Success Strategies

13 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Detroit

Hitsville, The Motor City, Motown, America's Automotive Capital, The 313, Rock City: These classic names have long been used to describe Detroit. But, it’s the newer names that stand out for me: Comeback City, City of Reinvention, Renaissance City. 

Related: 5 Things You'll Never Hear From a Successful Entrepreneur

I’m not from Detroit, but thanks to a recent experience with Breakout, a company on a mission to “bring inspirational people to inspirational cities,” I was able to learn from locals about the showcasing tools that can be applied directly to our entrepreneurial journeys.

As Graham Cohen, co-founder of Breakout, explained to me, “One relationship at a time. Mentor to mentee. Friend to friend. Community to community. Breakout brings together leaders to take on challenges and opportunities, changing our communities for the better.” 

But, why Detroit? Co-founder Michael Farber told me “We chose Detroit because we were inspired by the hope and energy displayed by the local leaders moving the city forward. We thought we could play our (small) part by having the Breakout community experience what was really happening, engage and advise local small business owners and nonprofits and serve as beacons upon returning to their local communities to tell others what is really happening.” 

And what is really happening can be translated into these straightforward lessons that the people of Detroit, by example, are teaching us -- lessons we can apply to our entrepreneurial paths:

1. Be bold.

Boldness is evident among Detroiters. It’s exemplified in their choices to move back into a devastated city, start businesses, buy property and express their creative visions through art and commerce. Similarlywe entrepreneurs, regardless of our locale, must be bold in our decision-making. Many stages of the journey require this. Should we continue to bootstrap? Do we bring on an investor? Do we need a partner? Are we selling to the right audience? Should we make that first hire? Do we do a re-brand or a pivot? Each of these decisions, and many others, require boldness in leadership and decision-making.

2. Have pride.

If Detroit is replete with anything, it’s pride. Who doesn’t want to be a part of a proud community or organization? So, bring pride to your company every day. Your customers, investors and employees will all feel it, and ideally, it will rub off on them, too.

Related: 21 Success Tips for Young and Aspiring Entrepreneurs

3. Leverage your assets.

Detroit certainly has some qualities that are not marketing-worthy. But, it also has a significant amount of noteworthy talking points, such as a low cost of living, a vibrant music scene plus art, ample space and the opportunity to impact change as an individual. This city is doing a great job of modeling how to accentuate the positives. So, do the same in your business. This doesn’t mean lying about your weaknesses, just leading with your best foot forward, to find where you shine and to leverage those assets.

4. Be strategic.

Growth rarely happens without strategic planning and vision. Government, public and private investors, nonprofits, start-ups and artists are all teaming up in Detroit to create a shared vision of their brighter future. And while certainly not all communities are on the same page about the way to get there, without a road map, it’s tough to know which way to drive. In business, it’s no different. So, be intentional about taking time away from the daily grind to "goal-plan" and strategize, setting both short-and long-term plans for the company.

5. Raise expectations.

It would be a lot easier to encourage Detroiters to move out and let the city disintegrate than it is to raise their expectations and work daily on solutions to improve their current reality. In business, there are periods of downturn, and in some cases, almost fatal collapse. By raising your expectations for what is possible, you can then begin to see what’s on the other side of the horizon. Optimism breeds optimism. Pessimism breeds pessimism. You get to choose.

6. Identify the existing challenges.

Ever heard of a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats)? It’s a tried-and-true method to do a health check on your business. This is basically what Detroit has been doing since its economy began to crumble, before the recession even hit. By identifying and truly understanding these points, you are able to take the next steps to build on strengths and opportunities, and diminish weaknesses and threats.

7. Debunk misperceptions.

There are a lot of negative perceptions about Detroit, some of which are incorrect. One that came up was that you're wasting your money if you invest money in Detroit's schools. Instead, it’s the job of many people to spread the word that there is hope in Detroit's school systems, so as not to decimate them further. In our companies, we’re often faced with similar challenges. Perhaps your prospect is familiar with your competitor because that company is a household name; that makes your prospect automatically assume that your competitor is the better option. Or, say you get a bit of bad press. Whatever the situation, it’s an entrepreneur's job to debunk the misperceptions and move on, showcasing the positives.

8. Prioritize.

You can’t eat an elephant in one bite. Similarly, Detroit can’t tackle all of its challenges at the same time. Nor can you do that in your business. It’s imperative that you assess, strategize and prioritize.

9. Take responsibility.

Not all negative impressions are untrue. Detroit’s crime rate and low testing scores are documented statistics that are hard to deny. Therefore, it’s been important that the city's leaders take responsibility. You should do the same. Perhaps you messed up a customer’s order. Cop to it and work to fix it.

10. Boot-strap.

Detroit is on a mission to teach people ways to rise up on their own and create their own jobs, rather than wait for those opportunities to become available. Nothing could be more entrepreneurial than this. So, don’t wait for someone to come in and save your business. Find a way to do it on your own and you’ll eventually attract the right people to help as needed!

11. Think outside the box.

When your reality changes to something you don't want, you need to innovate: When the American auto industry, predominantly based in Detroit, imploded, it became necessary for the city to think outside-the-box and attract new industries. Accordingly, start-ups are popping up all around the city. Investors are coming in to redevelop real estate. So, don’t get stuck in your business thinking that the way it looked last year is the way it has to look this year. Innovate.

12. Collaborate.

We can only do so much alone. There’s power in collaborating and working together. Detroit exemplifies so many areas where communities are coming together around shared interests. The collaboration and interactions among different people and sectors is a powerful model for business. So, reach out to companies with whom you can partner. Network and understand the needs and growth opportunities of others. Collaborate to make each of your efforts more powerful. Basic engagement and dialogue can go a long way.

13. Have hope.

One sentiment that pervaded my conversations with Detroiters was the hope they have -- the feeling that things can only get better and that if they don’t believe that, no one else will. Where could this be more true than in your business? You need to be the biggest purveyor of hope in what you’re doing. Lead with hope.

Let’s all take some of these lessons that Detroit is teaching by example and apply them to our businesses! 

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