Steve Blank on Detroit’s Renaissance and Why Startups Aren’t Cool
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region has a firm understanding of where it excels. Detroit, he said, is already at the forefront of this school of thought by forming entities like Bizdom and focusing on its strengths, which in Michigan are manufacturing and high-performing universities. “Detroit is the world’s best renaissance story,” he explained. “You’re seeing the leading edge of what VC and entrepreneurship will look like for the rest of the century. You’re doing it first here in Detroit, and you should all feel proud of what you’re part of.” (Blank drew audience applause when he predicted that advanced manufacturing would soon leave China and return to the United States.)
Entrepreneurs, he said, see what others don’t, and the people with exceptional skills to operate in chaos often come out of dysfunctional families. If theory can be enlarged and applied to cities, then Detroit does seem uniquely positioned for innovation and success. Blank told the story behind GM and its founder, Billy Durant, who at one time was the leading horse-drawn buggy manufacturer in Flint, MI. After seeing a horseless carriage whiz past the bar where he was drinking one day, he immediately sold his business and put everything into creating a series of auto companies, which eventually became the startup General Motors.
Blank described Durant as being like Steve Jobs. He was eventually fired by his investors, so he went out and founded another startup called Chevrolet. He used Chevrolet to buy up GM’s stock and fire the board that fired him. He ran GM until 1920, when he was again fired by the board and replaced by the company’s accountant, Alfred Sloan. Sloan used a system of distributed accounting to turn GM’s separate companies into a America’s most profitable corporate machine. Durant went on to be the manager of a bowling alley, eventually dying penniless in Flint.
Despite Durant’s tragic end, Blank said he’s the one who entrepreneurs should be emulating. “There would have been nothing for Sloan to run without Durant,” he said. “The spirit of entrepreneurship is not Alfred Sloan, it’s Billy Durant. It’s all about how we create something out of nothing.”