Inside Detroit: Ain't Too Proud To Pitch

Detroit, one of the world’s great comeback cities. Throughout this series we’ll be spending time with the entrepreneurs, artists and musicians helping to restore the city to its former glory, thanks to a new wave of passion and innovation. Today we catch up with four of the fastest pitchers in the city...

Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic recently touched down in Detroit for the first time, as the airline’s inaugural flight to the city kicked off daily services between London Heathrow and Detroit.

To mark the occasion the Virgin Group founder invited some of the city’s leading business minds to join him on an expert panel, as Detroit’s hottest start-ups pitched their ideas in front of a live (and rather lively) audience. Joining Richard on the judging panel were Detroit-based entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, Shinola's Marketing Director Bridget Russo and Adriel Thornton of FreshCorp - a man responsible for many of the cultural successes in the city.

In pictures: Detroit's hottest start-ups pitch to Richard Branson

Such was the strength of the four pitching businesses the judges decided to give each their own bespoke prize. Social entrepreneur Dave Merritt received mentorship from Virgin Unite, furniture designers Ali Sandifer a helping hand with their new website, the popular furniture bracket manufacturers Floyd will be spreading the word of their business in the UK with free Virgin Atlantic flights to London and the guys from Original Stix are able to travel the US on business trips for free thanks to Delta.

One month on from their big pitch, we spoke to the four start-ups to see how the experience is shaping the future of their businesses.

Image credit: Mark Potts

Business: The Floyd Leg Furniture for city living 

Pitchers: Kyle Hoff and Alex O’Dell

What did you learn about your business as a result of taking part in Ain’t Too Proud To Pitch?

Alex: First, it was fantastic to get validation from some of the world's most innovative entrepreneurs that our notions about our model and its scalability hold water. We also found that as we continue to grow and evolve, we shouldn't try to separate new stories from the story of where and how we began. 

What’s changed for you since the pitch?

Kyle: Well…for one thing we're going to London! More than 30 per cent of our orders are outside the US, with a good number in Europe and Japan. We want to look at how we can hone the ordering experience for those customers and continue to expand our global audience. We've also started some meaningful relationships here in Detroit as a result of the event.  

What one tip would give to someone who is pitching their business idea?

Alex: Hone the message and make sure the points you are conveying are critical to that message. It's easy to try to cram too many points into a pitch.

Image credit: Mark Potts

What would you say to someone thinking of starting a business in Detroit?

Alex: Take the time to really understand and appreciate the rich history this city has to offer and the remarkable people who have lived through it. Detroit has long been a hub for innovation, from the creation of the Model T, to Motown and techno music. It's also a city of great resilience. We began building Floyd by first plugging into a supportive community of people.

How would you describe the ecosystem for young businesses in Detroit?

Kyle: It's a place with very interesting opportunities for collaboration that aren't possible in many other cities. We work with a handful of multi-generational factories to produce our products, some that have been in Detroit for over a century. Many of these businesses at one point or another drew a significant portion of their revenue from automotive, but had to re-think their approaches in order to continue to survive shifting economies.

What’s next for Floyd?

Alex: We're relaunching the company, focused on producing the essentials of the apartment that ship directly to your door. This summer we're releasing a wider line of products that we're super excited about – so stay tuned at floydup.com!

Business: Ali Sandifer - Design studio and workshop specialising in handcrafted furniture

Pitchers: Abir Ali and Andre Sandifer

What did you learn about your business as a result of taking part in Ain’t Too Proud To Pitch?

It allowed us to pause and take inventory, forcing us out of the grind of running the day-to-day of Ali Sandifer. The pitch brought out what we celebrate about our business and what we are challenged by. We pitched on the foundation of "producing a high-quality product through modest means" and the desire to scale-up and grow "without losing our soul." Although that sounds simple - and perhaps obvious in some ways - it was actually quite significant for us. It is now the foundation of how we talk about growing what we have

Image credit: Mark Potts

What’s changed for you since the pitch?

We are meeting new people that we didn't know before and entering exciting conversations. We've certainly gained more exposure.

What one tip would give to someone who is pitching their business idea?

Practice and practice and then put away that piece of paper before you hit the stage. Do not wing it. A pitch is a strategy and an opportunity, not a conversation.

Image credit: Mark Potts

What would you say to someone thinking of starting a business in Detroit?

Do it. And ask lots of questions along the way. Detroit, unlike other places, feels like a city that is eager to share. If you have a question, someone can offer an answer or send you to someone who can. That willingness to engage is significant. The city is evolving and growing. It's at a stage where - as a resident or as a business owner - it is possible to feel like part of something bigger.

How would you describe the ecosystem for young businesses in Detroit?

Business support and resources in Detroit are growing increasingly stronger with time. The ecosystem here is quite a navigable network of organisations. The business support providers in this system do a good job at understanding you as a Detroit business - not just a business - which means that they are realistic to the opportunities and the challenges of being based in Detroit.

What’s next for Ali Sandifer?

We're working on that. This week we leave to teach a workshop on wood and furniture at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. This fall we will be adding to our line and releasing our first new piece in five years. It's officially been named and we are planning its debut.

Business: Merit Goodness - A Detroit fashion brand which helps underserved youth get to college.

Pitcher: David Merritt

What did you learn about your business as a result of taking part in Ain’t Too Proud To Pitch?

It was such a wonderful reminder that feedback is essential. We did a dry run of our pitch on Friday with the other businesses, their words of wisdom made our presentation 10 times better the next day. We have to do a better job of reaching out to our customers/community and getting that same feedback on a daily basis.

What’s changed for you since the pitch?

We are more determined than ever before to open up a Detroit location, helping young people throughout the city aspire, believe, and contribute!

What one tip would give to someone who is pitching their business idea?

Practice and try it out in front of a few friends or family.

What challenges have you come up against during your time as Merit Goodness founder?

Not being the most organised person in the world to start with was definitely a challenge. It's really just at this point that I'm beginning to grow and truly understand the importance of planning systems and processes that we can actually execute. We are such a small organisation so it's imperative that we are working smart and not just hard. 

What would you say to someone thinking of starting a business in Detroit?

Determine your "why." What's driving you to start this business? Is it to make money and become rich? Is it to make a ton of community impact? Really develop the purpose behind your business because that's what's going to drive you no matter what obstacles you face.

What’s next for Merit Goodness?

World-Class Citizenship! We're working hard on developing the curriculum for our expanded FATE program so we can work with more students.

BusinessOriginal Stix - Game used hockey stick phone cases. 

Pitchers: Terry Johnson and Andrew Mestdagh

What did you learn about your business as a result of taking part in Ain’t Too Proud To Pitch?

We learned that there is no uniform, single way to create a successful business and continue to make it grow. Some leaders, such as Dan Gilbert, emphasised one, two and three year plans. He explained that if you don’t know where you’re going, then there’s no way to get there. Other leaders, such as Richard Branson, focus on bringing value to the consumer and keeping employees happy.

What’s changed for you since the pitch?

Almost immediately after the event, we started to notice increased sales from the United Kingdom. We had a large supplier reach out to us about carrying our product in the UK. He probably would not have found our product if it weren’t for all of the great press from the Ain’t Too Proud To Pitch event.

What one tip would give to someone who is pitching their idea?

One of the best ways you can prepare is by putting yourself in your audiences’ shoes. Every pitch situation is different, so you want to really understand who it is that you are pitching to and the environment you will be in. 

What would you say to someone thinking of starting a business in Detroit?

Don’t discount the importance of "showing up".  There are a handful of start-up happy hours, breakfasts, events, and other opportunities to showcase your product and meet people.  One individual event may not propel your company to success, but collectively showing up to numerous events will really help you build your brand and fan base in the Detroit area.  

How would you describe the ecosystem for young businesses in Detroit?

The ecosystem for young businesses in Detroit is vibrant and healthy.  There are a lot of young, educated professionals who saw their parents and family members lose jobs and fall on difficult economic times during the recession. Instead of relying on the Government or big businesses, many of these young professionals decided to take it upon themselves to help the city and make a living by starting their own businesses.  

What’s next for Original Stix?

From here, Original Stix would like to expand into many other phone products besides just the iPhone. We have fans with Galaxy, Android and a host of other phones that would really like to use our product. Our goal is to meet their wishes by providing them with a one-of-a-kind authentic phone case, created from game-used hockey sticks. We’re also trying to secure licensing with the NHL. With the licensing, we hope to be able to provide team and/or player-specific phone cases to fans all over the world.

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