StartGarden Sows the Seeds of Entrepreneurship
Nobody can accuse Rick Devos of being a slacker. The Grand Rapids native and Devos family heir has quickly made a name for himself as an entrepreneurial force to be reckoned with. His first endeavor was Spout.com
, a website dedicated intelligent cinema chat. Soon after came the phenomenally successful ArtPrize
, followed by the seed accelerator Momentum
, the web business incubator Pomegranate Studios
, and 5X5 Night, a monthly idea competition that seems to have mutated into his latest creation: StartGarden.com
In almost every case the focus has been local, entrepreneurial, and aimed at improving Michigan's economic ecosystem. Tilling the start-up soil, if you don't mind laboring the metaphor. DeVos says the easiest way to describe StartGarden is: "a $15 million venture fund" provided by the DeVos family that will be invested into hundreds of innovative ideas every year.
At least two winning ideas will be funded at $5000 each a week, with the option of incrementally increasing funding. One of these will be selected by the StartGarden team internally, while the other will be selected by public endorsement (a common theme with Pomegranate Studios, much like the winner of ArtPrize or those who participated in the later rounds of 5x5 Night).
Those who receive funding will be obligated to return 90 days later at one of StartGarden's monthly events to "give a public account of what they've done with that money and how they've moved the project forward," DeVos says. At this point, it becomes a bit more subjective. They might offer advice, ask to see the idea again at a later point, or invest more. "We'll likely be investing in at least one, if not more, companies per month at $20k. We'll take this very graduated investment approach -- $5k, $20k, $100k -- up to a half a million dollars."
All pitches will be uploaded to the site where people can peruse the ideas and vote or their favorites. "The intention is to draw in a broad community," DeVos says. "We look at this very much as kind of a seed and a catalyst at the center of a much broader start-up ecosystem that we need to have emerge in Grand Rapids and Michigan."
DeVos says StartGarden is trying to provide "literally a hundred ideas every year with some basic resources to be able to do the next smart thing. It'll be much more interesting, comparatively, with a bunch of people trying things versus a bunch of people with plans."
Ideally, in higher levels of funding, co-investors would get involved. "We don't want to be the only money in these things," he says. "The more people investing in these [ideas] besides us, the happier we are."
As with similar platforms where ideas are publicly provided with exposure as well as opportunity for funding, a network is a natural side effect. "We think that by making this ongoing process of investing these micro amounts, it's going to create a really positive feedback loop dynamic, where people are learning or failing quickly, and are able to inform each other and learn through the public experience of others. Part of the challenge that we're trying to address in the existing state of seed culture is that we're trying to make it visible, bring it above ground, so that every bit of investment made at those early stages can be committed to learning both from the individual [with the idea], and those watching -- both investors and entrepreneurs."
Ideas can be submitted as soon as now, and from anywhere, though those who submit from outside of Grand Rapids will have to come here to check in. Ideas must be for-profit ideas that can turn into for-profit businesses.
"Our goal is to return the capital that we're investing. We will have the option with everything we invest in, if they seek further financing, to convert at that time or buy into those rounds," DeVos says. "Basically, we would convert at 3 percent ownership. It's extremely entrepreneur-friendly."
DeVos also says that as far as receiving further investment in higher rounds of funding, it will be important that ideas can plug into the local ecosystem. "It doesn't mean [the person] needs to live or move here, and it's on a case by case basis, but it'll need to be evaluated. We want folks that we're investing in to create value in the [local] ecosystem as well."
J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.