When the employees of Varnum, a 128-year-old law firm in Grand Rapids, first began considering how they could support a still floundering economy five years ago, they quickly came to a conclusion: their attorneys would offer free legal services to small businesses that needed the help. And they would do that to the tune of $1 million.
So, for the past half decade, Varnum has done just that with its MiSpringboard
program, providing the free legal services to 220 small companies and entrepreneurs across the state, including 24 in Grand Rapids, 33 in Detroit, 33 in Ann Arbor, and 10 in Kalamazoo, among others. In Grand Rapids, for example, OXX Products and The Gluten Free Bar, among others, have worked with the law firm.
"When we started the program, there was no data to suggest how well used it would be and no clear pathway to connect with the entrepreneurs who might make use of it," Varnum Chairman Dave Khorey says. "We just knew that despite the downturn in the economy, the startup community seemed to be expanding. We decided to help by providing some of the legal services associated with starting a business."
As the law firm witnessed the program playing a crucial role in growing Michigan as a hub for entrepreneurship, including providing major support for businesses owned by immigrants and people of color, attorneys wanted to continue it, and Varnum recently announced it will again provide $1 million in free legal services to small businesses over the next five years.
“We see startups willing to stay in Grand Rapids and make it their home, as opposed to go to an area that’s labeled as entrepreneur friendly, like Austin or Silicon Valley,” Varnum attorney Luis Avila says. “Grand Rapids is getting that reputation. People are staying here and deciding to make Grand Rapids their business’s home. This is the kind of stuff that, when we first launched the program, we could only dream of.”
The attorneys provide a wide range of services, from help with ownership structure to contract writing and intellectual property work, and more. Over the years, Avila says Varnum has noticed a definite trend: an increasing number of high tech businesses are seeking their help.
“As the entrepreneurial system has changed in West Michigan, so has the client demographic that’s approached us,” Avila says. “We’re getting a lot more high tech entrepreneurs and a lot more sophisticated entrepreneurs.”
Varnum attorney Matt Bower stresses the role emerging technology has played as a driving force in the exponential growth in Michigan’s startup industry.
"The growth in startup activity started with the tech community coming together in the form of meetups and co-working spaces to talk about what was going on and share ideas and resources," Bower says. "Then there was a corresponding rise of early stage investors in the state, closely followed by the state's own investment in startups through grants and enhanced SmartZones. When you have a strong community, funding sources and support of the state, the entrepreneurs respond."
Still, if you own a business that’s not high tech, don’t be dissuaded from reaching out for help, Avila stresses.
“We opened to this up to anyone; it doesn’t matter if you’re a dog walking service, or you’re the next high-tech Google,” says Varnum attorney Luis Avila. “As long as you have a business plan together and a solid idea, come to us and we’ll help you.”
As Varnum’s MiSpringboard program grew, they began collaborating with numerous community partners along the way, including GR Current
and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
, for which Avila serves as the president
. Such partnerships, Avila says, have been crucial to being able to access business owners from throughout the community.
For example, last month, the Hispanic Chamber had its first ever business pitch competition, during which 20 companies came and pitched ideas in an attempt to win cash prizes through the chamber. As part of this, Varnum offerd the top five finalists a “guaranteed set of legal services through the MiSpringboard program,” Avila says.
“Through the Hispanic Chamber, we’re saying, ‘We want to be able to help you,’” Avila says of minority-owned businesses.
Over the next five years, Varnum attorneys are hoping their MiSpringboard prgram will prompt other organizations to follow in their foosteps.
“I hope this program inspires other organizations, whether they’re banks or service providers or whatever they may be, to consider an entrepreneur-friendly route, to say, ‘We want you, entreprenerus, here in the long run. You’re better for our city, for our economy,’” Avila says, pointing out that this kind of community effort will draw additional dollars to the city and state.
“Venture capitalists are starting to take note of Grand Rapids, and they’re taking notice that this is a community-wide effort,” Avila says. “The more organizations that can do this, the more venture capitalists are willing to invest their money.”
To inquire further about the free legal services, call Varnum at
616-336-6000. For further information about the program, you can also visit the MiSpringboard website here
“The biggest thing we want people to know is this is available to them,” Avila says. “Come talk to us; let’s see what works for you. The money is there, come and give us a call and take advantage of this.”