In the 1980s, Detroit was at the peak of its suffering. Ongoing racial tension, political corruption, violent crime, and economic turmoil left the once-proud city in shambles.
Today, however, Detroit is a brand-new place with a brand-new identity — and entrepreneurs can learn a whole lot from studying how the city went about rebuilding itself.
When you think about it, revitalizing a city is a lot like launching a startup. First off, Detroit was tight on money — something every entrepreneur can relate to — and banks were hesitant to involve themselves with the city. Just like startups that have difficulty finding investors, Detroit needed to find a way to display that it was stable and worth investing in.
Like startups struggle with existing expenses long into their lifespans, Detroit’s legacy costs were hindering its growth. Despite all of the challenges, the city elected to prioritize innovation and expansion as the solution.
For startups trying to break out, nothing is more important than the ability to innovate.
Innovating a New Identity
For a long time, Detroit suffered from “little brother syndrome” while measuring itself next to powerhouses like Manhattan and Los Angeles. But once the city embraced the fact that it was not those cities and established its own unique characteristics — both negative and positive — it was able to take major strides toward defining its true identity.
Part of this process involved finding positivity in the city’s most negative characteristics. For example, even though much of the city was impoverished, Detroit used this trait to rebrand itself as a gritty survivor town full of hardworking people who know what it means to have nothing and work toward a better life. Also, the city’s population was dwindling, but Detroit owned this fact by embracing the deep roots of the families who still lived there. These Detroit lifers take incredible pride in their hometown and want to make it a better place for future generations.
It took a lot of creativity to transform a beaten-down area into a vibrant city. Isn’t this the same basic premise most startups are founded on? Entrepreneurs identify an area that needs to be rebuilt, and through creativity, they seek to improve it and achieve big results.
What You Can Learn From Detroit
Like Rome, Detroit wasn’t (re)built in a day. Instead, it focused on the little things and improved one neighborhood at a time. Eventually, the culmination of these efforts resulted in an entirely revamped city.
You can emulate Detroit’s success in your startup by sticking to these four strategies:
1. Think Locally: Detroit went down to street level and said, “How can we make this street better before moving on to the next one?” Entrepreneurs like to think about all of the global change they’re going to make, but starting local and keeping your focus small will make big results happen sooner.
2. Seek Diversity: In Detroit, people of all kinds make up the city’s identity and are helping turn things around. In your startup, you can’t gather a group of identical individuals and expect them to have a far-reaching impact. If you want your business to transform the world, bring in people of different genders, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, and races to take advantage of what these unique viewpoints have to offer.
3. Fire the Rotten Eggs: Detroit’s most recent rotten egg was sentenced to a 28-year prison sentence, and since then, the city has improved at a record pace. Startups need to evaluate employees carefully. Hanging onto bad ones will only cause you to miss the opportunity to hire the right ones. It takes strong leadership skills to make hard decisions, but if you want to succeed, you must learn how to maximize your staff.
4. Befriend Billionaires: Detroit has a handful of lovely, generous billionaires who are playing major roles in the city’s rebuild. Entrepreneurs don’t necessarily need to buddy up with billionaires, but receiving backing from wealthy individuals can be a game changer. These are people who have the financial security to be able to see beyond immediate ROI and look at the bigger picture.
Getting your startup off the ground takes grit — and so did bringing Detroit back from the brink. Follow the example set by one of America’s most iconic cities, and you will set yourself up for long-term success while readying your business to face the challenges and pitfalls that come with it.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bryan Debus