Making is hard work: Innovating in #detroit.
3 February 2012
I came to Detroit to be and do many things, but primarily to be an entrepreneur. There is a lot of innovation happening in this city, new ways to do business, new ways of thinking and putting things together. Capital has proved elusive so people have gotten creative. Extra creative.
But it’s not just the innovation that gets me going. It’s also the heart.
Yes, people want to earn some cash. But people also want to do some good while they’re at it. New restaurants support local coffee roasters. New boutiques resell pretty little somethings from older boutiques to help spread the distribution. A local school runs one of the most successful urban farms in the city (as a way to teach biology !), which feeds profit back into the kids education. A food bank also runs a catering service, and on and on…
I’m committed to businesses that embed social good in their models. It isn’t enough to just write a check with some extra proceeds to a charity. It isn’t enough to pick charities that are aligned with your brand and cobrand fundraisers. We have to really rethink how we set up businesses, how we evaluate profit, and how we use capital to contribute to making our world better for more people. Isn’t that the American way? Money+Heart? Do good. Get a check. I like it. Tom’s Shoes is nice. Buy a pair and they will donate a pair to a kid who needs. But La Cocina in California is a thousand times cooler. And smarter…
La Cocina provides shared resources and assistance to entrepreneurs in the food industry, primarily low-income women of color. They have a store that sells products they make and a catering service that helps women build client bases and test ideas. It’s more than an incubator. It’s a sustainable system. The women learn new skills in a business that actually finances the learning of the new skills. The profits from these services go back into the program and also provide micro-loans to help the women start their own businesses. It’s sustainable, scalable, and just plain brilliant.
Let’s have more of that.
But it’s not easy. The obvious pain point is that I am new to an exceptionally complex and political city. I have so much to learn about how things work around here. Also, the industry I am looking to innovate within is hospitality, hotels actually, a notoriously risky and difficult to finance business. I picked hotels because visiting new places is important. Even better than facebook, people meeting new people in person is how change happens, how good ideas spread. It’s how global ideas get local. All most people see when they visit new places is stores and hotels. I’d like them to see more and a hotel can be a good jumping off point for better experiences. It can definitely be better than sleep and bad crafts for sale and horribly slick bars with post-hip DJs, which is unfortunately all even the ‘most interesting’ hotels provide. Hotels as they stand today are mostly a lost opportunity for city context, positive community development, and social profit.
It’s big. And scary. And on some days impossibly overwhelming. Yet I know it’s possible. Inch by inch we are moving forward. Somehow the left foot moves, then the right, people appear (as if by magic) and then a problem gets solved. Today was a good day. I was able to focus and make real progress. I feel motivated and ready to go.
But it’s not always like this. In fact the last month has been anxiety producing and emotionally pretty painful. Several times I almost scrapped the idea I’ve been developing for nine months. Fear is powerful and in a bold attempt to resist change it pushes hot emotional buttons triggering self-doubt… My spine but a flimsy house of cards… Shouldn’t I do something with even more social good, more integrity, more hard work… Really? Start all over? More hard than reinventing hotels around community development and social profit? More hard than making something beautiful from nothing? There might be a better idea out there, but for whatever reason this is the one I’ve chosen to work on, so like the Chrysler Ad (I love those ads), let’s just see this through.
Invention is tough. It requires tremendous patience, intuition, flexibility, and self-confidence. It’s a constant game of make it up, test it out, watch it break, adapt and do it again. Nothing is certain. I’m good with ambiguity; I’ve built my whole life around it. So in that sense I’m exceptionally well prepared for this journey. But it’s still scary. There is so much new and so much unknown. And some days I forget that I like learning and think I should know it all already. Some days I just want to curl up and cry.
However, I am really lucky and maybe smart to have picked Detroit to play my odds. People here have been trying new things for a hundred years. That’s right, a century of innovation has been pumping out of this city – think cars, manufacturing, architecture, techno, and now business model innovation – much of it in times of severe economic crises. The people are tough from failure and wise from honest success and no amount of “You will never be able to do that” can dissuade a pocket of people I’m learning to surround myself with — people to watch and learn from. Next time I am feeling crappy I might just remind myself that Ford failed two businesses before he made a car. And besides, I think this idea is actually going to work. It just might take a while and change a lot before we get there.