Category Archives: Updates

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.

It’s SPREADING…Beer Spill in West Michigan!

I’m overwhelmed… not just writing timely posts on this blog. I’m overwhelmed with beer, i.e. there are too many Michigan microbreweries. It’s like someone opened up a microbrewery and poured it all over West Michigan. But why? Does Michigan really have favorable beer laws?

Who else remembers the days when we only had to worry about the big three in West Michigan Microbrews – Bell’s from Kalamazoo, Founders from Grand Rapids, and New Holland from Holland. That was it. Now it feels like when I am drinking one of those I am drinking…GASP… a Macrobrew, e.g. Budweiser, Miller.

So lets focus on all the West Michigan Microbreweries (we will stick to West Michigan so I don’t go crazy, and I will draw an arbitrary line down the middle of Michigan), there have been attempts to do this in the past and they just haven’t quite gotten all of them or just did not have the space for it all.

Here are some of the most recent examples:

So let’s start the full comprehensive list, of currently open breweries in the area:

Grand Rapids

  • Founders Brewing Company – By the way whats up with all the other “Founders” businesses – Founders Bank & Trust, Founders Wine Cellar. Some facts, Founders was founded in 1997, and they expanding big time.
  • Schmohz Brewing – Where scantily clad ladies adorn almost all the bottles. Where they used to have a horrible looking website with the white checkered background and choppy navigation. Glad they got a new one.
  • The B.O.B. – Has its own brewing facilities at the restaurant and entertainment complex, where they serve their various microbrews.
  • Hideout Brewing – This brewery was modeled after the pre-prohibition breweries, and the interior decor has been modeled after prohibition area photos to give the brewery that feel.
  • Brewery Vivant – Despite having a rooster on the logo, Vivant doesn’t mean Rooster in French. This brewery was founded by Jason Spaulding, one of the co-founders of New Holland Brewery, after he sold his interest in 2008.
  • Jaden James Brewery – One of the breweries that grew out of an existing winery. Jaden James is located at Cascade Winery in Grand Rapids.
  • HopCat – One of the purported best beer bars in the world, with a massive beer selection, they have start to expand their offerings by brewing their own beer. I can see why they have a pretty massive beer list.
  • Harmony Brewing Company – One of the newest additions to the GR beer scene, they just opened Feb. 1st by 3 siblings. They also own Bear Manor Properties, that own a number of rental buildings in the the Uptown area of Grand Rapids.
  • The Mitten Brewing Company – The baseball themed brewery, and as a baseball fan I am extremely intrigued by this one, though I am surprised that their logo doesn’t feature any baseball theme in it… maybe make the mitten look more like a mitt. Just a thought. Also they have the unusual distinction of having some brand confusion, with the likes of Big Mitten Brewing Company in Plymouth (though they may not be around anymore, website is down), and Mitten Brew a beer blog,
  • Grand Rapids Brewing Company – (FB Link)
    Who Likes Blinding Contrast?

    This was an original brewery in Grand Rapids, started in1893 that ended during the prohibition. The brand and the beer names were bought and brought back in 1993, where they operated a brewery and restaurant on 28th Street. The business was sold a couple of times, and was finally shuttered in June 2011. In September 2011, Mark Sellers owner of Hopcat, and plenty of other bars in Grand Rapids (all under the BarFly properties name), purchased the assets of the brewery and all the brand names, and plans to reopen the brewery somewhere in downtown Grand Rapids, but he is not ready to say where yet. ok the location is on Ionia & Fulton. Additionally there was a recent announcement that the GRBC will be an organic brewery,which if successful would be the first organic brewery in Michigan. It’s a good way to stand out in a crowded field.

  • Rockford Brewing Company – Brewery opened up on Dec. 20, 2012.  Here is a little background on the brewery.
  • Perrin Brewing CompanyNow Open. I took some more time to read about Perrin and how it got started.  It is a peculiar tale, of Randy Perrin, founder of a screen-printing/apparel company, aptly named Perrin Resort Apparel.  He is a board member now, and he gave back the company to his employees through an employee stock ownership program.  At some point Perrin decided he wanted to open a brewery.  The mlive story mentions how Perrin is a Bud Light drinker, and how he doesn’t like “strong, hoppy beers”, which I find somewhat odd, that a person who isn’t a craft beer fan has this interest in opening up a craft brewery (most of which focus and feature “strong, hoppy beers”). Though Perrin did state that he wanted his brewery to have craft beers that appeal to the craft beer enthusiasts, but also have some beers that appeal to the “domestic light beer” drinkers like himself.  I guess that whole angle could explain why they decided to go so large with their initial operation, 20,000 barrels. Their current system has the capacity to be the fourth largest brewery in West Michigan, behind Bells, Founders, New Holland.  That is pretty impressive to be that large already immediately when you open.  Most of the other breweries have done gradual expansions to get to their current size.  More details about Perrin can be found  here,  here, and here. Early on, they also had some are branding identity issues.  The one on the left was the first logo they put out there with their initial announcement, and the logo on the right is what they have settled on.

  • Osgood Brewing in Grandville – The brewery desert between Grand Rapids and Hudsonville, just got an oasis in Grandville with Osgood. Husband/wife team are starting the brewery and they named it after the first tavern owner in Grandville, Hiram Osgood (Being a history nerd, I do enjoy this connection). They also make a nice case for their Grandville location on their blog. Which is interesting because just last month I drove through this stretch of Grandville, and though it was pretty cool. It was nice to see that Grandville actually had a personality beyond the massive commercial district off of Rivertown/44th Street.Osgood
  • Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery & Supply in Ada – Per Mlive, Ada will be having a brewery and a home brewer supply store in one. Now open.
  • Cranker’s Restaurant & Brewery – In Cutlerville, they re-furbished Coney Island restaurant into restaurant and brewery, based on their Big Rapids brewery.

Kalamazoo Area

  • Paw Paw Brewing Company – In Paw Paw, and they do in fact have a paw print in their logo. Well more like a hop with some claws attached. This brewery was founded by two brothers-in-law, it also mentions how they were able to ask questions and learn from some of the other microbreweries in the state.
  • Bell’s Brewery – The grandfather of Michigan microbrews opened up in 1985, look at what its spawned, at least according to some people in the industry – according to hopcatgr in the BeerAdvocate.com cache version of their forum, he offered this insight ” One, Larry Bell is a visionary but I think he’s also a tough guy to work for (sorry Larry) so a number of people learned there and then went off to start their own thing. That got the ball rolling”. More on this near the end of the post.
  • Olde Pennisula BrewPub – This restaurant and brewpub is located in downtown Kalamazoo.
  • Arcadia Brewing Company – In Battle Creek, prides itself on crafting British-Style ales, and was founded in 1996. They are moving to a downtown Kalamazoo location in summer of 2013. This will become their primary product facility and will also feature a brewpub. They will retain a presence in Battle Creek as well. I was also surprised The owner’s name… Tim Surprise (just had to work that in there.)
  • Dark Horse Brewing Company – In Marshall, Dark Horse has an interesting backstory, the founder Aaron Morse opened up a brewpub, which failed, but he tried again by opening up a brewery which has become pretty successful, undergoing a $700,000 expansion in 2011. It also states that they are looking at adding on distillery, bakery, creamery, and candy shop, which might be taking diversification a little too far.
  • Bravo Restaurant & Cafe – in Kalamazoo, on the website it states that they are the only restaurant in Kalamazoo that brews its own beer, but what about Bilbo’s and Olde Pennisula? Or maybe a restaurant classification is different than a pizza place, and brew-pub.
  • Boatyard Brewing Company – in Kalamazoo. Beer fever strikes again in West Michigan, the name seems to fit better for a lakeshore town though.
  • Bilbo’s Pizza – Not only does Middle Earth serve pizza, but it also brews its own beer… no word on the pipeweed. The microbrews are only available at their Stadium Drive location in Kalamazoo.
  • Latitude 42 – Portage. SW Michigan Dinning did a write up, and looks like they have a kids play area.
  • Kissell Brewing Company – Galesburg. Website is quite confusing.
  • Tibbs Brewing Company – Kalamazoo. This nano brewery is now open in Kalamazoo as of 12/6/2013.
  • Gonzo’s BiggDogg Brewing – in Kalamazoo. Not a big fan of the name but who I am I to judge. This blog seems to keep pretty close tabs on the development of the brewery though which is now open.

Lakeshore

  • Odd Side Ales – in Grand Haven. They have a nice story, a former accountant laid off, starts a brewery with wife. It is also known as one of the smallest breweries in the country, so you will often find a rotating unique beers available in limited quantities.
  • Old Boys’ Brewhouse – in Spring Lake, is a brewpub place, which was inspired by a dog named Brutus, though affectionately called Old Boy. They are also looking to expand per this recent article in mlive.
  • New Holland Brewing – In Holland, this is another old timer who got started in 1997. It was co-founded by two individuals, one of whom is running Brewery Vivant, read more about that in this old Ledger post.
  • Our Brewing Company – Now open in downtown Holland! They seem to be doing well because they keep running out of beer. This will be a nanobrewery (still waiting for someone to use the term “itty-bittybrewery” instead of micro or nano), meaning that they will have limited production batches of beer.
  • Saugatuck Brewing Company – in Saugatuck… or actually it’s in Douglas… the name is pure lies, just like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
  • The Round Barn Brewery – in Baroda. One of the few cross-over winery/breweries like Jaden James in Grand Rapids.
  • The Livery – in Benton Harbor, surprisingly the only microbrewery in the Benton Harbor/St. Joe area. Named after the over 100 year old building in which the brewery now resides which was once called the “Palace Livery”. More from mlive.
  • Jamesport Brewing Company – is a brewpub located in Ludington. Mlive’s take.
  • Greenbush Brewing Company– in Sawyer, They have a unique tie to Chicago, mainly through their distributor, but they have gotten lots of press out of Chicago as witnessed on their press page. One of the co-owners is from Chicago, so that could explain that connection, but still pretty impressive for brewery opened for less than a year to already have that distribution in place.
  • Big Lake Brewing – Holland Township. The location will be in the 144th, Riley, and Butternut area right next to Thai Palace & near Peppinos (I have to agree with the location not being ideal as one of the commenters noted). Three engineers are starting the brewery which will also be a winery as well (note another combo to add to my list). Here is the initial small blurb on the bottom of the Holland Sentinel article.  Enjoyed this past reference about  their opening – please pay special attention to the idiots commenting – requiring Discover Holland to reply back 3 times on the location of this brewery.
  • Stormcloud Brewery – Frankfort.  Well this one qualifies as either Lakeshore or up north, because Frankfort fits both.  Thanks to a Redditer for this submission.
  • Tapistry Brewing Co. – in Bridgman. Now open.
  • Clay Avenue Brewing – Muskegon

Other

  • Michigan Beer Cellar – in Sparta, maybe they should have called it Michigan Beer Seller !!!!!! (this post is wearing on me)
  • Waldorf Brewpub – in Hastings
  • Middle Villa Inn & Microbrewery – in Middleville. They are very found of their water, per the website its the best ingredient in their beer, and Middleville has the best water in Michigan. Next post I will rate the water on tap throughout the state.
  • Patchwork Brewery – in Decatur. Not only does Patchwork describe the curtains, the renovation process of the building, or the bar (which is really cool), but also the website (I kid, it’s fine). If you want to learn more about the renovation process and curtains read this. This brewery is a woman owned and brewed, which just prompted me to create another column in my spreadsheet – woman owned.
  • Dewey Cannon Winery & Brewery – in Three Oaks, here are some of their beers.
  • White Flame Brewing Company – in Hudsonville, this has to be a Kenny Powers fan right? Nah its just based on the owner/brewer’s last name of White, and his wife’s nickname… boring… why wouldn’t someone name a brewery after their favorite TV show. I mean Bilbo’s Pizza did it with a book. Note if I ever open a brewery it will be named after some reference in “A Song of Ice and Fire” maybe something with Crows.
  • Pike 51 Brewery – Another one in Hudsonville, this one flew under the radar and I just found out about it in Late May 2012 with this mlive article. The brewery is within the existing Hudsonville Winery which opened in 2008, and both businesses are co-owned by two friends.
  • Harpers Brewpub – East Lansing
  • Eaglemonk Pub & Brewery – Lansing.  Thanks to Reddit again for this on.
  • Cranker’s Brewery- in Big Rapids
  • Blue Cow – Big Rapids as well. Their logo says they are a brewpub but there isn’t much else on the website to support that. Though according to this Big Rapids Brewing Company is at the Blue Cow Restaurant.
  • Old Mill Brewpub – in Plainwell.  Interesting and ironic history note, is that the location of this brewpub, the Sunshine Flour mill was once owned by a leading prohibitionist who helped pass that law in Michigan John Eesley. Here is an mlive story.

Up North

Breweries in the Pipeline
So since we have come up with 38 breweries that are currently open and serving beers, we now we are going to look at the rest of the breweries “brewing” in the area. There will be 12 more.

Grand Rapids Area

Allegan County

  • Barking Cat Brewery – Eh not to thrilled with the name, but I do like cats. It’s also one of the only breweries that does not have a location/city confirmed, they are looking to open in 2013. More info here.

Lakeshore

Kalamazoo

Up North

Other

So why is there such an abundance of microbreweries in Michigan ( we are only focusing on the West side of the state)? Typing this question into google did not yield many results, but I did come across someone asking this same question in an old forum post on BeerAdvocate.com. You are best skipping to the bottom of of the page and work your way up (stupid commentators contributing nothing early on, much like you guys 🙂 ). Some theories that were thrown out were the following:

  • Water quality ( especially in Middleville)
  • Cheap Real Estate
  • Buy Local Movement/Pride in the State
  • Farming conditions and climate for growing barley and wheat

But look at the last comment, its from hopcatgr, which I presume is Mark Sellers owner of Hopcat in Grand Rapids ( I could be wrong though). But he states the following:

“There are several factors. One, Larry Bell is a visionary but I think he’s also a tough guy to work for (sorry Larry) so a number of people learned there and then went off to start their own thing. That got the ball rolling.
Two, we’re allowed by law to distribute beer and still have a retail taproom (in Georgia and some other states, if you distribute you can’t have a taproom). Without a retail taproom it’s much harder to make a profit as a new brewery. So the law is on our side here.
Three, there’s no ABV (editor: Alcohol By Volume) cap like there is in Utah and some other states. We are free to make whatever beer we want.
Four, there’s a lot of space, real estate is cheap. For a brewery, you need a lot of low-cost space. That’s why there are very few breweries in NYC despite high population density and affluent customer base, while there are quite a few in Grand Rapids, MI.
And five…most important…the number of breweries/brewpubs PER CAPITA in Michigan is actually lower than several other states.”

So since those comments are coming from an actual brewer I would think that those are some good, honest reasons for the rise in microbreweries in Michigan. The most surprising one was the mentoring by Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery, and how many people have left to start there own. Anyone have information on what breweries were started by Bell’s Brewery disciples? Also the retail taproom concept makes sense because almost all the breweries listed in this article either are running a brewpub, or selling their beers in other ways. So almost all of the microbreweries are taking advantage of having a retail taproom, and they are able to position themselves better in the market and become a destination for consumers. Which leads me to my next point about location. I was shocked at the number of breweries in Traverse City, which had 10 breweries currently and a few more planned. That is the same amount as Grand Rapids, a city with 774,160 residents in the metropolitan area, compared to 143,372 in the area around Traverse City. I definitely see some opportunities with a brewery in St. Joseph (which has nothing), or even New Buffalo, which are both big tourist cities at least in the summer. These are both some nice lakeshore cities. Another thought would be opening up a brewery in the casino towns, you know give people another reason to visit instead of just gambling, like drinking.

If I was skilled at graphic design, I would create an infographic on all the breweries, but I can’t so instead I created a spreadsheet. For example there are 9 breweries that an animal reference either in name, or that display an animal in their logo. There are 6 breweries that are named after the location they are based in (though the Saugatuck Brewing Company is debatable since it it actually located in the Douglas). Then there are 16 breweries that have a name that references either Michigan or a landmark in Michigan. Then there are 3 breweries that make reference to pop culture. Finally, and most importantly out of the 58 currently operating breweries, I have had tried 30 of them. Want to know what other zany categories these breweries fall into? Then download my spreadsheet “TheLedgerBeerList“, it’s pretty great.

I think it’s time for The Ledger West Michigan Microbrewery Crawl 2012 2013! How many of these can we hit in a day, and who has a big bus we can use? Anyone? Remember I have only tried 30, and many more to go especially when the new ones open up.

R.I.P. Micro Breweries

So did I miss anything, and more columns for my spreadsheet. Any more interesting facts about the breweries mentioned above?

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?

Religious Themed Establishments

One of my first stories on this blog was about Graces, a bible themed bar in Grand Rapids.  Recently, the Kalamazoo Gazette had an article on Disciples Cafe,  a Christian themed coffee shop located in Kalamazoo.

While I do like the Disciples Cafe name, I am not a big fan of the logo, the cross seems a little too pirate-like (I think its the angled points on the cross).  The coffee shop also embraces the theme with the decor.  A mural of Jesus on one wall and a cross shaped counter in the middle of the store are just some of the things mentioned.  No word if the owners drew their inspiration (or just purchased fixtures) from Graces.

Actually now the cross in the logo looks like toothpicks.

Part 3: The Rise and Fall of Spearia – The Employees

Spearia.  If you have no idea what I am talking about please read this first before proceeding.

We have talked a lot about the company, Danny Beckett, and the filmmakers.  But what we haven’t focused on too much was Spearia’s employees.  Spearia being a web development company (though others may argue that they were event organizers) most of the employees were designers  and web developers.  At the company’s peak, 25 people were employed.  I was able to talk at length with one of these former employees who worked as a web developer.  But I also had many former employees comment on my first Spearia post who provided some great insight such as Pat Perry who left these comments:

“When this article speaks of too much focus on big splashy events, and not enough focus on the product, this is the truth. However, most designers and developers (The people who actually built the websites) were very talented and focused workers. While Danny went and promoted his community events, many just rolled their eyes, and kept on working on the website project they had been assigned to. During Free Lunch Fridays, many of us would escape to the private meeting rooms and close the door where we could keep working. Several of the employees at Spearia became annoyed with the “stunts” that their higher ups were pulling, which eventually led some of Spearia’s most talented and important designers and developers to find work elsewhere. One by one, the whole design team that I had worked with quit and found work elsewhere. Many developers left also. Its funny to read the critiques that this article points out, because they are echos of things many people on the team had been stressing for months. More work, more focus, less goofy stuff.

Unfortunately, the members of the Spearia team that were the most focused and passionate about the web, were not the ones in charge. So they left, and not to my surprise, they easily found new jobs designing, developing, and getting excited about the websites in other more productive environments.

Its going great, and I am thankful that Spearia gave me the chance to come watch, and work with some really talented designers. I often see many of the designers and developers that I worked under at Spearia, and it delights me to see their successes in other companies around Grand Rapids.”

I also received comments from Someone From Spearia who provided much more details on the cost of some of the events and also stated the following “What killed spearia was just bad business practices. Not willing to invest in the clients, bad estimates, bad contracts, etc.

I also received an email from a former employee who said “While I loved what I did there, I’m getting tired of us designers getting the blame for what happened.”

As I mentioned before I was able to interview a former web designer and developer from Spearia and below is a transcript of our conversation:

Whose ideas were all of these events?

“All of these events came from the top down.  I never quite understood the rationale (if there was one) behind the many events that we put on. I don’t like to think that it was all merely an ego trip, but sometimes I wonder.”

More Details on the Comstock event:
“I don’t know the financial details of Comstock, but I don’t think it was profitable. Some members of the team were always wary of a new, inexperienced company like ours putting on an event of that scale – especially with no main goal in mind other than to get our name out there.”

What was your personal take on the events?:
“I  usually didn’t want to do any of the events that Spearia held, and I stayed as far away from them as possible. I was more focused on doing my job.”

Why was Spearia looking for investors?
“I assume we needed cash.”

Why was the Indianapolis office opened? (note: per an email from Beckett, is office is still open and operational)
“I will never know. Most of the Spearia team was opposed to opening a new location; we had enough trouble hammering out our own processes without having to worry about keeping another location in check. It turns out that we never really interacted with the satellite office after it opened, which was unnerving and a huge concern for me. That decision never made sense to me.”

What was the purpose of all the vehicles?
“We had two cargo vans, three mopeds, and the RV. The official purpose of the vans were to be company vehicles for use in transporting cargo and people. For instance, we were allowed to borrow the vans in the event of car trouble, but I was never sure about the legal status of such use. The mopeds were for pleasure, and the RV was purchased strictly for Artprize (I believe).”

In your opinion what went wrong?
“Every company has it’s strengths and weaknesses, but I felt like things at Spearia were constantly improving and devolving at the same time. Anytime we started to gain traction and improve our workflow, something ridiculous and crippling would happen. That sort of environment isn’t enjoyable or sustainable.”

What were your thoughts on the video?  Was it accurate?
“Yes and no. I think it was an accurate depiction of Danny and how he operates, but I spotted many false statements that Danny made in the video. He mentions Spearia’s “initial purpose” of “growing the good in the world,” but I had never heard him say that before. He mentions our vision of “being this leading experience-based creative firm,” but this vision was not shared with the employees. When he first uttered this phrase in a meeting (earlier this year, I think), many of us groaned and disapproved. I won’t drill through each of the discrepancies, but you get the point. Also, every time Danny says “we” in the video, he usually means “I.””

Anything else you would like share?
“People usually know about Spearia because of our Free Lunch Fridays, the Comstock event, the Free Hugs event, and many other marketing events that Danny and the marketing team worked on. But underneath all of the noisy neon, crazy events, and brash slogans, there was a hard-working team of developers and designers, who really wanted nothing more than to create great things for the web. We weren’t interested in the glitz and glam lifestyle, but we also didn’t own the company and didn’t have much say in the extracurricular activities that went on. We constantly felt jilted and put to the side in favor of this month’s fun, new event. We got tired of feeling like this, so we left.
However, I don’t wish to put all of the blame on Danny for what happened to Spearia. We all share partial blame in how things went down, but we also all share pride in the great things that happened there. I worked with some truly amazing people, and I wouldn’t trade my experience there for anything. But at the end of the day, the culture at Spearia just wasn’t sustainable. It’s a shame, but it’s not a surprise.”

Of course you can always speculate what is going on behind closed doors but actually hearing first hand from former employees is pretty telling.  They paint a very interesting picture.  I find it fascinating that although a majority of the employees were designers and developers, it seems that not much input was solicited out of them (maybe they did but based on the comments above it doesn’t look that way).  Like would a Free Lunch Friday event with a live band affect your work environment or your deliverables.  Also admirable is the approach that my interviewee had that he doesn’t blame Danny for everything, because they all had a role in it.  All the employees seemed to echo that they enjoyed working for Spearia but just wish somethings were different (which is true for almost any job).

But I do have a request and a question for my readers.

My Request:  Please watch these Spearia videos below:

My Question:  What is your impression of these videos?  What were the employees thinking?  I will share mine in the comments.

For more insight into Spearia check out their YouTube and Vimeo channels.  Here is another video from Grand Rapids Business Journal , of Beckett giving a tour of building before Spearia moved in.  I find it fascinating that Free Lunch Friday idea as already developed.

Lastly, a special thanks for my interviewee (a former Spearia employee), and to all other former employees who commented as well.

This is Part 3 of the Spearia Tale.
Part 1: Spearia background & story
Part 2: The Filmmakers

For more reading and discussion on Spearia check out Urban Planet message board and the mlive – GR Press article on Danny Beckett

Part 2: The Rise and Fall of Spearia – The Filmmakers

In researching the whole Spearia situation I  was able to interview Justin Vander Velde a senior at Grand Valley State University, who created Switching Gears, the Spearia film.

First off let me talk about the film for a little.  Justin is majoring in Cinema Video with an emphasis on documentaries.  In a documentary class Justin and his four other classmates:  Matt Dayton, Jake Dawson, and Andrea Wallace (yes only four, it was a small class I was told) had a whole semester to create a documentary.  The classmates batted around some ideas before settling on the interesting story of Danny Beckett, and Spearia.  The former motocross rider turned entrepreneur and founder of a web development company.  Justin was familiar with Beckett because they had worked on some projects together in the past.  Justin approached Beckett about the documentary idea and Beckett was all on board with the idea, and agreed to help the classmates with their project.

Justin had a pretty good idea of how the documentary would turn out …  a cool company, with a cool ex-motocross guy doing things their own way, with cool events, sponsorships, and activities..  They started filming in September, with Justin asking the questions, and the other students were helping out with filming and editing.  By Mid-November the students thought they had their film basically wrapped up after they completed filming the Halloween themed Free Lunch Friday.  But also during this time the students sensed for the first time that something was amiss with Spearia.  This happened when they were interviewing Jason Dodge outside of Spearia office when he mentioned he was no longer the Marketing Director, but rather he was now a Project Manager.  A week after that interaction Jason left the company.  Then as mentioned in the video the team could not get a hold of Beckett anymore.  As you could image with students who have a grade on the line, panic quickly set in.

Eventually the students received a tip about the For Lease Signs on the Spearia building.  After they drove to Comstock Park and filmed the empty building, the students were left at a crossroads on how to proceed.  They needed to complete their film, and turn it in for a grade.  On one hand they had the story they initially were trying to do – Fun company being successful doing their own thing, but obviously there was now more to the story.  Or they could keep on asking questions and hopefully get a answer about the For Lease Signs.

The students decided to try to get the full story, and were still trying to make contact with Beckett.  Finally they got a hold of Beckett, since Justin had a personal relationship with Beckett, he had a hard time asking the hard questions.  Luckily, Jake picked up the slack and was able to ask Beckett the difficult questions that needed to be answered.

The classmates were happy with the way the project turned out but they would have liked to have more time filming and being able to wrap up the story properly.  They ended up working on editing the video just hours before the final film was due to their professor.

As you could imagine Justin and his classmates received a lot of feedback on the video after they posted it to Vimeo.  Though  about a day after it was posted, the video was taking down.  Justin wanted to change some privacy settings to the video, and it was not in fact taken down because of Beckett or his actions (Justin just wanted this to be clear).  Justin had a difficult time with this project because as mentioned earlier he did have a personal relationship with Beckett, and as you could imagine it would be quite difficult to be in the middle of everything filming this company as it is unraveling.   He did not want to tarnish Beckett’s image since he did help them out with the film.  But he did hear back from Beckett after the final video, and Beckett relayed his congratulations to the filmmakers and was very proud of the way the video turned out, and was happy to help them out in their class. Through various Facebook postings the students also got feedback from former Spearia employees who were happy to see the whole story out there and thought for the most part that everything was accurately depicted.

Justin said he will have to make another film for next semester.  He is leaving the door open to perhaps follow Danny Beckett more closely in what happens to him after Spearia.  Per Justin, Danny is looking at becoming a public speaker or writing books.  So it will be quite interesting to see what comes out of this.

What Justin and his classmates were able to capture is amazing in my opinion, and I thought they did a great job on the video.  I have never met Danny, so I am not sure how open he is in general, but I would have to think that as the filmmaker, he had to have some role in either asking the right questions, making Danny feel at ease to discuss the company so candidly, or both.

On top of that I thought that the students did a great job handling the curveball they were throw.  As mentioned the students thought that they had the video wrapped up after that Halloween themed Free Lunch Friday.  Then you find out that something is up, i.e. finding investors, people leaving or getting new titles, the For Lease sign on the building.  So all of a sudden you have to go in a new direction with the story, because all that fun, cool, crazy stuff Spearia was doing just doesn’t quite fit in the story anymore.

So then going back through the footage and being able to piece together the rise, the pinnacle, some surface cracks of trouble, and finally the demise of the company was great.  I watched the movie numerous times, and at first I did not zero in on the whole interesting exchanges with Jason Dodge, and Kristen  (the woman employee) who talked about the challenges of working with an ideas person, and then catching the awkward exchange regarding Jeff’s new position at Spearia.  I had to re-watch that portion a couple of times to really get the magnitude of those exchanges and how they fit in the story.  Getting that shot of Danny alone on the deck was a very demonstrative shot, and just getting Danny to tell you in his own words about the end of the company, and them showing the shots of the for lease sign to reinforce to the viewer what Danny is saying.  So nice job Justin, Matt, Jake, and Andrea.

In case you were wondering Justin did receive an A in the class.

This is Part 2 of the Spearia Tale.
Part 1 can be found here.
I will have one more follow-up post with some insights from a former employee of Spearia.

For more reading and discussion on Spearia check out Urban Planet message board and the mlive – GR Press article on Danny Beckett.