Since 2012, Start Garden has played a large role in Grand Rapids’ entrepreneurship ecosystem by giving entrepreneurs a stage to present their ideas to the community while they compete for the opportunity to win $5,000.
Neu spoke with Start Garden Community Relationship Officer Laurie Supinksi about the history of 5×5 Night, it’s triumphant return and expansion, and why events like it are important for communities.
Neu: Can you start by telling us about your position at Start Garden and how you came to work there?
Lori Supinski: I was with an organization called eMerge. eMerge and Start Garden merged, so I came on board bringing the component of working within our 13 county region to connect entrepreneurs to all of the different resource organizations that provide services and programs. I am the connector. In the past Start Garden wasn’t necessarily focusing on the entire region, they just kind of operated in Grand Rapids, focusing on high tech, high growth businesses. Part of this merger was a shift in focus for Start Garden as well. Now we are focusing regionally and also focusing on neighborhood businesses, lifestyle businesses, and regional and rural businesses in some of our northern and southern counties, so we are trying to encompass all of the different types of startups that we see.
Neu: What is the history of 5×5 Night? How did it come to be?
LS: It was started in 2012 by Rick Devos–it was his idea and his organization. He was saying that there a lot of people with good business ideas, and how do we find them? How do we help support them and give them a little bit of a push? So he came up with this idea, and every week they would award $5,000 to an idea that would come out on the website. Then at the end of the month, they had all of those winners come in and pitch, and if they went further, then Start Garden could potentially invest more money in them. The $5,000 at that point was sort of that stepping stone to further investment by Start Garden, the idea being that they were really viewing themselves to be a venture capital fund and trying to look for and pull out some of those companies that were potentially going to grow and be scalable businesses. So that is kind of how the idea of 5×5 Night started. It was completely funded by Start Garden. Eventually, they got to a point where they really didn’t want to do that weekly investment anymore, simply because they were starting to grow a portfolio of companies that they were investing in. The capacity– staff wise and financially–to continue to do that wasn’t really feasible, and yet the community has embraced the whole 5×5 Night program. Start Garden really didn’t want to see that go away, so there was a period of time where they stopped doing it, and then the eMerge organization for a little while last year. When eMerge and Start Garden merged this year in April, we brought that program back under the umbrella of Start Garden, and we relaunched it in July. The idea with it this time is that we really wanted the program to have a regional impact, so we are taking it on the road. What we are trying to do now is to expose people to the program who might not know about it, because sometimes people don’t look outside their backyard. It is for people who are either not aware of it or maybe not comfortable entering the competition if they feel like it’s too far away. The idea really is to just engage more people. We have seen that having the events outside of the normal Start Garden location has brought an entirely new group of people to the event. It really gives more awareness to entrepreneurship in those communities.
Neu: Why 5×5 Night is important to communities?
LS: What we are trying to do at Start Garden is to encourage and support people that want to start their own businesses. One of the barriers to getting started is capital, and even though $5,000 is not a lot of money in some cases, it is sometimes something that can get somebody jump started. The prize money is certainly very important to most of the people that enter the competition, but the other thing is to get exposure for people’s ideas. By entering your idea out on a website, you are having to show it to people. It helps the entrepreneur think through, “What is this idea and how do I get people excited about it to vote?” Only the top five ideas get to pitch each month, and if you are in that group, then that whole experience is in and of itself quite something. You have to get up on stage, you have to pitch, you have to have thought through not just your idea, but a little bit of your business model and you have to answer the question of what that $5,000 will do for you, and what kind of impact that will make on your business. It is a really good exercise for an entrepreneur to have to get up in front of people and talk about their idea.
Neu: How does Start Garden quantify the impact? Do you keep in touch with the winners?
LS: Yes, we can go into the database and look at some of the past winners of 5×5 Night, and we keep track of where they are and what they are doing. There are some great examples–one of the companies that comes to mind is called Mull-It-Over Products. We had the founder return to 5×5 Night to address the audience, and he also came back as a judge. He has said that 5×5 Night was really the beginning of him rolling out his business. He was an industrial designer and was working with construction companies that put up buildings. A lot of the complaints of people that inhabited the buildings was that with so much glass, there was a lot of noise volume, and he came up with this idea of how to control the noise via a certain type of window design and window seal. 5×5 Night incentivized him to get further investment. Now his companies is worth 4 or 5 million dollars and it is continuing to grow.
We are going to start bringing some of winners back in to update and inspire people. Liz Hinton was a winner last year. Her company is called KNITit, and she called the other day and said that she wanted to come back as a judge and give some money to support the 5×5 Night program as a sponsor, just because it helped her so much. She has been really successful, and it is great and inspiring to people.
Neu: What are the plans for 5×5 in the future?
LS: I think we are going to continue to experiment with this model of moving it around to increase the awareness of the program and increase the amount of participation. We would like to continue to see a variety of different businesses and ideas put out there. It doesn’t have to be all apps. It can be a technology based business, it can be a product, or a retail space, or a service. Our goal is to keep that momentum going, and to continue to provide a platform for people to get started.
Nue: Is there anything else you want to say about 5×5 or Start Garden?
LS: I am really excited about it. I think that there hasn’t been one event that I went to that there hasn’t been just a great excitement in the room. In August we had the event at LINC. Before the event started, Paul Moore from Start Garden was the emcee, and he asked the audience, “How many people here have been to a 5×5 Night before?” And more than half of the people had not. That was great, because it proved that by having it at a different location, we attracted more people–people that are connected with LINC and promoted it within their network. I think that is exactly what we are trying to encourage. When the winner was announced, people screamed and the winner cried. It was really, really fun.
We want people to know that even though we are traveling around, it is still an open competition. We like the idea of entrepreneurs traveling outside of their area to go pitch to a different audience. We want to keep it an open platform, and that is the goal. As long as we keep helping entrepreneurs, as long as the community is continuing to support it, we will continue to do it. One thing that I wanted to mention, is that everyone that submits an idea, whether they get to be one of the five people to pitch, or they pitch and they don’t win, we are connecting with them through Start Garden. We send them a note saying, “Just because you didn’t get to win or you didn’t pitch, does not mean that your idea isn’t a good idea. If you want to move your business forward, call us or email us. We will listen to where you are in your process and connect you with some of the resources out there.” A lot of times, entrepreneurs don’t know what the resources are. When you are trying to start a business, it can be a lonely thing. You can feel like you are out there all on your own, and you need so much money to get started and a lot of these resources are free of charge.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.