#StartupsEverywhere: Traverse City, Mich.

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Andy Cole, Executive Director, 20Fathoms

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.


Startup Community in the Cherry Capital

When folks hear the name Traverse City, they think of cherries—it is the cherry capital of the world, after all. But Traverse City is increasingly becoming known for its entrepreneurial community of startups. We spoke with Andy Cole, executive director of 20Fathoms, about his organization’s role in northern Michigan’s startup ecosystem.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? What is your background? 

I am a Traverse City native and attended Kalamazoo College and the University of Michigan, where I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I knew I wanted to work in renewable energy when I was out of college, so I ended up working in wind energy at Vestas, the largest turbine manufacturer in the world. Renewables like wind were rapidly expanding, and I quickly rose to a management position. 

Being exposed to a managerial role made me decide to pursue an MBA from Babson College in Boston. At Babson, I was the president of the entrepreneurship club, promoted business incubation, and connected student-entrepreneurs with mentors. It was a life-changing experience that got me started down the path of business development work—first doing it with universities in the Boston area, and then with companies. While in Boston, I met my wife, coincidentally also a Traverse City native, and we decided to return to Traverse City to be close to our families.

Tell us about 20Fathoms. What is the work that you’re doing?

When I got back to Traverse City, I didn’t realize there was the capacity to do this type of work like I had in Boston—the downtown population is just 15,000, and there isn't access to similar large talent pools like I had at Harvard, MIT, and others. However, I came to realize that there is lots of talent present, but no convening force. That’s where 20Fathoms comes in.

What is 20Fathoms’ role in the Northern Michigan startup community?

We launched in July 2018 and acted as a sort of coworking space for entrepreneurs, but we’ve experienced rapid expansion. In just under a year, we have 53 members and 23 startups and we now have a menu of services to offer. We host roughly two events a week, and aim to fill in the gaps in tech and entrepreneurial content that other ecosystem organizations don’t cover. To date, we’ve held over 80 events, all of which are free and open to the public. This is really helpful for attracting people to our space and building on the energy we have. 

We partner like crazy to aid our members and startup community. By making introductions, we help startups gain access to capital, whether that be through investment or grants. Local professionals hold office hours in our space to provide our orgs with pro-bono legal, accounting, coaching, shipping, and other professional services. We have a partnership with our local community college to provide access to a professional machine shop and instructor for prototyping purposes. Our local news station does a profile of a startup here every month. Finally, we serve as a bridge to other resources for startups like the SBDC and score mentors. Access to these services are just as important, if not more than investments for our startups. 

Moving forward, we’d like to hire a talent acquisition specialist to do recruitment throughout the midwest for our members. The number one thing startups need is capital, but number two is talent to fill out their teams. Often though, founders are working so hard to raise money that they don’t have time to seek new employees on their own, so we’d like to provide access to a professional recruiter who can assist them in finding better talent, faster. 

What is the significance of the 20Fathoms name?

A fathom is a scientific term, a reference to depth, but also to clarity of water. Traverse City is known and loved for its proximity to natural resources--especially the bays on Lake Michigan. When we were in the process of looking for a name, I learned that the clarity of our water was 20 fathoms. So, the name pays homage to our surroundings. Also, to “fathom” is to fully understand a complex topic. This is a reference to the work our startups do here and the big, bold ideas they have. 

What is the biggest challenge startups face in Northern Michigan?  

Internet access is at the top of the list. We are fortunate that one of our partners paid to bring fiber Internet to our space. We’ve had three startups relocate here from outside of the region because of this quality Internet access. Yet, fiber is almost non existent elsewhere in the community and—if it is—it’s prohibitively expensive. If you look at a coverage map, there’s only a few dots of fiber broadband, and only a bit more cable broadband coverage ‘above the knuckles’ of the lower peninsula. 

This is partly because the utility provider here owns the utility poles, and has sat on the question of broadband service for several years. After much community outrage, they did a series of studies, but have decided they are going to be an ISP themselves, meaning we’ll have an Internet monopoly in the region. Obviously, we’d like to see competition among ISP’s to ensure better service and lower prices. The lack of Internet infrastructure is something I’d like to see rectified and would be immensely helpful for the Northern Michigan economy.

What are your short-term and long-term goals for 20Fathoms?

To date, we have had overwhelming success in terms of growth and membership. Now we’re almost at the point where a space expansion is required. We got lucky with the space we occupy now—it was a discounted sublease and is in a fantastic location. It is right downtown with access to all the energy of Front Street and provides excellent views of the Grand Traverse Bay. Being here has provided us a lot of favors, but we can’t afford the full market rate, and we’ll outgrow it by the end of our sublease. 

Right now we occupy half a floor in the building. In the short run we will look to expand to a full floor, so we don’t have to turn anyone away for lack of space.

Over the longer term, we’d like to expand our success and be able to encapsulate the broader startup community in one space. This would mean having our own building. I think we could fill up a four-story building rather quickly. We have startups of 15 to 30 employees that we can’t currently accommodate space-wise come to us and suggest this. They too want access to the energy, culture, and talent that comes with working in a community space with other innovators. 

Traverse City is a desirable place to live—it is a great place to raise a family, has an excellent food and arts scene, provides endless recreational opportunities and vast natural beauty. 20Fathoms enhances those qualities by creating valuable connections, building community, and providing a fun and inspiring place to work.

All of the information in this profile was accurate at the date and time of publication.

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email edward@engine.is.