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In Detroit, Green Garage Is a Different Kind of Incubator

Jessica Bruder, The New York Times
Thursday, 21 Jun 2012 | 10:22 AM ET
Michael Westhoff | E+ | Getty Images

Built in 1920, the brick warehouse at 4444 Second Avenue in Detroit used to be a showroom for the city's pride: Model T-based automobiles. Now it's a metaphor for urban reinvention. Last fall, the building reopened as the Green Garage, a living laboratory and co-working space for the what its owners, Tom and Peggy Brennan, see as the future of Motown — triple-bottom-line sustainable enterprises that define success by social and environmental measures as well as by financial profit.

Not everyone can envision a future in this place. Even as the postbailout auto industry shows signs of life, Detroit's landscape, with its derelict skyscrapers, abandoned homes and shrinking population, has become a potent symbol of economic collapse. But the Brennans see the potential for new growth here. Though Detroit already has several business incubators, the Green Garage, they say, will walk a different path.

Mr. Brennan says he believes that traditional incubator and accelerator programs extrude entrepreneurs through a mechanized, one-size-fits-all process, sometimes spurring founders to charge ahead without first finding clarity on what they want to do, or why. Instead of focusing on acceleration, he's working to build a start-up culture that's a rough analogue of the slow-food movement: intimate, deliberate, unhurried. It's an organic approach he knows won't be for everyone.

In traditional programs, he said, "We have people who have an idea being told that they need to have a business plan. They need to have an elevator pitch. They need to take out a loan. They need to create a legal entity. They need to pay for some marketing advice and an attorney. But the punch line of the thing is at the end of that, they're broke. Because they have a legal entity, they have a business plan, they have a loan that has to be paid this month. But they don't have a business."

Mr. Brennan is a 59-year-old Michigan native who spent most of his career at the global consulting firm Accenture, where he worked with large multinational clients, including several members of the Fortune 50. For him, it's a tremendous shift to be working with small, triple-bottom-line ventures that he hopes will turn a profit while reaping social and environmental benefits, too.

"At first, I felt like I was coming in with this major backhoe, when what you needed was a little shovel," Mr. Brennan said, describing the downscaling process. "Small is big. We think that it's the cumulative affect of all the small changes that is really going to be the big thing."

More than 200 community volunteers came together to help design and renovate the Green Garage. In accordance with its eco-friendly mission, they used mostly reclaimed materials, generated just one-and-a-half Dumpsters' worth of waste, and used passive means — a white roof, triple-glazed windows and extra-thick insulation — to cut the building's energy demand by 90 percent. The remaining demand is provided by renewable means. (Thanks in part to a solar-powered system for climate control that circulates hot water through pipes below the floor, the heating bill for one year — harsh Michigan winters included — is about what a traditionally outfitted building one-twentieth of the Green Garage's size would pay, Mr. Brennan said.)

So far, the 11,500-square-foot space has attracted more than 20 one- to five-person companies. Participants brainstorm together in small working groups. They share gardening chores in a newly greened alley alongside the building. Each Friday, they break bread with visitors from the community at large.

They lease their Green Garage work spaces at rates ranging from $50 a month for an open chair at one of the room's shared tables to $1,000 for an office-size area that fits four to five people. The Brennans also plan to generate revenue by offering consulting services to outside businesses pursuing triple-bottom-line strategies.

A few of the in-house businesses, like Dickinson by Design, which makes furniture and renovates homes using recycled materials, are already established and humming along; the company's founder, Chad Dickinson, moved to Detroit from Nashville and just hired his first employee. Other enterprises are new and finding their way, eschewing traditional means of financing — Mr. Brennan isn't big on loans that burden still-developing plans with debt — and looking to the community for help, ideas and materials. One such start-up, De-tread, plans to harvest the thousands of discarded tires that are a blight and health hazard around the city and turn the rubber into new products, including floor mats for cars, a good match for automobile manufacturers that have started pledging to include recycled content in new vehicles.

Jason Peet, 34, who interviews potential Green Garage residents, is the founder of a start up called Mend, which uses old-growth beams from Detroit homes slated for demolition and refashions them into tables and housewares, each accompanied by a historical account of the home where the materials originated. Before joining the Green Garage, Mr. Peet attended a seminar at another incubator for local businesses. "They had this whole fast-track program, it gets you to a business plan very quickly," he recalled. At the time, however, Mr. Peet was going through a divorce, had a 6-year-old son, and didn't want to take out a loan to get the capital he'd need for a speedy start.

He switched tracks after meeting Mr. Brennan, who gave him a job as a carpenter on the Green Garage's renovations, a way to pay his bills while working to conceive Mend on the side. A year later, Mr. Peet said, he's reached the prototype stage for Mend, while keeping his finances intact.

"I haven't really come out of pocket for it," he said, adding that he feels good about the slow and measured growth of his plan. "The core needs to be real solid before you go forward."

What do you think? Would you want to be part of a collaborative business community like the Green Garage?

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