If you’re an entrepreneur who wants to decide what state is the best place to start an LLC or which city is the right environment to build your business, it helps to hear real-life stories from company founders. The city of Detroit is home to America’s automakers, Motown music heritage and pro sports teams like the Lions, Pistons, Tigers and Red Wings. Detroit has a reputation as a culturally diverse, hard-working city that’s resilient in the face of challenges, with a strong, close-knit community of people who are determined to keep building, growing and supporting each other’s success.
In recent years, Detroit has become a rising center of entrepreneurship, with a thriving startup scene. We talked to some Detroit startup CEOs about what makes the Motor City such a great place to start a business and why they decided to build their companies in Detroit.
Juna Durrant – Jytte Designs
Jytte Designs is a female-owned designer handbag business, where all of the bags are sewn by hand and constructed from long-lasting materials, with a style of classic beauty and simplicity. Company founder Juna Durrant has always had a passion for design and had been thinking about starting her own business for several years. When she lost her day job because of the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, she suddenly had a new occasion and motivation to take the step of launching her company.
“When the lockdowns first started, I lost both my job and my childcare, and I found myself at home with my 18-month-old son unsure of when work or childcare would re-open,” Juna said. “So I dove headfirst into launching my own business. I transformed the attic of our home into my studio and started designing my first collection of handbags while home caring for my son. I launched my ecommerce site in December 2020, just in time for some holiday sales and have been growing ever since.”
Like so many entrepreneurs, especially new company founders who got started during 2020, Juna found the isolation of the pandemic to be especially challenging. Entrepreneurs often enjoy going to in-person networking events, connecting with other business leaders and sharing ideas; the pandemic made much of this impossible.
“The greatest challenge was the isolation of launching during the pandemic,” Juna said. “I designed everything in my home. I shared images and ideas with friends over the phone but I didn't have any in-person interactions outside of my family. Getting to do pop-ups and exhibits and interact safely in person again has been so revitalizing.”
Juna said that Detroit has been a supportive, welcoming environment for her new business venture.
“I love Detroit,” Juna said. “Everyone from models, photographers, shop owners and other entrepreneurs are so supportive. Everyone is happy to give feedback, share insights and advice, and collaborate. It's really incredible to be in a city where people are genuinely excited and rooting for one another!”
When asked what advice she would offer to other Detroit entrepreneurs, Juna emphasized that it’s OK to start small, as long as you start.
“I always say go for it. Start where you are,” Juna said. “You don't have to have a ton of money or a 10-year plan mapped out to the finest details. A successful business can start as a side hustle and grow as you have the time, resources and vision to make that happen.”
Raffaele Mautone – AaDya Security
AaDya Security provides smart, simple, effective and affordable cybersecurity software solutions for small and midsize businesses. Raffaele Mautone is the company founder and CEO. He launched AaDya Security in March 2019 after his exit from Duo Security/CISCO.
“Throughout my career, I noticed that cybersecurity options for small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) were either watered-down enterprise solutions or expensive options that were more than these smaller companies needed or could handle, leaving many unprotected, putting their companies at risk,” Raffaele said. “The idea for AaDya Security started as a back-of-a-napkin sketch to deliver an all-in-one solution designed for the needs of SMBs.”
The city of Detroit is sometimes described as an underdog city that has gone through challenging times and has often been overlooked or underappreciated by national media. In the same way, the small-to-mid-sized business market has been overlooked by traditional cybersecurity service providers. Raffaele and his team see this as an opportunity.
“The entire idea and mission behind AaDya is innovative in that it’s a territory that many of the major players in the cybersecurity industry have avoided due to its cumbersome nature and revenue potential. We see this differently,” Raffaele said. “With the combination of a vast universe of SMBs who have been underserved and the rise in cybercrime against them, we saw an opportunity to not only create something innovative, but something that could truly help a segment that comprises the majority of economic activity, not just in the U.S. and North America, but across the globe.”
Raffaele said that the pandemic posed big challenges to his business, but the team shifted to remote work and was able to be more productive than ever.
“When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, like many lean startup companies, this was definitely a challenging time with so many unknowns,” Raffaele said. “The proof of concept of our platform was due in May, beta in June and a plan to go to market in September. We were also in the middle of raising a second seed round of funding. After moving to fully remote work, the team came together to both meet and exceed expectations for these milestones.”
Raffaele is proud to be building a successful tech startup in Detroit, and he sees his company as part of a larger startup scene that is bringing a renewed spirit of vitality to the Detroit metro area and to the state of Michigan.
“For Michigan to succeed and compete, Detroit must be viable and vibrant. We have an opportunity and obligation to impact change and help stop talent from leaving our state,” Raffaele said. “There is an incredible startup scene in Detroit, with dozens of hyper-growth startups. It is being fueled by a legacy of innovation, amazing talent base, world-class universities nearby and expanding venture capital availability. Startup leaders benefit from low costs, access to talent, central geographic location and a grit and determination that is unmatched. Companies don't need a Silicon Valley ZIP code to launch a great tech company, and history will show that Detroit is a fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship.”
James Chapman – Plain Sight
James Chapman is the founder and CEO of Plain Sight, a social app that helps people make the right business connections at events and workspaces. Plain Sight was recently featured as Apple’s App of the Day.
James has spent the bulk of his career providing access to networks and capital. In 2015, he launched an evening coworking space for side-hustlers. He later went on to start Detroit Demo Day, which has now provided over $4 million in funding to small businesses throughout the city of Detroit.
The inspiration for Plain Sight came to James while he was running his coworking space, and he discovered that people who attended business networking events were looking for a more detailed way to find “curated connections” and understand who was present in the room at real-world events. Plain Sight intends to help people network more efficiently by giving better insights on who is in attendance at an event and who they’d like to connect with.
“When I was running my workspace, people would always ask me who was going to be there and who was already there,” James said. “They were looking to be intentional about making connections. I knew technology could fix the problem.”
The pandemic’s shut-down of so many in-person events and conferences has been a major challenge to Plain Sight, but the company is hoping for a rebound as in-person activities resume.
“Running a business is hard no matter what, but what has been most challenging for us is navigating through the pandemic,” James Chapman said. “We created a platform for people to make the right connections in person. Months later, everyone was forced home. It has been extremely challenging, but we continue to push forward.”
As a longtime community-builder and leader in the Detroit startup scene, James Chapman knows firsthand what makes the city special as a home to entrepreneurs.
“It's a very supportive startup community. Everyone wants everyone else to win,” James said. “They know that if we help each other win, we all win. There are tons of programs for startups here, but hands down, it's the access to human capital that makes Detroit special.”
James Chapman’s advice to entrepreneurs is to avoid perfectionism and be ready to adapt.
“Test your assumptions thoroughly, but be aggressive. The research is important, but at some point, you just have to put something out there for the market to respond to and go from there. Anything is possible.”
Zach Klima – WaitTime
WaitTime crowd intelligence software revolutionizes the fan experience at sports arenas by using patented AI technology to reduce wait times and improve the efficiency of venues. The company has partnerships with some of the most major sports organizations and technology companies in the world.
Founder Zach Klima developed the concept for WaitTime in 2013 and was selected out of more than 100 applicants for participation in the rigorous Bizdom startup accelerator founded by Quicken Loans' renowned executive Dan Gilbert. WaitTime has internally raised over $30 million and has a worldwide distribution partnership with Cisco. Zach Klima is endorsed as an entrepreneur by the Jordan Brand; Michael Jordan’s son Jeffrey Michael Jordan is a strategic partner with the company.
Prior to founding WaitTime, Zach worked in the field of architecture, design and engineering. He has a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Detroit Mercy. This creative spirit and sense of seeing the world differently helped inspire Zach to be an entrepreneur.
“I never wanted to live a ‘normal life,’” Zach said. “I always loved to connect dots with people that I met; I always loved meeting new people, even from an early age. I was young enough and single enough to jump in and take all the risks that were associated with starting something new. I never want to live in regret and continually wonder ‘what if’ for the rest of my life.”
Although his company has earned some big breaks and achieved significant growth and success, Zach said that none of it happened overnight.
“The biggest challenge as an entrepreneur is learning patience,” Zach said. “Nothing happens fast, ever. We always hear about ‘overnight successes' in technology, but that is quite the fallacy. You need to remain optimistic, driven, relentless and never have a quitting bone in your body.”
Since his company was founded in 2013, Zach and WaitTime have become relatively established members of the Detroit startup community. Zach believes that the city’s entrepreneurs tend to have an appealing attitude of community-mindedness and support for each other, combined with a hunger to prove themselves on a bigger stage.
“When I started WaitTime, it was the start of the big startup scene in Detroit,” Zach said. “Young people were scattered all over the city in coworking spaces, energy was high and people had a sense of collaboration.”
Detroit has lost a lot of population and jobs in recent decades, but Zach and his fellow entrepreneurs are determined to put the city on the map as a vibrant tech hub. He’s felt a lot of support from other entrepreneurs from older generations.
“Everyone who is building something out of Detroit has a chip on their shoulder because of the reputation that Detroit has. We have something more to prove because the rest of the world thinks of Detroit as this ‘broken’ city,” Zach said. “Other proven entrepreneurs who may have been older than me were very apt to help because they want to see young, driven people succeed.”
Zach’s advice to other entrepreneurs: be open to meeting anyone who might be able to help you, and always stay curious and humble. “Detroit is a small world and word travels fast when people are doing something worth speaking to others about, so never turn down a meeting. You never know who that person may be connected to."
Mark Russell – CatalystXL
CatalystXL and its CardwareTM technology help companies provide omnichannel content to share information in a dynamic, digital way on any device (mobile, desktop, touchscreen kiosks). Mark Russell, the company co-founder and CEO, is a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who has been professionally immersed in digital since the web was born. He was named one of the Top 10 Influential People by Entrepreneur magazine in 2018.
CatalystXL provides companies with dynamic information sharing solutions for a connected workforce, delivering content such as contracts, intake forms, sales sheets and product information in a way that is searchable and accessible on any device. “Working alongside a diverse and brilliant team of over-achievers, we've built a groundbreaking mobile app and platform that opens new doors to information, content and communications right at the moment of need,” Mark Russell said.
Mark has drawn upon a wide variety of learning experiences throughout his career, and he sees adaptability as one of the most important personality traits for entrepreneurs.
“It's very difficult to be an entrepreneur; you really do need to be a jack-of-all-trades,” Mark said. “Early stage is the most difficult time, convincing companies to use your technology, despite the fact you're a startup and your product is brand spanking new. I've been in business a long time, I know a lot of people and have helped a lot of companies, but it never seems to fully open any doors; there's no shortcut for hard work and perseverance.”
Mark Russell says that Detroit has been a great home for CatalystXL, not only for the quality of the community of entrepreneurs but for ease of access to investors.
“The startup culture in Detroit is great, it seems to be really growing and we found about half of our investors here, for which we're extremely grateful,” Mark said. “We're headquartered here, as well, and appreciate and respect our fellow entrepreneurial kin.”
Even though entrepreneurship can be challenging, Mark believes that for most people, the upsides of starting a business outweigh the risks.
“It really just depends on the type of company someone wants to start,” Mark said. “If you're a carpenter and want to start your own general contracting business, go for it; not as much can go wrong. If you're a businessperson and you want to start a SaaS technology company, you need a great idea, plus lots of investment, time and luck. I would never dissuade anyone from starting a company; I think good always comes of it.”
Daniel Siegal, MD – Navv Systems, Inc.
Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Navv Systems, Inc. is transforming healthcare with asset management, mobile team orchestration and self-serve mobile patient wayfinding to improve productivity, safety and efficiency for healthcare teams, patients and visitors.
Dr. Daniel Siegal is CEO and co-founder of Navv Systems, Inc. He is a radiologist, computer scientist, innovator and leader, with over 15 years of experience in clinical radiology and healthcare informatics. His vision for Navv is to provide easy-to-use location technology that helps the right care happen for the right patient in the right place at the right time.
“As both a physician and a computer scientist, I have always worked on opportunities to help facilitate better care with novel technology,” Dr. Siegal said. “One of my ‘a-ha moments’ was when I realized how much frustration people in the healthcare environment had finding things: equipment, staff or patients navigating complex buildings and finding their appointments on time. I co-founded Navv Systems because I know we can make this better and less frustrating for everyone. That solution has become NavvTrack, a care traffic control software platform that makes it easy to find people, places and things inside healthcare facilities and improves outcomes and saves time for our healthcare heroes.”
Dr. Siegal met his Navv Systems co-founder, Paul Zieske, when they both were involved in the 2014-15 inaugural class of Henry Ford Innovations’ Davidson Fellowship program.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a rockstar co-founder who has been at this with me from the beginning in Paul Zieske, and our skill sets complement each other well,” Dr. Siegal said. “We are both grateful for all the smart people we’ve now surrounded ourselves with. We simply couldn’t do this on our own, and so it’s both challenging and rewarding at the same time, bringing new folks onto the team, giving them the support they need and watching them grow professionally and individually.”
The Detroit-area startup community is close to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the region is home to many great resources for startups.
“Startup culture in Southeast Michigan is fast-paced and competitive, and it’s been great to be part of a community with great connections at TechTown Detroit, Ann Arbor SPARK, MichBio and in the larger community of national and local HIMSS groups,” Dr. Siegal said. “Everyone wants to see each other succeed while putting their best foot forward. We’re exceptionally grateful to our partners at Arboretum Ventures, Detroit Venture Partners and Narrow Gauge Ventures, who have been so critical to helping us scale the business and expand our impact.”
Michael Healander – Airspace Link
Airspace Link is building digital infrastructure for drone technology, with the goal of creating a world where the safe integration of drones fuels human progress, advancing social equity, the environment and the economy. Michael Healander is the company co-founder, president and CEO; he got inspired to start Airspace Link one day when he needed a short-notice delivery of a new computer mouse.
“I needed a computer mouse for a work presentation, and when I completed the ‘same day’ order, I saw a 2-ton truck driving up a hill to bring a tiny package to my house,” Michael said. “At that moment, I realized that we needed to move faster, integrating more efficient and environmentally friendly package delivery options."
Building upon their previous experience in geospatial technology solutions, the Airspace Link team has developed the idea of digital infrastructure for drones integrated directly with communities. The company’s AirHub™ platform is now working with businesses, pilots and communities to help the industry scale safely.
Drones have been the subject of a lot of media attention, and big companies like Amazon have experimented with drone delivery. But before drones can become part of everyday life, someone needs to figure out the infrastructure to manage the airspace where drones can fly. This is what Airspace Link is working to achieve.
"Working in a nascent industry, we're challenged with solving problems that sometimes aren't even here yet, and we have the unique challenge of educating people on why they'll need this product and how close the industry is to taking off,” Michael said. “We don't want drones to become the next scooters where they provide an advancement in micro-mobility but a giant headache for cities and residents, not knowing where they were allowed and cluttering sidewalks. The AirHub™ solutions are helping everyone in the ecosystem prepare for their integration to ensure it is seamless and safe."
Michael’s previous company was based in California, but he found the Motor City to be a great location for a mobility-related startup.
“I was amazed by the awesome tech scene in downtown Detroit when I came back to Michigan. With its deep roots in mobility, it was already a great place to explore the next dimension of mobility with drones,” Michael said.”
He also found Detroit to have great resources for startups, such as TechStars Detroit and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) PlanetM initiative. “We spoke to local investors to keep us tied to Detroit and originally set up an office at the local WeWork,” Michael said. “The startup community here was critical to our success and continues to help us grow rapidly. With the advancement of remote work from the pandemic, we're not only growing our teams across the nation but also seeing more and more people choose Michigan as their home with team members relocating from California and Chicago, for example."
If you’re inspired by these Detroit entrepreneurs and ready to start your business in Detroit, be sure to form an LLC and file any necessary paperwork with the Michigan regulatory authorities. Learn more about how to form a Michigan LLC and how Incfile can create and file an LLC for you for free — just $0 + state fee.
Ben Gran is a freelance writer from Des Moines, Iowa. Ben has written for Fortune 500 companies, the Governor of Iowa (who now serves as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture), the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, and many corporate clients. He writes about entrepreneurship, technology, food and other areas of great personal interest.