As featured on American Express: Open Forum
MAY 04, 2016 – Greg Sandler: Writing and Content Development Expert, ThinkGlobal Inc.
An entrepreneurial elixir seems to be brewing in the Great Lakes region these days, and it reflects the importance of small business to the American economy. In conjunction with National Small Business Week (May 1-7), a 2016 WalletHub survey of 1,216 small American cities ranked the top communities to start a business. The top three are all located near the water.
Number one on the list is Holland, Michigan, which sits on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. North Chicago, Illinois—located across Lake Michigan from Holland—is second on the list. And number three is Brighton, New York, situated just inland from Lake Ontario.
What makes a city “business friendly”? WalletHub’s methodology includes 15 key metrics related to business environment, access to resources and business costs. For Small Business Week, I wanted to chat with the small-business owners who make these towns proud.
Worksighted in Holland, Michigan
Founded in 2000, Worksighted provides IT management and support solutions for businesses and healthcare facilities. Matt Nguyen, Worksighted’ president, and his partner Mike Harris started the company while they were seniors at Hope College in Holland. Their first year was spent in his parent’s basement. They eventually moved to a loft in the town’s central business district and recently settled into an 18,000-square-foot facility on Holland’s main thoroughfare.
Worksighted has flourished in western Michigan. Today, it has 47 employees and annual sales of more than $8 million. Moreover, the company is growing at 35 percent per year, which has landed it on the Inc. 5000 list for the past four years in a row. It’s also been named one of the “Best and Brightest Companies To Work For” in America by the National Association for Business Resources.
Nguyen attributes the company’s growth, in part, to help they received from local business mentors and economic development organizations. But, he adds, financing is much easier to come by today then it was 16 years ago in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble bursting.
Holland, a city of 33,000 people, scored in the top 100 in both the “access to resources” and favorable “business costs” metrics in WalletHub’s survey timed to Small Business Week. Starting a business in a community with a vibrant economic base is often an important factor for entrepreneurs. Nguyen says the secret sauce in Holland is a business ecosystem with an entrepreneurial spirit in which the public, private and nonprofit sectors all work well together.
The town is part of a growing diversity in the region, which Nguyen both advocates and embodies in his personal and professional lives. (He was born in Paris to parents who left Vietnam in the 1970s, and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 16.)
“Diversity is not just about percentages,” says Nguyen. “It comes down to how we all work together to integrate different perspectives. Successful companies and communities need to be open to new ways of thinking.”
While western Michigan may not be the Silicon Valley of the Midwest—among the leading employers in the Holland area are furniture maker Herman Miller, industrial systems giant Johnson Controls and food conglomerate H.J. Heinz—Nguyen says that Holland is becoming increasingly attractive to high-tech companies and skilled workers. For example, Holland now has a designated “SmartZone,” part of a statewide initiative to provide infrastructure and support resources for technology-related businesses.