Traverse City Startup Community: Online expert network for local startups is live and launching

Is Traverse City the next hub for game-changing startups and tech innovation? Based on what’s been happening here lately, the answer is pointing to yes.

First, the Northern Michigan Angels set up shop, focusing on angel investing and private sector economic development in the area. Then, TC New Tech launched, giving entrepreneurs a Shark Tank-style environment in which to pitch their business ideas, make connections, and cut their teeth. More recently, Traverse City got its first tech incubator in the form of Startology, which rents office space to developing companies and helps them find their footing.

Now, the next phase of Traverse City’s startup renaissance has arrived: the Traverse City Startup Community, an online hub where entrepreneurs and startups can go to link up with experts and mentors within their fields or industries.

“We see a lot of very energetic people, passionate about their idea, but really in need of a lot of help,” said Dennis Arouca, a member of the Northern Michigan Angels. “They may have a technically superior product, but they don’t know if there’s a market there for it. Or maybe they’re halfway along developing a technically superior product, and they need additional professional technical help.”

In other words, there’s a need for mentors in TC’s growing entrepreneurial scene. To be fair, it’s a complicated equation to get right. Bill Donberg said as much while discussing the new TC Startup Community initiative. Donberg is a member of the Northern Michigan Angels and an aviation instructor at Northwestern Michigan College. He’s also a successful entrepreneur himself, having founded, grown, and sold a company called AETOS that uses drones to inspect oil and gas facilities of a certain height.

“Rarely to do you find someone who has the idea, the market need, they’ve got the technology all in place, they’ve got the business model they want to employ — including the entire marketing strategy, they know all the financials, they’ve put together the financial implications, the tax implications, the legal implications,” Donberg said. “I’m not an expert in the cross-section of all the people that have tried [entrepreneurship] and failed, but you’ve got to believe [their business plan] is lacking one of those elements.”

The purpose of the Traverse City Startup Community website — which can be found online at — is to help entrepreneurs fill in the gaps of their business plans. Anyone can sign up for the online community, which automatically pulls in data from LinkedIn to populate user profiles. From there, entrepreneurs can browse the database, find an expert whose skills and experience align with their business needs, and reach out to that person for help and advice.

Donberg, a Dow Chemical retiree, thinks Traverse City is ripe for this kind of mentorship program. Because of Traverse City’s resort town appeal, it is a popular destination for retirees. From technology experts to tax experts, regional experts to international experts, the area is loaded with experience and knowledge. Part of the idea behind the TC Startup Community is to tap into that reservoir of retired talent and use it to power the local business landscape of tomorrow.

The initiative was inspired by a similar approach taken by the city of Bend, Oregon. Since the early 2000s, Bend has evolved from an exhausted lumber town to a vibrant startup community. Today, it is the home of the Bend Venture Conference — the biggest venture capital conference in the Pacific Northwest. The software comes directly from Bend, which used a similar focus of finding and harnessing mentors to grow its business landscape. And while Arouca wants to develop a new, fresh piece of software to power the Traverse City Startup Community, that focus — on linking entrepreneurs and mentors — will remain intact.

The site doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Michael Naughton — a local attorney who also serves as a board member for the Grand Traverse Economic Development Corporation and as treasurer for TC New Tech — described the site as “one arm” of the local tech community “octopus.” The other arms — Northern Michigan Angels, TC New Tech, the Startology incubator, the Economic Development Corporation, and the TC Chamber of Commerce — all work in harmony toward the goal of building Traverse City’s startup cachet and overall economy.

“Everyone’s buying into this idea that we want to put this region on a different trajectory,” Donberg said of the combined approach.

Step one of that upward trajectory is to put the focus squarely on what Arouca calls “traded sector” businesses. A traded sector entity is a business that creates goods or services here in Traverse City and sells them elsewhere, bringing money back to the community. (The opposite is something like a restaurant, which earns money locally and also mostly recirculates it locally.) By bringing more traded sector businesses to Traverse City — and providing extra support to the ones that are already here — Arouca believes the local startup community could encourage a massive swell of job opportunities in the area.

“We want to have people come up here and make it,” Naughton said. “But we also want the people that have been up here. We want their kids to stay. I want to compete with Detroit for millennials. I want millennials to come here. I want millennials to stay here. And if we can build a platform that can have jobs for people that are $70K to $120K a year, support their families, and stay here, we’re all going to benefit from it.”