Start Garden graduates make their mark

The entrepreneurial organization is sharing in the success it helped to create.
Start Garden has been involved with Sportsman Tracker since its inception. The digital platform provides hunters and anglers with information and resources on where and when the best time is to begin their outdoor sports. Courtesy Matt Read

Start Garden has made its presence felt in this region’s business community ever since it was founded nine years ago by Rick DeVos.

Now, some of those Start Garden “graduates” are making their marks in West Michigan’s business community — and around the world.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem has invested financial, intellectual and social capital into hundreds of entrepreneurs by connecting them to resources critical to their growth stage. Start Garden established competitions like 5×5 Night and 100 Ideas to benefit those who are looking to turn their ideas into the business they envision.

The 5×5 competition allows for up to five finalists to pitch their ideas in five minutes to five judges who then decide which idea wins. The winners of the 5×5 competitions are awarded $5,000 to build on their idea.

Some of the individuals who have benefited from Start Garden’s 5×5 resources are Derik Lolli with Benefit Mobile, Jeff Courter with Sportsman Tracker, Jason Mejeur with MaxOne and Ben Harrison with Jonas Paul Eyewear.

Benefit Mobile was born out of Lolli’s experience with selling stacks of plastic gift cards to raise funds for his kids’ school. It morphed into an app-based platform to sell digital gift cards as fundraisers.

Benefit Mobile has since raised millions of dollars in investor funds and, in 2018, merged with an industry-leading firm. At the end of 2020, it was sold to one of the largest firms in the gift card industry.

“It’s every entrepreneur’s dream to build a business that is considered successful both to its investors and community,” said Lolli, founder and CEO of Benefit Mobile. “I’m forever grateful to Start Garden for believing in Benefit and dedicating not only dollars but also a much-needed network, guidance and advice throughout our nine-year journey. With their help, we were able to contribute millions of dollars to local schools and nonprofits while also leading to an exciting exit for our team. We look forward to seeing the future impacts under new ownership.”

The acquisition price for Benefit Mobile is confidential, per the terms of the transaction agreement, but it is significant.

“The initial investment in Benefit Mobile resulted in us securing a small piece of business ownership — low single digits if we’re talking a percentage,” said Paul Moore, director of Start Garden. “But its success more than covered the roughly 300 small $5,000 and $20,000 investments that we made to build an entrepreneurial culture from which Derek grew. And while it’s great that we covered our cost, the biggest win is that we spurred hundreds of entrepreneurs to act and give their ideas a shot.”

Courter is the co-founder of Sportsman Tracker, which is a digital platform that provides hunters and fishermen with information and resources on where and when the best time is to begin their outdoor sports. The company’s flagship app is called HuntWise.

“Start Garden was really a part of the initial forming of our business from day one,” Courter said. “I developed an idea and around that same time that I had the initial hypothesis into what we were doing, they were having their 5×5 Night. We brought that concept to that and we had our first success there. They gave us the $5,000 and then later $20,000. We incorporated in 2015, but they invested in us prior to that so they helped us from the very beginning.”

In addition to money, Courter said Start Garden provided them a space to work out of at 40 Pearl St. in Grand Rapids as they began to emerge as a company. The nonprofit also surrounded them with people who are knowledgeable about entrepreneurship, and some of those individuals are team members at Sportsman Tracker.

“When you start as a founder, you don’t know what you don’t know, so they helped to foster our growth by surrounding us with people who helped us get to where we are now,” he said.

In 2020, the company launched HuntCast 2.0, which is a mapping technology to cover public and private land boundaries for all 50 states to go hunting, unlock 3D mapping options and provide over 350 state and federal map overlays. The app also features downloadable options such as offline maps, peak movement times for over a dozen North American species, and hunting land-owner parcel and contact information.

In 2018, Start Garden revealed a new initiative called 100 Ideas where individuals can submit 100-second videos of themselves pitching their idea. There were 812 individuals who participated in the competition in 2018. One hundred people were selected, and they received $1,000 to invest in their ideas.

Those 100 individuals returned for a Demo Day event to make the case for why they should be among 10 chosen for another $20,000. Later, 10 people are chosen to win $20,000. 

The competition was held in 2018 and 2019. It was interrupted in 2020 because of the pandemic, but this year, the competition has returned, and individuals can submit their ideas until July 26.

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