GRAND RAPIDS — Rick DeVos may not quite be a billionaire all by himself, but as grandson of one of the co-founders of Amway, he’s certainly got the resources to do just about anything he wants.
So out of the million possibilities, it’s downright refreshing to see what he’s doing in his hometown of Grand Rapids.
DeVos, co-creator of the Momentum Michigan and Five By Five startup incubator concepts, not to mention the wildly successful ArtPrize art competition that draws huge crowds to a rapidly redeveloping downtown Grand Rapids, gave his thoughts on how to continue Michigan’s transformation into a startup hotbed Tuesday night as opening keynoter of the Michigan Business Incubator Association’s annual conference.
The affable, down-to-earth DeVos said he’s “by no means an expert or a guru” on startup incubation, “I’m just simply a guy who’s been blessed with the resources and a passion to get involved in startups.” But he said he’s learned three simple keys to startup success.
First, visibility — making startup ideas highly public. “As many people as possible should know about ideas people have, and the investments being made in those ideas,” he said. “People should know what the idea is, who is working on it, who has invested in it, or at least a general idea of how much, and the story behind the idea.”
That kind of tooting your own horn is “counterculture” to the Michigan business culture, DeVos said. “There’s that Midwest suspicion of self-promotion,” he siad. “We aren’t all that into telling our own stories.”
Then there’s the matter of risk and the possibility of failure. “As investors we don’t want the embarrassment of being tied to a turkey. As entrepreneurs we want to hedge our bets.”
As a result, he said, “companies start elsewhere, there’s less opportunity here, there’s less investment here, and round and round we go.”
To counter that, DeVos pointed to the example of Five By Five Night in Grand Rapids. Ideas for products, services, nonprofits and art projects are submitted to a panel of judges and the public, and five people are selected to get five minutes and five PowerPoint slides to tell their stories to five judges, who pledge to invest $5,000 in one or more of the ideas presented that night. (Yes, someone really likes five.)
In the case of Five By Five, DeVos said, “the simple act of sharing the idea has proven much more valuable than the money.” Two businesses have become actual startups as a result of Five By Five.
That leads to point number two, flow — that is, having a flow of a lot of new business ideas in a region. “The great thing about flow is taht it reinforces visibility,” DeVos said. “When we have more stories to tell, we feel more comfortable telling stories. Traction and performance is easier to identify when you’re looking at 12 ideas instead of two.”
Finally, point number three, getting out of the way, being willing to let ideas take their own course once they’re hatched. “A few years ago I had an idea for an event that eventually turned into ArtPrize. It’s the largest art prize in the world, decided in part by a public vote. We had to embrace wild, and I do mean wild, ideas that people brought to it. There’s no filter. And most of the goals of the entrants are not to win the prize.”
DeVos said the event last year drove 400,000 visits to downtown Grand Rapids, to more than 100 participating art display venues and more than 1,000 artists.
But he said the goal isn’t to have an economic impact. “The real goal is to establish a creative culture,” he said.
In Michigan, DeVos said, “we tend to overplan, overprescribe and overprogram.” He called that a “cultural remnant of an industrial economy — top-down, hierarchical.”
That makes sense when you’re building millions of cars, but not when you’re juggling startups, venture capital and the creative class.
“Even the greatest business plan seldom survives its first encounter with reality,” DeVos said, paraphrasing the famous remark about battle plans from the World War I German general Helmuth von Moltke. “If we acted 100 years ago like we act now, I’m pretty sure we would still be sawing trees down, and those goofballs tinkering with cars would not have received the money they needed.”
The MBIA conference will continue Wednesday at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids. Around 100 people are expected to attend from business incubators and economic development agencies around the state.