This is the fourth installment of our “Why Grand Rapids” summer content series. In this issue, we sat down with Cliff Wegner, owner of up-and-coming web and app development firm Mighty in the Midwest, to talk entrepreneurship, collaboration and innovation in Grand Rapids’ thriving tech hub.
You can catch our last interview with local radio talk show host Marty Brooks here.
First, tell us a little about how you got started as an entrepreneur, and how Mighty in the Midwest came to be.
When I graduated from school with a degree in advertising, I joined a small design firm that allowed me to experiment with web design and learn on my own. With a degree, a portfolio of experimental work, and passion for the web, I started working at Jager Group, which at the time was one of the larger advertising and design agencies here in town. The experience at Jager Group really laid the foundation for the rest of my career. The guys I worked with and for really shaped what I try to do as a designer, director, and business owner. While there, I felt the need to focus more on the web and technology, so I left to join a web and interface design and development company. After a successful stint there, I left in 2007 to start and build Mighty.
You said you started the business six years ago; back then, web design and development was still young in many agencies’ eyes. What made you look at that sector and say, “this is a profitable sector, it’s an area we should really dig in to deep.”
That’s a really good question. I don’t know that I ever looked at it as a profitable venture and dug in because of profit alone. That might have been because I was very naive at that time, but it was more about the fact that I just really enjoyed doing this kind of work. The profitability came from doing hard work, and good work, and building a team that could do the same.
What is it about the atmosphere here in Grand Rapids that makes it a great place for entrepreneurs and startups?
It really is the people here in Grand Rapids. You walk up and down the street, and you see and get to know people in the entrepreneurial, tech, art, and design communities. Their spirit is present. It’s become part of Grand Rapids as a whole, not just a pocket or a district here and there, like you find in bigger cities. It’s become a part of the atmosphere here.
…it was more about the fact that I just really enjoyed doing this kind of work. The profitability came from doing hard work, and good work, and building a team that could do the same.
Do you feel like you have more or fewer resources here in Grand Rapids, as an entrepreneur?
I haven’t tried to launch anything in another city, but I do feel that Grand Rapids has a very inviting, knowledgable community as a whole. Whether it’s in the entrepreneur community, or tech, manufacturing, or anything else, the people are great. When you then add the growing startup culture, there just aren’t any barriers. You can meet the kind of people you need to, without having to work your way through levels of assistants and phone screeners; the people here are just inherently kind, and I think that creates more opportunities for learning, education, and support than you may find in a bigger city with bigger egos.
If you were to give any advice to, say, a new startup company or entrepreneur who had a new idea but wasn’t sure how to get started, what would be your advice?
I would say start attending events and talking to people. I would say recognize it’s going to take hard work. It’s not a sprint. I’d say, don’t get down–continue to focus, work hard, and understand that while success may come quickly, sometimes it may take time. Build and be part of a business doing the work you love to do. Enjoy it. Don’t feel like you’re not keeping up with the Joneses because you’re no longer a startup.
So, basically, find a niche where you can operate in your strengths and do something you really enjoy, and let everything else fall into place.
In college sports, there are some great commercials they’ve been running for a long time, where they say something like “there are over 400,000 student athletes and just about every one of them will go pro in something other than sports.” I think the same is true for startups. There are a lot of people doing a lot of things, and there are only one or two who will become the next Instagram.
…understand that while success may come quickly, sometimes it may take time…Don’t feel like you’re not keeping up with the Joneses because you’re no longer a startup.
If you enjoy what you do and you have great people working with you, you can go home happy. Some people would say that’s not ambitious enough, but I don’t think so. I think there’s challenge and ambition in building a sustainable business and maintaining great relationships. Those things don’t just fall into place. They take a lot of hard work.
Let’s talk about competition. Grand Rapids is obviously a place with a lot of tech and web development companies – especially right here in Heartside’s tech hub. So talk a bit about what it’s like to build relationships with your competitors, how you’re able to collaborate and what those relationships end up looking like.
Regardless of the industry, there are people in West Michigan with great character, and I think that is found in the competitive landscape as well. I don’t think it’s as cutthroat as it would be in other cities. Some of that may be the industry, because while we stay very true to who we are and what we want to do, there is a certain amount of overlap between us and other companies–be it software, graphic design, or advertising companies. It’s competitive in a way, but I think if you’re really true to what you’re doing, and you’re willing to refer work and work together, then that competitiveness starts to quickly become collaboration. Those kind of relationships are much more enjoyable to work on than competing over work that may not even be the right fit.
I know you’ve worked with a lot of amazing clients – would you like to share one of two of your favorite projects that have been the most fun to work on?
We’ve had the great fortune of being part of some of the larger things that have begun to shape the community we’re in. Start Garden has been a really great client. That word “client” even feels weird because they’re partners and friends, and having worked with their team members over the many years we have, it’s a group we really enjoy working with.
It’s great to be a part of Start Garden, as something that is helping build and define the community here, and also helping Grand Rapids as a city, become more visible and more viable for entrepreneurs and startups. And not just technology startups–physical products, consumer goods, services, and more.
…if you’re really true to what you’re doing, and you’re willing to refer work and work together, then that competitiveness starts to quickly become collaboration.
The same is true for ArtPrize. One of our recent successes was the new design of the mobile voting application. The impact that had on the amount of mobile voting compared to years past was great, and hopefully it made the experience better for people coming in to Grand Rapids and getting a taste of not just ArtPrize, but the city as a whole.
We also just launched another program for Fostering Success Michigan, an organization based out of Western Michigan University. FSM provides resources and inspiration for foster youth in care and alumni of care. The youth in care are middle schoolers and high schoolers, who are trying to figure out college, relationships, finances, careers, and more. Fostering Success Michigan provides resources to those youth, as well as mentors, teachers, and caregivers of youth.
In May, we rolled out fosteringsuccessmichigan.com, and they’ve already started to expand their program outside of Michigan. It’s been rewarding to work with students, who say “I love the site, it’s really easy to find things, these resources are great,” and to hear from the team at FSM, “listen, you’ve made it easy to get resources out to these kids, and that’s one of the most important things that we can do right now.”
Well congratulations, and thank you for doing such important work!
If you were to talk to someone who is considering either moving out of Grand Rapids after graduation, or coming to look for work here in GR, what would you say?
I would tell them that opportunities are available and accessible. That the relational capital found in Grand Rapids is going to help them grow quicker than in a larger city. They will find opportunities if they come and introduce themselves to the people we have. There’s incredible energy, a ton of knowledge, and an accessible community, so I really think Grand Rapids a great location for young talent.
by Marjorie Steele
As Creative Director for 616 Lofts and 616 Development, Marjorie is always looking for new ways to engage Grand Rapids’ growing community through conversation and storytelling. Marjorie loves good coffee, hot yoga and her historic home in Midtown.