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JERI PACKER | THURSDAY, OCTOBER 27, 201

A new nonprofit called Blue Water Startups had its first face-to-face meet-up recently. The group is “for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs,” meaning there are no CEOs, managers or bosses of any kind leading the two-hour monthly event. For Lone Ranger types on their own wild ride to success, the group is instantly appealing.

Matt Brooks and Keith DeHenau, with Joe, talk about the first startup meeting.

Keith DeHenau of Best Version Media, one of the organizers, explained they exist to provide support and direction. “We’re a steering committee, not a hierarchy,” he says.

When planning the venue, they tried to select the best setting for a bunch of maverick business owners to relax, come together and open up. That part was easy — a craft brewery in St. Clair, War Water Brewery. The meeting was the first of many planned for the coming months, affectionately called “Third Thirsty Thursdays.” About 30 people of all ages attended. Many of them wanted to bring another person to the next meet-up, says DeHenau.

Entrepreneur Matt Brooks came up with the idea for Blue Water Startups after seeing too many businesses go under.

“Blue Water Startups is not the solution, but a conduit connecting businesses to resources,” he explains.

Brooks says they tried to keep the momentum going during the meeting by having a set agenda while, at the same time, staying informal.

“We tried to keep it engaging,” he says. “There is a two-hour window, so we made sure something was happening every half hour or so in between getting to know each other.”

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The first meet-up for Blue Water Startups was at the War Water Brewery.

Brooks is leading several small businesses at the moment, including Loft 912, a co-working space in Port Huron. Many members of Loft 912 were at War Water that night.

Kris Paul, founder of War Water Brewery, took the group on a tour of his operation while sharing his journey as a small business owner. Entrepreneur Anson Pavlov of Finch Multimedia, who was also the photographer for the night, says he thought the event was off to a strong start and had the potential to become an active group in the community.

“Everybody was incredibly supportive of each entrepreneur that came out and it was a wonderful networking opportunity,” he says.

Pavlov was one of two participants at the meeting who volunteered to talk about their startups and share a business high and low.

A low for Pavlov: “Looking young and being young,” he says. “Just looking or sounding like I’m not experienced enough to do the job required.”

And a high? An opportunity he had to shoot promotional photos for The Snug and Riverbank theaters in Marine City recently.

Joshua Radhs of Port Huron also attended the meeting and had the opportunity to talk about his soon-to-be non-profit, CUORB (Michigan Clean Up Our River Banks).

“We have ‘adopt-a-highway,’ but we don’t have adopt a stream or a river,” he says. “The purpose of this group is to prevent our waters from becoming future dump sites and to clean up what’s already there.”

The Great Lakes make Michigan the great state it is, he adds. He specifically targets old tires and repurposes them as artwork or even shoes.

Radhs also shared a high and low: There are state agencies with grant monies out there waiting to fund clean-up projects like CUORB. The downside? The process of becoming a non-profit organization to be eligible for the grants is daunting.

“I need help,” he admits.

That’s the kind of honest talk Blue Water Startups is looking for.

Kris Paul, founder of War Water Brewery, took the group on a tour.

Kris Paul, founder of War Water Brewery, took the group on a tour.

“We want entrepreneurs to have a safe environment to talk about their experiences,” DeHenau says. “People don’t like to admit their struggles, but here we are all new entrepreneurs with our struggles. What better place among peers and friends to do so?”

Brooks points out something called the “Facebook Syndrome,” where one shares the best, most curated version of their life on social media. When you meet face-to-face, you show all your “bumps and warts,” too.

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County, already an investor in local small business, showed its support yet again by giving BWS a grant to cover some of the group’s promotional expenses. Community Foundation president Randy Maiers said BWS is just the kind of group the foundation is charged to help.

“One of our strategic priorities for 2016- 2018 is community and economic prosperity, so this fits right in,” he says.

They accomplish this by bringing together the “doers and donors” from among their constituents, including residents, other nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. Maiers also mentions the foundation’s Community Capital Club as a supporter of the region’s startup scene. One of its goals is to seeks out projects for economic development, including the efforts of “select early-stage companies.”

Brooks says there are some great resources and potential collaborative relationships for startups now, including the Economic Development Alliance, Community Foundation, Blue Water Area Chamber, and the MSU Extension — through grants and educational opportunities.

The problem is the disconnect between startup founders and resource providers.

“There are resources out there who aren’t connecting with startups and entrepreneurs that don’t know how to meet these groups,” he says.

To help make that connection, BWS organizers plan to bring in experts for free Startup Seminars that last a whole day, using local and non-local speakers, similar to the recent Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference in Port Huron.

The next meet-ups are on Nov. 17 and Dec. 15 (“Third Thirsty Thursdays” on the calendar) at 7 p.m.

Stay in touch with Blue Water Startups through the website and Facebook page for locations and more information. Though founded in Port Huron, their extended network includes entrepreneurs from anywhere in Southeast Michigan.

Jeri Packer is a freelance writer for The Keel.