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DesignHub wins digital marketing race with steady growth

The good times are never too sweet for DesignHub, and the bad times are never too sour. It turns out both things are a recipe for steady-but-modest, year-to-year growth at the Saline-based digital marketing agency.

DesignHub has averaged high single-digit gains each of the last several years. It's not hockey stick growth spikes, but its the type of momentum that keeps the company consistently headed in the right direction.

"We work really hard and grind out the hours, and this is where we seem to land," says Chris Kochmanski, partner at DesignHub. "The three partners are all over 50, and by this stage in our lives, we're seeing how doing excellent work for a limited number of preferred clients can be much more satisfying than run, run, run all the time in pursuit of growth for the sake of growth."

The five-person company handles most creative and development work while relying on a stable of trusted freelancers when needed. It gets roughly half of its business through website design and development with the remainder coming from marketing strategy and planning, content development, advertising and publicity, and design and production of marketing materials for print and other media.

DesignHub has grown its work with existing clients like Dynamic Computer Corp, Advanced Photonix, Berry & Associates, Center for Automotive Research, Corner Health Center, Daycroft Montessori School, Dexter Research, Dimensional Engineering, and the City of Saline. It has also added several new clients like doing an advertising campaign for Huron Valley Financial, fundraising appeals for Evangelical Homes of Michigan, and new sales support materials for VolunteerHub.

"We have a lot of prospective clients we are dealing with right now," Kochmanski says.

Source: Chris Kochmanski, partner at DesignHub
Writer: Jon Zemke

Motor City Muckraker fights to turn passion for journalism into profits

Steve Neavling is good at his job -- damn good at it. The former investigative reporter for the Detroit Free Press and co-founder of Motor City Muckraker was recently named the "Best Journalist" in Metro Detroit by The Metro Times because his reporting consistently makes waves in the region. When it comes to journalism, few people are as passionate about it as Neavling.

Turning that passion into profit is where Neavling comes up short. Motor City Muckraker has been running for nearly three years and has yet to turn a profit despite its steady rise in popularity. It has consistently clocked an average of 180,000 unique page views per month over the last two years, yet Neavling can only monetize a few grand out of it each year.

"You know how Twitter kept getting more popular but never figured out how to generate revenue?" Neavling says. "Motor City Muckraker is becoming more popular, but we still haven’t figured out how to generate revenue from it."

Click ads from the website aren't the answer. Neavling and his girlfriend/MCM co-founder Abigail Shaw are considering a variety of different options to generate revenue, including paywalls for premium access, sponsorships, merchandise, and fundraisers/crowdfunding. Neavling and Shah don't know the answe but are happy to keep trying.

"You need to have something more than click ads," Neavling says. "You need to be able to offer them something else."

Figuring out a revenue model that makes local print/digital journalism profitable is a 21st century conundrum, and newspaper executives will watch Neavling and Shah closely if they figure out a business model that works. In the meantime, the partners are even seriously considering making Motor City Muckraker a nonprofit to keep it afloat, although that plan has been shelved for now.

"It really limits what you can do to raise money," Neavling says.

So Neavling continues to trudge forward financially. He has gone from making about $60,000 annually at the Freep to an annual average of $12,000 while running Motor City Muckraker and freelancing for the likes of Tickle The Wire. Neavling and Shah get by on what comes in from Neavling's writing, Shah's day job, and affordable rent for an apartment in Midtown.

But don't expect that the financial grindstone will force Neavling from journalism anytime soon.

"We pay to write things others won't write," Neavling says. "The news just keeps coming out. There are so many stories I am sitting on. Right now I am having so much fun I am forgetting about the money."

Source: Steve Neavling, co-founder of Motor City Muckraker
Writer: Jon Zemke

Slope scores $395K in seed capital for video production platform

Slope, a software startup launched by Venture For America fellows in Detroit, has landed $395,000 in seed capital from a variety of sources.

The downtown Detroit-based tech startup -- it calls the Bizdom accelerator home -- has raised $100,000 from Bizdom and $295,000 from the Venture For America Innovation Fund and angel investors in Detroit, Cincinnati and New York City.

"This gives us about 10 months of runway,"  says Brian Bosche, co-founder & CEO of Slope. "It should be enough to build up Slope and get it out to the market."

Slope, formerly TernPro, is creating a video-creation platform so simple and accessible that everyday people can produce online videos and track the public's interaction with them. The platform also allows the user to store photos, graphics, and videos so they are available to create more online content.

"Slope is a video-collaboration platform for creative and marketing users," Bosche says.

Slope was admitted to the second class for the Microsoft Venture Accelerator earlier this year for a four-month residency in Seattle. The startup and its team of six people is gearing up to release its platform for a private Beta in July and then a public Beta later this fall.

"We have more than 700 companies signed up to test our platform," Bosche says.

Source: Brian Bosche, co-founder & CEO of Slope
Writer: Jon Zemke

Lovio George adds staff as it grows with local PR work

Lovio George Communications + Design has been around Midtown for a long time -- 33 years to be exact, long before the brand Midtown was ever dreamed up. And in that time, the boutique communications and design agency has made it mark with local work.

That is as true now as it was 33 years ago. Last year, Lovio George Communications + Design grew its staff and its bottom line by helping longtime staples like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and National Coney Island, along with newer big names like Shinola.

"We're working on Shinola Ann Arbor, which should open by the end of June," says Christina Lovio-George, CEO of Lovio George Communications + Design.

Lovio George Communications + Design also helped Shinola open its Chicago store and is doing work with the newly renovated Cobo Center.

Local work like that has allowed Lovio George Communications + Design to grow its revenue over the last year. It has also hired two people, including an agency coordinator. The company currently has a staff of 13 employees and an intern.

Source: Christina Lovio-George, CEO of Lovio George
Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit retailers to host pop-up market at Mackinac Policy Conference

A handful of Detroit-based entrepreneurs will make their pitch for the importance of small business in the future of the city's economy at this week's Mackinac Policy Conference.

"The Mackinaw Policy Conference is always about big things -- big politicians, big lobbying firms, big issues," says Rachel Lutz, owner of The Peacock Room in Midtown's Park Shelton building. "If we're going to have a conversation about the state's economy, we should also speak about small business."

Lutz and a few of her peers (all women who are owners of Detroit-based small businesses) will facilitate that conversation through a small business pop-up market on Mackinac Island during the conference. The other three business participating are Cyberoptix Tie Lab (a scarves and tie maker), Sweet Potato Sensations (a second-generation family-owned bakery), and Rebel Nell (a jewelry company with a social mission).

"You go with who you know," Lutz says. "These are women I have great admiration for. They know how to build a business."

Cynthia J Pasky, CEO of Downtown Detroit-based Strategic Staffing Solutions, also played a critical role in making the pop-up market a reality at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

The "Building Bridges to Small Business" pop-up market will take place on Thursday, May 28, from 3-7 p.m. at Mackinac Island’s Mission Point Resort.

"We want participants to acknowledge small business as an important driver of Michigan's economic growth, while learning about four of the many businesses that are growing globally from Detroit," Lutz says.

Source: Rachel Lutz, owner of The Peacock Room
Writer: Jon Zemke

Highway Mediaís online video work spurs firmís growth

In recent years, online video work has become an essential part of Highway Media's revenue stream.

The video-production firm got its start making videos for commercial users and recently did work for DVDs before transitioning to online videos. Last year, Highway Media reached a major milestone in its online video work, producing more than 100 online videos. It’s on pace to do more than 150 this year and aiming for 200 in 2016.

"Most companies are realizing the necessity of having a video on their website," says Mark Salloum, president & owner of Highway Media. "It does so many things for a website."

The Canton-based firm is also trying out more innovative ways to create those videos. It's experimenting with drones to bring a broader variety of camera angles to its videos.

"They're becoming a great tool for us to use when we're filming, say, an industrial video, and you want to see a birds-eye view," Salloum says.

Highway Media currently employs a core team of seven people and a large stable of freelancers. It has hired two people over the last year (an editor and a business development manager) and expects to add more in the future as demand for its online videos continues to rise.

Source: Mark Salloum, president & owner of Highway Media
Writer: Jon Zemke

CCS grads return to Detroit to launch boutique creative firm, Space Camp

Scott Waraniak and Marcus Mullins followed a fairly typical path when the graduated from the College of Creative Studies a few years ago. They took their graphic designs degrees and headed for creative class jobs on the coasts.

Waraniak spent a couple of years in Los Angeles and spent more time thinking about where he came from instead of where he had moved to.

"The entire time we were out there Marcus and I talked about starting our own studio in Detroit,"  Waraniak says.

Words turned into ideas which turned into action. Waraniak and Mullins came back to the Motor City a year ago and launched Space Camp. The fledgling boutique firm specializes in design, branding, and animation work for video productions. Check out Space Camp's demo reel:



Some of Space Camp's initial projects include the creation of videos on behalf of Team Detroit for the launch of the new Ford Explorer. It has also done other automotive work, but the company is looking to diversify its client base this year.

"We just want to keep growing," Waraniak says. "We want to find a way to bring new people on."

Local job creation was a significant factor in the inspiration for Space Camp. Waraniak and Mullins lament that many of the job opportunities for them and their peers were on the coasts and not closer to home. The company recently moved to Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit to make some room for its first employees.

"It was frustrating watching all of this talent being outsourced to Los Angeles and New York," Mullis says. "We want to create reasons for people to stay."

Source: Scott Waraniak and Marcus Mullins, partners, designers and animators of Space Camp
Writer: Jon Zemke

Video production firm Detroit Lives! moves into Penobscot Building

Philip Lauri launched his creative agency, Detroit Lives!, just as the Great Recession was getting started in 2009. It turned out to be the right move despite the dour time.

The video production company has doubled its revenue every year since its launch. It recently moved into bigger offices in the Penobscot Building (the former offices of the Detroit Stock Exchange) to accommodate its growing staff.

Detroit Lives! has expanded to five people, including hiring an editor over the last year. Lauri is also looking to add another editor to help enhance his team and its story-telling abilities.

"We make sure we always do our best work," Lauri says. "Whether its a big project or a little project, we want to be the best."

Detroit Lives! has made videos for a variety of customers over the years. Some of its more recent work includes videos for the Kresge Foundation’s Innovation Project and the NEIdeas competition.

"We are currently working with Chrysler on some video content," Lauri says.

Lauri plans to expand Detroit Lives!'s clientele by doing more work with traditional advertising firms.

Source: Philip Lauri, founder & creative director for Detroit Lives!
Writer: Jon Zemke

Campus Commandos launches mobile app for college students

Campus Commandos, the college student marketing agency, is launching a mobile app called Go Commando that it expects will help it expand its reach to an even wider audience.

Go Commando pairs big name brands and with enterprising college students. The users (the students) can earn money and build their resume by performing simple tasks on the mobile app on behalf of the brands, including posting on social media and filling out surveys.

"It allows you to put your brand in the hands of millennials within minutes," says Adam Grant, CEO of Campus Commandos.

Go Commando is available at 460 colleges across North America. Grant hopes to have 100,000 downloads of it by the end of the year. The plan is to get a high percentage of active users of the app rather than just focus on achieving a blanket download with little usage.

"We're more interested in the quality of the users," Grant says.

Campus Commandos specializes in marketing for the college environment, creating campaigns for everything from students to university staff. Grant, a Bizdom graduate, got his start in the business while attending Michigan State University in the mid-2000s. The firm’s client list includes huge brands like eBay and Nike.

The 5-year-old firm is based in downtown Detroit in the First National Building. It currently employs a team of about 10 people after making two hires in sales over the last year. It is currently looking to hire another sales professional later this year.

Source: Adam Grant, CEO of Campus Commandos
Writer: Jon Zemke

Paragon Design + Display hires 4 as it expands workload

Paragon Display Group started out with some humble beginnings in 1982, offering photo finishing for Ann Arbor customers.  The company has since grown into a full-service environmental graphics and printing studio, employing a staff of 34 people and a summer intern. However, getting to this point required a number of pivots to adapt to the market. Paragon Display Group made the move from consumer to commercial work about the same time photos went from primarily hard copies to digital.

"We had to evolve into another type of business," says Gary Snyder, director of sales for Paragon Design + Display. "The commercial work became much more important to us."

And it grew quickly. Paragon hired four people in the last year, and is looking to hire another sales professional. Over the last year it has spiked its revenue by 29 percent and is on track to hit a similar number in 2015. They accomplished this by completing several large projects, including a number for the University of Michigan Athletic Department, Central Michigan University, and Kettering University. However, downtown Detroit-based Fathead is proving to be its most important customer.

"That is growing astronomically as well," says Bill Van Cleve, president & CEO of Paragon Design + Display. "They are giving us a lot of work."

Fathead's work includes everything from its traditional decal wall stickers of athletes to large decals of things like Star Wars characters. It is also doing a lot of corporate display work for Fathead. Paragon Design + Display would like to expand this sort of work to more small businesses in Michigan in the next year or two.

"We want to help brand their environment," says Holly Schoenfield, director of marketing for Paragon Design + Display.

The firm is also looking to return to its consumer-facing roots to help diversify and grow its revenue streams. Paragon Design Display would like to attract more work from everyday people who would like to print out their important photos and other pieces of artwork for their individual living and work spaces.

"Now we're trying to open it up to consumers," Van Cleve says. "We want them to know they can get fine art printing here."

Source: Bill Van Cleve, president & CEO of Paragon Design + Display; Gary Snyder, director of sales for Paragon Design + Display; and Holly Schoenfield, director of marketing for Paragon Design + Display
Writer: Jon Zemke

Clarity Quest Marketing scores best year ever in 2014

Clarity Quest Marketing is one of those companies that has steadily carved out its niche over 14 years of business. Now that it's matured, the company is really hitting its stride.

"We have become one of the biggest healthcare IT marketing firms in the nation," says Christine Slocumb, president of Clarity Quest Marketing. "We just closed two deals in the last week."

The Ann Arbor-based firm has hired three people over the last year, including project managers. It now has a staff of 20 employees and one summer intern.

Powering that hiring has been more and more word-of-mouth work from healthcare IT firms. It has signed deals across the U.S., including with the Chronic Care Management out of Cleveland and eMedapps in Chicago. It's also doing work closer to home, handling marketing for Mountain Pass Solutions, a University of Michigan spin-out.

Deals like that cleared the way for 2014 to become Clarity Quest Marketing’s best year ever. Slocum is optimistic her firm’s reputation will lead to a repeat of 2014 because of the steady pipeline of work it has lined up for this year.

"This year we're on track for the same as last year," Slocumb says. "I'm hoping its going to be better."

Source: Christine Slocumb, president of Clarity Quest Marketing
Writer: Jon Zemke

Hile Creative grows revenue with long-term clients, adding staff

A pivot in the Hile Creative business model is paying dividends for the Ann Arbor-based firm a little more than a year after it was executed.

The digital advertising firm made a shift from project-based work to more comprehensive branding for long-term clients. The move paid off. The 30-year-old firm's revenue is up 10 percent and it's looking to hire two people to its staff of 12.

"Our sweet spot is to work with companies that need help defining themselves in their competitive space," says Dave Hile, founder & president of Hile Creative. "The question we always ask clients is why do you matter? Why would someone choose you over your competitors?"

Hile Creative grew by bringing on some more long-term clients, such as Venturi, a Traverse City-based maker of bathroom products. Hile Creative has also expanded its work with existing clients like Beaumont Hospital, Ann Arbor-based Heatspring, and the University of Michigan.

Hile Creative is looking to hire a graphic designer and web director now because it's aiming to do more video work for its clients. The company is betting more and more companies will turn to short videos to help them tell the stories about them and their products.

"More and more information, especially complex information, can be easily described through animation and videography," Hile says.

Source: Dave Hile, founder & president of Hile Creative
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ghostly International enjoys biggest growth year to date

Ghostly International is enjoying the fruits of a highly successful year of business which came complete with rising record sales, new merchandising successes, and fresh partnership opportunities.

"We have had our biggest year to date," says Jeremy Peters, director of creative licensing & business affairs for Ghostly International.

Peters declined to detail the specifics of the ambient music label's success. However, he did say that Ghostly International has made a hire over the last year, expanding its staff to 10 employees and an intern. It’s also looking to make a hire in online merchandising.

Ghostly International launched out of Ann Arbor in 1999 and now calls the Tech Brewery home. It also has offices in New York and Los Angeles. Over the last year it profited from a wide variety of ventures, such as partnering with Warby Parker to create a Ghostly International brand of sunglasses. It also created the soundtrack for the Hohokum video game for PlayStation. It also released a new album for Tycho, Awake, last year.

"Sales have been pretty awesome on that," Peters says. "It's been one of our best sellers."

Peters expects Ghostly International to repeat those sorts of successes this year. He said some similar partnerships are in the pipeline for this year but declined to reveal what they are.

"Our level of growth has been consistent and heading upwards at a pretty decent tick," Peters says. "It's still organic and manageable."

Source: Jeremy Peters, director of creative licensing & business affairs for Ghostly International
Writer: Jon Zemke

Orange Egg Advertising expands clientele, staff in Ann Arbor

Orange Egg Advertising has been expanding its customer base over the last year, a phenomenon the company's leadership attributes to the quality of its work.

"It's a quality thing, which translates into more revenue," says Amy Grambeau, director of Orange Egg Advertising.

The Ann Arbor-based company has made a name for itself over its 13 years working with the likes of Silver Maples Retirement Community in Chelsea, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and Ann Arbor State Bank.

"They are keeping us busy," Grambeau says.

Orange Egg Advertising as also added a handful of new clients, such as  Dunning Toyota, and the Michigan Memorial Funeral Home. The work from those new accounts has allowed the company to increase its revenue by 25 percent and grow its core team to five people.

"We continue to grow," Grambeau says. "We are where we want to be."

Source: Amy Grambeau, director of Orange Egg Advertising
Writer: Jon Zemke

Attorneys chase literary dreams with Publishing313

Mark Rossman and Brian Saxe are two attorneys who like to joke that they gave up their dream of a creative career to pursue law. That’s changing now that they are launching Publishing313.

"We have been writing together for a number of years," Rossman says. "We wanted a vehicle to publish. I was talking to Brian and said, 'Why don't we create our own?'"

The venture not only aims to publish the work of Rossman and Saxe, but other local authors across Detroit. Publishing313 will be accepting submissions from local writers of poetry and short stories this spring. The founders hope to print those works and make them available in local bookstores by the summer.

"I am envisioning a journal of 75 to 100 pieces of short stories and poetry," Rossman says.

The partners are inspired by the reinvention of Detroit and believe the work being done to improve the Motor City will produce some classic contemporary literature.

Source: Mark Rossman and Brian Saxe, co-founders of Publishing313
Writer: Jon Zemke
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