Entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs

Room 35 has created a consultancy for other entrepreneurs with a focus on leveraging Kalamazoo's massive networks for undercapitalized ideas and ambitious small businesses.

It looks like an average house in the Westnedge Hill neighborhood, with a Honda Civic parked in a driveway that’s half-shoveled from a recent snowstorm.

In the basement, Joshua Gray, 27, and Donovan McVey, 26, are busy designing the next moves for themselves and the clients of their consulting firm for start-ups and small businesses.

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A gigantic white board chock-full of ideas, plans, schedules, and deadlines sits on a metal folding chair, leaning on the wood-paneled wall, across from a row of desktop computers. A fluffy Norwegian Forest cat named Ferg lays on a ping-pong table next to a plaid vintage couch from the 1970s.

Gray and McVey, who met as students at Western Michigan University, are co-founders of Room 35, a local consultancy agency that for the past year-and-a-half has been helping both greenhorn entrepreneurs and established organizations build their brand, identify capital to expand their business, and market their products in a community Gray calls “the Silicon Valley of nonprofits.”

Since their launch, they have consulted on a host of different strategies with nearly 10 larger organizations, including PNC Bank and the City of Kalamazoo, as well as around 40 smaller businesses, they say, marshaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment.

Theirs is also a more personal approach to consulting, an industry they say is rife with firms more concerned with bottom lines and dollar signs than the personal aspirations of an entrepreneur with a dream despite being told their idea will never work.

“I want people to believe in themselves,” says Gray. “We are all humans, and humans need reassurance. It’s not always about the numbers. It’s about a person’s dreams. If you can get someone to truly believe they can succeed, there is no telling what they can do.”

They are more nimble, they say, than the big boys on the consultancy block. If they want to meet with a prospective client, they can do it that day. “We tell them, let’s meet right now,” says McVey, who worked as a financial advisor prior to starting Room 35.

a ping pong table covered in books with joshua gray and donovan mcvey sitting in the background
Gray and McVey run a small organization, which allows them to be much more flexible than bigger businesses.

For Gray, it’s personal.

His grandmother was homeless in her younger years, and her kids didn’t know their father. But she persevered, working her way up to owning her own home and being able to leave some money to her children when she passed away, he says.

He inherited something, too: His grandma’s pluck. Since he was eight years old he’s been hustling, trying out new businesses, experimenting, succeeding and failing but always learning. It was often an uphill road, but he paid his own way through college.

“There were times I felt like a complete failure, but I never gave up on myself,” he says. “It’s that kind of attitude that we bring to people. We take a holistic approach with people.”

Some of the work Room 35 has been focused on is in support of entrepreneurs who have been excluded from traditional access to funding, or hampered by less formal business training.

“I know some of the main obstacles (for marginalized people) are resources and connections to those resources. Sometimes entrepreneurs and communities don’t even know what resources they need, where to start, or who to talk to. That’s where we come in,” Gray says.

Room 35 is a major consultant with Can-Do Kalamazoo, a small business incubator that grew from the Can-Do Kitchen. Can-Do Kalamazoo is set to be fully operational by late summer, Gray says, where a variety of local entrepreneurs will develop individualized systems that accentuate their ability to raise capital and see their ideas move from the white board to a production space.

“We want to make Kalamazoo a place where entrepreneurs feel accepted and supported,” McVey says. “We want to enhance creativity in the way entrepreneurs approach business.”

Gray is ambitious about the new incubator space.

“I want to see us looking at millions of dollars in funds raised,” he says. “As long as people keep popping up with ideas, we want to see them and connect them with resources, because there are plenty of them.”

  • joshua gray sitting behind a laptop screen
  • donovan mcvey stands at a laptop on a stand-up desk

A new experimental project, the PNC-backed Contractor Accelerator Pilot Program, will help minority contractors in four areas: identify needs and develop solutions to meet them; identify mentoring opportunities from large contractors and business owners in the area; develop contractor-specific teaching courses to help participants understand the inner workings of their business; and organize a large networking event hosted by Southwest Michigan First to help connect them with large contracts in the City of Kalamazoo, Gray says.

As difficult as the pandemic has been for businesses – and especially those looking to get off the ground – it has served as a useful pause for many entrepreneurs to nail down what they really wanted to do, Gray says.

There is an ocean of resources and capital to scoop from if an idea is good, a plan is solid, a product is marketable, he says. Kalamazoo is a city at the hub of three vital wires any entrepreneur needs to power their ideas: Open mindedness, community energy, and plenty of capital.

“If a system is in place, the money will flow,” Gray says. “This is the Silicon Valley of nonprofits.”

The two are best friends. McVey was Gray’s best man and ringbearer at his wedding last March. The name of their firm is derived from the number 3, which Gray identifies with (he’s one of three kids and is a native of Three Rivers) and 5, which McVey sees as representing balance.

As entrepreneurs themselves, like many of those who come to them for help, albeit with a bit more experience, they find common threads as key for their consultancy and broader business success.

“We want to collaborate with people, but we also want startups to collaborate with other startups, entrepreneurs to collaborate with other entrepreneurs. We have the spaces. We have the resources. We have the connections. Now, all we need is people to believe (in themselves),” McVey says.

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