Cleveland Hustles: The Hustle Continues

As LeBron James boosts Cleveland's profile, more entrepreneurs are moving in

With a historic NBA Championship win on the shoulders of superstar Akron native LeBron James and a successful run hosting the recent Republican National Convention under its belt, the city of Cleveland has stepped into the spotlight in a major way this past summer.

But beyond the hype, there's a tight-knit community committed to revitalizing the region on the back of Cleveland's small businesses.

The area boasts a scrappy and growing entrepreneurial scene. In 2015 the Cleveland metro ranked No. 12 nationally for established main street business activity, with 1,150 established small businesses for every 100,000 residents in the city, according to data from the Kauffman Foundation.

What's more, the metro is also a top-20 area for growth entrepreneurship, according to the group, with start-ups growing more than 70 percent as a cohort five years after they launch.

"One of the advantages that Cleveland has is that there are people willing to invest based on your vision, based on your word — there's a lot of trust in people," says Tom Lix, founder of Cleveland Whiskey. The company launched in 2013 and has shortened the distillery process from years to days with its unique technology.

"Here, you can take ideas that are relatively small and turn them into something big," he says. "In other places, you have to have huge ideas to break through the clutter."

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers waves to the fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers Victory Parade And Rally on June 22, 2016 in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
David Liam Kyle | NBAE | Getty Images
LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers waves to the fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers Victory Parade And Rally on June 22, 2016 in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
"Here, you can take ideas that are relatively small and turn them into something big." -Tom Lix, Cleveland Whiskey Founder

Local groups like the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, which in part focuses on helping brick-and-mortar businesses in the city with resources and real estate, are committed to helping companies succeed. DSCDO is part of a nonprofit coalition that's helped to raise $30 million dollars to rehab once-troubled areas like the Gordon Square Arts District over the past 10 years. In that time, they've brought 85 new businesses and hundreds of jobs to the area.

"Neighborhoods are getting stronger, and people are moving back to the city from the suburbs from other cities; there's a strong desire to be here," says Adam Rosen, the group's economic development director. "It will get better, as long as people continue to move here."

And people are moving back into the city. Billions of dollars have been injected into construction projects in the city's downtown in the past few years, bringing an influx of new residents. According to a report from VentureOhio, an organization focused on catalyzing growth in the state's entrepreneurial ecosystem, downtown Cleveland has seen a population increase of nearly 80 percent to 14,000 residents, and a 77 percent jump in millennials living in the area since 2000.

Others, like nonprofit JumpStart Inc., are ensuring the city's start-ups have access to capital. The venture development organization has several investment funds that have injected $35 million into more than 80 tech companies in the past decade. They have gone on to generate some $2 billion.

One-third of those investments have been in minority-led companies, something the group believes so much in that it's just introduced a new Focus Fund, which will provide $10 million in seed capital to women and minority-led businesses in the tech space. The fund is offering up to $500,000 in investment for those who will relocate to the state.

"A decade ago, the city didn't realize the importance of small and mid-size companies. Now they depend on it, and everyone believes it's the future of our city's economy," says Ray Leach, JumpStart CEO.

That's why Sean Adkins came to Cleveland to launch his business, Old City Soda, two years ago. The craft soda start-up says the support locals have given him has helped to elevate the company in a short period of time.

"It's a great feeling to be a part of the revitalization. You feel like you're part of the community," Adkins says. "There's several of us, who several years ago were sitting at rickety stands trying to make a hundred bucks. But we all have big ambitions to put our name on the map. And the bigger profile we get, the more businesses we'll attract to Cleveland."