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Why is Pontiac the best home for a tech business?

Matt Russell (left), Mark Hillman, Elaina Farnsworth, and Eric Kirk (not pictured) talk tech at High Growth Happy Hour.


High Growth Happy Hour: Pontiac’s Tech Economy will take place on June 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Paissa Building in downtown Pontiac. Here, participants will get an inside look at the growing tech industry in Pontiac, learn its challenges and opportunities, and discover what the future holds, as panelists Matt Russell, Elaina Farnsworth, Eric Kirk, and Mark Hillman talk tech with moderator Glen Konopaskie, consultant in the connected vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure sectors. Konopaskie is the former director of Main Street Pontiac, and a seasoned Pontiac tech entrepreneur.

This panel discussion is open to the public, and is part of Comcast’s High Growth Happy Hour series, which brings together local talent to talk challenges and opportunities of growing a tech business in Pontiac.

We talked with each panelist about Pontiac, tech, and scaling a tech businesses. Here’s what we learned. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Russell is at the helm of several tech startups in Pontiac. As president of Cynerge Consulting, he leads a team in enterprise-grade application development, cloud migration, and data center support, predominantly for the civilian public sector. As managing partner of Autostructure, Russell helps clients automate the management of applications and data. But Russell says he best known as majority owner and managing partner of LocalHop, the things-to-do platform for grassroots organizations, schools, and businesses. His businesses also own the cool downtown Paissa Building that houses the Alley Cat Cafe, and is the venue for the event.

Why is Pontiac a great place to grow a tech business?

The best thing is the location. We have people scattered around Oakland County and other counties, so for our team, even in Oakland County, it’s much more central and easy to get in and out of. There’s a great buzz in Detroit, but we don’t necessarily want to deal with the traffic, the parking, and the rent. This is the urban environment I can get to easily. I was talking with Dan Izydorek at breakfast this morning and we agreed there is a cool community here. People have a “get in and get your hands dirty” attitude, and we all help each other, and bounce ideas off each other. It’s a tight-knit feel that helps us with recruiting and business development. Birmingham didn’t have that feel, and certainly not Detroit. We use Pontiac as a recruiting tool. Here’s an example: one guy we were recruiting was from Michigan originally, and wanted to move home. We sent him a picture of the surroundings, and he said “I’m in.” Pontiac had a better feel for him than what the other company could offer. The grit part of a turnaround can be fun. You have a chance to do something, and test things out, try things you could never do anywhere else.

What support or resources does your business need to scale to the next level?

A good, qualified lead never hurts. Networking is key; it’s about getting in front of the right people. Also we need a good queue of candidates, because we want to hire two to three people this summer, and would love to hire someone who lives in Pontiac. In IT it’s hard to find positions in the first place, and we have done national searches for well-paid positions. But having a good way of finding talent helps, because if something comes through, I need to scale quickly. Maybe this would be through the universities, or through good tech community groups, like Tech248, Automation Alley, or Women in Tech. A mentorship program would be awesome. For me, I’m on the threshold of the low 20s in terms of staff. When you get to 40 or 50, there is another layer of process and rigor you need to have to manage that size. Is there someone who has been there and done that and wants to give back that can help talk me through it? Also, so much is changing in the marketing space these days. How to get your name out there in a world where marketing changes so quickly? I can’t buy a billboard at Comerica.

Elaina Farnsworth is CEO of The NEXT Education, a Pontiac- and Sterling Heights-based company focused on preparing talent for the new mobility economy. Thinking way beyond the traditional engineer, The NEXT Education fills the skills gaps for technicians, installers, and those who will work hands-on in our rapidly changing transportation and intelligent infrastructure. Courses in cybersecurity, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), and mobility team leadership, in instructor-led and blended learning environments focus training, cross-training, and certifying a strong, credentialed talent pool for the connected and autonomous vehicle sector.

Why is Pontiac a great place to grow a tech business?

Pontiac is a hidden gem. There are a lot of very innovative people here who are willing to get together and share ideas. You see this a lot in Silicon Valley, and in very progressive, innovative places, and in downtown Detroit. Pontiac is an extension of that vibe. People here want to invest in each other and to help this area grow. Pontiac’s proximity to everything is one of the reasons we elected to open our second office here. Pontiac is at the end of Woodward, which is historically profound. Also, Oakland County has a vat number of suppliers and OEMs, and it’s very close to Macomb County. For an education company, this is a very natural fit for us. We can send instructors out, even as far as Ann Arbor, and companies can bring their communities to our location. Pontiac is a cool little town; I love the vibe and the area.

What support or resources does your business need to scale to the next level?

We want to work with other companies that want to be part of this industry. It’s better if we all work together to get a much more expansive reach. We are looking for collaborative partnerships to let us have more educational content and value. We want to partner with larger organizations in the southeast region to align the right type of worker in Michigan to support the vast amount of business that will come from the new innovative economy. One of the unique parts about NEXT is we employ people who are working in the field to teach classes. If you are working in the industry, you can share more of the hands-on knowledge, and we need a vast number of adjunct professors who work in the field. We’d love to have small and large companies working on specific topics, whether its cybersecurity, or V2V or V2I technologies, who know their area of expertise to join us in professorship at The NEXT Education.

Eric Kirk is an embedded firmware developer and cryptographic designer who started out by launching Kirk Engineering from his basement workspace in 2001. Kirk has engaged in several tech endeavors since then, and is currently focused on providing high-tech training for motion control automation, robot programming, robot electrical repair, mechanical building, and automation integration. Kirk grew up in Pontiac, and is committed to giving back to Pontiac’s youth through skills training for the tech economy.

What makes Pontiac a great place to grow a tech business?

There are so many high-tech industries embedded in Pontiac. Within a four-mile radius sit some of the most advanced corporations in the world, all within walking distance from the hood. And some of the best universities, too, like Lawrence Tech, Oakland University, and U-M. There is also a skill set here. There are young people who are highly motivated and can do it. It’s like a black Silicon Valley, right here. Whatever I can do to make it happen, I’m going to do it.

What support or resources does your business need to scale to the next level?

What we are offering is a whole different program. It’s more about what I can offer the kids here. I want everyone on the same page to help these kids. Let’s sti and talk about that $100 million contract and then work together to knock it out. It’s all about collaboration and dong the real deals. We need to start thinking bigger and outside the box. Even approach the churches and offer programming, communications, and robotics training. We have the capability to build military-grade satellites, and I am going to do something about it.

Mark Hillman is CEO of Lenderful, which is just one of the Pontiac-based high-tech software startups under the umbrella of MadDog Technology, the enterprise Hillman co-founded. Other early stage solutions include online automobile sales, energy management, and water management.

Why is Pontiac a great place to grow a tech business?

Location, location, location! The tech economy in our area, in the last five years, has generally driven the economy, as well as the connected and autonomous car sector. Technology has gobbled up thousands of engineers, all around software and data. Simplistically, how do you compete as a startup? You bring the jobs to the people instead of making the people go to the jobs. Pontiac, from a location standpoint, is a 10 min drive from you name it. Troy, Rochester Hills, Birmingham, then Royal Oak is another 10 minutes. And they are all the opposite direction of traffic. M-59 goes right through town, then it’s another three minute drive to I-75. It’s crazy convenient. That makes it easy to attract people who don’t want to work in a place that is not all congested. Rent is cheap. And that's a bonus.

What support or resources does your business need to scale to the next level?

For us it's about our individual business and each individual situation may require something unique. This is not a Pontiac thing, per se, but there is lots of talent in these suburbs. With that solved, it really is business by business, and how we grow it. The other thing, though, if you look at the unemployment rate, it is 3.7% that's nuts. Michigan's may be below the national average. According to the UBS Chief Economist, the rate could go as low as 3.2%, and that is insane. Imagine the competition for top talent. Things are changing. The pace of change, and having people with enough experience is far more than a training issue, so it's hard to manufacture talent with the level of experience that is needed for this level of technology.

Photo by Nick Hagen
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