Why Entrepreneurs, Tech Start-ups Are Flocking to Traverse City

By Heather Cherry September 28, 2022
Three entrepreneurial young people work in a cafe together.

Entrepreneurship has always been prominent in Traverse City, MI. As the economic hub of northwest Michigan, Traverse City offers several advantages to potential business owners, from an educated talent pool and buildable real estate to an airport that offers 17+ direct flights across the U.S.

Its growing technology sector benefits from an entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports start-ups with various resources, from monthly pitch competitions and co-working spaces to incubators and access to investors.

Entrepreneurial Roots

Traverse City has a strong history of entrepreneurship. A tourism-based economy has evolved over the past decade or so toward the technology sector.

“The city continues to grow,” says Christopher Nesbit, director of events at TCNewTech, a community of tech enthusiasts, businesses, entrepreneurs and policymakers in Traverse City. “Part of that growth has been through tourism, and the additional growth has come through commerce. The city decided to support that pivot.”

“We have a thriving main street scene, great restaurants, retail, and more,” says Keri Amlotte, director of marketing at 20Fathoms. “Technology was a way to help us grow and provide family-sustaining jobs in Traverse City.”

20Fathoms, a start-up incubator and co-working space in Traverse City, works with entrepreneurs and tech professionals to grow their businesses through educational programming and networking. Other organizations like TCNewTech, which hosts networking events and a monthly pitch competition for start-ups, play an essential part in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

For start-ups, resources are plentiful in Traverse City, from ample co-working spaces to networking opportunities and access to a collaborative community.

“There’s a lot of collaborative energy. People work together to get to the greater goal. Great organizations are working to foster that environment to be more capable for entrepreneurs,” says Nesbit.

Work-Life Balance

A high quality of life also makes starting your business here even more appealing. Traverse City is more affordable than East Coast or West Coast cities. According to Zillow, the median home value in Traverse City was $425,000 for August 2022 compared to $676,000 in Austin, $746,000 in Boston, $1.4 million in San Jose and $1.6 million in San Francisco.

“We have a strong work-life balance, outdoor recreation — hiking, biking, skiing, and paddle boarding, to name a few — plus it’s a small-town community and family-friendly,” Amlotte says. “People move here to work hard and play hard.”

Local entrepreneurs agree.

“It’s all about the lifestyle that Traverse City offers,” says Chase Bonhag, CEO and co-founder of FirstIgnite, a Traverse City company that helps universities connect with companies interested in licensing technology, sponsoring research and leveraging core facilities, among other things. “Our business is fast-paced and attached to a screen. But I’m about a block away from something fun to do outdoors. Everything here makes running the business in Traverse City much more enjoyable.”

“You can’t get that green, blue water in most places like you can in Traverse City — unless you’re in the Caribbean. We have beautiful trees and all four seasons,” says Nesbit. “It’s a healthy community. People want to stay or come here because they’re trying to get that better lifestyle. That mindset starts to set in, and you work that culture into your business — it makes for a healthy workplace environment.”

Community Support

Community support continues to make Traverse City a top contender for owning and operating a business.

“I’ve lived in many other cities that I haven’t seen that level of support before,” says Bonhag. “Local investors and the rest of the business community will open those doors for you. Overall, the local community is eager for more entrepreneurs to come here. And when they come here, they’ll find a lot of support in ways they wouldn’t have imagined.”

Ease of Access

When it comes to getting in and out of Traverse City, the Cherry Capital Airport, recipient of the Cherry Wings Award for their outstanding support of the U.S. Coast Guard, makes it easier than ever. The airport continues to add flights, many of them direct.

Traverse City offers many geographical advantages, too. Companies can attract national clients and bring them to the region with little hassle, Nesbitt says.

Finally, if you’re still undecided about Traverse City for your business venture, take the word of one local entrepreneur.

“Do it,” Bonhag says. “Be proactive and vocal about your interest in running your business in Traverse City. Let them know you’re coming and what you’re up to. Test the waters and see what the community can do to get you here.”