What Every Business Builder Can Learn From Detroit About the Power of Relationships

Chief Marketing Officer, RelSci
5 min read
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In the past 60 years, Detroit has been dragged through a gauntlet of civic despair unmatched in scope and length. This is not news; the city’s decay -- the slow letting of its industrial heart's blood, the fleeing of more than half its citizens, the blight that has shuttered tens of thousands of homes and businesses -- has been covered extensively by the media.

So, too, have its recent attempts at recovery, which are not only more inspiring but also provide valuable lessons even for those of us who are not trying to resuscitate an entire metropolitan area. For what Detroit has done to—if not exactly bounce back then at least begin to—claw back shines a light on the critical role relationships can play not only in the general goings-on of an organization but also in crisis situations. From saving a virtually priceless collection of art to providing a path for small businesses to gain a foothold, relationship capital in the Motor City is being leveraged every which way. Here are three of the most significant takeaways from the city’s revival playbook.

Related: The Business of Urban Farming Takes Root in Detroit

1. Form cross-sector relationships.

This is the big one. Whatever triumph there is in Detroit's story has its roots in a meaningful collaboration between for- and nonprofit organizations. Pockets of the city have been restored and revitalized by a joint effort to nurture human (and intellectual) capital in those areas. Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans, for example, moved his company’s headquarters to downtown Detroit to bolster the population numbers and help jumpstart the local economy, then provided further sustenance to the commercial ecosystem by opening a new start-up incubator and venture capital firm. And so far, so good. According to a recent New York Times article, small business owners in Detroit have been inspired by Gilbert. Lacking his working capital, they've leveraged grants and educational support from more than 50 nonprofit business organizations, opening shops on previously vacant streets and starting innovative tech firms. All of it has brought life back to the ghost city.

Corporations of any size, especially those in crisis, would do well to note the benefits conferred by removing industry blinders from one’s store of relationship capital. Mining cross-sector connections often yield more creative solutions, be they advisory or financial. Those stuck in any kind of silo risk missing opportunities, not only for growth, but also for quickly raising funds in times of emergency, finding the product idea that will turn your company around or hiring a leader with a different perspective who can pull your organization out of the mud.

Related: Why You Might (Still) Want to Consider Launching in Detroit

2. Don't be afraid to make the big ask.

When the collection of major works housed at the city’s world-class Detroit Institute of Arts Museum was in danger of being liquidated to pay off municipal debt, the federal mediator, Judge Gerald Rosen, city emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, and other civic leaders leaned heavily on community and national foundations, lawmakers and the museum itself to put their money where their masterpieces were. Donations went into a trust earmarked to offset whatever debt relief the city might have mustered by selling the museum's stock. The "grand bargain," as the Detroit Free Press described it, was a pressure-packed and uneasy game of no-stone-unturned network leveraging, but it was a life saver for a city that had run out of options.

When they need it most, organizational leaders often find it hardest to reach out for help. But this is no time to hold back. Relationship capital, that close circle of well-cultivated connections, was meant for moments like these. And no, I’m not advocating a hunt for handouts among friends. Rather, well-connected acquaintances, including employees, are potential links to a much wider circle of resources. Don’t abuse relationships, but don't be afraid to use them to your advantage if it could save your business.

3. Support outside help with insider expertise.

In stories of Detroit's nascent recovery, emergency manager Orr figures prominently. He is the man from Maryland brought in to save the unsaveable. By many accounts, Orr has worked hard to bring Detroit back from the brink. But he couldn’t have accomplished anything without the countless displaced Detroiters and current residents who also lent their labor to the rebuilding process. Local businesses owners reached into their own pockets to get streetlights turned back on. Small real estate developers bought abandoned properties, cleaned them up and flipped them. Start-up incubators capitalized on the young talent emerging from many nearby universities.

When your company is teetering on the edge, and even when it is not, bringing in outside advisors and new blood can be a smart move, but only if you are also getting the most from your in-house talent, too. These are people who've already bought in; they're as much stakeholders as anyone sitting on your board. They need things to work out. Give them the agency to team up with consultants, and you will be surprised at the results.

Detroit has been pummeled over the past several decades, and it is still in for a long, hard climb. But there is now hope where for a long while there was none because key players like Kevyn Orr and Dan Gilbert instinctively or consciously figured out how to cash in on the collective relationship capital of the city. Leaders of businesses big and small, those in crisis and otherwise, would do well to sit up and take note.

Related: The Real Demon of Detroit (Opinion)

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