Category Archives: Entrepreneur

Aster Workshops – Start Garden Entry

Well this seems like a no-brainer, Start Garden has an entry for the competition on August 16th, called Aster Workshops. If you need me to spell things out for you, Aster is a flower, and flowers grow in gardens. How perfect would it be for Start Garden to select Aster Workshops as a winner, and then help Aster Workshops “grow” with the $5,000 prize, and help “nurture” the company forward until it “blossoms”.

Anyways the Aster Workshops idea was submitted by Tom Pietri, a friend of mine who I have worked together with the Google Fiber for Holland campaign back in 2010. I was interested to hear from Tom firsthand about this idea, and I had a chance to recently interview him about the idea. Enjoy.

  • The Ledger: What is the idea? – Tom Pietri: The idea is to have a
    network of independent craftsmen who would build high quality production furniture.
  • TL: Ok, lets get some more details. – TP: I have a group of
    craftsmen, like woodworkers, welders, and finishers.  Each of these
    craftsmen has the skills to create furniture and they have all the
    necessary equipment, tools, in either their home garage, pole barn, or workshop.  I would design the furniture, and sell the finished
    furniture through furniture stores or our website to consumers.  When an order would come in for a set number of pieces, I would find out which of my craftsmen would have the time and capacity to complete their part of the furniture project, within certain number of days.  Once their part is completed, I would inspect the finished pieces, and deliver them to next craftsman to work on.  For example if an order for a table was made – I would provide the wood for the woodworkers, who would complete the wood portion of the table.  Then the wood portion would be brought to the finisher, who would then add a finish to the wood table top, and finally the wooden tabletop would be joined with the metal base for the table which was created by the welder.
  • TL: Sounds like you are the glue in this whole operation, bringing everything together, and filling in the spots. Can you elaborate more on your role? – TP: Sure.  Right now I have a small group of craftsmen, who are ready to go.  But of course as things get going, I will have to add to my roster of craftsmen at Aster Workshops, so that would involve validating any new craftsmen, by checking their work, and ensuring that it meets my quality standards.  In addition I am also the lead designer, creating the furniture designs, and developing new ideas.  But of course as this gets moving along, I might also be interested to taking submissions of designs from other people as well to incorporate their work into the process.  Then I am doing almost everything else.  Like talking with the furniture stores, receiving feedback to develop the product catalog further, and also doing quality control checks on the pieces of furniture, delivering materials, and finished products as needed, and finally also acting as a craftsman as well, if demand goes over capacity, I am ready to act as a safety valve, as I already build custom furniture in my home shop.
  • TL: You mentioned furniture stores, is that your primary customer? – TP: Initially yes, local furniture stores are a great starting point, because they already are known in the market, they have intimate knowledge on the market, the consumers, and furniture trends. I am hoping that by working with the furniture stores we can design and create pieces that may fill a gap in their current offering, and also learn how Aster Workshops can better serve the market and the customers.  But we are open to selling to individuals as well, so when our website gets updated with our designs, feel free to contact us with any interest.
  • TL: Where did this idea come from? – TP: I currently build custom furniture pieces, and wanted to expand my market, and get more regular business, but since there is only me, I have limited capacity. Realizing that there must be other local craftsmen in the area, who do the same thing, and would like to leverage their skills and abilities to create pieces, what if I could link up all the various craftsmen, so we could operate like a factory, but without all the overhead, and fixed costs.  The craftsman would be well compensated for their work, and they would only take new projects as they have capacity for.  I thought it made perfect sense.
  • TL: What is in it for the craftsmen? – TP: Obliviously, they will
    be paid for their work.  They will also be able to do something that
    they enjoy doing.  I enjoy being an independent craftsman, and take a lot of pride in my work, and there is nothing more satisfying than
    being able to create something like furniture with your own hands and tools.  The next best thing is hearing the reaction from the recipient or customer of the piece created.  So if I enjoy this feeling every time I am creating something, I am sure that there must be many other craftsmen who feel the same way.  By creating this network, these craftsmen can employ their craft and use their skills to be part of something bigger, and have access to more regular work, and be a part of a whole community.  Plus they get to put their Maker’s Mark on the pieces they make.
  • TL: Maker’s Mark? I am guessing this is not a bottle of whiskey you are referring too. – TP: Hahaha, no.  What I wanted to do was have something unique to each craftsman who is part of Aster Workshops, to have their own unique mark, that signifies that this piece of furniture was made by a unique individual, and not a faceless company. Each craftsman would have their mark, and this will be placed on the furniture, along with any other craftsmen who had their hands in creating the piece of furniture. These Maker’s Marks will be placed somewhere inconspicuous.
  • TL: So if you get selected by Start Garden what would you use that $5,000 for? – TP:Mainly operating capital, I need to ensure that the pieces that we are designing and creating would be well received in the furniture stores, and that they would be selling regularly.  So we will need to do some testing on various designs to determine what is going to sell.
  • TL: Now that I asked you about the best possible outcome with your entry, I need to follow-up with what happens if you don’t win? – TP: Well since I can always re-enter Start Garden, I will re-work my entry and try again through that avenue.  But I would also look at some standard investment strategies, and if neither of those go through, then I would use my own money and just go at a much slower pace to create and grow my business.  So no matter what happens, keep checking asterworkshops.com.
  • TL: Great, thanks for the information Tom, and definitely keep us posted, and The Ledger would like to keep checking up on your progress periodically. – TP: Not a problem at all, and hopefully I will have some good news to share.

There we go, an in-depth look at Aster Workshops, one of the entrants in Start Garden. It is quite an interesting idea, because almost everyone knows a craftsman – either a co-worker, family member, or a neighbor. You know the guy or girl, with a garage full of tools and equipment, and who is always working on some new project or product. They are everywhere. The best thing is that the people who do build stuff on their own time, in their own workshops, are passionate about what they do, and they enjoy doing it. With West Michigan’s rich heritage in furniture manufacturing and woodworking, this region is ripe with people who can do this type of work, and also people who appreciate the end result. So why not leverage this ready and available resource, to help create unique furniture pieces, that each have their own story to tell.

Anyways best of luck to Aster Workshops, and if this idea really resonates with you be sure to vote for them by Thursday August 16th, at http://startgarden.com/ideas/detail/aster-workshops.

Questions for Tom Pietri and of Aster Workshops – email him at tom@asterworkshops.com or visit the website asterworkshops.com.

Hey! What’s Growing On?

As I am sure everyone knows Start Garden started today.  Start Garden is the next big thing from Rick DeVos and Pomegranate Studios, where people can submit ideas for a chance receive $5,000 in an initial investment.  Each week, 2 ideas will be chosen and given $5,000 and then the winners will be required to come back in 60-90 days and present where they are at with their winning idea for opportunity to get additional funding, in the amount of $20,000.  Ideas that are progressing well and have potential to become viable businesses can in theory receive up to $500,000 dollars from Start Garden.  The fund is backed up $15 million commitment from the DeVos family, so there is plenty of opportunities for many ideas to get a lot of investment dollars.  Throughout the process, ideas receiving funding will be able to get some resources and mentoring from Start Garden to help their idea move ahead.  The public gets to be involved in the process as well by choosing one of the weekly winners and public events will be held to present the progress of previous winners.

Some things I like about Start Garden:

  • Accountability.  Unlike the 5×5 Nights winners, who are not required to update anyone on their progress or what they have done with money that they won, Start Garden requires winners to come back in 60-90 days and update everyone on their progress.  Not to mention that great minds think alike, here is my tweet to 5×5 Night (Pomegranate Studio) on January 24, 2012 and their response.  I asked them if they followed-up with winners on their progress or what they were up to, and 5×5 responded that they didn’t..  I was always curious if there was an mechanism in place besides one own morals which prevent someone from coming up with a fake idea (charity/or good cause) and win the competition and just take the $5,000 and run.  Granted it would be a lot of work for someone to do all that but I am sure there must have been at least some hucksters who submitted ideas with this premise.  Plus people what to know what happens next, its like a cliffhanger and people want to see a resolution or at least the next chapter.  Start Garden did a great thing by adding in this extra step.
  • Helping ideas get off the ground, and giving them money
  • General philanthropy of the DeVos family
  • Getting exposure to some new, great, and interesting ideas (it could potentially give me more fodder for my blog)
  • And this great quote form Mlive “Backed by his wealthy family, [Rick] DeVos…” Wow way to empower all the troll commentators to like to spout negatives about the DeVos family.

Some things I don’t like:

  • All the garden talk.  I know its part of the name, and it helps complete the narrative, but look at this quote from Rick DeVos: ““Start Garden creates the field and brings the water. We ask the people to bring their ideas and plant them. And we ask existing businesses in our region to become the farmers. Because we believe the soil is fertile for business here and we can be the best place for somebody to have an idea and run with it”
  • Never did they really say what is going to happen to 5×5 Night, though by looking at the website, it does say “Site Closed Temporarily closed. Check out our new project Start Garden.”  None of the stories I read mentioned it, even the official press release never states what is going to happen to 5×5.
  • The logo should be green or brown instead of yellow… you know garden, things growing, greenery and soil.

Start Garden, cool idea, that I will be curiously following, and I am especially looking forward for the 60-90 day recaps which I think is the best part.  What are your thoughts?

Culture Clash? Revue Acquires MiBiz

Last week Revue, a monthly West Michigan entertainment magazine, purchased MiBiz, a weekly West Michigan business publication (there has been no official announcement regarding the headlines though).  Both publications are now owned by Revue Holding Company.

As mentioned in the press release, Revue president Brian Edwards (whose name graces a local Grand Rapids PR firm – Lambert & Edwards & Associates) will come on board at MiBiz as editor and publisher of the magazine.  It will be interesting to see how these two seemingly different magazines will operate with each other since it’s stated that they will share best practices.  However, they do share some similarities:

  1. Physical Appearance:  Both publications are of a similar (or same) size, made out of newspaper material, and are in color
  2. Free:  Well to a certain extent.  Revue is free, and you can pick up a copy almost anywhere, whereas MiBiz is free for subscription if you have a fancy title (middle to upper management).  Also both publications make their entire issue/content available for free online
  3. Advertising:  Both heavily rely on advertising for revenue, though their advertisers vary greatly.  Revue – bars, restaurants, and bands.  MiBiz – Banks, Insurance, and other boring/odd ads for businesses like this one.

Per the press release Edwards states that the MiBiz acquisition is just the first of several planned for the next couple of years… I wonder what is next – sports (maybe even high school sports), Rapid Growth (though maybe not after Revue’s Stad DiPonzi’s Vapid Growth comment), what else is there….The Ledger?  Maybe West Michigan isn’t a focus and they are looking to acquire publications in Central or Eastern Michigan.  Or perhaps Revue Holding Company is just positioning itself against Gemini Publications portfolio of magazines which include Grand Rapids Business Journal, Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Family Magazine, Michigan BLUE Magazine, Michigan GOLF Magazine.  By the way, Gemini gets bonus points for all their creative and original publication names.

So what are your thoughts on what’s next for Revue Holding Company or about the acquisition?

Update on Scott Bosgraaf

Well its gotten to that point, where Scott Bosgraaf deserves his own post. Oddly enough it seems that he has been following in his former lessee, Brett Flipse’s footsteps.

Scott Bosgraaf in front of what could be a building (at least GR Press knows how to label file photos)

Last time I wrote about Scott Bosgraaf he seemed to be doing quite well, owning several companies and building developments, but as you can see many of these are running into trouble:

Huntington Bank was a major financier for Bosgraaf, had enough, and decided to pursue action against Bosgraaf.  The bank began to take some properties into foreclosure, and initiated some lawsuits to receive payment on loans.  Auto Sports Unlimited (which was used as an umbrella company to Bosgraaf Commercial, and Holland Transmission Service) and Faargsob (Bosgraaf backwards) where used as collateral for some of his developments, and both have filed for bankruptcy.  The legal battles between Huntington Bank and Bosgraaf are ongoing so we will have to wait and see how this will all play out.

The situation between Bosgraaf and his lenders has been brewing for awhile.  Back in January 2011, I noticed lots of visitors to The Ledger were searching for “Scott Bosgraaf foreclosure” or some variation of that.  At the time I could not verify any of that information, but now the press has caught wind of the story.

Read more at Holland Sentinel, Grand Rapids Press, Argus Press, and my original post here.
Though I do love the title for this Scott Bosgraaf photo “Scott Bosgraaf of Baker Lofts stand in the wine cellar at what could be Theodore, the new restaurant at Baker Lofts. ”  At what could be… really?

Zipments.com – Manufacturing a Story

Read this article in The Grand Rapids Press “Got a spare hour? Zipments.com will pay you to move something across town“.

For those of you too lazy to click, here is the excerpt from the article:

The day before the launch of an international conference, organizers have better things to do than schlep 15 boxes of brochures and other materials from Grand Valley State University’s downtown campus to the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

So Ryan Vaughn, an outreach consultant for the Center for Entrepreneurship, went to Zipments.com, a new online venture in which people who need things delivered can connect with people who will make the delivery. And the senders name their price.

He posted the job for $50, giving a window of time in which it had to be done. David Tilley, a registered courier with Zipments, signed up. He picked up the boxes, and the job was done.

Zipments.com is local courier service in West Michigan, where customers can post local “shipping” jobs, and couriers can bid on these posted shipping jobs. The customer picks the winning courier out of all the bids received for that job.

As a recently launched business Zipments.com has been doing its share of public relations, but after reading this latest Grand Rapids Press story something just didn’t feel right to me. So let me lay out some facts that might make you look at the Zipments.com article a little differently.

Innocent Shipment, or a Not Very Well Concealed Public Relations Ploy?

In reading the above facts, can you see the many possible conflicts of interest? It doesn’t seem right in my opinion. I don’t have a problem with any of the above people doing business with each other, but to use the example of Ryan Vaughn of Center for Entrepreneurship, using Zipments.com to move boxes, and Dave Tilley was chosen as the courier, seems so…… manufactured, especially as the lead in the story.

In fact the article now brings up many more questions. Like was Grand Rapids Press Reporter Cami Reister aware of these relationships outlined above? If she did why was the story run as is? If she wasn’t aware, how come more fact checking wasn’t done? In regards to Zipments.com, did they suggest this as a story? Why? As mentioned in the article they had about two other Zipments.com couriers which they could have easily led the story with.

For me knowing the above facts, does change the story, it’s like the shipment never happened and gives me the impression that Zipments.com is a crony run business (rightly or wrongly). As noted here, I am just a blogger and not a journalist or a public relations guy, so maybe this isn’t odd at all. But something this story just isn’t right. What do you think?

Schaap & the West Michigan Media

I have never been in a West Michigan news room, but I imagine it would go something like this:

Not an image of a reporter working on his deadline story.

Editor: “Johnson, do you have your article ready for the next issue?”
Reporter: “Boss, I thought the deadline for my story was next week.”
Editor: “JOHNSON! I need an article on my desk by tomorrow morning”
Reporter (to self): ” Damn… I need a story fast, I better call Schaap”

It's Schaap. Wonder if the yellow face might be sort of a Bat Signal, when media needs a story.

Every publication has written at least one article on Aaron Schaap.  But many have written two, three or even more, therefore providing proof  to my above hypothesis.

Who is perpetuating this cycle… the journalists or Schaap?  Are journalists tripping over themselves to get a recorder in front of Schaap or is Schaap pursuing the journalists with a barrage of calls, emails, and press releases?

Yellow face in background again must be the Schaap signal

So why is everyone writing a story on Mr. Schaap?  By the looks of it, he has a lot going on with his companies (The Factory, Elevator Up, Downstream), and with the local start-up and tech scene.  Is it a prerequisite for any business publication in the area to do a story on Schaap?  Probably not but the man does get a lot of coverage.

Seems like there would be an easier way to hold a pin? or is it an elevator (up) button?

It’s no surprise that the Mlive/West Michigan Business Review and the Grand Rapids Press have been working on the Schaap angle for years.  Fortunately not all of their stories focus solely on Schaap, they also include some other people, but they have some great photos (my personal favorite is the Tech Industry one):

Sharing the Thunder - One of the rare Schaap photos featuring other people

If you ever read the Holland Sentinel, they rarely have any business stories in their paper.  You have to search their website to even find their business section, and the actual stories in the paper are usually just AP wire stories.  So it is even more surprising that they have two stories on Schapp (Pitch Night, and Momentum) and even had Aaron as respondent on Street-Talk.

Grand Rapids Business Journal finally got in on the action with a Schaap feature just last month – “On-The-Job Training as an Internet Entrepreneur“.  I am surprised it took them that long (by the way GRBJ search function is awful, searching for Schaap will not bring up that story, and it is quite a pain not being able to actually read any of the stories…definitely a bummer).

MiBiz also has a few stories covering Schaap – DownStream, G33k, Entrepreneurs (you will have to log-in to read these stories).  As has Rapid Growth in covering his Pitch Night and Factory news.  The Rapidian touched on Schaap in a couple of stories (here, here) and even GrubSheets did a story.

Aaron levitating

Lastly the newly launched Startup Stories vlog did their first vlog post on Schaap and his Downstream company (honestly who else would have they done their inaugural story on?… Carl Erickson and Atomic Object, yeah right)

Mr. Schaap does have a great story, (which is surprisingly open and candid) and the guy is quite a good marketer of himself and his companies.  But his relationship with the media somewhat reminds me of Rob Bliss‘ relationship with the media (but without Mlive commenters making derisive comments), with the constant coverage.

Damn it, I just wrote an Aaron Schaap story as well.

Happy that The Ledger did a story

Creating for a Greater Good

Well this was supposed to be my Christmas post but I got a little sidetracked (thanks Spearia).

West Michigan is known nationwide for being a very charitable region.  In fact according to the Grand Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau, West Michigan ranks as the second most generous place in the nation for charitable giving. (anyone have a better link for this study?)

Based on this information and inspired by this extremely cool article from National Geographic “Big Ideas:  Little Packages“, I thought I had the makings of an interesting post.  The Big Ideas: Little Packages story features products designed to be affordable and to solve solutions in developing countries.  Some of the products highlighted are a infant warmer, paper asthma spacer, rolling water container, and solar powered laptops.

Reading about all these great products that solve very serious problems in developing countries, started to remind me of how West Michigan companies are doing their part to provide solutions as well.  Of course with West Michigan’s background in charitable giving it should come as no suprise that our areas innovations extend far beyond just donating dollars.  Here is a list of some companies/organizations that I have come across:

  • Personal Energy Transportation Carts – Some retired seniors from the Holland area began a non-profit venture creating PET carts for children in developing countries, who have lost limbs from landmines.  Often times children who have lost limbs have difficulty traveling, because of rough terrain (roads are quite lacking) and these carts enable children to more easily traverse the terrain in their homeland.
  • K-Light Solar Lantern – A local West Michigan company PiSAT Solar produces solar lanterns.  The company focuses on the “triple bottom line”–economic viability, environmental accountability and social responsibility.  To live up to their vision PiSAT Solar along with the Koinonia Foundation started a program of donating one K-Light Solar Lantern (to people in need in developing countries) for every lantern purchased.  The Koinonia Foundation provides assistance under a number of their programs, one of which is the Beacon Program, which encourage economic growth and poverty reduction by helping unemployed mothers begin sustainable businesses.
  • Boxed Water is Better – This Grand Rapids based company sells water in cardboard containers, which is more environmentally friendly (renewable resource, can be shipped flat, and can be recycled).  Additionally, Boxed Water is Better also is quite charitable (but they haven’t donated anything yet, since they have yet to turn a profit), since they will donate 10% of their profit to world water relief foundations, and they will also give an additional 10% to reforestation foundations as well.
  • Life Straw – The Life Straw is a portable water filter that can be used at the water source to provide clean drinking water (when drinking water through the straw).  Although the company Vestergaard Frandsen is based in Switzerland, they have leveraged a West Michigan company to create a video for them.  Creo Productions created a video for Life Straw (bottom , left corner of page). It’s an interesting story in that Aaron Carriere (co-founder of Cre0) got sick in Ecuador, and wanted to do something about the global unclean water problem and reached out to Vestergaard Frandsen, with an offer to help create a video for Life Straw.
  • SCR Michigan – Native Ghanaian and owner of SCR Michigan, a Kalamazoo computer repair shop, Stephen Opoku has also begun to donate computers to his native Ghana through the Global Host Project, which is building a center to train Ghanaians on computers.  Stephen is looking for any computer donations, so that he could fix them and send them back to his native country.  Read more about this story here.
  • ELEMENTAL – So this is a late addition to the bunch, but the ELEMENTAL Project is an online magazine devoted to covering the “good news”.  Four guys founded this company in Grand Rapids as a avenue to  “showcase positive stories, and promote cause based businesses, charities, and individuals who are actively helping others. By publishing these unheard stories we’re hoping to inspire involvement and bridge the gap between people with resources and those in need.” They have some cool stories on their about positive things, which is much better than what you usually get in your local paper.

It is great to find people combining West Michigan strengths in charitable giving and in innovation.  Very inspiring, and I just wish there were more examples from our area, because all of the products highlighted by the National Geographic article are amazing in their relatively simple design, and how they solve such a huge problem. So what did I miss?