Economic Development and Small Business & Startups

DeVos views failure as part of 'good' business explorer's journey

November 9, 2012
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DeVos views failure as part of 'good' business explorer's journey
Rick DeVos speaks to the crowd at a Start Garden Update Night. Photo via

The explorers who conquered the seven seas have passed on their spirits of curiosity, overcoming failure and ambition to today’s modern entrepreneurs.

Rick DeVos, who made this analogy for the Forest Hills Business Association Thursday, seems to be captaining the ship.

DeVos, the established West Michigan social entrepreneur who created both ArtPrize and Start Garden, was FHBA’s guest speaker for its November meeting at the Cascade Hills Country Club.

DeVos told those assembled to ask not only “What if . . . ?”, but “What if we . . . ?”

This difference of one word makes all the difference in the world, he said. It encourages business owners to take ownership and to actually do something about the future rather than dream about it.

It’s the difference, he said, between asking, “What if there were flying cars?” and strapping some wings and an engine to a convertible.

“For those exploration age explorers, it was the question of, ‘What if we build ships?’ and then, ‘What if we sail those ships into a giant ocean and sail as far as we can?’” DeVos said. “We crave the known and it is weird (for us) to have a culture so into trying these things. But we could definitely build that here.”

To nurture this spirit, Grand Rapids needs to lose an attitude that fears failure, he said, and instead makes failure survivable. Failure is not always a sign of either laziness or divine displeasure, although Michigan culture sometimes views it as such, he said. It’s simply part of a good explorer’s journey to success.

“Failure is the norm with every foray into the unknown,” he said. “For our purposes, the only way we truly find out something new is to start doing it. Often times we find things of greater value than what we set out to find. Columbus actually set out to find a new trade route to India for what was, at the time, an insanely lucrative spice trade. There just happened to be two entire continents blocking the way.”

Start Garden makes failures bite-sized, DeVos said, and he asked business leaders to explore using other types of resources to make little “entrepreneurial bets” on an ongoing basis.

Minor failures are inevitable, he said, as long as the whole system is not jeopardized.

“A lot of those people (funded by Start Garden) have careers, but $5,000 is enough to run an experiment to put something out there and see if there’s a response to it,” he said. “For the people who don’t seek help and don’t move forward, I’d rather learn that with a $5,000 investment than a $20,000 investment.”

Start Garden continues to invest more in the person than the idea, he said. Although it will continue to invest in whoever is selected, he said the team tries to support venture investments rather than lifestyle investments.

“When you’re creating these new things it’s not a fixed pie,” he said. “Depending on how the model continues to roll out, I could see doing similar things in other cities and regions. It’s all in the service of creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

When DeVos finished speaking and taking questions, Laura McDowell, FHBA president, told him that as a thank you, the FHBA would make a $500 donation to any nonprofit of his choice.

DeVos smiled shyly and said, “I’d have to pick ArtPrize,” resulting in plenty of laughter and applause.

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