Tony Willis is changing the face of business in the Greater Lansing area through the work he does at the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, or as it is more commonly referred to, LEAP.
Willis fulfills two roles at the company as his passion for business spans into more than one area. He serves as the director of the New Economy Team, where he oversees all programming that is geared to support entrepreneurship within his region. Some of his reach has extended to the Youth Startup Initiative, Hatching Pitch Competitions, Entrepreneur Assistance Fun, Lansing Regional SmartZone and educational seminars/boot camps.
Willis also serves as the president of PROTO Accelerator, which is a startup accelerator company. He leads the development of products and investing while still managing to work with the corporate partners. Having grown up in East Lansing and a Michigan State University graduate, Willis feels a connection to this area and is motivated to help it grow.
What do you feel attracted you most to LEAP as an organization?
The mission of LEAP, along with the agility of the organization, is what I found most attractive. Our mission is to support the economic development of the region, and we do this through a number of ways. These include financing, managing, connection and everything in between. LEAP isn’t afraid to test out new ideas in order to support the region’s growth.
It sounds like you are involved in the growth of new businesses from soup to nuts. Is there any part of the process that tends to be a bit of a challenge for new entrepreneurs?
It takes a lot of time and they need to plan to achieve from their effort. A lot of people have great ideas and they want to work on their idea, but what are they really doing day to day? So many of these people quit their day job to see where it goes, then wonder what the hold up is with their forward progress. It is my job to ask them how much time are they really spending on their idea? It needs to be treated like a real job, eight hours a day. This includes studying the development of the marketplace, understanding competitors, talking to customers and surely getting their business basics in order.
Insurance, accounting, long-term planning – these are the things that could be overlooked but are so very important to address. I am in the role of asking people how much time really goes into this and making them face the harsh truth if they are not spending as much time on that as they should. People might think things just don’t work out for them, but if they are being honest with how much time they are spending on their business, they will see that there are important pieces that have been ignored. If they do feel they spend a lot of time on business, then where do they need to focus?
Does any particular startup story resonate with you right now?
There are a few, as I have seen many exciting success stories in my time with LEAP. Matt Gillett had decades of restaurant management under his belt but wanted to tread his own path. Three years ago, he had the idea to bring really good barbecue to the Lansing area. He had done his research and felt Lansing was missing a competitive barbeque scene. Sure, there was one place available, but he wanted to bring more to the people of Lansing. At the Hatching Competition, which helps entrepreneurs bring
their business ideas to light, he pitched his idea of getting a smoker on a trailer and using that to serve meals after football events, both for high school and college games. People could take it home, preorder, but all in a family-friendly type place. Everything would be ready to go, excellent and super convenient for the customer.
He pitched his idea; discussed problems, solutions; and did a great job. He didn’t win that night, but he still pursued his idea and went back to the next event. LEAP remembered him and then hired him to cater an event. Matt met Travis Stoliker at that event, who just happened to be looking for a new venture. They hit it off and became partners. They have a successful business now for over three years and have even expanded into Okemos. Now he has maybe 20 employees or so it, and it all started with an idea.
Joe Johnson with Fade Nutrition also comes to mind. His idea was actually so good he was on “Shark Tank” back in November 2018 and got himself a deal. He saw a need within the fitness industry to have a more convenient and effective protein shaker bottle for pre/post-workout nutrition. After exploring his idea and doing a ton of research, he actually completely pivoted his idea from a shaker bottle to a K-Cup option. Offering single serving packages of protein for the healthy minded on the go.
What is most exciting is how innovative the K-Cups are for their time. The delivery system is by far the most impressive piece; however, the cups themselves are so green they are actually consumable. Joe, now confident in his new, more developed idea, moved forward and LEAP invested. He eventually saw so much success he was able to buy them out of their investment with three times the original investment. When Joe went on “Shark Tank,” the sharks were so impressed with his work he actually got a deal from Mark Cuban and Alexander Rodriguez.
Are there any exciting projects you have coming up that will benefit Lansing business in particular?
PROTO Insurtech is our newest project that LEAP is working on. We are working with insurance carriers in the region to focus on attracting and developing insurance technology startups. The insurance industry has become a nexus where innovation and new technologies are poised to flourish. With Lansing being an insurance mecca, we see this as a great opportunity to further support and grow one of our large economic drivers.
What made your initial interest in entrepreneurship and helping other entrepreneurs get their start spark?
My interest in entrepreneurship started at home at a young age. My grandmother was a teacher for hearing-impaired students and then retired. She wanted to focus on her business, which sold health care products. She raised me and my cousins together, so when she was out there selling, we would join her. She showed us how to work a convention, how to be a part of product growth and how to always be selling. She also had two other business ventures, a clothing consignment shop and she made butter rolls. She eventually ran out of space in her own kitchen and found that us kids were eating almost a third of what she was producing. The butter rolls were just so good! She was able to find other space to cook in and was able to market her product to restaurants, which ended up being big business for her. I remember as a kid charting her progress for her and being so interested in how businesses start and develop from that experience.
What are you excited about for Lansing business in 2019?
I’m excited to see continued growth of the region as a whole and the further development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I see our region further expanding into agriculture technology, health care innovation and consumer goods. Michigan is very biodiverse area, No. 2 behind California in planting and farming. There is so much potential here. Focusing on the efficiency of harvesting and planting here in Michigan will teach us a lot about resiliency in horticulture. Michigan State University has one of six cyclotrons that exist on the planet. They have received a grant to focus on how speeding up particles can create rare elements in the universe to enhance medical properties and study how particles can react at the speed of light. This will bring so much to the area in terms of science, defense, military and all the consumerism these new people will bring to our area. It is an exciting time for business in Lansing.
What makes you most excited to co-host the upcoming GLBM Entrepreneurial Awards?
I always find the GLBM Entrepreneurial Awards to be such a great event. It acknowledges local entrepreneurs and small-business owners who are making an impact on the community. It is a great event to network at, meet new entrepreneurs, and learn about their ideas and businesses. I also like to keep up on what the business climate is in our region, and this awards event is a great place to do that.
It is such an honor to have been asked to co-host this event. This event is a great place to hear stories of inspiration, to get to know folks in the area and what inspires them. Anybody can be an entrepreneur. It might not happen right away or the way you thought it would, but opportunity is abundant. People deal with doubt and drought, but people will find ways to continue on and move forward. Hearing those stories are the best takeaways for this event; I am really looking forward to it.