Thoughts from a (former) member
A few weeks ago, Ann Arbor Spark announced a merger with the Ann Arbor ITZone. I've thought a lot about this since the announcement was made, particularly since SRT Solutions has been a member of the ITZone since it was started. We joined the ITZone, utilized the downtown space for meetings, and eagerly joined committees to help with its promotion and success.
Spark's mission is described on their website as:
"Ann Arbor SPARK will be the driving force in establishing the Ann Arbor Region as a desired place for business expansion and location by identifying and meeting the needs of business at every stage, from those that are established to those working to successfully commercialize innovations."
However, Spark gives off an aura of only being interested in startups or in those requiring venture funding (ah, and large companies in the area). Perhaps small companies who are maintaining slow yet steady growth are not of interest?
Contrast that with the ITZone's mission (some content deleted, for brevity):
"The IT Zone seeks to capitalize on Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County’s historic and growing role in the information technology industry. The county currently has over 500 IT companies, and is viewed as the hub of small, creative IT firms for the state. The industry currently employs over 9000 individuals, making it comparable in employment to the automotive industry, health care and education in the county’s economy.
[S]oftware development and high speed computing breeds and thrives from the interaction of its participants. There is currently an explosive growth in Ann Arbor as more software/computing companies startup or relocate here, and this attracts and encourages others to do the same. There are many different types of Ann Arbor software/computing companies ranging from game and Internet developers to medical, automotive and defense contractors.
It's still wordy, but the key is that it specifically recognizes companies like ours: small companies which are NOT startups and are NOT interested in venture funding. We benefit from the interaction with other software developers, and with the entrepreneurial community.
I think that Spark is ill advised to forget about that part of the mission. It's critical. Bringing in startups is glamorous. But startups come and go. The core small businesses that are in this area are here to stay. We made it THROUGH the bubble. We have a commitment to this community. We deserve its recognition, its support, its respect.
Bill and I have promoted the ITZone both locally, and the concept of the organization nationally (where the reaction of most people is, "Wow! We wish we had an organization like that in our area!").
We donated our time to participate on committees, such as the Program Committee and the Website committee, We were also very generous (that's the nice way of saying it) with our advice about how the organization was serving members like us.
We are involved in several area user groups and we have promoted the ITZone to the user groups and supplemented the programs that the ITZone has provided to its members by holding user group meetings and training events at the ITZone/SPARK Central space.
SRT's interaction with the ITZone staff has been consistent throughout the lifetime of the organization. We have felt that the organization hasn't always tapped the potential of the area and most recently, we helped organize a group of software professionals in the area to construct a broad picture of what companies ARE in the area. Looking back at the other members of the committees that we participated in, the vast majority of participatory members on those committees WERE from small companies that do not fit the profile that Spark has targeted. It's interesting to me that community involvement has, at least in this community, come from the little guys.
And so alas, with the merger of the ITZone and SPARK, things appear destined to change. I'm particularly concerned about the conversion of the ITZone/Spark from a member organization to a "sponsored" organization. Historically, the ITZone had members, who paid dues and received some benefit in having done so. These benefits included the ability to utilize the 330 E. Liberty space for meetings and to attend member events. With the Spark merger, the rumblings are that it will no longer be a membership organization, but members are encouraged to continue to "sponsor" Spark by paying money. Furthermore, more "free" events will be provided, and space at 330 E. Liberty may not be restricted to members. This confuses and alarms me. It confuses me because unless we were the only company actually paying dues, then I'm surprised that Spark wants to walk away from what has been cash in the bank. Since I do not believe the Spark board to be clueless business people, then I suspect that there's something that we haven't been told yet (which I fear is that there will be no continuing support for companies which have historically been members).
As I have told others, we will not be sponsoring Spark in this way. I'm happy to sponsor conferences. I'm happy to provide money to charities and to organizations like Public Radio or the Michigan Theater. But I do not consider Spark to fit any of these categories and I do not currently see any business value in supporting this organization. I doubt we're the only ones, and it seems like this isn't a concern to Spark.