Tomorrow Tour Entrepreneur Series: Niles Heron

Growing up, Niles Heron couldn’t wait to leave Detroit. But after stints in Los Angeles and San Diego, all he wanted was to get back to his home city.

Detroit had too much potential and too much energy to leave behind.

Today, he is co-founder and chief business development officer of Michigan Funders, an equity crowdfunding platform that allows local residents to invest in local businesses.

We met Niles during the Tomorrow Tour Detroit. We recently sat down with him to discuss the Tomorrow Tour, Michigan Funders, and his philosophy that great ideas can be born out of a lack of resources.

Q: What was the motivation behind Michigan Funders?

Niles: One of the biggest challenges of small business that’s no surprise to anybody is capital. The truth of it is that most companies aren’t ready for capital. As a founder or entrepreneur, if you don’t get the feeling you’re going to get funded, that becomes your focus. And that distracts you from focusing on just making the business the best it can be. What we saw in Detroit was there wasn’t this access to capital, and there wasn’t a regular discussion about tactical things founders could do in order to actually grow their business while they were waiting on capital.

Q: What’s your day-to-day role like?

Niles: My day-to-day for the last two years has been working with entrepreneurs, saying, "What is your idea? What is your dream? What are you doing to actually execute on that?" Detroit has an interesting challenge – there is a lack of density. But I have seen that there is enough to generate communities of learning and growth around the entire space. So I work with coworking spaces in Detroit and try to figure out how to add value, process and discussions about what entrepreneurs are doing so we can start finding the companies that are going to get funded. Making sure people have the access to start to build dynamic business is the point to me. And when we find great companies, we can try to figure out how we can help them capitalize.

Q: You participated in the Tomorrow Tour when it made a stop in Detroit. What kind of impact have you seen from working with Comcast NBCUniversal?

Niles: A lot of people are hearing that Detroit real estate is great and that Detroit has all these opportunities. But you also still have a lot of people who think Detroit is just a burnt down city. They don’t really give acknowledgment to the real work we’re doing here. Tomorrow Tour specifically came to Detroit and allowed entrepreneurs to tell their own stories and embrace the fact that everyone here is self-directed. We’re not just following the cookie-cutter formats for how things need to be done.

Tomorrow Tour also forced a discussion in what we need to do better without making it a hack job, but just saying, "What resources are we still lacking? And what are the opportunities we have?" I love seeing companies like Comcast invest in the entire culture here, because it’s so necessary. It has the opportunity to change generationally what Detroit looks like in terms of access and opportunity.

Q: What’s the most common piece of advice you give to entrepreneurs?

Niles: The stairway to scale is one of the things I talk about most. When you look at the heavily capitalized spaces, lots of companies look to just buy their scale. Often, you need to have a concept of how you’re going to scale. But everything you plan is just not going to work. So we’re focusing on a micro level, asking, "What is the real tangible minimum you need in order to have this business not go out of business? And how do you get there?" Then we can sit here, saying, "We paid all of our bills." Now, as an investor, I’m very interested because you are a sustainable business looking to grow. You’ve done that quickly, you’ve documented how do that, and you understand which of those ideas can be replicated. Now you have a real, in-the-wild demonstration of that product or service, which puts you in a much more advantageous place.

Q: It sounds like you focus on practicality, without trying too hard to be like other cities.

Niles: I think competitive advantages for lots of businesses are built out of one of two spaces. Either you have an incredible surplus -- you have all of the developers and all the resources in the world, and so now you can make Snapchat. Or you have none of the developers and none of the resources, and now you’ve got to make ends meet. Both of those can be a competitive advantage. Because if you don’t have the burden of necessity for scale, you can get to your sustainability point much more quickly and efficiently. You’re also forced not to take superfluous detours. You are literally forced to focus by the necessity of your stomach growling. Being hungry can be an advantage.

Q: You have a diverse set of interests, ranging from poetry to martial arts. Do you ever dream about creating your own startups for Detroit?

Niles: I think of new startup ideas every day. I put them in my pocket and figure out which of them have the impact I’m going for. I think entrepreneurship is about finding solutions to problems. I don’t think it’s about starting businesses. Entrepreneurship is about innovation -- it’s about doing something either new or new in a space.

Because of that broad-brush approach, a lot of the stuff I want to do is about saying, "How do we give people access? What happens when you put four business owners on a block, and now kids are growing up seeing blue-collar, white-collar and no-collar jobs? How do they grow up with perspective on what they can do when they get there?" I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for us to embrace diverse perspectives into entrepreneurship from a young age. Not in a way that people are just building jobs for themselves, which I think is fine, but in a way that people are able to leverage their unique experiences.