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How Jacob Bishop re-energized the Mr. Alan's brand

Despite having grown up in and around his father's shoe stores, Jacob Bishop showed little interest in joining his dad's company once graduating from Michigan State University. 
 
He wanted to strike out and build something of his own—an understandable impulse for a 22-year-old. So Jacob and his brother Adam did just that, opening Soles Inc., a small high-end sneaker boutique in Miami's South Beach that grew to five locations throughout Florida.

But Bishop would eventually move back north and take over the family business, re-branding and re-energizing the decades-old company by drastically shaking up the business model. And it seems to be working. Mr. Alan's is now Elite Mr. Alan's, a place for finding the latest trends in shoes and clothing, not just the best bargains.

It's a quality over quantity approach. Some told him it wouldn't fly. Michigan is not Florida, they said. Keep it simple and don't get too colorful. But as incremental changes proved successful, Jacob was emboldened. It was time for change.

"If you're either not growing or evolving, you're dying," Bishop says.

Jacob is the son of Alan Bishop, founder of the Mr. Alan's chain of shoe and clothing stores. Like his son, Alan also split off from the family business at an early age. In 1974, Alan opened his first shoe store when he was 18 years old. Alan's father, Robert, had his own stores, specializing in women's shoes. So as not to compete with his dad, Alan opened a shoe store that carried men's shoes.

As with any successful business, Mr. Alan's changed with the times. Starting out in men's dress shoes, the company eventually began carrying men's casual shoes and even a few sneakers. Clothing was later introduced. As the decades wore on, Mr. Alan's shifted to a price-point-driven model offering good products at good prices, nothing too fancy. Sneakers became the focus. This shift is best identified by one of the catchiest slogans to be transmitted across Metro Detroit's broadcast airwaves—Mr. Alan's: $29 or two for $50.

Somewhere around 2012, the brothers Bishop merged their Soles Inc. brand with their father's Mr. Alan's chain of stores. Soon, Jacob would be making the trek up north to help with the strategic merging of companies. What he thought would last one month turned into three and then six. Following his father's departure from day-to-day duties, Jacob did something he never thought he'd do. Along with his brother, he became co-CEO and co-president of Mr. Alan's.

"The company was doing fine; they were doing great—everything was pretty much consistent," Jacob says. "We weren't necessarily growing, we weren't necessarily declining, but we were not, for a good chunk of time, evolving as a company. Which, I think, leaves you very vulnerable. So even though we were flat, we were a sitting target."

To change that, Jacob took what he learned in Florida and applied it to the Mr. Alan's stores here in Michigan. Though some told him it wouldn't work, Jacob started small. He introduced higher end and better quality products into one section of the store and waited to see how customers would respond. 
 
"If I only mess up 20 percent of the store, I only mess up 20 percent of sales, right?"

Sales, in fact, only grew. Soon the higher end concept took up half of Mr. Alan's stores and eventually would come to take over the whole store. Drastic updates and improvements were made to the furniture, displays, and overall designs of each store. To reflect that evolution, Jacob changed the name from Mr. Alan's to Elite Mr. Alan's.

The company is now in expansion mode. The older Mr. Alan's stores have been re-designed and re-branded as Elite Mr. Alan's. New stores have been popping up throughout Metro Detroit, including the latest at McNichols and Grand River, near the new Meijer development. It's the thirteenth Elite Mr. Alan's store. The company plans to open six more over the next 18 months and 24 more over the next three years.

Like his father before him, Jacob Bishop is proving that in business, evolution is key.

Name and title: Jacob Bishop, co-president and co-CEO of Elite Mr. Alan’s

Year Mr. Alan's opened: 1974

Year Elite Mr. Alan's opened/began: Evolution into Elite began in 2012

One interesting job he had before running Mr. Alan's: Jacob started his own car detailing business in high school. His niche was that he would pick up the cars from his customers (wherever they were), detailed the cars at his house and then returned the cars to his customers.

Your favorite shoe of all time: White-on-white Nike Air Force 1

Biggest lessons you learned from his dad about running a business: To treat your brands with the same respect used to treat the customers

Joe Spencer has big plans for Louisiana Creole Gumbo

In the early parts of 2014, the infamous polar vortex descended over Detroit, bringing temperatures that made the North Pole seem downright tolerable. With sub-zero temps combined with above average amounts of snow, it was the type of weather that inspired people to stay indoors, to avoid going out whenever possible. For a restaurant owner, it's the type of weather that means trouble.

At Louisiana Creole Gumbo, sales were down 20 to 25 percent that year, says the restaurant's president and co-owner Joe Spencer. The New Orleans and Southern-style kitchen is located at 2051 Gratiot Ave.just on the outskirts of Eastern Marketand has been since 1970. Spencer says it was one of the first, if not the first, Creole-style restaurants in Detroit.

The polar vortex threatened to put Louisiana Creole Gumbo out of business. Instead, Spencer has managed to turn the restaurant around, in part by taking advantage of the many small business programs in Detroit. Starting in 2014, Spencer enrolled in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses program. He's since received funding from Invest Detroit and Motor City Match. Most recently, Louisiana Creole Gumbo won the $100,000 NEIdeas award.

With the help of those programs, Spencer recently opened a new location on the city's northwest side at 13505 W. Seven Mile Rd., near Schaefer Highway. The Goldman Sachs program helped Spencer conduct a survey, determining that 25 percent of his customers live in northwest Detroit.

"Detroit has a really terrific system that's designed to help small businesses, to help people start businesses as well as help businesses that already exist," Spencer says. "I've been benefited greatly from that."

The restaurant was first established in 1970, though not by Spencer. That distinction goes to Joseph Stafford, a chef who learned to cook from his mother in Bayou Laforche in New Orleans. Spencer, who's lived most of his life in Detroit, had never even tried Creole-style food before a fateful flip of a coin set the course for the second part of his career.

Before he purchased Louisiana Creole Gumbo, Spencer had made a name for himself in broadcast media. In 1972, he worked for WWJ, becoming one of the first black radio producers in Detroit. In 1975, Spencer became the program director at WGPR-TV 62, the first black-owned television station in the nation. He stayed with channel 62 through its purchase by CBS in 1994, eventually taking an early retirement opportunity in 2001. He's since focused on the restaurant full time.

It was in 1982 when Spencer and business partner Doug Morrison purchased the restaurant from original owner Stafford. Wanting to go into business for himself, Spencer had originally approached Morrison about purchasing an eight-unit apartment building on the city's westside. Morrison, on the other hand, had his eyes on Louisiana Creole Gumbo. A coin flip decided the duo's fate.

"Joe Stafford, having sold us the restaurant, spent the next year coming in to work every day to teach us how to prepare the product," Spencer says. "How to maintain his proprietary spice blends that he had, to control the taste of the food, how to manage the product, to introduce us to the vendors, create a relationship with the vendors, so we could continue his legacy. He really had a great product."

The restaurant's continued success, now edging toward 50 years since first opening, is a testament to Stafford's original product. And now that Spencer has gone through a number of Detroit's small business programs, both educationally and financially beneficial, he's gearing up for a major expansion of the business.

The new Louisiana Creole Gumbo in northwest Detroit is just the beginning. Spencer has an ambitious ten year plan to open 100 new locations throughout the I-75 corridor. He's also going mobile, having pegged the NEIdeas award money for two food trucks. The menu, too, is expanding; the new location features healthier options like red beans and quinoa, rather than rice, and vegetarian gumbo, in addition to the traditional favorites.

For Lousiana Creole Gumbo, just a couple of years removed from that nasty polar vortex, it seems that a new season has arrived.

Ann Arbor-based reversible baby bottle launches

After a couple of years of designing, fundraising, and testing, the brothers behind Ann Arbor-based Flipsi Bottle have launched Flipsi Baby, a baby bottle that can be turned inside out for easy cleaning.

The bottle is also designed with a natural nipple shape to help transition babies from breastfeeding to bottles, and it features flexible, food-grade silicone sides that collapse inward while feeding to minimize air intake and help prevent colic. Flipsi cofounder and chief technology officer Jeff Plott and brother, CEO, and co-founder Chris Plott originally conceived their product as a reversible sport bottle, but pivoted to focus on a baby bottle design in 2014.

The Plotts have had an eventful 2016 leading up to the launch. That included winning an Innovation Fund grant from Macomb Community College and a Business Accelerator grant from Ann Arbor SPARK.

"This funding provided the last push we needed to kick off the bottle’s mass production," Jeff Plott says.

Next came extensive quality testing for choking hazards and harmful substances in build materials. The bottle passed all required testing.

Flipsi Baby has been available at Flipsi's website and through Amazon since mid-October, and Plott says user reviews and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive so far.

"One thing that really sticks out from the initial feedback is that babies who had refused other bottles seem to really latch onto the Flipsi Baby right away due to the natural shape," Plott says. "We are extremely pleased to hear how much parents and babies love our bottle."

Video game development incubator to launch in Ypsi

A new business incubator meant to foster video game development in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area will launch Jan. 19, with an introductory meetup at SPARK East in downtown Ypsi.

Organizer Larry Kuperman says the short-term goal for the collaboration between Meetup group A2 Game Designers and SPARK is to offer monthly meetings for developers to network, collaborate, and get advice from industry players working in the area already.

"Initially we're looking to create a shared space with developers, including students, and exchange ideas and practices," Kuperman says.

Local game studios currently include PC game maker Revival Productions and mobile games maker Gaudium in Ann Arbor, as well as PC game producer Stardock in Plymouth. Gaudium cofounder David Cai will speak at next week's meeting.

In the long term, Kuperman hopes to help launch and grow startups that can tap into the region's venture capital resources and make connections with other sectors.

"Whether it's an auto manufacturer saying, 'Hey, we want you guys to design a game-oriented technology we can use for our cars,' or the university says, 'We're looking for people to design educational games,' that's what I see in our future," he says.

Kuperman, an Ann Arbor resident, is director of business development for Nightdive Studios, a Portland, Ore.-based company that specializes in re-releasing and remaking classic video games. He says gaming's low startup and overhead costs make it an attractive industry.

"A games development studio can be one to two guys with a laptop, if you're thinking about mobile games development," Kuperman says. "Some of those monetize really, really well, when you think about the return on investment."

Kuperman's motivation is partly personal. His adult children moved out of state after college to pursue careers in tech and nursing, and he sees no reason students in any of the gaming programs offered at nearby colleges and universities shouldn't be able to find employment or set up shop here after school if they want to.

"These bright graduates come out of school, and there isn't any place for them to go to work in this area, so they gravitate to San Francisco, to Seattle, to New York, and I want to change that," he says.

Automation Alley's Tom Kelly prepares Michigan for the next industrial revolution

Tom Kelly is preparing for the revolution. And he wants Michigan to be prepared, too.

Technology is rapidly changing the way things are manufactured, and Kelly wants to make sure that Michigan's manufacturing companies are at the forefront of what some are calling the world's fourth industrial revolution—or Industry 4.0, as it's been coined.

As executive director of Automation Alley, Kelly has made it his job to convince the manufacturing industry to invest in Industry 4.0. The phrase was originally coined in Germany, where leaders of an economy similar to Michigan's had seen the writing on the wall and decided that they were going to have to embrace the disruptive technological changes poised to affect manufacturing. Big data, cloud technology, cyber security, 3D printing, autonomous robots, sensors and the Internet.  Each of these is coming, all at the same time.

"The only way we'll be successful is if we understand and move very quickly to protect what we do very well," he says. 
 
Kelly says Michigan needs to let the world know that it's not just a center of automotive and manufacturing technology, but of technology itself. And to do that, he says, the state needs to continue drawing the best minds in technology from all over the world.
 
A native of Syracuse, New York, Kelly was recruited to work at a Metro Detroit startup after college. After an MBA from the University of Michigan and a successful run up the corporate ladder, Kelly switched tracks and began to work for the state's Small Biz Tech Development Center of Michigan. Over the course of seven years, Kelly would advise roughly 300 startups, putting his combination of engineering and business acumen to use.

Kelly was then recruited to join Automation Alley. The advocacy agency was first thought up and launched in 1999 by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who wanted an organization to shine a light on how important technology was to the economy and how far advanced our region was in it. The organization has since gathered over 1,000 members and, though their focus has shifted to stay ahead of the times, it continues to advocate for Michigan technology and industry.

"We think that Industry 4.0 will be more impactful to job creation in Southeast Michigan than even autonomous vehicles," says Kelly. "Now we must win that, too, but factory automation is actually what is going to help us regain our footing in the world."

Kelly has spearheaded Automation Alley's focus on Industry 4.0 since he was named the executive director of the organization earlier this year. There's a significant shift in manufacturing, he says, and not just in automobiles, but also in everything from the defense industry to the produce industry. 
 
Production is moving closer to the consumer, says Kelly, and that means there are jobs to be had. But even though manufacturing may get much more localized, it won't be in the manner of yesteryear. Those days are over and not worth grousing over, says Kelly. 
 
In pointing to Industry 4.0, Kelly points to the future. And with Automation Alley, Kelly hopes to convince the area's manufacturers that it's a future worth investing in.

"We are positioned well to win the next battle. Stop fighting the battle from yesterday. That's over. But now, with the digitization of everything, we can win. So let's run like crazy down that path," says Kelly. "We're in great shape to do that."

Name and title: Tom Kelly, Executive Director

What is one interesting job you had before running Automation Alley:  I worked for the Michigan Small Business Development Center as a Technology Business Consultant helping tech startups from conception through rapid growth. I advised over 300 companies in seven years, but what I learned from each of them in the process was priceless. 

What's the most exciting thing about the technology industry today:  I believe manufacturing will change more in the next five years than the last 50. Industry 4.0 will change everything, and future winners and losers are being determined today.  

What's your favorite car of all time:  '78 Pontiac Grand Prix with a Landau Top. It was the first car I ever had, and I remember that car and those days fondly.
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TechArb's latest group of U-M student startups pursues next-gen orthotics and more

Class is in session for the next generation of University of Michigan startups in TechArb's 2017 winter cohort.
 
Between now and mid-April, the student venture accelerator's latest group of 11 student-run startups will conduct customer research, refine their business models, and receive mentorship from industry experts.
 
For the team at ArborThotics, that includes working with orthotists, federal regulators, and 3-D printing labs to continue the work they started in their capstone software engineering class last fall at U-M. ArborThotics cofounder Dom Parise and his team developed software to help produce custom ankle-foot orthotics using U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved scanners and 3-D printing.
 
Parise says producing this type of custom orthotics is currently a lengthy process that can involve plaster molds and specialized plastics baked for several days by technicians. From consultation to prescription to finished product, the process typically takes two to three weeks.
 
"It's really long, and kind of archaic at this point," Parise says. "With the 3-D printing, we can now print them in probably six to eight hours on the high end."
 
With FDA sign-off on the product and process, Parise hopes the team will have its solution on the market by mid-summer, but he's prepared for a longer haul.
 
"We can improve the product at the rate of software, but sales are at the rate of healthcare," he says.
 
For now, Parise and his team enjoy working with a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who are all at similar stages in their work, as well as the structure and deadlines provided by the TechArb program. For instance, the accelerator holds weekly meetings in which each company reports on its progress.
 
"The entrepreneurship process can be solitary if you don't have the right network," Parise says.
 
In addition to custom orthotics, the new TechArb cohort includes ventures working on original approaches to hassle-free funeral planning, healthy food choices, and connecting people living with chronic illnesses for local peer support.
 
TechArb was founded in 2009 as a joint venture between the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute at U-M's Ross School of Business. Forty teams have participated in TechArb this year, and have since received more than $2 million in funding.

Drought Juice, Benzinga join Endeavor Detroit network

Entrepreneurs from Ferndale-based Drought Juice and Detroit-based Benzinga are the latest to join the Endeavor network.

Drought is a producer of organic, cold-pressed raw juices, and the first female-led company to be part of Endeavor Detroit. Southeast Michigan Startup's sister publication Metromode recently profiled the way the local entrepreneurial system has helped nurture Drought. Through Endeavor, Drought seeks to expand its growth strategy, fundraise, and enhance its brand.

"As we strive to become leaders in the food and beverage community, we look to utilize the Endeavor platform as an opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial ecosystem by mentoring others to successful ventures," Drought cofounder and chief marketing officer Julie James says in an Endeavor press release announcing the news.

Benzinga is a financial media organization that covers analyst ratings, earnings reports and other financial news. Its website is read by 3 million people in 125 countries, according to Endeavor. Benzinga content is syndicated on partner sites such as Yahoo Finance and MSN. In addition to its downtown Detroit office, Benzinga has offices in Chicago and Delaware.

Benzinga is the first fintech company to be part of Endeavor. As an Endeavor entrepreneur, Benzinga is looking to scale in hopes of becoming the authoritative source for financial news.

"With guidance from mentors from the Endeavor network, we hope to rapidly grow the company, hire the best talent, and continue to be part of Detroit's comeback story," Benzinga CEO Jason Raznick says.

Raznick has been part of Southeast Michigan Startup's High Growth Happy Hours, sharing his story and advice with other entrepreneurs.

Endeavor is a nonprofit organization that promotes economic growth and job creation through its competitive selection process of working to mentor entrepreneurs and accelerate companies around the world. Endeavor Detroit took root in the city in 2015 and includes 13 entrepreneurs from seven companies, including Drought and Benzinga: Algal Scientific, Banza, McClure's, Varsity News Network, and Vectorform.

Startup Story Night accepting submissions for Detroit storytelling event

Everyone has a story to tell, and Southeast Michigan Startup and the New Economy Initiative want to help entrepreneurs tell theirs.
 
The two organizations are presenting Startup Story Night, the first of its kind in Detroit. It’ll be a night of storytelling, hosted by a nationally renowned storyteller, and will take place in a unique venue in the wonderfully diverse city known for creation, creativity, and boundless ideas—and the resolve to never quit.
 
The night will shine a spotlight on five local entrepreneurs who will share their “a-ha” moment: when they realized their idea or product would work, despite the challenges and adversity they faced—and in spite of those who may have told them “no,” or not even given them the time of day. And readers who have attended Southeast Michigan Startup's High Growth Happy Hours or followed coverage of entrepreneurs who are scaling their businesses will have the opportunity to share their story and learn from their peers.
 
Here’s how the process will work:
  • Submissions for stories are open until Dec. 9. Stories must not exceed 10 minutes.
  • A local committee will narrow down the submissions to five entrepreneurs and their stories.
  • The five entrepreneurs will be announced Jan. 3, 2017.
  • Startup Story Night will take place Jan. 19, 2017.
In addition, Detroit native Glynn Washington will be the featured host and storytelling coach. Washington is the host and executive producer of the WNYC-produced podcast Snap Judgment. Washington, a University of Michigan graduate who also received a law degree from U-M’s law school, has a background of supporting and working with entrepreneurs. From 2007 to 2010, Washington was the director of the Center for Young Entrepreneurs at Haas, also known as YEAH, a program at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business that serves at-risk students in middle and high schools.
 
Washington has received national acclaim in publications like The Atlantic, which called him the “fastest-rising public radio star in memory.”
 
In addition to his hosting duties, Washington will conduct a workshop exclusively for the selected entrepreneurs to help them polish their stories and advise them in the art of storytelling onstage, under the bright lights and in front of an audience.
 
To submit a story for consideration, head over to Startup Story Night and fill out the short submission form.

Flash Delivery partnership to bring Eastern Market's Red Truck Produce to your door

Later this month, Detroiters can go online, select from an array of fresh fruits, vegetables, prepared foods, and made-in-Michigan favorites, and, with a few clicks, have their order delivered directly to their home or workplace, thanks to a partnership between Eastern Market’s Red Truck Fresh Produce and Flash Delivery.
 
With a projected launch date of Nov. 15, Flash Delivery could help customers get turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes on the table by Thanksgiving.
 
The exclusive deal is a coup for Flash Delivery, the two-year-old Detroit startup led by entrepreneurs Ericka Billingslea and Tatiana Grant.
 
Better than planned
As a growth objective, the team sought a relationship with a regional chain like Meijer or Kroger, but when negotiations didn't materialize, Billingslea and Grant redoubled their efforts to strike a deal closer to home, and found a partnership that is more in line with their business ethos.
 
"To be honest, we were turned down by Meijer and Kroger, and a couple of years ago we attempted to get this off the ground, and it fizzled out and we never revisited the concept," Grant says of initial hopes with Eastern Market.
 
She re-pitched Eastern Market—this time with success. "We had an impromptu meeting, and they said this is something we might be able to get to work," Grant says.
 
It works for the bottom line too. Red Truck Fresh Produce staff will receive and package the orders for Flash Delivery drivers to collect and deliver, increasing profitability and efficiency over having drivers "shop" the orders on behalf of customers, Grant says.
 
A learning curve
The big picture focused quickly, but finer points required additional work, delaying the launch by a couple of months, Grant says.
 
"From a software perspective, we had issues synching the two systems," she says. Unlike their restaurant meal delivery service, which initiates with customer contact at Flash Delivery’s website, grocery delivery will begin from Red Truck Fresh Produce. This will be seamless to customers, as they will still begin their order at Flash Delivery's site.
 
"At the present we will be sending people to a specific URL," Grant says. "When the order comes in, [Red Truck] will send it to us, which is the reverse of how we started. This process makes it easier from a partnership perspective. We just get a notification, and we send it right over to our driver's phone."
 
Grant and Billingslea also conducted research to outfit their drivers' vehicles to best accommodate groceries.
 
"We settled on a combination of plastic crates and mesh containers, which keep things separated and upright," Grant says. "We also have coolers for things that need to stay cold," Grant says.
 
A wider customer demographic
Red Truck Fresh Produce, owned jointly by Eastern Market Corp. and the Warren-based Community Growth Partnership, accepts Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, payments. Grant says this creates opportunity for Flash Delivery to reach customers happy to save time and taxi fare by having their EBT-qualified purchases delivered.
 
"This will expose us to a further demographic that we couldn’t serve before. It's a win-win for both of us because we have been looking for a grocery partner and Red Truck will increase their sales volume," says Grant, adding that future growth will likely include business-to-business deliveries of fresh produce to area restaurants.
 
Just the right step
With Flash Delivery, Southeast Michigan Eastern Market fans can shop local, even when life gets busy and weather is uncooperative, Grant says.
 
"We are looking forward to giving people an Eastern Market experience direct to their door," Grant says. Customers can even take advantage of fresh, custom-designed meal ingredients, complete with chef-designed recipes already available in the store.
 
"Of course we were bummed when we were unable to move forward with regional and national companies," Grant says. "But the majority of our customers are pro-Michigan and pro-Detroit and for them to be able to get locally sourced fresh foods and Michigan-made products, it made more sense for us. We are looking forward to being able to tout that as well."
 
Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

Detroit nonprofit launches footwear line manufactured by local veterans

It's been nearly two years since a chance meeting on the streets of downtown Detroit left Jarret Schlaff inspired and searching for a way to help empower homeless veterans. What resulted is Boots on the Ground, the nonprofit arm of Pingree Manufacturing. The boot-making organization employs and benefits veterans, focusing on worker well-being rather than profit margins.

After months of wrangling designs and logistics, Schlaff and his line of multipurpose urban utility boots, Boots on the Ground, opened its first round of pre-sales on FridayVeterans Day. With only 500 pairs available and around 2,000 orders already pledged, the first round of boots should go fast. Luckily for those interested in purchasing a pair, a successful first round of sales means that Boots on the Ground will be able to keep manufacturing and selling their boots well into the future.

Schlaff started Boots on the Groundand its parent company, Pingree Manufacturing, named after former Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingreeout of a desire to address the difficulties many U.S. veterans face in finding employment. Currently in its beginning stages, Boots on the Ground employs two veterans on a part-time basis; more opportunities for employment will open up as the non-profit grows. All of the boot material is made in the United States, including many Detroit-made materials, and the ultimate goal is for all of the materials to be made in Detroit and in a sustainable way.

The idea for Boots on the Ground arose out of a chance encounter. Schlaff was walking around downtown Detroit when he got in a conversation with a veteran seeking employment. Though he may have been homeless, that veteran was more than qualified for employment, possessing a master's degree in engineering. Inspired by their meeting, Schlaff decided he would help that man and others like him.

"We want to create these jobs, we want to create employment for veterans. What can be handmade, what can we make? And I literally said this in a conversation, I said, what can be the boots on the ground in Detroit?" Schlaff says, snapping his fingers as the thought is triggered. "And then I said: boots."

Armed with good intentions but a lack of know-how, Schlaff began to research manufacturing boots. He was told it couldn't be done. Production would have to occur abroad if they were going to keep the boots affordable. But thanks to some helpful partnerships along the way, Schlaff figured out how to make Boots on the Ground happen. He put about $10,000 to $15,000 of his own savings and an additional $15,000 from donations into the project, he says. Schlaff estimates that Boots on the Ground has also received nearly $250,000 in in-kind services.

In starting Boots on the Ground, Schlaff says he's encountered a chicken-and-egg scenario. While there's been plenty of interest in the concept, Schlaff hasn't had the funds to get it off the ground. He's turned away investors because he doesn't want to give away equity and control. Also, investors haven't been incredibly interested in a worker-owned company that puts the emphasis on employee well-being over profit margins.

So Schlaff figured out a way to do it himself. Once the first round of 500 boots sell, Schlaff will take that money and operate Boots on the Ground full time, moving into a manufacturing facility connected to the Avalon Bakery building on Bellevue Street.

Instead of investors, it's been local partnerships that have helped Boots on the Ground get up and running. A storage facility in Pontiac has donated space. A retired engineer from Chrysler with a passion for shoes and a workshop in his basement offered his assistance. Southwest Solutions, Michigan Veterans Foundation, and local VFW halls are among those who have partnered with the organization. Bates Footwear of Rockford has acted as a sort of mentor, and without asking for anything in return.

"How do we find a way? It's allowing for the best kind of collaboration, which is that relationships are our main currency. It's been a lot of volunteers, a lot of people seeing an opportunity to support our work without necessarily a return on funds," says Schlaff.

"We've gotten where we are because of the relationships we've built. It's inspiring."
 
Name and title: Jarret A. Schlaff, co-founder and CEO Pingree Mfg & Project Boots on the Ground

Years business has been open: 2

What is one interesting job you held before owning/running your own biz: In 2009 I worked for Sen. Carl Levin in Detroit supporting veterans with their disability claims. I was introduced to the maze called the VA that veterans have to navigate and fight through to get the support they deserve.   

Favorite book: It's a tie between Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell 

Advice for new non-profits: Anything is possible. Remind yourself at least once a day what you're committed to and what's possible because of you and your team's unique contribution. Embrace relationships as your primary currency and since we're all in this together, seek out opportunities to amplify the people, groups, and organizations around you doing good work without expecting anything in return.

Ann Arbor companies win $100,000 at Accelerate Michigan competition

Three Ann Arbor companies took home a combined $100,000 in prize money at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in Detroit.
 
Digital wellness platform developer JOOL Health was the biggest winner of the three, placing third and winning $50,000. Movellus Circuits and Workit Health each won $25,000 awards in the University Research Highlight and People's Choice categories, respectively.
 
This year's semifinalists for the state's largest business plan competition were narrowed down from nearly 200 applicants across the state and also included Ann Arbor's ContentOro, PreDxion Bio, and ShapeLog.
 
More than $1 million in cash and prizes were awarded, including a $500,000 grand prize for SPLT. The Detroit-based mobility company took advantage of intern placement and business incubation resources at Ann Arbor SPARK's Central Innovation Center earlier this year.
 
Movellus' prize money will go toward more protection for the intellectual property behind its semiconductor chip optimization software, which has already netted three major customers and significant interest from Silicon Valley, according to chief operating officer and cofounder Muhammad Faisal.
 
Faisal launched the company three years ago while finishing his doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. Today, Movellus employs five full-time and four part-time employees in its downtown Ann Arbor office. Faisal credits the U-M networking community with helping get the company to where it is now.
 
In his pitch to the Accelerate panel last week, Faisal said we all benefit and depend on more powerful, less expensive electronics released every couple of years, thanks to regular advances in chip technology. But the physical space on those chips isn't unlimited real estate, and it's running out.
 
"There's a need for software and architectural innovation, and that's exactly what we do," Faisal says.
 
Using Movellus' algorithms, Faisal says developers can produce chips that consume less power, cost less, and get to market faster.
 
A new release is due out from Movellus in early 2017, and there are plans to open a "customer- and investor-facing office" in California in the next six months. Faisal says the company will continue growing the engineering side of its business in Ann Arbor.

The Craft Cafe Detroit thrives on city's lower east side

The Craft Cafe Detroit is off to a fast start. The "sip and paint" party venue opened last June on Mack Avenue, just blocks from city's eastern border with Grosse Pointe Park, and it's already turning away customers as some parties reach capacity. But that's a good problem to have.

While owner Candice Meeks is considering a move to a bigger location, she says she wants to keep the Craft Cafe in the neighborhood. Its location is part of the reason for its success.

"The location at Mack and Phillip, there's nothing like this in our community," Meeks says. "You have to drive downtown and pay for parking or drive out to the suburbs for this kind of fun. We need to keep something like this in the neighborhood."

Craft Cafe Detroit hosts a variety of celebrations, from birthdays to bachelorette parties. Guests can bring their own food and drinks while Meeks leads the party through a painting session. Subjects are pre-sketched onto each person's canvas, allowing them to paint along while Meeks teaches different techniques like blending colors. She also offers vision mirrors, where guests create collages on mirrors and then seal them with a clear coat finish.

Other parties include Eat | Paint | Drink, where refreshments are provided, and monthly date nights, where couples paint together.

Meeks credits a number of small business programs that helped her get off the ground. She graduated from ProsperUs Detroit, where she met her current landlord. Meeks was also the recipient of a $4,000 technical assistance grant from Motor City Match. She says she plans on using the grant money to help with marketing and website construction costs.

"Going through those programs really gave me a platform to open my own business," she says.

The Craft Cafe Detroit is located at 14600 Mack Ave. It's open Tuesday through Friday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Build/Create Studios adds staff, sharpens marketing services

With expanded services and staff to support its clients' digital marketing needs, the team at Ann Arbor's Build/Create Studios feels poised to plant a firmer foothold in the web design and development market.
 
The firm has committed itself to beefing up its digital marketing services this year, introducing automation software from SharpSpring and hiring Matthew Perkins as its first director of marketing. According to cofounder Ian Wilson, the investment is paying off.
 
"It’s been an exciting year … and [it] has added the need for additional marketing help that we’re trying to attract to help solidify future growth," Wilson says.
 
Founded as a two-person operation in 2010 by designer/coder Wilson and business/client manager Eric Lynch, the company has grown to a staff of six. It offers web design, web development, digital marketing, and search engine optimization services in the WordPress platform.
 
According to Wilson, SharpSpring's software works along with Build/Create's inbound marketing and SEO efforts to track site visitors, quantify their value, and automate "the lead nurturing process."
 
While other tools like SharpSpring are available—HubSpot and Marketo, to name two—Wilson says SharpSpring offers a few advantages.
 
"First, it is easy to use while also being incredibly robust," he says. "Secondly, the monthly cost is about one quarter the cost of competitors."
 
And SharpSpring is only sold through agencies, which gives Build/Create an additional advantage.
 
"A reasonably priced, competitive product that gives businesses the data they need to make smart sales and marketing decisions is an easy pitch to make," he says.
 
With the new business Perkins has helped generate, Wilson says the company is looking to fill out its marketing team with new hires who can build SharpSpring workflows, execute email marketing campaigns, consult on SEO and paid media, and complement the studio's existing strengths.
 
"Having the development chops to integrate our tracking and marketing automation software into existing website and business processes is a major asset, and something we are very proud of," Wilson says.

Jolly Pumpkin to add new restaurants in Chicago, Dexter

2017 is shaping up to be a big year for Dexter-based Jolly Pumpkin. The popular portfolio of Michigan restaurant-breweries announced last week it will open a new location in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, and partner and CEO Tony Grant says a much smaller farm-to-table restaurant is also coming to Jolly Pumpkin's Dexter brewery.
 
The 5,800-square-foot Chicago restaurant will serve craft beers, distilled spirits, and wines from the Northern United Brewing Co. brand, including Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, North Peak Brewing Co., Nomad Cidery, Civilized Spirits, and Bonafide Wines, as well as a full pub menu.
 
Grant calls the new location a "no-brainer" for Jolly Pumpkin, which also has locations in Traverse City, Ann Arbor, and Detroit and is known for its distinct brand of sour, barrel-aged beers. Plans for a Chicago expansion have been in the works since Jolly Pumpkin opened its third location in Detroit's Midtown last year.
 
Grant says getting in front of new customers is key to the brewery's success, and opening shop in a "great Midwestern city" like Chicago provides new opportunity to do so.
 
"The point of direct contact with the beer drinker is just so important for Jolly Pumpkin, because the beer is very different," Grant says. "Being able to interface with who's drinking the beer and talk with them about what they're drinking and what they're experiencing is just really important for us."
 
Also new for Jolly Pumpkin next year will be a farm-to-table restaurant at its Dexter brewery, which currently has a tasting room with snacks, but no dining.
 
The new venture will seat 50 to 70 patrons and will be run by Maggie Long, the longtime chef at Jolly Pumpkin's Ann Arbor location. Long was also recently tapped to help develop the menu for Avalon International Breads' new Hearth and Soul Cafe in Ann Arbor.
 
"It'll be more intimate, like you're sitting in her kitchen environment," Grant says. "It'll be a really neat experience for the guest."
 
Grant hopes the city of Dexter will greenlight the project once a new wastewater system is installed, and the new venture will also open next year.
 
Grant says Jolly Pumpkin's ownership and management team is always looking for new opportunities, especially within Michigan, if and when the timing is right. But he also says they're mindful about not overextending.
 
"We're still very small," he says.
 
Grant credits business partner and brewer Ron Jeffries' dedication and craft with putting the company in its current position.
 
"He makes great beer, [and] he does not sacrifice quality to cut costs or cut corners or get something out the door quickly," Grant says. "He's a perfectionist, and it really shows in the end product."

Gwen Jimmere makes all-natural hair care product to celebrities like Beyoncé

LeBron James. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Serena Williams. These are household names throughout the United States and even much of the world. They're also members of the The Root 100 for 2016, a list of the 100 most influential African-Americans as put together by The Washington Post-owned publication The Root. In November, a gala is being held in New York City to celebrate those that have made the list.

Also attending that gala will be Gwen Jimmere, a local entrepreneur who has seen tremendous growth in her all natural line of beauty products, Naturalicious. In just three years, Jimmere has quickly gone from creating an all-natural hair care product in her Canton, Michigan kitchen to being picked up by international beauty product distributor Jinny Beauty Supply and the first African-American woman to hold a U.S. patent for a natural hair care product. She's now based out of the ponyride facility in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, where she and her team make all the products by hand.

Jimmere comes from a corporate communications background where, before even creating Naturalicious, told a friend who worked at The Root that she would one day make it to their 100 list. It only took her four years to do so.

"To find out that I'm actually on it is a full circle moment for me," she says.

Jimmere hails from Cleveland. After attending Kent State University for both her undergraduate and master degrees, she was recruited by Ford Motor Co. to become their global digital communications manager. She would later leave Ford to become the digital marketing director for Uniworld, and soon after make her Root 100 proclamation.

An influential moment for Jimmere was seeing Chris Rock's documentary movie "Good Hair" during her pregnancy. She cites a scene that shows a pop can being submerged in a typical hair relaxer product and subsequently disintegrating. Concerned about what she was exposing her body and her unborn child to, Jimmere decided to create a safer and more natural hair product. She experimented, researched, and honed her product. Still, she treated it as a hobby, something she might one day give to family and friends.

A couple of years later, with a two year old son and about 30 days from divorce, Jimmere was laid off from Uniworld. What some might see as a dead end turned out to be a window of opportunity. With little left in the bank, Jimmere decided that it was now or never.

"Having your back against the wall forces you to not doubt yourself," Jimmere says. "You don't really have the luxury to doubt yourself. It's like, I might as well just try everything because the worst that can happen is nothing."

That attitude, coupled with a desire to make her son Caiden proud, got Naturalicious off the ground. Jimmere called the Whole Foods Market in Detroit to set up a meeting, eventually convincing them to carry her product. Now several Whole Foods locations carry Naturalicious. And Jinny Beauty Supply just signed on to distribute, starting out in 1,500 stores and eventually growing to 7,000.

Naturalicious currently carries 10 products, all made by hand, designed for people with curly hair. The company is becoming known for both its all natural ingredients, and 3-in-1 and 5-in-1 products that help cut down on time. The clay comes from Morocco, the oils from Italy, Spain, and Argentina.

Jimmere moved the company out of her kitchen and into ponyride this past May, making her first hires. Three of her six employees are supplied through Services To Enhance Potential, or STEP, which connects employers with people with special needs looking for work. She anticipates having to hire more people soon.

Another member of the team is her son Caiden, now five years old. Caiden holds the title of chief candy curator, making sure that each order is accompanied by a piece of candy.

As Jimmere relates Caiden's enthusiasm for Naturalicious, there's no need to question whether her son is proud of her. She's got it.

Quick Facts on Gwen Jimmere

Title: CEO + Founder, Naturalicious

Date of opening: 2013

One interesting job before Naturalicious: In grad school I was an editor at a risque book publisher. Every book I was responsible for editing was basically 50 Shades of Gray on steroids. When I interviewed for the job, they just told me it was for an editing position. It wasn't until the day I started that I realized I'd be editing freaky books.  It was a pretty interesting gig, though, and my co-workers were really cool. It was a very laid back office; we could bring our pets in whenever we wanted and wear pajamas to work every day of the week if we chose to. The culture was nothing like you'd expect for that sort of business. 

Favorite music to work to: 70s Funk (i.e. The Gap Band, Earth Wind & Fire, The Commodores, SOS Band, etc.)
 
One indispensable beauty care tip: Coconut oil is good for practically everything. It's an incredibly effective makeup remover, it's perfect for helping your nails grow faster and stronger, and it's a phenomenal conditioning ingredient when found in hair care products. I can think of at least 10 excellent beauty uses for coconut oil. I always keep a jar of unrefined, virgin coconut oil in my bathroom cabinet and another in my suitcase for when I'm traveling.
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