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Rick DeVos


Start Garden

50 Louis Street
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503

Rick DeVos

Every Thursday afternoon, a fresh idea gets a chance to grow into a fully-fledged business with a little nurturing from Start Garden, the $15 million fund operating from a small downtown office on Louis Street.
Brian Burch, the public relations officer for this unique venture capital fund, said, “The broader vision is to change the culture of risk-taking, to draw entrepreneurs out at the earliest stage. We understand that anyone can have an idea, and an idea can come from anywhere and anyone.”
“We always need people who are willing to invest in ideas at the seed stage on an ongoing basis," said Start Garden founder Rick DeVos. "That's the gap we are trying to fill. To go back to the garden metaphor, you always need to plant the fresh seeds to have the next crop.”
Hopeful entrepreneurs submit their ideas to the Start Garden website weekly, completing an online profile to provide a taste of what their business would offer, and a concrete explanation of how they would move forward with a little startup cash. Visitors to the site can click a button to “endorse” any idea they find promising, interesting, or inspiring.
At the stroke of noon each Thursday, Start Garden awards $5,000 to one lucky developing business, the website is wiped clean, and the process begins all over again.
In the past, Start Garden picked two winners each week: one exclusively by the Start Garden team, and one by public endorsement.
“The new way of selecting the $5,000 winner is a combination of the public endorsements and what the team thinks is a strong and viable experiment,” Burch said. “[And that] has to do with the amount of ideas that are coming through the pipeline. Visualize a pipe that was intentionally very large at the starting point to get as many ideas flowing as possible. That allowed a lot to come in, and now we’re trying to catch up with all these experiments that are coming through.”
Like most venture capital funds, Start Garden is not simply interested in the inception of these projects, but in their development and their follow-through. Unlike most venture capital funds, Start Garden hosts a variety of mentoring and educational programs to meet these needs.
“Having a public proof session of an idea sets forth a tone: you’re not doing these experiments in a bubble. The lone entrepreneur is not responsible for seeing that idea through; it takes a whole community of people,” Burch said.
To create this community environment, Start Garden holds weekly low-cost classes on trending topics like “Developing Your Brand Narrative,” “Social Media for Startups,” and “How to Present Like a Pro.” Tuesdays are Advisor Days, where anyone can stop in from 2 to 5 p.m. to get their project-related questions answered by an expert. In addition, Start Garden also has a monthly Update Night, where the community gathers to see how previous $5,000 ideas have developed. The team can then invest further in a project if it seems promising.
“The responsibility for an idea to get beyond the $5,000 level sits squarely with the entrepreneur,” DeVos said. “We are available to provide advice and guidance, but it is their role to move their idea through the experimental phase to prove that the idea is viable, desirable, and feasible.”
Some of the more aggressively funded projects experienced success quickly, as was the case with Proper Soda, a craft soda company inspired by Grand Rapids’ booming beer scene. Proper Soda received $20,000 in additional funding last month after skillfully using their initial $5,000 to gauge feasibility and public interest. 
“They figured out how to can their soda, how to make a small batch of it, how to make it desirable and profitable. Not only are people buying it, but they’re re-ordering it,” said Burch.
Successes like these mean that Start Garden, an ultimately finite resource, now needs to focus more energy pruning and maintaining some of the higher-level investments to see a return for both themselves and for the community. 
“We don’t know what the future will hold,” DeVos said, “But as we continue to invest in companies and take them ‘up the steps,’ we start to see new needs for each organization.”
“Rick sees a very strong future of development of financial capital in this region long-term. It’s not only going to be Start Garden, it’s going to be other partners who will be picking up some of [these projects],” Burch said “We’ve started seeing more people looking at Grand Rapids and the ideas coming out of here as potential opportunities for investment.
And that’s the most promising potential impact Start Garden could have on the city, Burch said. For active, interested community members, endorsing projects is a great way to get involved.
“The idea of a public endorsement is, the team doesn’t always know what a good idea is and what the market wants,” Burch said.
That was proved recently with Sportsman Tracker, a mobile app for hunters and fishermen who want to share their tips and tricks with other adventurers. The project received initial funding through public endorsement alone, but the Start Garden team wondered if hunters would really download it and want to share their best-kept secrets.
“I’m not a hunter,” Burch said, “so we didn’t really understand the culture or the expectations.”
In fact, nearly 20,000 people have downloaded the app thus far. Sportsman Tracker also signed a deal with a major sporting goods retailer, and their team is planning another launch for Nov. 15, the opening of hunting season.
“There’s always a surprise coming through, which is why the public endorsement is still so very important to what is coming through the Start Garden pipeline,” Burch said.
While Start Garden was influenced at an early stage through observing venture capital funds in larger cities – General Assembly in New York, Y Combinator in San Francisco – the team recognizes the importance of adapting their goals for the local market.
“The idea is not to be Silicon Valley, it’s not to be New York; it’s to set our own course,” Burch said.  
Want to check out this week’s list of ideas? Visit http://startgarden.com/ideas.
For a look at upcoming events, visit the Start Garden calendar at http://startgarden.com/events.

Katie Jones is a professional idealist, film enthusiast, and freelancer for UIX Grand Rapids.

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