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Inside Track: Millennial entrepreneur rides the wave of GR’s renaissance
Andrew Montpetit’s start-up, Thoughts You Can See, draws on his talent of expressing ideas visually.
Even though Andrew Montpetit loved to draw as a kid, he was always told that “the starving artist” path was too financially risky.
But Montpetit, a Detroit native, ended up choosing a potentially even riskier path to become a successful entrepreneur and business owner instead.
It’s an ironic detail of his story, said Montpetit, the owner and founder of Thoughts You Can See.
Although he only founded his Grand Rapids business in April 2013, Montpetit said he’s thrilled to see that his “one-man show” business, which helps companies and individuals brand and express their ideas more effectively using visuals, is already proving successful.
“If you ever hear someone say, ‘You’ll never make money doing that,’ don’t listen to them,” he said.
“Everyone’s got their ideas of what (talents) will make money, but if you’re just doing it to make money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
It’s almost unbelievable that Montpetit, who has an entire website devoted to the artwork he’s created all over Grand Rapids, has only taken one art class in his life — and that was in high school.
He’s been an avid drawer since he was 8 years old, he said, and was a big fan of DC Comics artist Bruce Timm as well as cartoonists Bill Watterson and Gary Larson while growing up.
Montpetit was the kid in school whose notes were covered in doodles, he said.
“Sometimes it would be hard to pay attention. To understand (the material) better, I’d draw pictures to go alongside the (topic), so it was like an info-graphic,” he said.
Montpetit, whose parents both work in the medical field, first arrived in Grand Rapids to attend Aquinas College in 2005. At first he thought he would become a doctor like his father, but he wound up changing his major every year until he finally settled on a business and marketing degree as a junior.
He said he never really thought about taking art classes while he was in college.
“It wasn’t going toward my major. I didn’t have enough confidence to go for it at the time. And by the time I was out and had the confidence, it was too late.”
Even though he remained interested in art, he decided it was more important to be practical and study something that could expand his career.
“A lot of problems with artists is — that’s all they want to do: create art. If you want to start a business, it can’t just be your art. You’ve got to be a salesman and do all the stuff you don’t want to do,” he said.
“The business marketing background was a really good foundation for me. … You’ve got to pay the bills.”
Paying the bills, however, proved to be challenging when Montpetit finished college in 2009 and returned to Detroit for a jobless six-months. He finally found work in radio sales, but said the “cutthroat, unpleasant” environment wasn’t for him and he left the job after six months.
Entering the work force during the Great Recession was an experience that “get’s your professional boots on really quick,” he said.
“It’s a blessing and curse because we didn’t get the cushy jobs that everyone got before us, but at the same time, it forced us to really think outside of that,” he said.
“I’m a huge believer that there’s a motivating factor behind things that are unpleasant — that you can take things that are very negative and utilize them to make something positive.”
It was at this time that he realized he missed Grand Rapids and wanted to move back. The city was “hitting its stride at the time,” he said, and he wanted to ride that wave.
On Aug. 25, 2010, Montpetit was driving down Fulton Street looking and praying for a job, when he said he suddenly “felt a physical pull to turn right and check at Cottage Inn bar.” They directed him to Olga’s Kitchen and he had a job in less than 30 minutes.
“Looking back, it’s astronomical how that worked,” he said. “I had keys and a job within three hours.”
For the next year, Montpetit worked seven jobs to make ends meet, mostly restaurant jobs along with some freelance marketing. He eventually joined Grand Rapids Young Professionals and started attending technology events and making friends in the entrepreneurial scene at places like GR Current and GR Makers.
Those connections led him to The Factory, a collaborative workspace and entrepreneurial hub located at 38 W. Fulton St. and founded by another young entrepreneur: Aaron Schaap.The experience is one he looks back on as his “big break.”
“All I wanted to do was work there — volunteer and be involved in the space,” he said.
“Aaron sat down with me, and then he basically said, ‘I want you to pitch me about why I should hire you.’ I came up with a presentation and pitched him to hire me for at least five months. And he said yes.”
For six months, Montpetit worked at The Factory, facilitating membership and doing a number of odd jobs. He also started drawing “The Factory Daily,” creating a different design or cartoon on the walls of the fourth-floor space every day.
The entrepreneurial bug bit him during those months, Montpetit said, and his new entrepreneurial friends, “as those guys do,” forced him to take his gifts to the next level.
“I basically just took the plunge. I said, “I’ve got to teach myself graphic design,” he said. “Everything I know is self-taught (through watching) a lot of YouTube videos and people. I had friends from Kendall who’d show me stuff, and books — anything I could get my hands on.”
He said the idea for Thoughts You Can See was partly spurred by a need he saw to express ideas in a way that was digestible without being laid on too thick — a problem he often saw when he was working in sales. He said he noticed that salespeople sometimes do a poor job of explaining what they’re trying to sell.
"They don’t convey an understanding or speak to … the people they’re trying to reach. They just say what they think is cool about what they do, and then they’re just done. … It’s not conveying … what’s useful, and sometimes it’s a lot about ego," he said.
“I noticed it wasn’t just in sales, it was everywhere. I’m talented in taking complicated explanations and making it very understandable to people. So, I saw the growing need and (created Thoughts You Can See)."
He is currently building its infrastructure so he can expand in the future. One of the major reasons he believes his business is thriving in such a short time is because of the city it’s in. Grand Rapids is a place where business minds are always open to new ideas, he said, adding that the closeness of the community also creates easy access to people who can make things happen.
The city has “institutionalized fluidity,” he said, making it perfect for an artist with a business edge.
“The culture is artistic … and it’s vibrant. It’s a perfect breeding ground for (entrepreneurs). The past five years has really cemented it in,” he said.
“I’m very excited about where this is going, not just for myself and Thoughts You Can See, but I’m excited to be a part of everything, of this movement in Grand Rapids. Someone said it before: It’s the Grand Rapids renaissance.”