Michigan was struggling even before the financial crisis struck. Its auto industry had foundered, leaving thousands without jobs, and the decline of mining and logging in the Upper Peninsula left the top half of the state without its longstanding economic engine.
For the most part, things haven't improved. Michigan's unemployment rate topped 11 percent in August. More than 15 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. It has the sixth-highest foreclosure rate in the country. And it's the only state in the nation to see its population decline over the past decade – Detroit lost a quarter of its population between 2000 and 2010.
Michigan needs ways to create jobs and spur economic growth. The newly formed Mobile Technology Association of Michigan (MTAM) believes it can turn the state into a magnet for wireless companies, but there's a lot of work to be done before Detroit can become the next Silicon Valley.
Wireless Week spoke with MTAM founder Linda Daichendt about the association's efforts to buoy Michigan's tech industry. Here's an edited transcript of their discussion.
Wireless Week: The Mobile Technology Association of Michigan is a relatively new organization. What was the impetus for the group?
Linda Daichendt: It actually started about a year ago in a different form. I do mobile technology consulting in my private consulting firm and I was getting very frustrated with the fact that all of the companies I was working with on behalf of my clients were outside the state of Michigan. Given what was going on with the economy, I felt it was important to use as many Michigan companies as I possibly could.
So I went searching for them and was really having a hard time finding them. I couldn't find a trade association, I couldn't find a networking group. I eventually happened upon Mobile Monday International and found they did not have a chapter here, so I got the authorization to have the rights to Michigan. I started a Mobile Monday chapter in July of last year – it actually has several branches in the state. We started our first one in Ann Arbor. It grew really fast so we started a second in Detroit, which also grew really fast, and we know have one also in Grand Rapids. We're looking at several other cities for later this year or early next year. More than 1,100 people are currently involved with our Mobile Monday chapters.
WW: So the MTAM spawned out of that?
Daichendt: It did. Once we started working with the mobile companies in Michigan we saw that there were needs that were not being met. Just like any business, just like any industry, there are things you need to provide them and give them assistance with. There was nobody at a state or local level that was doing that for them because nobody really understood the industry. They could all certainly go to CTIA or the Mobile Marketing Association and all of the national/international organizations, but that really wasn't helping them at this more local and state level.
As we looked at it more we thought it was important to start a state-wide trade association that would help to bring all the segments of Michigan's mobile industry to the table to help them gain an understanding of what each segment does, how what they do impacts other segments of the industry and how that is going to impact Michigan's businesses overall. We found that there were definitely a lot of silos, if you will, and not very many had the big picture understanding of the impact that this could have. That's one of the main things we're trying to accomplish.
WW: So silo busting is part of your mission. Could you characterize your overall mission?
Daichendt: It's jobs creation. Basically what we're trying to do is to increase demand within the state, nationally and internationally for Michigan products and services. We're very confident that if we can do that, it will in turn create a need for increased jobs and small businesses to meet that demand, which will obviously help the state's economy.
WW: How robust is Michigan's wireless industry as it stands right now?
Daichendt: It's very robust. The more we start working with it and the more we start reaching out, the more we're finding there are a lot of people in the state engaged in it in some way.
We recently worked with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to do a state-wide study, and we found that there are actually over 47,000 people working in some aspect of the mobile technology industry. It's huge. Nobody had any idea.
We also found that for every mobile technology industry job we create in the state, we create 3.9 additional jobs outside of the industry, which is also huge. That's a job creation fact that is only surpassed in this state by the manufacturing industry. What that means is if we concentrate our efforts on building mobile technology-related jobs, we can have an impact on the state that is similar to that of the manufacturing industry.
WW: Michigan is constantly held up as an example of the country's economic woes - I know that all too well, being from the state. How can the wireless industry possibly fix that – by piggybacking on that growth?
Daichendt: I think what's going to happen - if we manage to pull all these segments together, do this the right way and pull all the people we need into this agenda – we'll increase awareness that there's a very fast-growing, good-paying industry that's rapidly growing within the state, that there is a reason to stay here, that there are very good jobs available so we won't have people leaving in droves like we've experienced in the last few years. We may even encourage some people to come back.
We'll find that there will be an awful lot of small business development, there will be an expansion of departments in enterprise-level companies where they need to bring on people to take care of mobile-related services. So there will be job creation at both the small business and enterprise level.
WW: I think to a lot of people, Michigan comes across as an unlikely pick for a tech center. Why should app developers, engineers and other experts in the mobile space take a chance on Michigan when there's so much promise in hotspots like Silicon Valley?
Daichendt: There are a couple of differences. One main difference, the way I think of it, is that Silicon Valley has an area of concentration that seems to be more focused on consumer-oriented mobile technologies, whereas here in Michigan because of our abundance of exceptional universities, large number of manufacturing-oriented engineers and developers, and the very large number of teaching and research hospitals, I think you'll see Michigan become the national leader in more business-to-business-oriented technologies like M2M and mHealth.
WW: What exactly is Michigan doing to attract the tech talent it needs to help the industry take off?
Daichendt: I can't speak for Michigan overall yet. We are in the process of beginning our work with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to get some state-wide initiatives in place. At this point those are not yet in place so I can't speak for what the state itself is doing. I can tell you the MTAM is spearheading a number of things.
Right now we're working with a large number of interested parties on developing a mobile development education program that we would put together as a prototype to start at the high school level. We have several of our major universities as well as a lot of our major corporations and small businesses that are interested in participating in this initiative. It will include education, real-life experiences, field trips and webcasts. Then we will hopefully be able to take it out to other schools across the state so we can make mobile developers more abundant. There's a nationwide shortage of mobile developers. We want to help alleviate that by getting them educated at a younger age.
WW: I'd like to get your thoughts on what Michigan's auto industry plays in this. If companies like Ford are able to attract a tech talent, could that also serve as a magnet for the wireless industry?
Daichendt: Absolutely. Basically, Ford and General Motors are playing a very large role with Sync and OnStar. They are certainly large players in the mobile space and they're very much engaged in what we do and we will hopefully be further engaging them. We held a Mobile Monday event earlier this week, and the CIO of OnStar was our featured speaker.
They're obviously integral to the role of mobile here. Also, Compuware is headquartered here, they're very engaged in the mobile space especially with their acquisition of Gomez. We have a lot of large corporations that are helping to lead in that space, and I think that's going to help increase the awareness that there's a lot going on here in mobile.
WW: To wrap things up, what are some of the major things you see happening in the coming months? Do you have any big initiatives planned?
Daichendt: Like I said, mobile education is one – trying to get more people initiated at the developer level. We're also looking at really trying to put in place a state-wide initiative to educate businesses about how mobile technology can be applied to help increase productivity and profitability. We believe that's going to take a lot of education because we don't think businesses have a clear understanding of what mobile technology can do for them. We're looking at putting in place some programs that can give them that education because we think it will increase demand for those services.