DeVos’ Start Garden Aims to Give Grand Rapids a Jolt
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they’re doing something “interesting.” If the team agrees that the project has merit and is off to a good start, Start Garden invests another $20,000. From there, the fund watches each project carefully to see if further investment is warranted, which DeVos says is always the goal. Start Garden may choose to invest another $50,000 to $500,000 in exchange for equity and will bring the startup to Grand Rapids so it can leverage some of the city’s resources. “We want to be a catalyst igniting the broader seed community,” DeVos adds. “We look at ourselves as a concierge for startups, but we also have insights and deep connections. The end goal is a massive reduction in friction.”
The idea for Start Garden came from a previous DeVos effort, now on hiatus, called 5×5 Night, which was an open call for business ideas. Each month, 5×5 held an event where a five people had five minutes to present their ideas to a panel of five judges, and the people attending picked the winning idea, which received $5,000 in funding. DeVos says 5×5 Night regularly drew more than 200 people. “It got us interested in micro-level investing,” he adds.
DeVos says that though the startup community in Grand Rapids is growing, it needs initiatives like Start Garden to give it a boost. “We don’t have a very active seed culture here,” he notes. “It’s completely underground. Folks don’t want to talk about it, because it’s embarrassing to talk about failure.”
He thinks the city’s biggest strengths are the fact that there aren’t layers between companies and decision makers, meaning startups can get things done without jumping through too many hoops. He also points out that the city is situated between Detroit and Chicago and has a proud heritage of design and furniture making. “We have one of the highest rates of designers per capita in the country,” he says. “We have design-centered manufacturing, so there’s still a lot of capacity to make things here.”
DeVos thinks Grand Rapids’ biggest challenges are its culture, practices, and beliefs. “There’s an overly conservative approach to investing here,” he adds. “People aren’t as interested in the discovery process.” But if anyone can upend that worldview, it seems like a DeVos can. “I see a clear connection between my grandfather’s work with Amway and Start Garden,” he says. “People who own their own businesses have the same spirit. I definitely don’t subscribe to a zero-sum vision. This region is so under invested and under believed in.”