Atomic Object reports positive economic gardening experience

June 18, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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The state government’s efforts to help grow business in Michigan is working, according to Gov. Rick Snyder — and part of that strategy includes a little “economic gardening.”

Atomic Object, an 11-year-old homegrown Grand Rapids software development company, can — and did — back up Snyder’s point about economic gardening. The firm just opened its second location last week, in Detroit, on the same day company president Carl Erickson spoke at the 10th annual National Economic Gardening Conference in Grand Rapids.

Economic gardening is sweeping the country, focused on the principle of helping “grow” second-stage companies that are safely past the founding stage and ready to expand. Atomic Object was one of 50 Michigan companies that recently participated in the pilot project involving the new Pure Michigan Business Connect Economic Gardening program.

Snyder was also at the conference, where he said state efforts over the last 18 months “have greatly improved Michigan’s business climate and infrastructure, making it easier for our businesses to find new paths to prosperity.”

“Today’s conference shines a spotlight on Michigan’s economic gardening strategy and how it is working to transform our economy,” said Snyder.

The conference, attended by economic development professionals from throughout the Midwest, was hosted this year by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Pure Michigan Business Connect. Put on each year by the National Center on Economic Gardening, it focuses on the promotion of viable business development programs at the state and local levels. This year’s attendance of more than 175 was the largest in its 10-year history.

Key speakers at the conference were Chris Gibbons, director of business and industry affairs for the city of Littleton, Colo., and creator of the economic gardening economic development model, and Mark Lange, executive director of the Edward Lowe Foundation in southwest Michigan and a leader in entrepreneurism training.

Earlier this month, MEDC announced five new initiatives under the Pure Michigan Business Connect umbrella that will further Michigan business growth and improve the state’s economy. Those include several financing tools for small and medium-sized businesses and community redevelopment projects, a new business-to-business network and increased exporting opportunities for Michigan businesses.

“These additions to Pure Michigan Business Connect significantly expand our economic gardening toolkit to grow our state’s economy,” said MEDC President and CEO Michael A. Finney. “Pure Michigan Business Connect provides a great opportunity to collaborate, share assets and improve our competitiveness as we continue to move along the path to a new Michigan.”

Unveiled by Snyder a year ago, Pure Michigan Business Connect helps companies find new ways to raise capital, get access to business services and connect with each other in business-to-business procurement opportunities.

Erickson was on a panel of three business owners who applied for and were accepted late last year for participation in the state’s pilot project to help second-stage companies prepare for the growth they wanted to attempt.

Some economic development professionals believe the focus should be on large manufacturing corporations, which have the largest volume of jobs. Erickson addressed that issue by noting that his company, which began with two employees, is still a small business, though now up to $35 million in annual sales and employing 35 software professionals. He added that Atomic Object employees earn an average annual salary of $75,000 — “so, very good jobs,” which definitely have an impact on the local economy.

The pilot project did not cost the participating companies anything, but they had to be referred to the MEDC and were screened to ensure they were at their second stage.

Erickson said there was no question that Atomic Object was “going to survive. The question is, how are we going to grow” in the most effective manner. The Business Connect program provided his company “access to tools I would not have had access to as a small company — and expertise, too,” he said. The experience undoubtedly increased his firm’s chance of maintaining its success as it grows, he told the conference.

In addition to a team leader, there were experts in business management/strategy and access to capital, market research, use of Internet marketing tools including social media and search engine optimization, and geographical information systems. Each team spent 35 hours with each company, providing in-depth consulting and information.

The three business owners were asked to critique various aspects of the services provided by the Business Connect teams, and while it was generally positive, it wasn’t a whitewash. Erickson was blunt in his criticism of the software MEDC had developed for the teams’ use.

As the panel was wrapping up, Erickson softened his criticism by noting that, as head of a high-tech software company, his standards on software are “extraordinarily high.”

The owner of a small Petoskey company that serves the health care industry said he appreciated the fact that the economic gardening team from Business Connect was objective: “They didn’t have a slant.” He said the experience helped his firm grow at a faster pace and provided a valuable report card that pinpointed areas in which the company can improve.

Erickson said Atomic Object had been considering several places around the country for a second location but settled on Detroit “because we live in Michigan” and what happens to Detroit matters to the entire state.

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