Start Garden at One Year

Today, Start Garden, a $15 million investment fund and startup incubator, held their first annual State of Start Garden address. In April 2012, Start Garden began with only the knowledge that they would fund several ideas in the attempt to create a startup culture in West Michigan. Like most things this team does, Start Garden was an experiment. 

Start Garden has deployed about $2.3 million in the last year, with investments ranging from $5,000 to $500,000. Two ideas a week were selected to receive $5,000 investments -- one by the Start Garden team, and one by the public via an online vote. 

A $5,000 investment is a relatively small risk for a venture capital firm, one that allows for experimentation. What Start Garden founder Rick Devos says his team has learned from the past year is that real lessons emerge when you watch someone with an idea interact with resources, versus the due diligence of projections and spreadsheets -- "the rigorous business stuff that West Michigan's dominant business culture" clings to. 

"Specifically in venture investing, people say you bet on the horse versus the jockey," DeVos says. "Our whole team loves ideas and new things, so it's very easy to fall in love with an idea and put too much emphasis there." The idea being the horse, if you will. "The thing we've learned over this past year… is that the jockey is a huge part of it. There's a big difference between a person with an idea they want to prove right and an entrepreneur who wants to build a business."

The idea is only the ante to get into the game, but the difference lies in finding out who is an entrepreneur and what makes a person an entrepreneur. It's the entrepreneurs who change culture. Changing the culture to embrace the startup is the goal. Most big businesses, after all, begin as projects. Thus, Start Garden is a two-part system. Without the portfolio building, entrepreneurs cannot cross the initial gap. Without the culture building, you lose the people that are the most conducive to growth in the early stages of business. The space is for culture, and "culture building is a part of the relentless process of investing in two ideas every week." 

Start Garden nurtures this culture in their space at 50 Louis NW. Here, Start Garden members, mentors, and funded entrepreneurs come to work, learn, share, and build. "I think in our overly prescribed and planned monolithic business culture in Michigan, we vastly undervalue serendipity and proximity," DeVos says, "and the happy accidents that let people explore new things." 

In the open space of the Start Garden clubhouse, it's easy to run into someone you know or someone you should know. They host Lunch and Learns, classes, happy hours, and update nights detailing what recent picks are up to. They have 133 members who can drop by the space to work during business hours. Advisors have donated a total of 590 hours to capital recipients. 

DeVos says it's impossible to pick your favorite child, and it's the same way about the ideas. It's too early in some cases to see what ideas are going to work, and surprises are the nature of the game. He mentions Reindeer Cam as one unexpected idea. While the team was skeptical of the idea to feature a holiday webcam consisting of actual reindeers, the public voted for the idea. "They had a very successful holiday season and sold over 40,000 downloads of their app," he says. "They're smart, hustling entrepreneurs, and they have a lot of interesting places they can take (their idea)."

The public choice is its own variable. DeVos says they've noticed certain subcultures jumping onboard and finding success with the popular vote -- food and art galleries being two such categories. The public vote also serves a three-fold purpose. There's the ongoing marketing exposure of allowing the participants to share Start Garden with their circles while seeking votes, and a certain validation that comes from the entrepreneur who can hustle public support. Additionally, like with Reindeer Cam, the public vote "lets things through the filter that we wouldn't have necessarily thought was interesting on our own," DeVos says. 

Sometimes, the funding ends after one round. Sometimes, this is because the business is meant to be small -- a sole proprietorship or a space, like a gallery, that cannot be replicated. There's a big difference, DeVos says, between a McDonald's and your locally owned, independent eatery. But in the beginning, it's about tinkering. From there, it's seeing what happens. Twenty-two ideas this past year have gone on to receive additional funding. 

One company, Nxtmile, has received multiple levels of funding. The company specializes in insoles for young athletes to address foot pain in youth. Founder Mike Miller says no one else cared about his product until he connected with the Start Garden team. Through the support and constructive criticism of the endeavor, Nxtmile has found success -- the most meaningful of which in the form of a testimonial Miller read this morning from a mother of a child athlete who no longer played basketball with pain. 

"Cultures change with small repeated access," DeVos says during this morning's address. It's why they make two small investments a week, pay rent on a storefront where they pair advisors with entrepreneurs, and hosts update nights. "This is not typical of a venture capital firm. Most firms are not trying to change culture. We are."

DeVos says the goal of Start Garden was to be a three-year experiment. If the first round of companies are successful, Start Garden can continue. DeVos says he is hopeful based on how the first year has gone. Start Garden is always looking for new partners in their quest to advance the West Michigan startup ecosystem. "Our goal with the State of Start Garden is to continue to broaden the base of support," DeVos says. Companies and individual can sponsor Start Garden's culture building activities, such as underwriting an update night, by contacting Amanda Chockco at  

Start Garden's next Update Night is Thursday, April 25 at 5 p.m., with presentations beginning at 5:30 p.m. Here, attendees can have a libation on Start Garden and meet new people while hearing what the recipients of investments have been able to accomplish. 

Watch the State of the Start Garden address here

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. 

Photos by Bryan Frank. 
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