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Hidrate: New tech ensures proper hydration

Though debate continues as to whether the average person needs eight glasses of water per day, many of us still forget to stay hydrated when we’re busy. Hidrate co-founder and recent University of Minnesota graduate Nadya Nguyen found out the hard way.
 
On the bus home from a 10-hour volunteer shift at TEDxMinneapolis, Nguyen felt faint and disoriented. Her head was pounding. With effort, she recounted the events of her jam-packed day and realized that she hadn’t taken a single sip of water since the morning. She simply hadn’t had the time, to say nothing of the mental bandwidth necessary, to stop what she was doing and take a drink.
 
Then it hit her: In the age of cloud-connected smartphones and tiny, powerful sensors, she didn’t need to remember to drink water. She could simply build an app that connected to a special water bottle that would remind her to hydrate. Along with three other recent U of M grads, she built out the app and a prototype water bottle—called Hidrate—during least year’s Twin Cities Startup Weekend.
 
“It’s so easy to forget to take care of yourself when life gets busy,” says Nguyen. “I wanted to create something that would make life better for people in this small but important way.”
 
The idea is breathtakingly simple: Users download the app for free on their phones and enter personal parameters (weight and other factors), location (temperature, relative humidity and altitude can affect water needs), and daily activity level, editing over time as this information changes. Hidrate uses this data to create a personal “daily water goal,” expressed in both ounces and water bottle equivalents. The app syncs with a 24-ounce, BPA-free, dishwasher-safe water bottle that can sense its own fill level and updates your total daily intake whenever you take a sip. If you go too long without drinking, a reminder message appears on your phone; if you really fall behind, the bottle glows gently until your fluid intake gets back on pace.
 
Hidrate isn’t the first smart water bottle to hit the market. But the talented, driven team enjoys the benefits of a heavily discounted shared workspace at Startup Venture Loft in the North Loop — a huge help for any startup operating on a shoestring budget.
 
The company’s Kickstarter campaign, launched June 1, had a seemingly ambitious goal: $35,000. Thanks to tremendous support from what Nguyen calls “a dedicated group of early adopters” and a high-visibility mention in widely read tech publication TechCrunch, the campaign blew through that ceiling in a couple days, notching nearly $200,000 from more than 2,500 individual donors in its first week. Everyone who donates $39 or more gets a personal bottle, with delivery expected in December 2015 or January 2016.
 
The Kickstarter campaign’s proceeds will mostly cover costs for the initial bottle-manufacturing round, which is likely to be larger than expected given the campaign’s success. Nguyen and the team are still working out a retail price for the bottle, but “it’ll probably be in the $39 to $45 range,” she says.
 
For now, interested buyers can reserve a bottle — in the color of their choosing — on Hidrate’s website. Longer-term, Nguyen expects to sell through gyms, sporting goods stores and other retailers. The team is already courting potential partners, though nothing’s ready to announce.
 
“We’re willing to work with any gym, specialty store or retailer that caters to our customer base,” says Nguyen. “We’ve been blown away by early demand for the product and can’t wait for the next phase of our growth.”

 
Hidrate Jobs in Minneapolis
 
  1. iOS Mobile Developer
  2. Android Mobile Developer

 

Field Nation expands, offers colocation space

 
Field Nation, an online work platform that connects skilled IT contractors with companies that need to complete time-sensitive tasks or fill temporary positions, recently doubled in size after acquiring Field Solutions, its main competitor in the Upper Midwest. The acquisition boosted Field Nation’s internal employee count from about 50 to more than 100, and allowed the company to double down on its innovation, MSP-made business model.
 
Field Nation chief marketing officer Billy Cripe expects the firm to “grow into” its new offices in the AT&T Building in downtown Minneapolis. But rather than let half of its square footage languish, the firm’s management team landed on an ingenious idea: a free, fully wired coworking — Cripe prefers “colocation” — space where Field Nation’s out-of-town contractors, clients and kindred spirits can set up shop for a day or two as they go about their business in MSP.
 
“The recent move left us with all this extra space,” says Cripe. “We thought, ‘Why not open a free colocation space?’”
 
Field Nation’s colocation “tenants” come and go on the honor system. Field Nation doesn’t formally assign a gatekeeper or space manager, though employees do approve (or invite) and keep tabs on everyone who passes through. Stays typically last a couple days, rarely longer than a week.
 
For instance, video game maker and existing Field Nation client Activision recently sent a team to MSP to meet with executives at Target and Best Buy. The team approached Field Nation about using the colocation space as a home away from home during their brief trip. Cripe and the team were happy to oblige.
 
Tenants that need a longer-term office space, whether they’re permanently relocating to MSP or transitioning out of a home office, can leverage Field Nation’s ongoing partnership with CoCo to make arrangements.
 
“We don’t want to be the go-to for people who need a permanent coworking option,” explains Cripe. “But we definitely want our office to be a launching and landing pad for on-the-go professionals.”
 
Field Nation’s new colocation space is a great fit for an ambitious, growing company that fosters flexible connections between talented contractors and labor-seeking employers. Field Nation’s “contingent workforce” platform doesn’t require upfront payment from contractors or employers; the company simply takes a cut from payments for completed work before forwarding the remainder to the worker.
 
Jobs come in many different forms, from multi-month “distributed projects” that require dozens of workers in multiple locations to 15-minute gigs “that contractors can fit in as they’re driving home from their regular job,” says Cripe.
 
For contractors, Field Nation offers a more secure and predictable payment system than “a la carte” work arrangements that can take months to produce a paycheck — if one comes at all. And the company provides each worker with a single 1099 for all gigs completed through Field Nation, regardless of how many individual clients were involved — dramatically simplifying tax-time paperwork.
 
For clients, Field Nation provides a large, reliable, on-demand pool of skilled, often formally credentialed technicians and IT professionals. Clients and contractors are free to negotiate rates; a mutual rating system controls quality and mitigates disagreements. According to Cripe, Field Nation’s goal is simple: “We’re cutting out the middleman” — i.e., traditional staffing agencies — “and making it easier to get work done.”
 

Ginger Consulting's mavens know what women want

In the groan-inducing 2000 film What Women Want, Mel Gibson’s misogynistic executive used an acquired ability to hear women’s thoughts to amusing, mostly self-serving ends.
 
Mary Van Note and Beth Perro-Jarvis, MSP-based Ginger Consulting’s co-founders, can’t read minds. But thanks to decades of marketing experience and a comprehensive, highly authoritative survey for female householders, they’ve got a pretty good handle on what drives women consumers in MSP and across the country — certainly more so than Gibson’s fictional mind-reading cad.
 
Van Note and Perro-Jarvis released their sixth annual “What Women Want” survey in April. The survey touched on of-the-moment health trends, like juicing and the Paleo diet, plus political issues, personal finance, household division of labor, popular culture and more.
 
Some of the headline findings were surprising. For instance, nearly two-thirds of survey respondents believe the “latest diet and nutrition trends” — i.e., Paleo — are “just fads.” A similar proportion claimed to be fine with making dinner at home every night. And more than a quarter believed that Hillary Clinton and any other female Presidential candidates in the 2016 election cycle will be judged more harshly than male candidates — in other words, that voters hold prospective women leaders to a higher standard.
 
The “What Women Want” survey processes responses from Ginger Consulting’s Alpha Panel, a 350-strong cohort of hand-selected women, most of them affluent and well-educated.
 
“The Alpha Panel isn’t a random sample,” explains Van Note. “We have longstanding relationships with most of these women and value their input in a way that goes beyond many other consumer surveys.” Ginger’s partners are particularly dismissive of teen surveys, which are highly sought after by marketers due to teens’ notoriously fickle tastes — but can be unreliable to the point of uselessness precisely because teens are so fickle.
 
By contrast, “our ‘alpha-females’ are a representative sample of America’s largest consumer group — the powerhouse that buys and sells 85 percent of all products bought and sold in the U.S.,” says Perro-Jarvis, referring to the single and family-attached women who make the vast majority of purchasing decisions, often on behalf of domestic partners and dependents. “Naturally, they have a lot to say about the marketplace, and life in it.”
 
In many ways, Perro-Jarvis and Van Note epitomize their Alpha Panel. Whip-smart, both left prominent positions at Fallon (the two were team members for some time, in fact) to work on their own terms and achieve that elusive work-life balance.
 
“The world of marketing and advertising is incredibly stressful and not particularly conducive to raising a family,” says Van Note. “At the same time, we were having these back-of-the-napkin conversations about what it would look like if we went into business together.”
 
During those conversations, the pair decided to focus more on big-picture, data-driven strategy instead of the full-service marketing work typically done by larger agencies.
 
“We don’t have the resources to manage the teams we’d need to execute client campaigns,” explains Perro-Jarvis. “We’ve found a niche as ‘strategy outsourcing’ specialists who consult on high-level tactics, custom research, ideation and brand strategy.”
 
“We’re basically strategic brains for hire,” she adds.
 
Now that they’re masters of their own destiny, Van Note and Perro-Jarvis are reaping the rewards. “We take calls in line at Target, work out of home offices and structure our workdays around other obligations,” says Perro-Jarvis.
 
“Who wants an office anyway?” she laughs. “It’s just another place to clean up.”
 

Prodality's customer-first approach to tech solutions

A while back, as Prodality co-founder Parag Shah scanned a credit card statement, he noticed a restaurant charge that seemed suspiciously high. Though he couldn’t remember the bill’s exact amount, he recalled the meal well enough to know he’d been overcharged. But Shah couldn’t find his receipt, and thus couldn’t confront the restaurant about the mistake.
 
“I hate paper, so I probably just threw the receipt out after signing,” says Shah. “But the experience made me ask why I didn’t have the option to receive my receipt by email and search through an archive of all my purchases.” Such an archive would also help with returns that required a receipt, he reasoned.
 
Shah set about developing the searchable receipt database that would become PurchaseBox. He soon saw the value in including promo emails in the concept: “The average person gets way too many promotional messages to keep track of, even with email systems like Gmail [which collects promo emails in a separate inbox],” explains Shah. “Most people just delete them as they come in, even if there’s a chance that they’d come in handy at a later time.”
 
By organizing retailer-specific promotional emails in a searchable database, PurchaseBox makes it easier for consumers to call up and use coupons while shopping online or in-store. Each PurchaseBox user gets an @purchasebox.com email account to which retailers can send digital offers and receipts. (Users can also photograph and upload paper receipts to their accounts, though that’s likely to become less common as more retailers switch to digital receipts.)
 
PurchaseBox exemplifies the customer-first approach to big-picture technology solutions of its parent company, Prodality. From its office near Uptown, Prodality is honing a unique business-building approach that could have a big impact on MSP’s burgeoning startup economy.
 
Shah, who serves as founder and chief executive, runs Prodality with business partner Whitney Johnson, who serves as director of marketing and oversees the company’s day-to-day operations. According to Johnson, Prodality is a “mix between a startup incubator and a capital investment firm.” Prodality turns ideas into new subsidiaries, taking an equity stake in every concept that makes it past the idea stage.
 
To get each new business off the ground, Prodality’s core team offers “labor support” during the startup phase, says Johnson, then builds “specific teams around each company as they continue to grow.” Prodality's startups are structured as separate legal entities, not departments of Prodality itself.
 
Prodality focuses on “big ideas” that can potentially achieve seven- or eight-figure valuations within three to five years, Shah says. “Before launching a new idea, we ask ourselves, is it a large enough opportunity?” he explains. “If the answer is ‘no,’ we don’t pursue it.”
 
Prodality’s ideas generally focus on business and consumer needs, depending on the company. Its most successful subsidiary to date, BookBottles, is an event management platform that caters to nightclub and entertainment venue owners. Regardless of target audience, Prodality’s startups must be cost-effective and “bootstrappable,” backed by software systems — either web or mobile — capable of being rolled out within weeks.
 
“One of the biggest advantages of our model is that it’s scalable,” says Shah. “We’ve put together a framework for providing the seed funding and labor to develop apps and other necessary technologies really quickly.”
 
Prodality’s model is attractive to local and national tech investors, who have participated in multiple funding rounds for the firm’s most successful startups. The ultimate goal of any Prodality backed startup, says Shah, is a full exit: the sale of Prodality’s stake to another firm or investment group. Prodality reinvests the proceeds of these sales into new ideas, some of which — hopefully — eventually make it through the same cycle.
 
As for PurchaseBox, it’s still early days. The app remains invite-only as the team works on functionality enhancements and tests new features, which Johnson says are critical to PurchaseBox’s eventual success. Current users tend to be tech-savvy “early adopters,” she says. “We count on experienced technology users to evangelize the product for us, and we always welcome feedback that helps us focus our development efforts.”
 
“The goal is to make PurchaseBox as user-friendly, seamless and convenient as possible,” Johnson adds. “Those attributes are what will ultimately drive adoption.”
 
According to Shah and Johnson, PurchaseBox is planning a big push — aided, again, by its early users — to put the app in front of retailers in MSP and beyond. “Our goal is to build a base of at least one million users” in the near term, says Shah. “Hitting that target will create a compelling value proposition for merchants and encourage adoption.”
 
Though one million users sounds like an ambitious target for an app that’s still technically in beta mode, Shah and Johnson clearly believe in PurchaseBox’s potential. And they’re fresh off a big visibility boost: PurchaseBox was one of a few hundred startups (out of 15,000 applicants) to appear at this year’s Collision, an annual tech expo held in Las Vegas in early May.
 

Technovation[MN] mentors young female entrepreneurs

It’s no secret that women and minority entrepreneurs struggle to achieve equal footing with their white male counterparts, particularly in the fast-growing science and tech fields. The problem isn’t unique to MSP: According to American Express OPEN’s much-cited 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses report, women-owned firms account for 30 percent of all U.S. businesses. Though the number of women entrepreneurs is growing at a rapid clip, women-owned businesses still employ just 6 percent of all U.S. workers — a proportion that hasn’t budged since the late 1990s.
 
MSP’s talented cohort of current and future women entrepreneurs may soon lead the nation on these critical representation and employment metrics. Locally based Technovation[MN] is expanding an exciting new initiative to level the playing field for local women and girls, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — and seeing impressive early results.
 
Now in its second year, Technovation[MN] helps small, all-female teams conceive, develop and pitch apps to the thousands-strong audience at the global Technovation Challenge, held in San Francisco every June since the late 2000s.
 
Led by Thomson Reuters veteran (now Bluespire marketing director of product development) Shawn Stavseth and sponsored in part by Code Savvy, the volunteer-run organization draws entrants mostly from MSP (including historically disadvantaged areas like Cedar-Riverside and North Minneapolis), its suburbs and the Rochester area. According to International Falls native Stavseth, the organization plans a push into outstate Minnesota over the next couple years.
 
Technovation[MN]’s volunteer mentors — tech-savvy parents, local tech entrepreneurs or computer science entrepreneurs — walk participating kids through an intense, 12-week course that includes ideation, competitor research, big-picture market analysis, actual app building and pitch practice. According to Stavseth, most apps focus on social entrepreneurship.
 
“The girls are incredibly passionate about the social issues of our time,” she says.
 
Each team works roughly four hours per week, usually after school or at local community centers. Due to the significant time investment required and the fact that mentors are usually busy professionals, Technovation[MN] requires no fewer than three mentors per team — basically a one-mentor-to-one-student ratio. The 12-week course culminates in a pitch day called Appapalooza, when each team debuts its idea.
 
In addition to the usual suspects like local financial institutions and tech companies, says Stavseth, Technovation[MN] has cross-disciplinary classroom support.
 
“We’ve heard from English teachers who frame coding as a second language and make the argument that kids who can ‘talk’ to computers will be more successful than those who can’t,” says Stavseth. Meanwhile, “[g]ym teachers and coaches are enthusiastic about the wearable-device revolution” and want students to know how to make fitness apps for those devices.
 
Despite its newcomer status, Technovation[MN] is clearly on the ascendancy. The global Technovation Challenge’s judging panel chooses a relative handful of finalists — this year featured just 10 teams in all, split between high school and middle school groups — from among hundreds of global entries. Though no MSP teams are slated to compete at this year’s event, a Rochester-area middle school team called Furst Class did make the finalist cut.
 
Technovation[MN] is also growing. The group boasted 28 teams this year, up from 11 last year, and Stavseth expects even more to sign up this coming school year, despite a barebones publicity campaign that turns mainly on word of mouth. But Stavseth cautions that Technovation[MN] can only grow so fast: Since its talented teens need intense support from mentors, the total number of teams depends on how many parents, educators and community members are willing to devote substantial amounts of their time to the cause.
 
“We’re very pleased with how things are going, but we’re also fighting a huge battle,” says Stavseth. “There’s a tremendous need to have girls in computer science and to fight the stereotypes associated with the field.”
 

Macalester embraces 100 percent solar initiative

St. Paul’s Macalester College is aiming to be the first higher education institution in MSP to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources. In mid-April, the college announced a partnership with SunEdison, a leading builder of solar generation infrastructure, to purchase a share of the output of a soon-to-be-constructed community solar garden in rural Dakota County. The deal permits Macalester to offset up to 120 percent of its campus consumption.
 
According to the college and SunEdison, the solar garden should be mostly built out by the end of the year and will be operational sometime in 2016. As soon as the facility is reliably generating enough electricity to offset consumption on Macalester’s campus, the college will be functionally carbon-free (or better). The agreement will remain in force for 25 years, guaranteeing Macalester’s carbon-free status for a generation.
 
“Given our projected consumption patterns and the expected rising trend in electricity rates over the period of the agreement, we believe that the savings over the term of the agreement could be in the millions of dollars,” said David Wheaton, Macalester’s vice president for finance and administration, in a recent release.
 
Wheaton estimates that the partnership will cut the college’s power bills by 50 to 67 percent over the life of the agreement, though the exact savings depend on long-term pricing for carbon-intensive energy sources. It costs more than $1 million annually to power Macalester’s roughly 50-acre campus at current prices. Colorado College, a similarly sized institution near Colorado Springs, has saved more than $1 million per year since switching to solar.
 
Macalester also recently applied for a state grant to fund the installation of solar panels on the roof of Markim Hall, a building on campus. Those panels would supply some of the energy used on that part of campus and would help make up any deficit if output at the SunEdison garden dips temporarily.
 
Given the clear financial benefits — not to mention the cachet of being a sustainable trailblazer — other MSP higher education institutions may soon hop on the solar bandwagon. Just down Summit Avenue from Macalester, the much larger University of St. Thomas has committed to carbon-neutrality by 2035, and may push that timetable forward if circumstances dictate. Even the University of Minnesota, a far larger institution, has made noises about going carbon-neutral. Such moves could be a boon to Minnesota’s solar industry, which employed about 1,000 people last year, not to mention MSP companies like SimpleRay Solar.
 
Macalester’s ambitious 100 percent-solar initiative was made possible by the passage of a solar-friendly law during last year’s legislative session. Though Xcel Energy, Minnesota’s largest utility, recently warned the state utility commission that the law was promoting the growth of “utility-scale” solar installations that could have unintended consequences for the state’s energy grid, the commission isn’t bound to act on Xcel’s recommendations. Macalester officials have expressed confidence that the college can make good on its 100 percent-solar commitment in the still-unlikely event that the SunEdison deal falls through.
 

Gardening Matters empowers growers

Gardening Matters, a community gardening nonprofit based in South Minneapolis, is putting on an MSP-wide seed and plant distribution event Saturday, May 16, at three locations around town: St. Olaf Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, Waite House in South Minneapolis and Great River School in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.
 
The organization’s members can choose from three packages. Per Gardening Matters’ website, a Small Garden Package contains 12 seed packs and 12 seedlings, enough for a container garden, small plot or raised bed. With 20 seed packs and 20 seedlings, a Medium Garden Package is sufficient for a 12’ x 12’ backyard garden or community plot. A Large Garden Package, brimming with 40 seed packs and 72 seedlings, is ideal for a “very large” backyard garden or larger community garden plot.
 
Each package comes with a suggested membership fee, calculated at a significant discount to the seeds’ and plants’ retail value. Members can further defray their packages’ cost by participating in Gardening Matters’ work-share program, which requires at least one annual volunteer stint at a Gardening Matters event.
 
With snacks, kid-friendly outdoor activities and live music, each May 16 distribution hub will double as a “pop-up celebration of spring,” says Susan Phillips, Gardening Matters’ executive director — a great kick-off to the growing season after a long winter hibernation.
 
“Broadly speaking, Gardening Matters’ mission is to support MSP residents who want to grow their own food, either as part of a community garden or in their own backyards, while building connections and facilitating knowledge-sharing among its members,” says Phillips.
 
This mission is gaining traction by the month. The three May 16 distribution locations are just three of about 10 Food Resource Hubs across MSP: three in St. Paul and seven in Minneapolis, up from none in St. Paul and just three in Minneapolis when Gardening Matters launched the Food Resource Hubs program in 2011. Collectively, Food Resource Hubs serve 3,000 adult members and 3,000 kids, with about 20 urban acres under cultivation as a direct result of members’ activities.
 
(Incidentally, Gardening Matters is likely to rename the Food Resource Hubs program soon due to a conflict with an unrelated but similarly named federal program.)
 
Although Gardening Matters still plays a critical role in overseeing and organizing each hub, the organization ultimately aims for hubs to be semi-autonomous and largely self-sustaining. “Each of our hubs has a unique mix of members and a unique culture,” explains Phillips.
 
Gardening Matters’ hubs also serve as a focal point for education and leadership training, both critical to fostering self-sustaining networks — not to mention good gardening practices. Founded to support cooperation among community gardeners, the group’s community-building power isn’t to be underestimated: Phillips recounts the story of a Gardening Matters-affiliated North Minneapolis community garden whose members cooperated to clean up a blighted, drug-ridden property on their block.
 
Thanks to the connections the neighbors built in the garden, says Phillips, “they were empowered to tackle bigger issues in their community.”
 
Phillips is turning Gardening Matters into a force for advocacy and city-wide change, too. “Land tenure is a huge issue right now,” she says, noting that many MSP community gardens have long waiting lists. This year, Gardening Matters is launching a major push to empower renters who don’t have access to suitable outdoor plots. Container gardens, which can easily fit on porches or even windowsills, are viable solutions for thousands of land-poor urban gardeners; the challenge is educating people about how to properly set up and care for them.
 
Phillips is also spearheading educational programs and outreach initiatives targeting immigrant communities, particularly Latino and Hmong groups, whose first-generation members have prior agricultural experience but aren’t aware of the urban gardening resources available in their adopted city.
 
“In everything Gardening Matters does, the goal is to expand the number of [MSP residents] who feel empowered to grow their own food,” says Phillips.
 
 

The Brandlab boosts diversity with new curriculum

 
The BrandLab, an innovative nonprofit supported by MSP’s biggest creative agencies, is actively broadening creative-industry networks to introduce young people from diverse backgrounds to the dynamic world of advertising and marketing. With more than 600 students enrolled in The BrandLab's classes this semester and with ambitious plans for growth, the organization is wrapping up a curriculum revamp that will make its lessons even more engaging to MSP’s brightest young minds.
 
The BrandLab has a simple yet ambitious goal: To boost diversity and inclusion in the creative industries through education and network building. According to Ellen Walthour, The BrandLab’s executive director, MSP’s advertising and marketing agencies — from big players like Olson and Carmichael Lynch to smaller, independently run outfits — should be every bit as diverse as the clients they represent and the consumers to whom they market.
 
“The ad industry is trying to break out of traditional modes of hiring, which tend to be network-based and thus less diverse than the talent pool as a whole,” says Walthour. “The BrandLab’s goal is not to eliminate personal networks from the equation, but rather to broaden and reframe them to include a more representative range of perspectives.”
 
According to Walthour, the industry’s long-term success could turn on its ability to attract and retain diverse talent. “Our region’s demographics are rapidly shifting,” she says. In Hennepin County, children of color account for about one in two births, and nearly 20 percent of the county’s college grads are people of color.
 
The industry recognizes the need to adapt to this new demographic reality. On April 22, more than 200 advertising professionals, Fortune 500 executives and media types packed into Brand New Workshop for “Moving Beyond Representation to Full Inclusion,” the latest panel discussion in The Brandlab’s Fearless Conversation Series. Panelists from General Mills, Cargill and Minneapolis ad agency Carmichael Lynch offered frank, occasionally uncomfortable answers to MPR host Tom Weber’s questions about racial and ethnic diversity in MSP’s creative industries.
 
Judging by the probing queries and nuanced answers, diversity and multiculturalism clearly weigh on the minds of MSP’s advertisers, marketers and commercial artists. The consensus: Though creative workplaces are slowly becoming more diverse, full inclusion is more elusive than would appear from the increasingly multicultural TV, print and digital ads produced by many local agencies.
 
The BrandLab may have the solution. Founded in 2008 by John Olson, the late principal at the legendary agency Olson, the organization hires professional instructors to teach elective marketing and advertising classes at local high schools, including St. Paul’s Johnson Senior High. Volunteer helpers, who are often creative-industry professionals, share real-world experiences and techniques to add context and perspective.
 
These classes cover industry history, ethics, culture and theory. One highlight: An engaging, if uncomfortable, lesson on “extraordinarily racist and sexist ads from the early 20th century,” says jabber logic principal Amee Tomlinson McDonald. Along with Emily Ronning, The BrandLab’s curriculum design director, she’s spearheading the organization’s curriculum redesign. By confronting advertising’s ugly past, The BrandLab’s multicultural students gain a visceral understanding of what they’re up against — and why they need to lend their voices and talents to the conversation.
 
These awkward ads are just one example of Tomlinson McDonald and Ronning’s revamp, which shifts the focus from traditional pedagogy (think half-hour lessons) to a more interactive, engaging model.
 
“It sounds cliched, but kids really do have short attention spans,” explains Tomlinson McDonald. “We’re using 30 to 60 second videos, real-world case studies, digital images” and other varied media “to keep kids engaged.” J. Crew’s YouTube page proved a particularly effective teaching tool, she mentions.
 
Students also dive deep into key agency roles: copywriting, graphic design, video production, project management, and even positions like accounting. By the end of the semester, they’re knowledgeable enough to put together mock projects for actual clients, whose employees hear pitches, critique work, and sometimes adopt aspects of a draft campaign.
 
The new curriculum is “in beta” in all of The BrandLab’s classrooms this semester. After some tweaks and improvements, a more finalized version will roll out for the next school year, though Walthour notes that The BrandLab’s curriculum is “always looking for ways to improve and adapt.”
 
The BrandLab doesn’t rely solely on classroom instruction. Throughout the semester, heavily programmed field trips to MSP-area agencies give students the chance to interact with creatives in their natural environments — and, possibly, get a sneak peek at their future workplaces.
 
On an April 21 trip, for example, Carmichael Lynch, Colle+McVoy and Olson each hosted 20+ Johnson Senior High students for two hours of tours, informational videos, Q&A time and — of course — a Pizza Luce-catered lunch. At Carmichael Lynch, students engaged fearlessly with agency staff and appeared genuinely surprised at the creativity that pervaded the building. (After passing by a midday yoga class in the agency’s lobby, one bright-eyed young lady remarked, “I had no idea people would be having fun at the office.”)
 
The BrandLab cultivates and focuses such sentiments in hopes of transforming curious students into the next generation of passionate creative professionals. Each year, the organization places dozens of classroom alums in paid summer internships at local agencies. Whereas other organizations focus on supporting older college students who have already self-selected into creative majors, The BrandLab deals exclusively with high school students and college freshmen. “The goal is to captivate kids early, before they’ve really considered [and potentially dismissed, due to lack of professional support] marketing or advertising as a career,” explains Walthour.
 
After an intense “boot camp” that prepares them for a “real world” workplace, interns work 12 to 20 hours per week during the summer. Every Monday, they pair up with a “coach” — someone with academic or professional experience in marketing and advertising — for debriefing sessions, all held on the University of Minnesota campus. These sessions help the interns process their often intense summer experiences while providing additional instruction in advanced concepts like brand strategy and personal branding.
 
The BrandLab’s model is clearly successful. Many first-time interns return the following summer. The BrandLab alums often major in creative or marketing-related disciplines after heading off to college. As the organization’s first alums graduate from college, they’ll disperse into the creative workforce to build the broad, inclusive networks the industry needs.
 

Strategies for making MSP a tech and innovation hub

The U of M’s Carlson School of Business hosted its annual Tech Cities conference on March 27. The event drew hundreds of local innovators, investors and social entrepreneurs to the West Bank on the University of Minnesota campus in search of answers to a simple but vexing question: “How can we strengthen and promote MSP as a source for tech leadership, talent and innovation?”
 
The packed “Supporting Innovators in the Tech Cities” workshop offered a glimpse of the problems the region faces — and offered hope that workable solutions are within reach.
 
According to Matt Lewis, Greater MSP Strategy Manager and workshop moderator, MSP could produce “tens of thousands of jobs by 2020” that the region currently lacks the talent to fill. This “talent gap” is mostly due to two structural forces.
 
First, the accelerating pace of technological change is dramatically reordering the economy, rewarding highly skilled professionals and tech-savvy innovators while challenging those who don’t acquire new, relevant skills. This shift is happening everywhere, but it’s more pronounced in regional hubs like MSP (i.e., the capital of the North), where much of the tech economy’s most exciting, cutting-edge advances are forged.
 
The second structural force is unique to MSP: Despite a strong economy, reasonable living costs and excellent quality-of-life metrics, the region perennially struggles to attract the country’s — and world’s — best and brightest. The upside is that once transplants find their way here, they tend to stick around.
 
“The cliche that it’s hard to get people to come here and even harder to get them to leave holds true,” Lewis noted at the workshop. “We need to change the conversation and make [MSP] a global destination for people who self-identify as innovators.” Doing so would solve both problems: the technological talent gap and MSP’s “attraction issue.”
 
Four self-identified innovators who already call MSP home piped up to offer their ideas. Scott Cole, co-founder of the local tech cooperative Collectivity, proposed a “comprehensive tech accelerator” that would combine and magnify the efforts of existing local initiatives like the Minnesota High Tech Association, Greater MSP, MN Cup, university-based tech groups and others. The ultimate goal: to create a pervasive culture of innovation wherein cash-strapped innovators with great ideas effortlessly connect with investors, mentors and customers.
 
Melissa Kjolsing, MN Cup director, highlighted the tech world’s persistent gender gap — an issue that has gotten plenty of press in MSP and elsewhere. She noted that while women run 30 percent of all U.S. companies, most are solo operators. The solution: “deeper peer networks for women,” she argued. Women entrepreneurs need positive role models, namely successful female business owners who have made it through the male-dominated startup gauntlet. 
 
Kjolsing noted that though MN Cup has yet to achieve parity, the prestigious tech competition is spearheading the drive to empower women entrepreneurs: In 2014, about one-third of MN Cup entries came from all-women teams, up from 25 percent the previous year; 45 percent of 2014’s teams had at least one woman on the roster.
 
Lee George of the James J. Hill Reference Library argued that MSP must do more to support ambitious people at the two biggest “pinch points”: the moment when the entrepreneur moves from tinkering with an idea in their spare time to quitting their day job and fully plunging into their startup; and the exit strategy, or the point at which the entrepreneur steps away from the company he or she founded to focus on a new project or simply “cash out.”
 
Without support from mentors, investors and talented employees, many entrepreneurs never make it past the first pinch point, and their dream either dies or goes into a long slumber. Meanwhile, those fortunate enough to be able to contemplate an exit strategy often don’t know how to forge the connections with leaders of the established firms that typically buy up successful startups. It’s worth noting, for instance, that though MSP has a deep bench of Fortune 500 firms capable of financing numerous buyouts, one of the region’s most successful startups — SmartThings — turned to a Korean firm (Samsung) for its exit.
 
George advised existing organizations like Greater MSP and MHTA to adjust their programming in two ways: creating better and more numerous mentorship opportunities for soon-to-be-full-time entrepreneurs, and deepening connections between successful startups and major firms.
 
David Berglund, the fourth speaker, exemplifies the power of connections between MSP’s startup community and established business players. He’s UnitedHealth’s “entrepreneur in residence” and co-founder of Hoodstarter, a real-estate crowdfunding app. At UnitedHealth, he’s more or less in charge of “building healthcare startups from the ground up.”
 
“We need to accelerate the pace of innovation in large, sometimes bureaucratic corporations,” he said. “To do that, we need to get off the corporate campus and out of our comfort zone.”
 
Berglund believes that MSP’s major corporations need to communicate better and experiment more, both with one another and with the region’s entrepreneurs. Knowledge — and knowledge sharing — is power, after all. Berglund’s dream: an MSP in which big companies, successful small businesses and fledgling startups “forge partnerships and come together without fear of stealing each other’s ideas.” Such an outcome could accelerate the pace of business formation here and transform MSP into a truly global innovation hub.
 
 

Matchstick Ventures ignites tech-startup economy

Confluence Capital, the groundbreaking MSP venture capital (VC) fund, is now Matchstick Ventures. The rebrand comes amid a flurry of other changes announced early last month, notably the addition of several high-profile investors and advisors.
 
New investors, according to Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, include Seth Levine, managing director at Boulder-based Foundry Group, a venture capital fund; Lisa Crump, co-founder of Eden Prairie-based digifab giant Stratasys; Scott Burns, CEO of St. Paul-based GovDelivery, a software communication platform that serves government organizations; and Darren Cotter, founder of St. Paul-based online rewards company InboxDollars. Advisors include Levine and Joy Lindsay, principal at Minneapolis-based StarTec Investments.
 
But why “Matchstick”?
 
“The ‘Matchstick’ name rings truer to the entrepreneurs and startups that we exist to serve,” says founder and managing director Ryan Broshar, who also founded beta.mn and Twin Cities Startup Week. “Our goal is to act as a catalyst — not just for the companies we invest in, but for MSP’s startup economy as a whole.”
 
To date, Matchstick/Confluence has invested in 14 early-stage companies. Though most are headquartered in the MSP area, there are a few outliers: Denver, Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, and Lincoln, Nebraska. Far from diluting Matchstick’s local potency, Broshar sees these wayward investments as central to the fund’s mission: “evangelizing” MSP’s emerging tech ecosystem.
 
“We talk up the region every time we interact with out-of-market clients and prospects,” says Broshar, adding that his company gets at least one inquiry from outside entrepreneurs or VC funds who’ve heard about Matchstick and are excited about what’s happening in MSP. “Interest in the Twin Cities is definitely gaining momentum.”
 
“The writing is on the wall for MSP’s startup scene and capital ecosystem,” he adds.
 
Broshar should know what an up-and-coming tech hub looks like. He lived in the Denver-Boulder area in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when the Front Range’s tech economy was blowing up. Broshar threw himself into the local scene, parlaying a pending MBA at UC-Boulder into a gig as a consulting firm principal. He networked with and advised ambitious Front Range entrepreneurs for a few years, then turned his focus to finding and investing in early-stage companies through partnerships with the Foundry Group and other local VCs.
 
When he moved back to MSP in fall 2012, Broshar found the same entrepreneurial energy he’d grown accustomed to in Denver-Boulder. But with few notable VC firms and a relatively conservative commercial financing ecosystem that eschewed risk, many local startups had to look elsewhere for capital.
 
“We’re blessed with a lot of gritty entrepreneurs who just go to work and get stuff done, rather than talking about what they have yet to do,” says Broshar. “But even the most talented and ambitious entrepreneurs can’t survive without capital,” along with the mentoring and peer support services provided by organizations and initiatives like Broshar’s beta.mn and Twin Cities Startup Week.
 
“The goal was, and still is, to put MSP on the map,” he says.
 

Cologix turns MSP into Internet hub for Netflix and MICE

Cologix, one of the country’s most prolific data center operators, recently unveiled a new state-of-the-art facility in Downtown East’s 511 Building, the company’s MSP headquarters. According to a company press release, the 28,000-square-foot hub has space for more than 250 server cabinets and upward of 70 network connections, making it the most connected piece of real estate between Chicago and Seattle — the Internet capital of The North.
 
“People think of the Internet as this ethereal cloud,” says Graham Williams, chief operating officer, Cologix. “But in reality, that cloud is very solid. The world is crisscrossed with untold miles of fiber optic cables and dotted with servers, routers and switches. That physical infrastructure — the Internet’s plumbing — intersects at data hubs like [the 511 Building].”
 
The heart of Cologix’s new facility is the Meet Me Room, the hub where the networks actually intersect. Clients who rent space in the facility can pick and choose which networks to use. The setup is akin to a co-working space: Tenants pay to be there and provide their own equipment, but they get access to most of the service providers operating in MSP.
 
They also enjoy lower latency (faster connection speeds), which is particularly important in the video streaming business. “We enable companies like Netflix to get closer to their end users,” explains Mike Hemphill, general manager of Cologix’s Minneapolis facility. “They’re pushing copies of the shows and movies people want to watch to their servers here in Minneapolis, rather than calling everything up from California and traversing thousands of miles of fiber to get here.”
 
Increased competition for clients in the Meet Me Room reduces’ service providers’ pricing power by as much as 20 to 40 percent, says Williams. But it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. The alternative is an expensive, piecemeal approach wherein providers lay fiber all the way to clients’ offices, wherever they might be located. Depending on the fiber’s final cost per mile, directly connecting to clients could end up being less cost-effective than using a facility like the 511 Building.
 
Cologix’s new data center also houses the Midwest Internet Cooperative Exchange (MICE), a nonprofit, donation-supported network exchange used by smaller Internet service providers and telecoms as well as data-hungry content providers like Netflix. MICE was devised in 2010 to improve MSP-area bandwidth and connection speeds, and to level the playing field for smaller operators. FWR Communications, Cologix’s predecessor in the 511 Building, donated a modest square footage to house MICE’s first servers; with more than 50 participants at last count, MICE is now a major Cologix tenant.
 
“It’s an exciting time to be in this business,” muses Hemphill, whose telecommunications career has spanned nearly a half-century. “I’ve had more fun in the last decade than at any time previously.”
 

Visual has ambitious vision for social VR in MSP

Visual, a Northeast Minneapolis startup run by co-founders Chuck Olsen and Taylor Carik, has an ambitious vision for “social VR,” a blend of social media, virtual reality and everyday experience. The company’s current app, an interactive social dashboard that hovers in an immersive, computer-generated 3D environment, will soon be available on two virtual reality headsets: Samsung’s Gear VR, an affordable consumer model, and Oculus’s DK2, a higher-end device ideal for gaming.
 
Visual’s app grew out of Futurekave, a far-reaching “virtual world platform” developed by Olsen and Carik. To help build it, the pair tapped Dual Reality Games, a group of talented app designers with members in MSP and Oregon. Users sync their social media profiles with the app, manipulating photos, posts, tweets and profile information using a keyboard or touchpad. Visual only works with Instagram at the moment, but other social networks are in the works.
 
Social VR’s time has come, explains Olsen. “Facebook is hiring 1,200 employees right now,” he says, “many of whom will be working on building a VR presence for the company.”
 
“But Facebook [and other tech companies like Apple] aren’t VR natives, like we are,” he adds. “That puts them at a disadvantage.”
 
As a small, lean startup, Visual is more nimble than Facebook et al. And as possibly the first independent social VR company anywhere in the country, Visual is uniquely positioned to take advantage of what Olsen and Carik believe will be a fundamental change in the public’s relationship with mobile computing and connectivity.
 
In the short term, VR is about to get a lot more accessible. Samsung is planning a big consumer push later this year for its $200 Gear VR headset, a goggled apparatus that syncs up with the Note 4 smartphone’s screen to immerse wearers in a 360-degree VR. Thus far, the Note 4 is the only piece of hardware that works with Gear VR, though (according to Olsen) that’s not as big of an obstacle as it seems.
 
“[Gear VR] is going to be under Christmas trees this year,” predicts Olsen. “If you’ve got a free phone upgrade, it’s not a huge commitment to get a Note 4 and then buy the headset.” And Samsung may tweak the Gear VR interface to work with other mobile devices, he adds.
 
Visual’s social VR app is also compatible with the DK2, a similar headset device from Oculus, the company responsible for many of the recent advances in VR interfacing.
 
In both cases, the headset experience is incredibly lifelike, with realistic sound, HD-quality video and just-barely-perceptible lag when the user moves his or her head. The big drawback, explains Olsen, is that VR is not yet interactive: You can move your head to look at different parts of the virtual environment, but you can’t reach out and manipulate your surroundings.
 
Visual’s social VR system could solve, or at least mitigate, the interactivity problem. Olsen and Carik imagine headset-wearing concert-goers using Virtual’s app to post real-time images and video with friends who aren’t at the event, or meet and engage with other social VR users who are present. While users wouldn’t actually be able to manipulate the performers or anything else about the environment, they’d be able to process and share it socially.
 
Olsen, Carik and the Dual Reality Games crew aren’t placing all their eggs in the headset basket, of course. Longer-term, they’re interested in the concept of augmented reality: a virtual, Internet-connected field of vision overlay, like a much more advanced version of Google Glass. They see Visual as a “hardware agnostic” app that can handle the social element of augmented reality, which some technology experts believe is the future of mobile Internet — the post-smartphone world.
 
“Imagine having your social dashboard in the corner of your living room, waiting for you to engage with it,” says Olsen. “That could really be powerful.”
 

Retrace offers cure for healthcare costs

 
Rising costs and inconvenient delivery modes beset healthcare consumers. Thompson Aderinkomi, a trained economist with an MBA from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business, has a novel solution.
 
His new startup, Retrace Health, offers at-home, on-demand consultations and care from licensed doctors and nurse practitioners, either by videoconference or in-person visit.
 
Retrace has grown rapidly since its late 2013 launch, when the company had a roster of about 40 patients, mostly Aderinkomi’s friends and family members. The company began accepting corporate clients in June 2014: Aderinkomi now counts at least seven client companies, ranging in size from a few hundred to a few thousand employees, whose employees can tap Retrace’s services. Between individual and corporate clients, Retrace now brokers “double-digit weekly consultation counts,” says Aderinkomi.
 
According to Aderinkomi, convenience — the fact that patients don’t have to drive to a clinic or hospital and sit in a waiting room for hours on end — is a huge factor in Retrace’s success. “We’ve found that once people try Retrace and realize how seamless the process can be, they use us more than they’d use a regular doctor or care provider,” says Aderinkomi.
 
Retrace’s doctors and NPs keep longer hours than a typical health clinic. Video consults are available 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Mondays, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. In-person consults occur from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
 
For simple issues, users can schedule a three-minute video consultation and be on their way. For more complex problems, a 30- or 60-minute home visit may be necessary. Retrace’s care providers can schedule same-day appointments with as little as 60 minutes’ notice, though off-hours requests need to wait until the following business day.
 
Retrace users also value the company’s untimed appointments. Whereas a traditional clinic might schedule 15 or 20 daily appointments per doctor or NP, Retrace’s care providers don’t have such heavy workloads. A lighter workload allows care providers to linger longer with each patient, answering questions and addressing issues that might normally get pushed aside due to time constraints.
 
Financially, Retrace isn’t out of reach for most patients. Individual patients who want to pay through their insurance provider (Retrace works with most providers) don’t have to pay anything to use the service, aside from premiums and co-pays set by their providers.
 
Individual patients who don’t want to tap their insurance providers can choose from three packages: Basic, Premium and Unlimited. Basic, which doesn’t come with an annual fee, requires users to pay a la carte for labs, visits and other services. (For instance, an in-home X-ray costs $150). Premium and Unlimited come with respective annual fees of $99 and $599; costs for visits and services are reduced or waived altogether. (Corporate prices are customized based on the client’s employee count and other factors.)
 
Retrace’s simple pricing scheme is a breath of fresh air in a healthcare sector that famous for confusing statements and wildly variable prices. “We’re huge believers in price transparency and simplicity,” says Aderinkomi. “Customers have a right to know upfront how much they’re paying for their care.”
 
And not everyone is bound by Retrace’s standard prices. The company’s “original 40” patients got a sweetheart deal in exchange for their faith in the company: An all-inclusive lifetime membership for a one-time fee of $300. That deal, unfortunately, is off the table, replaced by a limited-time promotion that waives all visit and lab fees for 12 months with the payment of an annual membership fee.
 

Walkway Workstation adds tech amenities to treadmill desks

 
Kari Severson, a Minneapolis-based inventor and entrepreneur, has a fun, healthy, ultra-connected solution for sedentary office workers: the Walkway Workstation, a “treadmill desk designed with the purposeful user in mind.” On March 2, Severson and her team of contract designers and developers celebrated Walkway’s official launch at Startup Venture Loft (SVL), a North Loop coworking space and startup incubator.
 
SVL will permanently feature at least one Walkway desk, a high-visibility win for Severson’s health-and-productivity startup.
 
“We’re thrilled to have the support of Startup Venture Loft’s tenants and management,” says Severson, a self-professed fitness enthusiast who juggles a full-time job at United Health Group with her entrepreneurial duties at Walkway. “It’s gratifying to see people embracing the Walkway concept so enthusiastically.”
 
Walkway Workstation also recently announced a partnership with MSP International Airport. Severson’s team will deliver two Walkways to Concourse C, near gate C21, and one to Concourse F, near gate F3. More could follow in other locations this year or next.
 
The airport partnership is apt. Severson first came up with the idea for Walkway during a hectic, travel-heavy period in her life. Because her boyfriend was enrolled in graduate school at the University of California Los Angeles, and Severson had a full-time job in MSP and was pursuing master’s program Duke University in North Carolina, she was constantly crisscrossing the country.
 
“With all the travel and a generally unpredictable schedule, I found myself really inactive,” she says. She came up with a concept that improved upon existing treadmill desks, which didn’t feature the amenities or built-in controls that would eventually adorn the Walkway.
 
Each Walkway is a self-contained unit equipped with a sturdy treadmill, ample desk space, device charging ports and a free Internet hotspot. The treadmill’s speed is capped at two miles per hour, a relatively leisurely pace that facilitates multitasking and doesn’t tire out users too quickly. The setup is ideal for individual offices, common areas in open-plan workplaces, waiting rooms and institutional public spaces, says Severson.
 
“The goal is to make everyday lifestyle resources available to busy people,” she says, “and to seamlessly facilitate healthy choices in a convenient setting.”
 
Severson offers several different Walkway configurations, each ideal for a particular end-user. A light-duty treadmill base is ideal for home offices and small workplaces; a moderate-duty base works better in medium-sized, collaborative workplaces; and a heavy-duty treadmill supports near-constant use at large corporate offices, and airports and other public spaces. Each version comes with the user’s choice of a manually or electronically adjustable desk.
 
Though individual buyers and small offices can purchase Walkways at market price, Severson’s team seeks sponsorships to subsidize the cost of units in heavily trafficked public spaces. In effect, each public Walkway is an interactive billboard; sponsors pay for customized user interfaces and prominent, outward-facing logo displays visible to anyone who walks by.
 
And a lot of people can walk by: According to Walkway’s website, about 26,000 people per day walk by the company’s two MSP airport sites.
 
Severson is looking at other revenue-generation ideas, too, including a “freemium” model that offers free access for an initial period, and then imposes a per-minute or per-hour rate for continued use. She’s also mulling partnerships with content providers to deliver premium music and video to users willing to pay a fee for the service.
 
Severson is also keen on the concept of “Walkway pods,” which would feature two, three or more Walkways facing one another — good for “walking meetings” and other collaborative activities, she says.
 

Design firm Little evolves into holistic brand agency

Little, one of Minneapolis’s oldest and best-known design and branding firms, has emerged stronger and more focused from a recession that left some local peers reeling and put others out of business altogether. Since the beginning of 2014, the company has signed a dozen new clients — including high-profile organizations like US Bank and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Collectively, the new accounts will add about $2 million to the company’s top line — a hefty boost for a firm with revenues of about $10 million last year.
 
Little is also refreshing its leadership ranks. Monica Little, the firm’s founder and principal, stepped aside last year. Into her shoes stepped competent leaders like president/chief creative officer Joe Cecere, vice president of finance and administration Kirk Grandstrand, and director of marketing and business development Traci Elder. Cecere is a Little veteran, but Grandstrand and Elder are outsiders to Little and the agency world writ large: Little hired both away from Best Buy.
 
The leadership change, says Cecere, brought a rare opportunity to reassess Little’s priorities and refine the company’s approach in a competitive, rapidly changing industry that’s sensitive to economic disruption. Little has historically focused on high-quality, brand-focused design; in the 1980s, the company cut its chops producing colorful annual reports for MSP-based corporate behemoths like Hudson-Dayton (later Target) and Polaris. But the past decade’s economic turmoil and technological changes drove home the need for a broader, bottom-up approach to branding.
 
“At our core, we still believe in the power of design,” says Cecere, “but we’re a much more holistic brand agency now than even five years ago.”
 
Brand strategy and effective communications, both internal and external, are now critical components of Little’s work. “We want our clients to know what they stand for,” says Cecere, “and to be able to effectively communicate that to employees and customers.”
 
Cecere cites the Minnesota Timberwolves as a prime example. Little is currently helping the Wolves through an “inside out rebranding,” asking employees at every level of the organization for insight into its identity and purpose. The eventual goal: a recognizable, unified brand that produces a compelling, consistent fan experience “that feels right from the moment [fans] enter the arena to the moment they leave,” says Cecere. “As an organization’s most important brand stewards, employees are integral to a positive customer experience.”
 
A broad-based, recession-related drop in marketing budgets and promotional spending complicated Little’s “reset,” though the company survived the downturn relatively unscathed.
 
“Companies typically cut ad spending after they’ve reduced costs elsewhere,” says Cecere, “but we were fortunate not to lose any clients during the recession, just individual projects.”
 
In some ways, the recent economic downturn was a boon for Little, despite the temporary hit to revenues. Lean times tend to disrupt “comfortable” sectors; well-run companies and organizations typically respond by refocusing and rebranding. For instance, Carleton College and the University of St. Thomas Law School, both recent additions to Little’s portfolio, are trying to remain competitive and relevant in an increasingly cluttered higher-education market.
 
“[These schools are] competing against larger institutions with inherent structural advantages,” says Cecere. “For organizations in such a position, the importance of effective branding and communication is clear.” Especially in a world where disruption is the new norm, and companies large and small struggle to stand out from the crowd.
 
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