: entrepreneurialism.
Despite our region’s reputation for startups and innovation, Detroit is more faithful to the startup ethos forged by the early days of Silicon Valley.
It’s a city of bootstrapping – not Google-bussing.
“People are a little more authentic and passionate about startups,” Serbinski said. “There are a lot of kids in their 20s looking for a sense of identity and don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. The startups in Detroit choose to be in Detroit. In San Francisco, for every 100 authentic startups, there are 1,000 startups that are just noise.”
What Detroit eventually needs is a few victories. Not surprisingly, most of the startups that get bought are in the Detroit suburbs or in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, a major research institution.
But there is real money in the region. During the past five years, the number of venture investment professionals in the state jumped 84 percent, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Thirty-three venture capital firms have either headquarters or offices in Michigan, a 50 percent increase since 2008.
Detroit may still flounder. But at least there is urgency – something we take for granted when money flows so easily.
“We don’t need to be Silicon Valley,” Weiser said. “We need to establish ourselves in a way that reflects the character of Detroit, a gritty city where things get done.”