How 3 Detroit Founders Built Tech Startups Despite City’s Bankruptcy
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the company has sought out strategic partners who could provide cultural cachet—like rapper Eminem, Kloss, and actor Mark Wahlberg— StockX now plans to hire 1,000 and invest in a European expansion. In October, StockX opened an authentication center in West London.
Kyle Bazzy has always had a special place in his heart for Detroit. Bazzy’s grandparents immigrated to the city from Yugoslavia and Lebanon and had businesses on Detroit’s East Side. Growing up, Bazzy regularly walked the city’s streets and attended Detroit Red Wings games with his father.
“For some reason, and I don’t know why, I just have always loved this city,” Bazzy says.
After graduating from Central Michigan University, Bazzy remained in-state, working in various leadership roles at Michigan startups.
“I chose to be a part of the solution. I’ve traveled a ton to New York and San Fran and Chicago for work, at the various startups I’ve been at, and what’s unique here [in Detroit] is the culture. The density actually does exist. We’re just very spread out. And when you bring it together, it’s one of the most incredible cultures you could see,” Bazzy says.
In 2015, Bazzy became the lead organizer of Techstars Detroit Startup Week.
“The first year we beat out Denver, Austin, L.A., and New York to host Startup Week. And we were the biggest Startup Week. Not because the number matters, but because it shows that we exist on the global map,” he says.
In January 2018, Bazzy became the chief operating officer of Grand Circus, a Detroit-based startup that offers coding bootcamps for those who want careers in software development. To date, Grand Circus has graduated over 1,200 students—a quarter of them Detroit residents—and has had around 200 companies hire its graduates. The city of Detroit has even agreed to pay the tuition for the training of any Detroiter who is accepted into a Grand Circus bootcamp.
What’s unique about Grand Circus is its market: metro Detroit residents.
“Everyone in San Francisco grew up knowing what technology is. We still get 10 emails a day asking what coding is. You’re in these blue-collar markets, like Detroit, and they’re realizing that technology isn’t just its own industry—it pervades every industry, whether you’re Quicken Loans [selling] mortgages or a coffee shop trying to better advertise,” Bazzy says.
Grand Circus helps its members overcome the requirement of needing a computer science degree to become a developer. In particular, the company focuses on helping those looking to make a career change.
“Theaverage age [of students] is between 25 and 30, but we have some in their 50s. If you look around and understand [our students’] backgrounds, it’s truck drivers, it’s lineworkers, it’s teachers, it’s waitresses, it’s everything,” he points out.
Grand Circus guarantees its graduates job interviews with companies looking for developers. Considering the amount of unfilled computer programming positions in the nation—one million by 2020—Grand Circus has found it relatively easy to place its graduates in developer roles.
“Quicken Loans had 105 open development positions because they can’t find [programmers]. It’s not just this market—it’s worse at the coasts,” says Bazzy.
When employers get over the hump of hiring one individual from Grand Circus, they accelerate hiring. One employer, for example, hired their first Grand Circus developer 18 months ago. They’ve now hired 38.
“When you look at the Top 50 fastest growing tech companies, many of them have figured out that it’s not product or sales that are the key to growth, but tech. If you don’t have developers, you can’t build. And so they’ve invested heavily in strong junior development associate programs,” Bazzy says.
While Detroit may not strike many as an optimal place to locate a coding bootcamp company, Bazzy argues that Detroit offers several competitive advantages. For one, the city’s blue-collar ethos means residents are more likely to stick with the same company, meaning companies who hire from Grand Circus don’t have to worry as much about their talent being poached.
“People in these blue-collar areas, where they’re used to working for 40 years at the same auto plant, when they become technologists, they’re much more likely to stay with the same company,” Bazzy notes. Second, Bazzy argues that Detroit offers the technical talent and capital necessary to grow a company like Grand Circus. Accenture, for example, opened up its front-end development program in Detroit.
“If you draw lines between [the University of] Michigan, Michigan State, [and] Central Michigan University, the amount of brain talent you have here is insane,” he says.
Bazzy also notes that metro Detroit ranks 12th in the country in terms of the number of millionaires (108,000), meaning that investment dollars exist to back technology startups. All that’s necessary now, Bazzy suggests, is for the “capital to get smarter in investing in startups.”
“We have a challenge getting money out of pension funds and 401Ks,” Bazzy says of Michigan’s conservative investment culture.
Bazzy also believes that the city will have a favorable regulatory environment as it works to rebrand itself as a technology hub. The city has already hired its first chief information officer and rolled out the [email protected] program, which provides full scholarships for Detroit residents to participate in Grand Circus bootcamps.
As Detroit rebuilds, Bazzy hopes its culture will better foster entrepreneurship than in the past.
“Growing up in the suburbs, I was constantly asked, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’” Bazzy says, referencing the fact that many metro Detroiters are unaware of startups or uncomfortable with startup culture. He also hopes the city can do more to facilitate high-quality interactions among founders.
“When I’m in San Francisco, I can sit in a coffee shop and run into three people I know, just from Detroit. That doesn’t really happen here. We need more of those moments,” Bazzy says.
In addition to leading Detroit Startup Week, Bazzy has taken steps to building a tight-knit entrepreneur community by organizing a monthly “Founders Only” event. The event, which brings together more than 140 entrepreneurs across Detroit, allows founders to share and seek advice. Dug Song, the co-founder of Duo Security, which sold to Cisco for over $2B in August, is part of the group.
“The people that are actually achieving success, we need their time, and for them to pay it forward. And people like Dug are. To have that culture spilling into the ecosystem, for several months and years, we’re stupid excited,” Bazzy says.