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Tech startup Amber Engine sees opportunity in home furnishings market

Home furnishings and decor isn’t a conventional space in which to launch a tech startup, but one group of entrepreneurs in Detroit thinks it has a lot of potential.

Amber Engine has created a software platform that streamlines the sales process for home furnishings and decor. The idea is to capitalize on the inefficiencies in the market, which is worth $275 billion.

"It's unusually under-penetrated online," says Morgan Woodruff, president and CEO of Amber Engine. "There is a lot of headway for growth."

Rock Ventures, the umbrella entity for Dan Gilbert's business and real estate portfolio, launched the company in January. The business-to-business, cloud-based platform provides an online portal for manufacturers and online retailers that handles data management and keeps the availability of product offerings up to date.

"If you're looking for bar stools we want to show you every sort of bar stool available around the world," Woodruff says.

Amber Engine, which is based in the basement of the Chrysler House in downtown Detroit, currently employs a team of 15 people. It currently has a handful of openings, which Woodruff doesn’t expect to go away anytime soon.

"We expect to hire a person every other month for the rest of the year," Woodruff says.

Source: Morgan Woodruff, president & CEO of Amber Engine
Writer: Jon Zemke

Urban Aging families find resources for elderly loved ones

Patricia Rencher is all too familiar with the challenges of getting old. The downtown Detroit resident supported her parents through their final years when they were in their 80s and 90s.

"I discovered how disjointed and fragmented aging services were," Rencher says.

That inspired Rencher to start Urban Aging, a low-profit limited liability company that specializes in helping people navigate the aging process. Rencher recently graduated from the BUILD Social program, which teaches the basics of business to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Urban Aging will help its customer figure out what services, resources, programs, and products are available so they can maximize the comfort level of their loved ones' final years. The company also plans to host conferences and launch a tabloid newspaper to help guide people through the aging process.

"People need to know what services are available for home healthcare," Rencher says.

Urban Aging plans to host its first conference on May 16 in the Wayne County Community College District's Northwest Campus at 8200 W. Outer Drive in Detroit.

Source: Patricia Rencher, owner of Urban Aging
Writer: Jon Zemke

123.net leads effort to create Detroit Internet Exchange

123.net is leading an effort to add more speed and remove more problems from you Internet experience.

The Southfield-based Internet/data center company is pushing for the creation of Detroit Internet Exchange (Det-IX for short), a local Internet exchange passing Internet traffic locally between carriers for improved speed and lower cost.

"Our goal is to get as many companies in Michigan to interconnect locally instead of paying carriers in Chicago," says Ryan Duda, CTO of 123.net.

Today, people from metro Detroit who send an email to their neighbor first have to route it through a Chicago-based Internet exchange. Going through a third-party provider in another time zone creates a longer sending time. Many major metropolitan areas already have an Internet exchange, but this will be metro Detroit’s first.

Det-IX will enable local carriers who share bandwidth to send information over the World Wide Web faster and more affordably by utilizing peer-to-peer efficiencies. The creation of Det-IX will also upgrade the data infrastructure in Michigan and make it more appealing to new economy businesses who depend on Internet connectivity.

Source: Ryan Duda, CTO of 123.net
Writer: Jon Zemke

Attorney creates own law practice based on mediation

Antoinette "Toni" Raheem knew what it was like to work in corporate law. She knew it so well that she was inspired to launch her own legal practice: Law & Mediation Office of Antoinette R. Raheem.

"I was with a big firm for a number of years and learned what I could from them," Raheem says. "I decided it would be best if I went out on my own."

The Bloomfield Hills-based legal practice specializes primarily in mediation. That can mean settling disputes for everything from divorces to business partnerships gone wrong.

"The legal system is made to increase animosity between people," Raheem says.

She adds that the legal system sets up people to argue with each other. It picks winners and losers. It decides who is right and wrong. Raheem believes there is a different way forward for litigants through simple communication.

"You can meet everybody’s needs," Raheem says. "You don't need a winner or a loser."

The Law & Mediation Office of Antoinette Raheem is a one-woman show, but it's one that is pushing for change in the local legal system.

"I'd like to see more immediate and frequent use of mediation," Raheem says.

Source: Antoinette "Toni" Raheem, owner of the Law & Mediation Office of Antoinette Raheem
Writer: Jon Zemke

Community Choice, NuPath credit unions merge

Community Choice Credit Union is merging with NuPath Community Credit Union, creating a larger metro Detroit-based financial institution that will carry on under the Community Choice Credit Union’s banner.

The newly expanded credit union will now have 67,000 members across Michigan and $665 million in total assets. The merger with NuPath Community Credit Union will open up the downriver market to Community Choice Credit Union, along with other locations across Michigan.

"Downriver certainly is an area that is a good fit for us," says Alan Bergstrom, senior vice president & chief marketing officer for Community Choice Credit Union. "NuPath also has a branch in Holland, which was attractive to us. We have been looking at going from a strictly metro Detroit credit union to serving other areas of Michigan."

NuPath Community Credit Union has three branches in Wyandotte, Flat Rock, and Holland. Those branches and the credit union’s employees will be folded into the Community Choice Credit Union's workforce. The new credit union now employs about 200 people.

Community Choice Credit Union will now have 13 branches after the merger. The Farmington Hills-based credit union recently opened a new branch in Northville near Six Mile and Haggerty roads. It is also in the process of building out another new branch in Shelby Township that is set to open early next year. The 80-year-old credit union is also looking to execute more mergers, one of which is currently in the works.

"Based on our strategic plan, we have a pretty aggressive growth plan in place," Bergstrom says. "That includes mergers."

Source: Alan Bergstrom, senior vice president & chief marketing officer for Community Choice Credit Union
Writer: Jon Zemke

Qstride looks to hire 25 people at Techweek Detroit

Qstride is celebrating its birthday in a big way. The 3-year-old firm plans to hire 25 people later this month, starting at the Techweek Detroit conference next week.

"We're looking to hire a number of technologists at Techweek," says Shane Gianino, CEO of Qstride.

Techweek is a national conference that specializes in technology entrepreneurship. It brings together local leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors who specialize in everything from software to hardware. The week-long event will be held at Ford Field starting on Monday.

Qstride is one of the sponsors of Techweek Detroit and plans to use the event as a recruiting tool for the staffing end of its business. The Troy-based company (it also has an office in downtown Detroit) generates the lion’s share of its revenue from providing staffing and consulting services to tech firms. It also resells software.

Qstride has customers across the U.S., from New York to Texas to San Francisco. It has grown significantly over the last year, expanding its staff to 20 people with eight hires. It is also looking to begin raising a $1 million seed round to help it rapidly scale its growth curve.

"We're starting the process of raising the capital, such as putting together the pitch deck," Gianino says.

Source: Shane Gianino, CEO of Qstride
Writer: Jon Zemke

Canine to Five buys new building in Ferndale, plans to expand Detroit home


Next month, Canine to Five will celebrate 10 years of providing dog boarding and grooming services on Cass Avenue just south of Martin Luther King Boulevard. Since its launch, the dog daycare has become one of Midtown Detroit's name-brand businesses.

Today it's building the same reputation in Ferndale, where it has acquired its own building on East 9 Mile Road between Hilton and I-75. Canine To Five opened its first satellite location in Ferndale two years ago in a rented building. Its new home in Ferndale is nearly four times as large.

"We're going from a 6,000-square-foot building to a 22,000-square-foot building," says Liz Blondy, owner of Canine to Five.

The extra space is needed to keep up with Canine to Five's growth. Business at the company's Detroit home is up 14 percent in the last year and its business in Ferndale doubled by the end of its second year. Today Canine to Five has 18 employees working in Ferndale and 25 in Detroit. Fifteen of those employees were hired over the last year.

"We grew much quicker than anticipated," Blondy says. "The reception we got in Ferndale was outstanding."

Blondy expects to execute the move to the new building this spring, but Ferndale isn't here sole focus. Canine to Five is currently working with an architect to add 6,500 square feet to its Detroit home, which will double the size of its flagship location later this year.

Canine to Five is also partnering with Ferndale-based Treat Dreams Ice Cream & Desserts, which will provide Pooch Pops (an ice cream treat to dogs) at Canine To Five’s two locations this summer.

"It's important to me to use as many products as possible from Michigan for my business," Blondy says.

Source: Liz Blondy, owner of Canine to Five
Writer: Jon Zemke

Creative agency The Work adds staff as it expands workload

There is no shortage of work at The Work, a creative agency based on Detroit's east riverfront.

The 5-year-old boutique firm has so much work that it has hired three people over the last year, expanding its staff to 11 people. The new hires include editorial personnel and producers.

"The last year has been very busy," says Jesse Ford, managing director of The Work. "We have been taking on a diverse set of assignments."

Major clients include Team Detroit, for whom The Work produced a Speed Dating video in a Mustang. The firm has also been contracting with advertising agencies like Commonwealth, Leo Burnett, and Lowe Campbell Ewald. The Work also recently signed a partnership with Native of Los Angeles for creative consulting, commercial video production, and post-production services in LA and New York.

"Our goal is to continue to support the Detroit agencies and support the automotive industry," Ford says. "We're also looking to work with some agencies in LA and New York."

The Work got its start when five people working in local advertising circles banded together. The idea that their expertise in videography, photography, editing, production, and other creative outlets was worth more together as one company than as individual 1099s. All five co-founders are still working with the company on a full-time basis in the Elevator Building.

Source: Jesse Ford, managing director of The Work
Writer: Jon Zemke

Quizzle set to move into larger downtown office after being acquired by Bankrate

Quizzle is celebrating an acquisition this month and is getting ready to enjoy some extra elbow room later this spring.

Bankrate acquired the credit-monitoring company last week, making it the first Quicken Loans-built startup to exit through acquisition. It's common for acquired startups to be absorbed into their new parent companies. In this case that could mean downtown Detroit-based Quizzle folding into Bankrate's New York operation.

But Quizzle isn't going anywhere. In fact, it's getting ready to move into a bigger office in the 5th floor of the office building at 1274 Library (the former L.B. King and Company Building) next to the Boll Family YMCA.

"They are literally demoing the space right now," says Todd Albery, CEO of Quizzle. "It has room for growth. We have 19 people now and we will be able to hold 30."

Quizzle launched in 2008 as a side project within Quicken Loans. Today it provides free credit scores and reports, as well as credit monitoring and identity protection services. It currently has a staff of 19 employees and the occasional intern. The 20th employee is set to start work later this month. Quizzle has hired eight of its interns into full-time positions. Albery expects that growth to continue in downtown Detroit for the foreseeable future.

"When (Bankrate) acquires companies, it typically leaves them where they are," Albery says.

Source: Todd Albery, CEO of Quizzle
Writer: Jon Zemke

Social entrepreneur turns old houses into new furniture business, Owen & Abbey

Kimberly Watts' new business does a lot to make its customers feel good about their purchases. The Detroit-based business utilizes reclaimed wood and provides jobs to disadvantaged women.

Owen & Abbey makes tables and an assortment of home furnishings from wood reclaimed from deconstructed homes in Detroit and Pontiac. Watts was inspired to start this business last year when she first came across products made from reclaimed building materials.

"I thought there was a business here, but I wasn't sure about it yet," Watts says.

While Watts had an extensive background in fundraising, she did not have much of a history as a maker. But the idea of turning reclaimed building materials into a business stuck in her head, so she wrote a business plan and entered it into the Michigan Social Entrepreneur Challenge. She won the Jaffe Right Start Prize.

"Then I knew I was onto something," she says.

Today Watts is splitting time between her day job and Owen & Abbey. She hopes to grow the company to the point where she can start to hire people, specifically local women battling through economic adversity. To help make that happen, she has been filling orders from referrals and Etsy listings. Watts also graduated from the Build Institute's entrepreneurship program earlier this year, which is also helping steer work her way.

"It does a great job of supporting its graduates," Watts says.

Source: Kimberly Watts, owner of Owen & Abbey
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Venture capital competition will offer $120k in prizes to local minority-owned businesses

An event designed to connect minority-owned businesses with venture capital will make its Detroit debut next week. Occurring April 13-15, PowerMoves@Detroit will offer $120,000 in direct prizes in addition to exposure and networking opportunities. Local business owners will compete with entrepreneurs from across the country in a series of venture capital-style pitch events. Attendance to events at the Detroit Athletic Club, Garden Theater, and One Detroit are open to the public through an online registration system.

PowerMoves began in New Orleans, where it was founded by current Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) CEO Rodrick Miller. The event is sponsored by Morgan Stanley and is hosted by the DEGC and Invest Detroit.

Events include training sessions, a panel discussion focused on startups and exit strategies, two back-to-back pitch events with cash prizes, and a final pitch event featuring 15 early-stage entrepreneurs, also with cash prizes.

"With all the enthusiasm for entrepreneurs in Detroit and our city’s great legacy for providing opportunities for African Americans, this seemed like the perfect time and place for PowerMoves@Detroit," Miller says in a statement. "This event fills an important niche in the broad spectrum of activities that DEGC undertakes to support small business in Detroit."

The event will feature a number of minority-owned businesses from the Detroit region as well as New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Mayor Mike Duggan believes that not only will it provide Detroiters a pathway to venture capital, it will also expose minority-owned businesses from other parts of the country to opportunities available in the city of Detroit.

Local representatives include Jerry Rucker and Edward Carrington of Warranty Ninja, Terreance Reeves of Networkingout, and Dana White of Paralee Boyd Salon.

Writer: MJ Galbraith

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.

Attorneys chase literary dreams with Publishing313

Mark Rossman and Brian Saxe are two attorneys who like to joke that they gave up their dream of a creative career to pursue law. That’s changing now that they are launching Publishing313.

"We have been writing together for a number of years," Rossman says. "We wanted a vehicle to publish. I was talking to Brian and said, 'Why don't we create our own?'"

The venture not only aims to publish the work of Rossman and Saxe, but other local authors across Detroit. Publishing313 will be accepting submissions from local writers of poetry and short stories this spring. The founders hope to print those works and make them available in local bookstores by the summer.

"I am envisioning a journal of 75 to 100 pieces of short stories and poetry," Rossman says.

The partners are inspired by the reinvention of Detroit and believe the work being done to improve the Motor City will produce some classic contemporary literature.

Source: Mark Rossman and Brian Saxe, co-founders of Publishing313
Writer: Jon Zemke

Global Alliance Solutions turns life's lemons into new business

Nichole B. Pardo has experienced workplace discrimination on two fronts. She has both helped organizations avoid discriminatory practices and has filed a grievance for discriminatory practices.

Both experiences inspired her to start her own diversity training and crisis management company, Global Alliance Solutions, in Detroit.

"It was a classic situation of when life gives you lemons," Pardo says.

Global Alliance Solutions provides comprehensive diversity training to employees and members of management on unconscious bias as it relates to employment decisions. It is currently working with the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, Congress of Communities, Vardar Soccer Club, Mariners Inn, and Oakland Community College.

Pardo has an extensive history in diversity training. She worked as an investigator with Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the office of the president for Blue Cross Blue Shield. Before starting Global Alliance Solutions last fall, Pardo worked at another employer where she claimed to have been discriminated against because of her age (she is older than 40) and her race (she identifies as African-American), prompting her to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. The resulting settlement inspired her to start Global Alliance Solutions.

"I created the company so I could help prevent companies from violating discrimination laws and to help create more diversity," Pardo says.

Source: Nichole B. Pardo, owner of Global Alliance Solutions
Writer: Jon Zemke

The Christman Co opens stunning office in the Fisher Building, a structure it helped build

The Christman Co is back in Detroit, working once again on the famous skyline it helped build nearly a century ago.

The Lansing-based construction firm moved its metro Detroit office from Livonia to New Center earlier this month, taking space in the Fisher Building. The Christman Co helped build some of Detroit's most iconic buildings like the Masonic Temple. It served as the general contractor for the Fisher Building's construction in the 1920s.

That firm's history with the skyscraper made the decision to move easy, but other factors like cheaper rent and more convenient parking than what can be found downtown also played a role. When the Christman Group found out that it could have one of the penthouse floors in the building it helped build, however, the decision was made even easier.

"When we saw the 26th floor, we thought this was too good of an opportunity to pass up," says Ron Staley, senior vice president for The Christman Co.

The 26th floor is one of the three floors originally built out for the Fisher brothers of the Fisher Body Corp. It was decked out with walnut walls, ornate plaster, and bronzed doors. Some of those details were left when The Christman Co returned this month, which the company did its best to carefully restore.

"It was modified in the 1960s in a less than desirable way," Staley says.

The 26th floor measures 6,000 square feet, which the Christman Co built out to accommodate up to 25 people. Those workers have been busy with a number of projects in Detroit, such as Bedrock's work in downtown Detroit for the Quicken Loans portfolio of properties and Blue Cross Blue Shield's campus upgrades in Greektown.

"For numerous business reasons it made more sense to move closer to downtown," Staley says.

Source: Ron Staley, senior vice president for The Christman Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

Tomo Coffee Co brings cold-brew coffee via tricycle cart


A group of young entrepreneurs are working to bring cold brew coffee to Detroit via tricycle this summer with a new company, Tomo Coffee Co.

Husband-and-wife-duo Kara and Wesley Eggebrecht moved back to metro Detroit earlier this year from the East Coast. While away they developed a taste for cold brew coffee and and were disappointed when they couldn’t find it here.

"We decided to make our own at home," Kara Eggebrecht says.

They brought in a friend, Alex MacKenzie, to help perfect their product and come up with a delivery system. Today they raising $7,000 with a crowdfunding campaign to build a custom tricycle from which they will sell their cold, caffeinated beverages. They have already raised more than $4,000 toward their goal as of Monday evening. Check out the crowdfunding site here.

Wesley Eggebrecht is an illustrator and a graduate of the College of Creative Studies. He is helping direct the art for the tricycle from his studio in the Russell Industrial Center. The tricycle is designed by Motorless City Bicycles in Eastern Market.

"We want to distribute coffee a little bit differently than the way it is being done lately," Kara Eggebrecht says.

The trio hopes to have the trike built and running by May. They are looking to sell their cold-brew coffees from it at farmers markets across the region.

"Eastern Market is our primary target," Kara Eggebrecht says.

Source: Kara Eggebrecht, co-founder of Tomo Coffee Co
Writer: Jon Zemke
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