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Local entrepreneurs turn Start-up Weekend idea into Bite to Meet

Four people met at Start-up Weekend in downtown Detroit last fall and turned the project they started into a business, Bite to Meet, that launched the Beta version of its product this week.

"We decided it was a good idea to keep working on," says Ramita Chawla, co-founder of Bite to Meet. "We have been moving forward on it ever since."

Bite to Meet is a virtual company (its founders live everywhere from downtown Royal Oak to Windsor) that is developing a web-based platform for professionals to expand their social networks over a meal. The idea, based on the Never Eat Alone book, is to help people maximize their networking time.

"You eat everyday," Chawla says. "You shouldn't waste that opportunity."

Bite to Meet also focuses on helping people make effective connections. That way people aren't asking what others can do for them while networking, but asking what they can do for others. The value of helping others lets it come to them.

Chawla and her partners plan to focus on Metro Detroit first. They hope to spread it across the Midwest in the company's first year. "We'd love to grow this and add more people," Chawla says. "We'd love to grow this as big as it can get."

Source: Ramita Chawla, co-founder of Bite to Meet
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Dearborn's PeopleGro helps businesses play better, more effectively

Nicole Lemieux-Rever suffered a head injury in the early 1990s. That unfortunate mishap turned into an inspiration for a successful business, PeopleGro.

The accident sparked Lemieux-Rever's interest in the human brain, how it functions and how it impacts the effectiveness of people. That turned into PeopleGro, a company that focuses on organizational development and executive coaching for other businesses and entrepreneurs.

"We help you play better with the other people in the sandbox," says Lemieux-Rever, founder and catalyst for PeopleGro.

The Dearborn-based business now has three employees after adding one position. The 10-year-old company is also looking at bringing on an intern or two this summer. Making that growth possible are new clients, including Michigan State University and Zingerman's, along with some old faces.

"Clients who were on board five years ago have come back," says Lemieux-Rever.

Source: Nicole Lemieux-Rever, founder and catalyst for PeopleGro
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Lawrence Tech set to host national Robofest tournament

A robotics competition like the upcoming Robofest at Lawrence Technological University is obviously a play to get more young people interested in a career in robotics. But CJ Chung, a computer science professor at Lawrence Tech, says it has a broader goal.

"We are using robots to further math and science learning," Chung says. "That's the purpose of Robofest."

Lawrence Tech
is hosting the 12th annual World Robofest Championship on May 7. welcoming 65 teams from around the world. They include 35 teams from outside of Michigan and a few from Canada and South Korea. Chung also likes to point out that this competition also has entrepreneurial aspirations.

"Some of my students who have participated in Robofest have started their own companies," Chung says.

Robofest is a competition of autonomous robots (computer-programmed to act independently) that encourages students to have fun while learning principles of science, technology, engineering, and math. Students design, construct, and program the robots. Adult coaches are not allowed to assist during the events.

Admission and parking are free. For more information, call (248) 204-3566 or send an email to robofest@ltu.edu or click here.

Source: CJ Chung, computer science professor at Lawrence Technological University
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Hard Luck Candy establishes vodka distillery in St. Clair Shores

A small group of friends began selling flavor-infused vodka at their Grosse Pointe-based bar, the Hard Luck Lounge, a few years ago. That little experiment proved profitable with patrons asking to buy their own bottles of flavored vodka, giving birth to Hard Luck Candy.

"We saw such a demand for it that we started thinking, how can we get this into other bars and stores?" says Chris George, vice president of Hard Luck Candy. He co-founded the craft-liquor firm based in St. Clair Shores with Mike Mouyianis and Rob Nicholl.

Today the 3-year-old company produces 50 cases of flavored vodka a week for hundreds of locations across Michigan. Its products primarily consist of Red Fish (a berry flavor) and Root Beer Barrel. It will premiere two more flavors called Orange Dream (orange and vanilla) and Lemon Drop (sweet and sour) in May.

"We've had really good growth and really good support for our Michigan-made products," George says.

Hard Luck Candy vodka is distilled in Temperance, a 45-minute drive south from Detroit. It's sold at 700 locations (liquor stores, bars and restaurants) across Michigan. George and his partners plan to expand into six other states and Canada over the next year. That should prompt them to add two more employees to their team of five people and a couple of independent contractors.

Source: Chris George, vice president of Hard Luck Candy
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Assets International grows asset recovery business, plans 2-4 hires

Assets International got its start when Neal Duchin's wife inherited some money and the Oakland County-based entrepreneur discovered just how hard it was to get what was rightfully theirs.

That journey led Duchin to start the recovery firm, quickly bringing on friends Avram Goldstein and Michael Zwick. Assets International specializes in helping people find the money and assets they are legally entitled to. The firm takes a small percentage of the resources recovered.

"There are people out there walking around with no idea they have this money," says Zwick, president of Assets International.

The Southfield-based firm now has 19 employees and a few independent contractors. It has steadily grown over its 10 years and expects to continue that ascent with a few more hires over the next year as it expands into class action litigation and oil and gas markets.

"We're pretty steadily growing at a rate of two people a year," Zwick says. "We have also steadily grown in revenue each year."

Source: Michael Zwick, president of Assets International
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

PublicCity PR grows revenue 25%, fills out staff

Just when Jason Brown is starting to think his public relations business might be ready to slow down, it picks up again. These new clients have added up to a 25-percent jump in revenue for the Beverly Hills-based firm.

"It's been an interesting year," says Brown, principal & founder of PublicCity PR. "Once you get stagnant a few new clients walk through the door." These new clients were drawn by the firm's reputation. "It's been organic growth," he adds. "There have been no advertising dollars toward attracting clients. It's all word of mouth."

PublicCity PR has grown from Brown as the sole employee three years ago to a full-time team of three and a summer intern today. He hopes to add one more position in the near future and find some traditional office space.

Brown started the company as an alternative to the larger public relations agencies in the region. Before going off on his own, Brown,
a graduate of Michigan State University, worked as a journalist.

Source: Jason Brown, principal & founder of PublicCity PR
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Future Midwest aims to create Midwestern SXSW

Organizers of FutureMidwest have aspirations of creating a SXSW-type (South by Southwest) tech conference in the Midwest that will draw Metro Detroit's tech community closer and offer $100,000 in prize money to a local start-up.

"There is so much start-up potential here," says Adrian Pittman, who co-founded FutureMidwest in 2009 with Jordan Wolfe and Zach Lipson in 2009 to cater to tech and digital media enthusiasts. "There are so many start-ups here, and many of them are better than we realize."

This year's conference, to be held in Detroit's Eastern Market on April 28 and 29, will be geared toward entrepreneurs, marketers, communication professionals, techies, and students from across the Midwest. It will also feature the Funded by Night business plan contest with a winner-take-all $100,000 in prize money.

Funded by Night
will feature 25 start-ups pitching their products and visions to potential investors. At stake is a $100,000 convertible note from two local venture capital firms, downtown Detroit-based Detroit Venture Partners and Southfield-based Ludlow Ventures. The organizers hope the conference and competition will help create more synergies with start-ups in both Metro Detroit and the Midwest.

"No city is an island and no region is an island," Pittman says. "We share an ecosystem in several states and industries. We need to be thinking globally."

Tickets for both events are $250. Tickets for Funded by Night and the FutureMidwest evening networking event on April 28 are $25 for professionals and $10 for students. For information on FutureMidwest, click here. For information on Funded by Night, click here.

Source: Adrian Pittman, co-founder of FutureMidwest
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Carter & Affiliates triples legal business, caters to entrepreneurs

Lots of businesses preach going after the long tail, the section of the graph where everyone else lives. John Carter has made a legal career from it.

He started Carter & Affiliates a dozen years ago with the idea of providing legal services to entrepreneurs and small businesses. He has now grown his Troy-based practice to three people and a long tail of clients consisting of all shapes, sizes and stripes of entrepreneurs.

"My sense was the moms and pops were being left out," Carter says. "Frankly it was a money thing. There is a huge void to apply the same type of services to the small businesses the way we apply them to big businesses."

Carter & Affiliates doesn't target any sort of industry or age bracket. The law practice just helps out small businesses that come through its doors. It counts a wide variety of firms as customers today, ranging from PolyFlex Products to Divinity Home Health Care. Carter has grown his practice three-fold in the last 3-5 years, thanks largely to the rise in entrepreneurship locally.

"There are more entrepreneurs today than 15 years ago," Carter says.

Source: John Carter, principal of Carter & Affiliates
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Hall Financial adds 20 positions in 2010, plans to open N. Carolina, Florida offices

Hall Financial isn't just about the mortgages it sells, but the people who sell them. That's where the new company's founder, David Hall, sees his firm's strength.

The Bloomfield Hills-based business has hired half a dozen people since we checked in with them last fall, expanding its staff to 20 employees within its first year. Hall Financial's revenue has increased by 30 percent since fall 2010, and the firm is planning to build up to 50 percent revenue growth by this fall.

"Every month we have done more business than before," says Hall, president of Hall Financial. "We continue to grow and hire people. The key is good people. If you don't have good people you don't have anything."

Hall, the long-time pitchman and executive at Quicken Loans and Rock Financial, started his own mortgage company last year. He has since grown the firm to 3-4 times its original size, prompting it to move from downtown Birmingham to bigger space in Bloomfield Hills. Hall is currently planning to expand into new markets this year and possibly open offices in Florida and North Carolina.

"A year from now, I think we'll be doing twice the business that we're doing now," Hall says.

Source: David Hall, president of Hall Financial
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Green Light Go Publicity goes national with nice girl business approach

Janelle Rogers worked in the marketing and artist development end of the music industry for years and watched a number of the negative stereotypes come to life, such as labels taking advantage of musicians. That prompted her to start her own company in 2002, Green Light Go Publicity, based around a nice-girl approach.

"I really wanted to be that company that was based on honesty, integrity and compassion," says Rogers, owner of Green Light Go Publicity. "I wanted to set up a safe haven for bands. Sort of a beacon of hope that shows you can trust people in this industry."

Green Light Go Publicity's integrity-based business model has borne fruit since then. The Ferndale-based firm (it calls Paper Street Motors home) has grown to five people, including four hires over the last year. Business has grown 25-50 percent each year, and Rogers expects that to continue. She plans to hire two more publicists by the end of the year.

The firm represents a number of national acts, including The Handsome Family and Detroit-based Almost Free. Rogers says she has purposely kept her client roster small so her business doesn't over extend itself and makes sure the staff loves the music of the bands it represents. The company has also
recently launched an Internet-based marketing campaign based around a fresh website, social media, blogs, and integrating the client bands with all of these facets.

Source: Janelle Rogers, owner of Green Light Go Publicity
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Tactical Allocation Group to add 3 jobs, reaches $1.4 billion under management and advisement

There are a lot of fours in Tactical Allocation Group's statistics these days. The downtown Birmingham-based investment firm has added four people, brought another $224 million under management, and now has $1.4 billion under management and advisement since it was founded in 2004.

James F. Peters, Jr.,
and Paul J. Simon co-founded Tactical Allocation Group with the idea of investing money in a proactive style. A crash in the financial markets and the biggest economic downturn in generations suddenly made the company's new strategy very popular among the moneyed set.

"Our investment style is very much in demand," says Peters, CEO of Tactical Allocation Group. "It's a very proactive form of management, which means you change your portfolio in anticipation of changes in the economy."

When we last checked in with the money manager in December of 2009, the company had 14 employees and was striving to cross the $1 billion in assets mark. Today it has 18
employees and four independent contractors at its office between the Birmingham 8 Theater and the Briggs Building on South Old Woodward. Peters expects to add another three jobs this year, including a couple of salespeople.

Source: James F. Peters, Jr., CEO of Tactical Allocation Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Lakeside Software puts $6.1M into Metro Detroit; to create 198 jobs

Lakeside Software started out as a small company with designs to stay small. Michael Schumacher intended to keep the software firm a one-man shop in 1997 when he launched from his home overlooking a lake in Keego Harbor. Today the Bloomfield Hills-based business just signed a six-figure tax incentive deal to create 198 jobs over the next five years.

"This is positioning us for growth," says Dan Salinas, vice president of business development for Lakeside Software.

Lakeside Software creates management software called SysTrack for the Windows operating system. SysTrack monitors and analyzes applications for businesses. The company remained a small operation until the early 2000s, when it began to hit its stride. Now it employs 20 people in Michigan and had designs to move to Palo Alto, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, before a cold call from a Michigan Economic Development Corp officials helped persuade them to stay here.

The firm now has 1,000 customers and the
SysTrack system has about 1 million users, up more than 50 percent over the last year. As a result the firm is investing $6.1 million into its Metro Detroit operations. That includes an expansion of its Bloomfield Hills office and the creation of a 73-person satellite office in downtown Ann Arbor.

Lakeside Software currently has 10 open positions in Bloomfield Hills. It expects to begin staffing its new Ann Arbor office and further expanding its Bloomfield Hills base later this year. It expects to create a total of 20 new jobs within the next year. "And there will be more," Salinas says.

Source: Dan Salinas, vice president of business development for Lakeside Software
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Former execs strike out on their own with Strait & Associates consultancy

Most of America's workforce aims to work for someone else, and climb the corporate ladder. Cheryl Strait and her new partners, no slouches at ladder climbing, recently jumped off and began building their own biz, Strait & Associates.

Strait, a former partner at Ernst & Young, recently started a new consulting firm focused on records and information management in Bloomfield Hills. She is joined by John Ferguson, Ann Sachs, and Kassi Turner, all people who have left corporate boardrooms for a new small business.

"We are enjoying it," says Strait, president & CEO of Strait & Associates. "The nice thing is we are all seasoned executives so we all have experience running companies."

Strait & Associates recently landed its first contract to conduct a market research study with a Chicago-based technology firm. It expects to expand its client list by 6-10 businesses within the next year while establishing a brand. She expects her team to grow to 10 people within the next few years.

But why go to all this trouble if they already had good jobs climbing corporate ladders in long-established companies? One word: freedom. Strait & Associates allows the partners the freedom to do their job their way while reaping all the benefits of their labor.

"You really can't be a maverick (working for someone else)," Strait says. "You have to stay in line with what the organization wants to do."

Source: Cheryl Strait, president & CEO of Strait & Associates
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Securely Yours IT security firm plans tripling of sales this year

Since it launched in 2009, Securely Yours has grown exponentially, allowing the IT firm to expand its reach outside of Michigan and across the U.S.

The then two-person team clocked sales of about $50,000 and revenue of less than $20,000. That grew to $800,000 in sales and nearly $400,000 in revenue last year. This year the nine-person team is on pace to have $2.5 million in sales and $1.5 million in revenue. The company hopes to continue to add to its staff in 2011 as it continues on its path.

"We'll have to double in size or we wouldn't be able to do it," says Sajay Rai, founder & CEO of Securely Yours.

The West Bloomfield-based firm specializes in IT security for a variety of industries, such as governments and higher education. Rai is a former IBM executive and Ernst & Young partner who has spent three decades in IT and most of that time specializing on the security aspect of it.

Rai has found fertile ground to grow his business in Michigan. He points out that he has found the cost of high-tech talent in the Great Lakes State to be more cost effective than other places across the nation. He has since deployed Michiganders across the U.S. to accommodate Securely Yours' growing presence.

"We started to market nationally," Rai says. "We have clients based in Michigan but we knew the recovery would take a little longer here so we reached out nationally."

Source: Sajay Rai, founder & CEO of Securely Yours
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

MyInsuranceExpert expands into life insurance, adds 10 jobs

MyInsuranceExpert.com was cruising along in its first year, employing 90 people who helped individuals find health-insurance plans. Then the health-care reform laws took place, cutting in half the Troy-based firm's average compensation per policy.

Faced with shrinking revenue streams, MyInsuranceExpert reinvented itself as the life-insurance version of its former self. That forced it to shrink to 40 people, but allowed it to regroup for future growth.

"It was a defining moment for us," says Lorne Zalesin, CEO of MyInsuranceExpert. "It was clear that it was a must have, not a maybe. It was either change or go out of business in the next 18 months."

The change quickly turned into new jobs. MyInsuranceExpert has hired 10 people over the last few months and hopes to hire another 100 people over the next year. The company sold 900 term life insurance policies in its first month and now ranks in the Top 20 in its industry.

"Our goal is to be the second-biggest company in the next 18 months," Zalesin says.

Source: Lorne Zalesin, CEO of MyInsuranceExpert
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.
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