Detroit Startup Rippld Finds New Life in Silicon Valley
On a recent rainy summer morning, Adrian Walker, co-founder of the Detroit and now San Francisco-based startup Rippld, described how he almost threw in the towel on the fledgling team-building network he built for creative professionals.
It was December 2012, and Rippld was nearly out of money, behind schedule on its public launch, and had recently lost a co-founder after he stepped away to take a nine-to-five job that allowed him the income and flexibility to deal with some health issues. A second co-founder had decided he needed to take a part-time job in order to pay his rent, so he started working with a different startup that could afford to pay him. It was, in Walker’s words, “time for a gut check.”
“We had to do a lot of soul searching,” he recalled. “It was extremely difficult. We just didn’t have the resources and money we needed here in Detroit. But I wasn’t ready to stop—I wasn’t ready to let it go until we got to market.”
In the midst of this uncertainty, an unexpected reprieve arrived: Rippld learned it had been accepted to the San Francisco-based NewME Accelerator, a tech startup incubator focused on businesses led by underrepresented minorities. “That was it for me—validation,” Walker said. “It was time to get out to the Valley and be around the best of the best to see if we could grow.”
So Walker headed out to San Francisco to stay in the NewME house for three months with the other startup founders in his cohort while Rippld’s engineer stayed behind in Detroit. Exposed to elite mentors and other resources, Walker rebuilt Rippld’s development team, tweaked the site, and relaunched a private, invitation-only beta site. Walker says Rippld is currently wrapping up fundraising for a seed round in preparation of its public launch later this year.
“In some ways, Rippld had stagnated before we went out there,” he noted. “We’ve now been able to accomplish everything we set out to do. I always question if it’s necessary to be out in Silicon Valley, but it’s put us in a place we probably couldn’t have gotten to here [in Detroit]. It helped us out quite a bit.”
Rippld is the product of dissatisfaction Walker felt when he started an independent film-production company two years ago. He was frustrated by the lack of online platforms his fellow creative professionals could use to network, post portfolios, and share jobs. Rippld offers all of that and more, including a project board where creatives can pull in fellow creatives from their network and bid for jobs. Walker and his team vet each potential member of the network to ensure that the work showcased on the site is of the highest quality.
Though Rippld hasn’t pivoted much from how it was first conceived, Walker said the feedback he got in Silicon Valley was invaluable. He was amazed by the level of transparency and the flow of information he encountered in California. He relished a refreshing cultural mindset that he described as, “it does me no good if you can’t get ahead, too.” Sure, competition for talent is fierce, but nobody expects people to stay in one place for long, and there are no hard feelings when they leave. Quite the contrary, Walker said—CEOs are often among the first investors when a trusted, proven employee leaves to start a new venture.
Walker thinks NewME, though fairly new, undersells its value and advised Detroit startups to consider it the same way they would other top-notch accelerators like TechStars or Y Combinator. He also says Detroit startups shouldn’t undersell themselves. “A lot of people in the Valley would ask if what they heard [about Detroit's revitalization] was true,” Walker pointed out. “Detroit does get a lot of love, and people like the Midwestern work ethic. Every company seems to have someone from Michigan. Being from Detroit is definitely not a disadvantage.”
The bottom line, Walker said, is that Silicon Valley is all about solving problems, and if you can demonstrate a real problem affecting a sizable market, you’ll get attention especially if it’s a market Bay Area executives didn’t know existed. As for the problem Rippld is hoping to solve—providing a visually appealing platform where the most talented creatives can interact with one another and potential clients—Walker said he’s happy with his company’s progress despite the ups and downs.
“At the end of the day, I like where I’m at,” he added. “I don’t think there’s one right way to be successful.”