Guest Column

It takes a village

February 17, 2017
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Early in 2016, I had that sinking feeling you get as an entrepreneur when you realize you completely underestimated your growing organization’s needs. You know, the one where your grand utopian vision may be a little off.

Rewind to late 2015: Our tribe had a powerful vision, a pure mission and all 12 of us positioned to achieve my lofty 2016 goal of stabilizing three of our largest endeavors: $60 million in total projects that brought 241 market-rate apartments and 40,000 square feet of retail. And, oh yeah, the plan was for me to back away from day-to-day leadership in 2016 to focus solely on the innovation side of the business.

Today, that lofty goal is just about accomplished. My naïve thought that it would take only 12 souls actually took a tribe of 30. And as for me, I spent 99 percent of my time growing up and learning what it truly means to be a leader with help from three incredible mentors (Dr. Andy Atwood, Jeff Baker and Kathy Crosby) who preached patience and authenticity. 2016 was a learning year.

So how did I do it? Well, "I" didn't do it. It takes a village to raise this boy, and I have been blessed by a wonderful village of grace-filled mentors, supportive community stakeholders and leaders, and a tribe of tenacious individuals who gave me the honor of leading them. That is “who did it.”

As for my role, I quickly needed to go back into the business and reorganize. I read the book “Small Giants” by Bo Burlingham in 2015 and was very intrigued by how Zingerman's Deli grew utilizing the vertical integration model. Their story inspired me, and 616 Inc. was born. The mission of 616 Inc. is to protect and nurture our purpose of building strong and enduring communities, incubate new verticals that enhance our purpose and invest in the growth of the members of our tribe.

But, before 616 Inc. could work, I needed to step out of my role as lead developer — a dynamic and public role that is tough to transition from and rooted in many meaningful relationships. Jeff Olsen, our now director of development, made the transition as painless as possible for me. Seeing Jeff become a well-respected leader downtown has been very fulfilling.

With development largely off my plate, a 2.0 version of 616 became my new obsession. 616 Inc., the new holding company, provides resources and strategy for all our current ventures, such as 616 Development, 616 Lofts, 616 Places and future verticals, as well. 616 Inc. is a “deliberately developmental organization,” derived from the book “An Everyone Culture” by Robert Kegan. Simply put, we grow and nurture people. With 616 Inc. in place, we could begin seeing the entire business through a new lens — with all its gaps and overlaps. We went to work on adding key roles.

If you are an entrepreneur growing a business, invest in a seasoned CFO. Dave Lefere is our CFO. Within one year, Dave built us a powerful accounting team that serves as the foundation of our business. I used to hate accounting, but now I understand and love it. Life is funny that way. Another positive impact of bringing Dave on board was pushing our former CFO, Mike Skukalek, to president, which gave me a financial wingman. Mike embodies the perfect president for our heavy financial business model — a leader built on an accounting chassis!

With the money handled, now it was time for the vision. Enter Monica Steimle-App, my first employee. Her new role is visionary for our 616 Lofts team. Monica and I remain huge fans of Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why.” Her efforts inspire our team to create maximum impact within our strong and enduring communities. That’s how we answer the questions of why we do what we do.

We do relationships. We just needed to do them better. Sort of like your favorite barber or bartender — someone who knows you and knows what you like. David Abbott, director of sales and marketing, leverages his deeply relational style to nurture the community we are creating.

If you know me, you know I like to play. But I suck at the game of “Operation.” Luckily, I’ve got a great operator in Colin Schiefler, director of property management. Once we fill our buildings with life, we get to make life better. Colin built a wonderful team of stewards who are fueled by our purpose of community creation and better life.

Next, we needed to think of the entire housing lifecycle of our residents. Not everyone desires a loft; some prefer a house. Another seed of an idea was planted. Mike VanderWoude leads our residential real estate model. Many of our residents ultimately buy homes when they leave us. If we do our community-driven job right as their property manager, we hope they trust us with their next move and remain in our 616 family.

So, what was going to hold all of us together? Who would be the glue? In mid-2016, our culture started to dip, and culture being the first thing I actually did right, I had another sinking feeling. I read another book, “Rocket Fuel,” by Mark Winters. The book features the concept every visionary needs an integrator to help fulfill the vision. My brother, Drew Coppess, became our integrator. He’s a selfless, smarter older brother who happens to be a scientist with a personality. Over just five months, the culture became stronger than ever driven by Drew’s efforts of building processes, big data measurement, systems and integration throughout the organization.

One of my newest favorites is, “What Got You Here Won't Get You There,” by Marshall Goldsmith. The 2.0 version of 616 moves us from an entrepreneurial business that makes decisions solely from gut and intuition to an organization that confirms that gut and intuition with data. That’s good, because Grand Rapids has a lot of anxious questions regarding downtown housing, and anxiety can be contagious. The new 616 tribe focuses on soothing those anxieties with renewed purpose, vision and data. Our city leaders join us in this conversation.

I am continuously motivated by the grace and support I have received from city leaders and the Grand Rapids community over the past eight years. With the continued support of this “village” and a tribe of 30, we are marching boldly into 2017 together, ready to do some noble work.

Derek Coppess is founder of development firm 616 Inc.

NOTE: The views expressed in Guest Columns are not necessarily those of the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

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