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Crafting high-quality stories propels Final5's growth

When Matt Dibble goes to his job each day, he isn't thinking about the work he has to do as much as the stories he gets to tell.

The founder of Final5 has learned a lot in the five years since launching his creative agency, first and foremost that the biggest successes come when his clients better connect with their community through stories.

"We realized that our unique ability is in the designing and crafting of stories," Dibble says. "For us it's a little bit more about the story."

Dibble launched his company, which was originally called Final Five Productions, as a video-production firm that made short videos for companies at a premium. The business model worked for a time, but Dibble found a way to create something bigger.

He moved his firm to the Green Garage and started to working with mentors there on how to grow it. They taught him to look beyond his narrow scope of work -- to stop focusing on making video and start telling stories.

"First we find and craft the story," Dibble says. "Then we build it according to the best medium for it. It has opened us up to a larger client base in Detroit"

Now Final5 produces a variety of content for a variety of clients, which includes for-profit companies, social entrepreneurs, and nonprofits. One of its most recent projects was to create an employee handbook for The Empowerment Plan, a social venture that hires previously homeless women to make sleeping bag coats for homeless people.

The diversification of clients and media has helped the firm grow its team (two new hires) and its revenue, setting up Final5 for its best year yet. Dibble and company recently opened up their own office in TechTown with the idea of helping more companies and nonprofits tell their stories.

"We do our best work and have the most fun when we are helping people," Dibble says.

Source: Matt Dibble, founder of Final5
Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit Denim Co. moving out of Corktown's Ponyride and into bigger digs on riverfront

If there is such a thing as craft, artisinal jeans, then the Detroit Denim Co. is making them, and it's about to start making a lot more.

The 5-year-old company is in the process of moving to a larger facility on the Detroit riverfront. The new commercial space is in a freshly renovated building at 2987 Franklin. It offers nearly triple the space as its current 1,200 square feet in the Ponyride building in Corktown.

Detroit Denim Co. currently produces an average of six pairs of jeans per day in its current workshop in Corktown. It expects to triple that production when it moves to its new home in the coming weeks.

"Our goal with the new shop is to get up to 20 pairs of jeans a day," says Eric Yelsma, founder of Detroit Denim Co.

The Detroit Denim Co. makes its jeans with vintage and new sewing machines. Its team of six people does everything from choosing, cutting, and sewing the fabric to fitting the completed jeans specifically to individual customers. Though making each pair of jeans is intensive and takes a long time, it's all part of a controlled-growth philosophy that enables Detroit Denim Co. to maintain high standards of quality. For context, Levis makes 1.2 million jeans per day.

"We tend to be pretty selective," Yelsma says. "We want to do what we do best."

That doesn't mean Detroit Denim Co. isn’t growing. It has clocked double-digit revenue gains every year and hired two people in 2015. Yelsma has plans to to add a handful of people this year.

Detroit Denim Co. has made those sales through e-commerce and local retail shops. It's looking to open its own retail shop in its new home later this year.

"We will have a full retail environment there," Yelsma says.

Source: Eric Yelsma, founder of Detroit Denim Co.
Writer: Jon Zemke

Onset Marketing diversifies clientele to spur growth

Client diversification has been a key part of Onset Marketing's story since it got its start a dozen years ago. Back then it helped clients diversify to grow. Today client diversification is powering Onset Marketing's own growth.

The Wixom-based company's roots are in the automotive industry, and it used that base of support to grow into a solid boutique B2B marketing firm. It slowly began to adding other firms from different industries to its clientele in recent years.

"We are diversifying a bit," says Jim Graziano, president of Onset Marketing.

That's a bit of an understatement. Onset Marketing's automotive industry work made up two thirds of its bottom line. Today it's barely 50 percent. Its customers in other industries include firms in healthcare, finance, and education.

"We have always had this desire to go into different industries," Graziano says.

Onset Marketing got its start providing similar services for automotive firms. It helped provide the marketing materials for automotive suppliers so they could add clients in other industries. It proved to be a nice, little niche to carve out in metro Detroit.

"We helped a lot of automotive suppliers that were only working with the Big Three," Graziano says. "We helped them become non-automotive suppliers. We helped them sell to heavy trucking industry, tractor industry, and defense industry."

That allowed Onset Marketing to grow to a staff of 10 employees and the occasional intern. It has hired three people in marketing over the last year.

Source: Jim Graziano, president of Onset Marketing
Writer: Jon Zemke

RedViking leverages workforce fitness to recruit talent

RedViking has been battling for engineering talent ever since the economy started to recover post-recession. 

"It was tough a couple of years ago and its tough today," says Randall "Randy" Brodzik, president of RedViking. "It's a very competitive market for talent."

The 32-year-old company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Superior Controls, builds testing systems for manufacturers in the automotive, defense, and aerospace industries. The testing systems, which often focus on power train systems, are precise and require extensive engineering. RedViking currently employs 200 people (mostly engineers) after hiring 30 over the last year.

The firm has achieved those numbers by doing everything from winning workplace awards to visiting local college career fairs to hosting open houses. Last year it hosted an open house where half of the attendees ended up getting an interview, and a handful of those were hired. RedViking hosted a similar open house earlier this week and is expecting even better results.

Such events not only allow RedViking to show off how it develops the careers of its employees, but also how it encourages them to improve their personal health. The company has its own wellness program run by an onsite wellness coordinator, as well as offers a variety of onsite fitness classes. The company sponsors a number of local rec league teams and has its own fitness center with its own rec fields.

The idea is to not only recruit top talent who want to make themselves better in a variety of ways, but retain them for the long term.

"The heart and soul of this organization is its employees," Brodzik says.

Source: Randall "Randy" Brodzik, president of RedViking
Writer: Jon Zemke

365 Retail Markets launches Verii, a new product line for snack sales

365 Retail Markets has made a name for itself by reinventing the vending machine market, and it's getting ready to push that envelope a little more this year with the launch of a new product, Verii.

The Troy-based startup makes self-checkout micromarkets, essentially replacing the vending machine in corporate campuses. Customers simply have to choose their snack from a cooler or shelf, self scan it, and then swipe a credit card to pay for it at what the company is branding NanoMarkets. No cashier. No fuss. Just a quick way to get the food they want and go.

365 Retail Markets' newest version of these NanoMarkets is Verii, an in-office snack station for companies with less than 150 employees. Verii's distinguishing feature is an easy-to-use mobile app that enables employee purchases, inventory tracking, and product re-ordering. It's all controlled by a company-designated administrator.

"We know the customers like this and prefer this method of commerce," says Joe Hessling, CEO of 365 Retail Markets. "We are just filling that need."

The company plans to focus on launching Verii this year. It had acquired two other firms last year to help supplement its growth, which was rapid. 365 Retail Markets grew its revenue by $7 million (45 percent) in 2015, bringing its annual revenue to $25 million. It also hired 25 people last year, expanding its staff to 104 employees.

"Last year we hired a person every 11 days," Hessling says. "There is always something going on."

Source: Joe Hessling, CEO of 365 Retail Markets
Writer: Jon Zemke

Humantech expands workplace ergonomics through software

For more than 20 years Humantech was known as a go-to consulting firm when it came to workplace ergonomics. If a company wanted to streamline its office, it would turn to Humantech to tell it where to make the best improvements.

The Ann Arbor-based company has become one of the largest consulting ergonomics firm in the U.S. since its founding in 1987. But it needed more to maintain its upward trajectory.

"We decided we need to change up our whole profile," says James Good, president of Humantech. "We evolved into a software firm."

Humantech still works in workplace ergonomics consulting, but the addition of software was aimed at broadening its service offerings to its clientele. It developed a SaaS platform for its customers, the idea to provide more efficient and effective service that not only points them in the right direction but spells out how they got there.

"We teach our clients what we do," Good says. "We transfer our skills to them."

The pivot has worked. The company has hired about half a dozen people over the last year and is looking to add another four right now to keep up with growth.

"We have expanded our workforce by 20 percent over the last two years, primarily in technical and software development,” Good says.

Powering the company's growth is its new offerings in software. That accounts for more than half of its revenue (up from nothing a few years ago) and its where the company sees as the source of most of its future growth.

"We have had 30 percent revenue growth over the last two years," Good says. "2016 will likely be our highest growth year for us."

Source: James Good, president of Humantech
Writer: Jon Zemke

Siemens chooses Ann Arbor as "Center for Intelligent Traffic Technology"

Siemens has been using Ann Arbor as a guinea pig for traffic flow management research, and now intends to expand its program to include more than 50 intersections.


"The 10-year relationship with the city wasn’t the only reason Siemens chose Ann Arbor to be its first Center of Excellence for Intelligent Traffic Technology. Welz said U-M’s work in developing connected and autonomous vehicles, particularly at its MCity vehicle research center, made Ann Arbor especially attractive.

“Because of the research being done at the university, there are 3,000 or so cars getting traffic congestion information from traffic controllers,” Welz explained. “The university has a separate program for connected vehicles, but because they’re doing the testing in and around Ann Arbor, they’re using some of our controllers."

Read the rest here.

Simple Continuity aims to become TurboTax for risk assessment

Steve Aiello worked in consulting for several years and was never happy. Well, at least as never as happy as he wanted to be in his job. For years he worked with firms trying to figure out a better way to run their business. He did good work but was never totally satisfied with it.

"I was never really happy with the results we got," Aiello says. "They were soft, and not what we really wanted to give them."

So he decided to launch his own startup, Simple Continuity. The downtown Ann Arbor-based company, it calls Ann Arbor SPARK’s incubator home, is developing a software-as-a-service platform that helps businesses perform a better risk analysis. Its being branded as RADAR and is focused on providing more cost-effective and time-efficient compliance with federal regulations.

"Think of it as a TurboTax for risk assessment," Aiello says.

Simple Continuity's team of four people recently won the Best of Boot Camp at Ann Arbor SPARK's 27th Entrepreneur Boot Camp. That team is currently beta testing the platform with the firm’s first customers and is aiming to launch it publicly soon.

"We're looking to launch it in 60-90 days," Aiello says.

Source: Steve Aiello, founder of Simple Continuity
Writer: Jon Zemke

University of Michigan Credit Union opens new branch in Ann Arbor

The University of Michigan Credit Union has opened a new, stand-alone branch on the south side of Ann Arbor. The new branch was built from the ground up at 2725 S State St, near the I-94 exit and Briarwood Mall. Maybe you've seen it? It has a big, blue roof and large windows.

"We wanted to have a branch that is easily accessible to all of our members," says Julie Wigley, vice president of human resources and talent at the University of Michigan Credit Union. "State Street is a popular street. It's well-driven. Having it on State Street makes it easier for our members to find us."

The University of Michigan Credit Union's previous branch was located in the ground floor of an office building overlooking South Main Street and East Eisenhower Parkway. The credit union wanted a stand-alone branch to make it easier to find and more readily accessible to its members.

The new branch include contemporary architecture, maize-and-blue furniture, and a mural that spans the entire wall of the community room. This mural showcases photos of the many different people, places, and objects that represent the University of Michigan and it's clearly visible from the outside.

As far as functionality goes, the branch offers a drive-thru, self-service kiosks, wireless technology including a tablet system, and video conferencing. The idea is to incorporate the latest technology into its branches for the use of its members.

"We wanted to make sure every branch serves our members," Wigley says. "Our members are the focus."

Source: Julie Wigley, vice president of human resources and talent at the University of Michigan Credit Union
Writer: Jon Zemke

Boots on the Ground puts veterans to work making boots in Detroit

Boots on the Ground sees an America that doesn't only help its veterans find work but helps them create a career by making boots in Detroit.

The downtown Detroit-based nonprofit is working to create a jobs program for veterans through manufacturing an urban utility boot.

"There is a large population of veterans and young people who are unemployed or underemployed," says Jarret Alan Schlaff, co-founder and CEO of Boots on the Ground.

Boots on the Ground wants to help put those veterans to work. The organization has designed a high quality, ecologically conscious boot. The goal is to create the world's most sustainable boot. It is also aiming to create other products like shirts and hoodies.

Boots on the Ground has been working with New Work Collective in Detroit and has come up with prototypes and logos. Now it’s working on its manufacturing process and is aiming to launch a crowd funding campaign this summer.

"We will be doing a limited run [of boots] this year," Schlaff says, adding he expects them to sell out quickly.

The important part is to help transitions veterans into quality jobs and then careers. The 1-year-old non-profit wants to help the veterans fighting things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other challenges overcome to find a job, housing, and whatever else they may need to lead a successful life. The nonprofit has already hired its its first veteran and gets help from another 17 volunteers.

"It's more than just a job," Schlaff says. "We don't want to just pay a living wage. We imagine what it means to wage a living."

Source: Jarret Alan Schlaff, co-founder & CEO of Detroit Boots
Writer: Jon Zemke

Girls With Guts founder grows nonprofit into full-time job

Jackie Zimmerman helped launch Girls With Guts in 2012 with the idea of helping women battling Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Today her side project has turned into her full-time job.

Zimmerman has been working as a contractor for one of the Big Three in recent years while working to establish Girls With Guts on the side. Last fall the organization grew to the point where she was able to leave her day job to serve as the nonprofit's full-time executive director.

"We had this great problem of having a lot of money but not enough time to do anything with it," Zimmerman says. "We had to make a change of risk losing everything we had built."

Girls With Guts got is start at Wayne State University, where Zimmerman recently graduated from, with the help of Blackstone LaunchPad. The initial concept was simple: create a haven for women dealing with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. It accomplished that by helping educate these women on the basics of managing the disease, finding new solutions to live a healthier life, and sharing information.

One of Girls With Guts' most popular programs is its annual retreat, which attracts dozen of women every year. The nonprofit’s online presence has steadily grown, too. Its Facebook page had 7,000 likes a little more than a year ago. Today it has more than 10,500.

Zimmerman and her team of volunteers are now working on grant applications to raise more money. They are also working to expand the offerings of Girls With Guts, including planning its fourth annual retreat.

"Our growth plan for 2016 is extensive and will likely grow exponentially the further we get in," Zimmerman wrote in an email. She adds, "We have expanded our programming a lot in the last two months."

Source: Jackie Zimmerman, executive director of Girls With Guts
Writer: Jon Zemke

Motor City Muckraker shifts focus to education in 2016

If you don't already know who Steve Neavling is, it's time to start following Motor City Muckraker, the investigative news site he runs with co-founder Abigail Shaw. Last year, Neavling dedicated himself to tracking the Detroit Fire Department's struggles to deal with the city's 3,000-plus fires. His reporting revealed a mismanaged and under-resourced department, eventually leading to the ouster of Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins and his deputy Craig Dougherty.

This year Neavling, who was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press before striking out to launch his own site focused on "independent news dedicated to improving Detroit," is turning his attention to the issues of education and the mayor's administration.

If Neavling's reporting on the Detroit Fire Department in 2015 is any indication, you'll want to keep an eye on what the Muckraker turns up in 2016.

Follow Neavling's work at MotorCityMuckraker.com.

Service.com moves to Farmington Hills to work on contractor app

Service.com recently executed a move from downtown Detroit to Farmington Hills, setting the stage for what the tech firm expects will be exponential growth.

The 2-year-old startup, formerly known as Locqus, is working on a digital platform that streamlines the finding, hiring and paying of contractors. Think of it as a startup that is working to eliminate some of the biggest headaches that come with home improvements.

"We're trying to be the Uber and Paypal for the service industry," says Sandy Kronenberg, CEO of Service.com.

Service.com got its start in downtown Detroit as Locqus. Back then Kronenberg was trying to build its mobile app, Field Manage, into a platform that handles the back end needs of small businesses and contractors, such as managing time clocks, scheduling, inventory, etc. Kronenberg got some modest growth out of it but nothing to write home about.

"It just wasn’t growing any more than a lifestyle business," Kronenberg says. "It wasn't going to knock your socks off."

So he decided to pivot the business model to its current form and rebrand the firm to Service.com. At the time his team was co-working out of the Bizdom space in downtown Detroit. When that startup accelerator shut down late last year, Kronenberg needed to find a new home for his company. Downtown Detroit had become too expensive and inconvenient to set up shop for his firm, so he made the move to better offices in Farmington Hills earlier this month that will give his company room for future growth.

Service.com is currently testing its platform in Columbus, Ohio. Kronenberg and his team of 20 people (including half a dozen new hires over the last year) hope to launch in more markets, including Detroit, early this year. He has raised $3.5 million in a seed round to make it happen and is looking to raise a Series A later this year.

Source: Sandy Kronenberg, CEO of Service.com
Writer: Jon Zemke

Will tenants, economic development come with opening of City Hall Artspace Lofts in Dearborn?

City Hall Artspace Lofts, a new live-work-sell affordable housing community in east Dearborn for artists, their families, and art-related and supporting businesses, is ready for residential and commercial tenants.

The opening is the latest of dozens of similar communities built as economic development projects around the country. The $16.5-million project, which was three years in the marking, is located at 13615 Michigan Ave. in the former Dearborn City Hall.

Artists and prospective tenants are invited to to tour the finished work from 4-5:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 15. Click here for tour details.

The mixed-use art campus development spans across three buildings and includes 53 residential units, artist work spaces, gallery space, public performance space, business spaces, and more. They've been carved out of the Georgian revival structure, though many of its historical features have been preserved, including its tall windows that fill the spaces with natural light.

The project was developed by Minneapolis-based nonprofit Artspace, which describes itself as a "leader in artist-led community transformation." Artspace runs a network of more than 35 affordable arts facilities in 15 states and rents over 1,300 affordable live/work spaces to artists across the country. City Hall Artspace Lofts apartments are expected to rent from $581 for a 1-bedroom apartment to $975 for a 3-bedroom. Applicants must meet certain income requirements to be considered. For rental application information, click here.

City Hall Artspace Lofts is located near many of Dearborn's major cultural institutions, including The Henry Ford and the Arab American National Museum, as well as those of downtown and Midtown Detroit.

The successes or failures of City Hall Artspace Lofts' tenants will show organizers such as the East Dearborn Development Authority if the development will succeed in its goal to "build upon Southeast Michigan's heritage as a world center of innovation by creating a new anchor institution for the region's creative economy."

Source: Artspace
Writer: Kim North Shine

Meet RF Connect, the company that builds wireless networks for America's busiest places

It's getting harder these days to find a place in the U.S. where RF Connect hasn't done work. The Farmington Hills-based company works on wireless networks for a number of large corporations and major places in the country, such as the Hyatt Center in downtown Chicago.

"We did the Minneapolis Airport," says Jeff Hipchen, executive vice president of RF Connect. "We also did a public safety system for the LBJ Tollway."

RF Connect specializes in designing and building wireless systems and services for large organizations across the country. Think putting up WiFi networks in heavy traffic areas, like hospitals, airports, college campuses, stadiums, and arenas. Some of its larger clients include Meijer, Dow, and Trinity Health Systems.

The uptick in work for RF Connect led to some double-digit revenue gains and additional hires. The 10-year-old company has hired a handful of people, expanding its staff to 50 employees and the occasional summer intern.

"We're growing at a rate of about 70 percent," Hipchen says. He adds that "we see continuing growth in the 40-50 percent range. It's a growing market."

Source: Jeff Hipchen, executive vice president of RF Connect
Writer: Jon Zemke
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