Meet a startup leader from Detroit

Assembler Labs is a Detroit startup studio that partners with founders to lead and spin out businesses, raise independent capital, and grow. To date, it has spun out three businesses: Equal Health, which creates employer direct primary care programs; Motion, which marries an online calendar with a task list; and Clearcut, which helps startups reach product/market fit faster.

Fast Future talked with cofounder Ian Sefferman to learn more about the business and his own startup experience.

What’s your Michigan connection?

Sefferman: I’m a Midwesterner at heart, grew up in Detroit. Like many if not most people of my generation who went into technology, I started heading west pretty much immediately. I ended up first as an intern in 2005 in Seattle at Amazon.

How did you end up creating a startup?

Sefferman: At the beginning of 2009, the iPhone had come out, the App Store had just launched, Android was sort of this glimmer in the sky. I’ve always wanted to do a startup since I was like 12 years old. It felt like a really good time. I promptly made every mistake a first-time founder can possibly make. The only way I can explain it is we somehow survived long enough to figure it out.

That startup was MobileDevHQ, right?

Sefferman: We [he and cofounder Patrick Haig] ended up building an enterprise stats product for mobile marketers. We invented a category that we called App Store optimization. It was sort of like SEO but for the App Store. We ended up being the fastest growing private company in the state of Washington. We grew that business to about $75 million in [annual recurring revenue] with about 350 employees over the next three years. We sold the business to another company in Seattle called Tune.

So why did you come back to Michigan and create a startup studio?

Sefferman: My wife and I had always had a dream to get back to Michigan. Patrick and I were thinking about what would be next. We started validating some new startup ideas. One after another, we invalidated those ideas. But in the process we learned that we loved the process of invalidating those ideas, of going zero to 1, getting punched in the face every single day.

What have you learned about Michigan entrepreneurs?

Sefferman: The talent in MI is unbelievable; I was really just blown away by it. But they simply didn’t have any startup experience. They were amazing engineers or incredible domain experts with lots of deep, deep knowledge but not a lot of understanding of how to work with a product and engineering team to build something from scratch.

How have things gone with Assembler Labs?

Sefferman: We’ve spun out now three businesses. We followed with financing for the two businesses that have been spun out for more than a couple of weeks. All in all, we’ve found great founders, and we really believe we can do this on a bigger scale.