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Twin Cities job creation outpaces most major metros

Two key organizations recently released encouraging reports about the state of the Twin Cities’ economy. The State Job Creation Index, a Gallup analysis of job creation at the state level, put Minnesota in fifth place for the 12 months that ended in December 2013. All four “states” (one was the District of Columbia) that finished ahead of Minnesota are significantly smaller; the leader, North Dakota, is currently benefiting from a massive oil boom.

Notably, Minnesota came in just ahead of Texas, which is often touted as a low-tax, low-regulation alternative to slower-growing northern states that often impose heavier tax burdens and stricter environmental regulations. Leaving the political commentary to others, Minnesota is typically lumped in with this “northern contingent.”

Another report ties Minnesota’s impressive job creation figures to a vibrant, apparently accelerating economy in our own backyard. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent Metropolitan Area Employment and Unemployment Summary looked at job creation and unemployment figures in 372 metro areas across the country. Although some smaller metros had minuscule unemployment rates— Bismarck, ND, and Logan, UT were both at 2.8 percent—Minneapolis-Saint Paul, at 4.9 percent, had the lowest rate among large metro areas (defined by a total population of one million or higher). That marked a 0.2 percent improvement from December 2012, when it also had the lowest unemployment rate among major metro areas.

Twin Cities’ business and civic leaders already have plenty of reasons to pat themselves on the back, so why not add another? Job creation was strong across most economic sectors, with information technology and healthcare leading the way. It’s especially impressive that this growth comes on the heels of a prolonged period of economic malaise. In 2010, a sobering report from the Itasca Project Job Growth Task Force asserted that “well before the current economic downturn…the region [had] fallen behind much of the nation in terms of job growth,” going on to warn that “our quality of life will decline” without action.

To reverse the slump, Itasca’s report urged lawmakers to “address the cost of doing business,” articulate a plan for local and regional growth, and encourage entrepreneurship and research/innovation. In January, Governor Dayton announced the launch of the Minnesota Job Creation Fund, a far-reaching program that offers tax breaks of up to $1 million for businesses that “create at least 10 full-time jobs and invest at least $500,000 in their own property improvements,” according to the Pioneer Press.

Writer: Brian Martucci

West Bank Arts Foundry: Connecting artists and businesses

On April 5, the West Bank Business Association (WBBA) will host a full day of creative merrymaking for artists, business owners, and arts enthusiasts on the West Bank. The West Bank Arts Foundry (WBAF), as the event is known, aims to connect Twin Cities artists with local business owners and “create more opportunities for artistic endeavors on the West Bank,” according to its website.

The neighborhood has long been known as a hotbed of creativity, but West Bank Business Association director Jamie Schumacher sees an opportunity to double down. “The arts are so important to the West Bank’s history…and part of what makes us a great destination district,” she says. “I want to do everything I can to support the creative activity we have and help build more.”

The WBBA already supports local creative events like the West Bank Music Festival, but the district lacks an arts advocacy organization. As an advocate for all local businesses, including many creative enterprises, the WBBA is a natural catalyst to help grow the West Bank’s arts scene. Schumacher cites a glaring need to “recognize and help more of our musicians and artists” and connect them with “businesses [that] want to be more arts-friendly.”

Ultimately, the goal of the West Bank Arts Foundry—hopefully an ongoing one, if WBAF becomes an annual ritual—is to forge, and then build on, partnerships between local property owners and artists. With so many “great minds coming together to collaborate” at WBAF, says Schumacher, “I’m interested in seeing what creative solutions [can be found to solve] some of our area’s issues.”

Owners of temporarily vacant buildings might work with local muralists to keep their properties lively before new tenants move in, for instance. Installation artists might use their talents to help West Bank visitors explore or navigate the neighborhood.

Schumacher is well-suited to oversee WBAF. As an employee of Peace Coffee—and, later, as owner of Altered Esthetics, a nonprofit art studio—she learned the ins and outs of the nonprofit sector. Her tenure as boss of the WBBA, meanwhile, has reinforced the placemaking power of creative enterprise. “[The] arts help to make communities unique, vibrant, livable, and destination worthy,” she says. “The West Bank is a pretty fantastic example of that.”

WBAF will feature 15 (and counting) “breakout sessions.” Many—Budgeting & Accounting for Artists, Marketing for Artists & Events—offer practical advice for working artists. Others, like Underground Art and the Vibrant History of the West Bank/Rekindling the Guerrilla Art Spirit, are meant to be “inspirational and collaborative,” according to Schumacher. WBAF will also feature appearances from prominent artists, including Joan Vorderbruggen (recently featured in The Line), who will lead a discussion of street and storefront art called Popping Up in the West Bank.

“It’s going to be a fun day,” says Schumacher, “and a solid opportunity to increase art and creative activity on the West Bank, as well as be a good networking opportunity for artists and businesses.”

Source: Jamie Schumacher
Writer: Brian Martucci

Docalytics debuts next-gen tech at Google Demo Day

Docalytics, an ambitious tech company that operates out of CoCo’s Saint Paul coworking space, will be debuting its next-generation document viewing technology at this year’s Google Demo Day. Thanks to a partnership between Google and CoCo, Docalytics’ founders—Evan Carothers, Ryan Morlok, and Steve Peck—are heading to Silicon Valley on April 1 and 2 to show off their cloud-based solution, absorb the wisdom of Google’s top product specialists, and rub shoulders with some of the technology industry’s leading lights.

Not bad for three guys with a startlingly simple idea. According to its website, Docalytics helps marketers “bridge the gap between sales and marketing communication,” boosting lead generation and conversion rates for businesses that utilize online content marketing—which, these days, is just about every business.

The key? “Smart” PDF documents that enable the B2B marketers responsible for putting in-depth marketing materials in the hands of executives, purchasing managers, and other decision-makers to track each prospect’s engagement with their content. Companies that use Docalytics’ application can track, measure, and analyze what potential clients do with key marketing content. That capability generates a treasure trove of relevant data, which marketers didn’t have access to before.

According to Carothers, the idea for Docalytics arose from a simple observation: Few prospects bother to fill out the contact forms on the “gated” landing pages that many companies use to track readers’ engagement with ebooks, white papers, and other marketing materials. These landing pages have “terrible conversion rates,” as Carothers puts it, both because they require effort to get past and because they can seem invasive. This is a classic catch-22: With a lack of viable alternatives, marketers are forced to employ a lead-tracking strategy that actively discourages lead generation. One could argue that they’d be better off not tracking their leads at all.

Unless they had a viable, non-invasive, flexible alternative, that is. Docalytics’ elegant solution removes artificial barriers to prospects’ engagement with high-level pieces of content marketing while dramatically enhancing their ability to analyze each viewer’s experience with the material.

This second bit is particularly important: It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Docalytics is doing for content marketing analysis what Google Analytics has already done for website analysis. Used properly, the solution could result in far more relevant, personalized, and—perhaps most importantly—authentic-seeming marketing materials. “This tracking provides marketers with data to produce better, more effective content,” says Carothers, “and helps salespeople understand [and cater to] the interests and needs of specific prospects.”

So what do Carothers, Morlok, and Peck stand to gain from Demo Days? First of all, they’ll be pitching directly to a panel that includes some of biggest players in the venture capital space. “This group has the potential to help introduce us to new customers, markets, and growth capital to help us take our company to the next level faster than we could using conventional growth strategies,” says Carothers.

They’ll also get some valuable advice from Google’s product whizzes, who certainly know how to spot and improve game-changing technologies.

Back in Saint Paul, the future looks bright for Docalytics. “We have certainly found a pain point in the market,” says Carothers. “We are already starting to experience great growth and traction and have no plans to slow down.”

If things continue to go Docalytics’ way, the definition of “we” will expand. “[We’ll] be looking for great talent in the Midwest to help us expand and capitalize on the opportunity in the marketplace,” he says.

Source: Evan Carothers
Writer: Brian Martucci

LocaLoop: Innovative choice for outstate wireless

After a long, successful career in the technology industry, Swedish-American entrepreneur Carl-Johan Torarp is bringing reliable wireless broadband to small towns and farmsteads in southwestern Minnesota and beyond. His firm, Minneapolis-based LocaLoop, is “an economically viable 4G business solution for operators providing fixed and mobile broadband Internet service and web applications for consumer, business, and government users,” according to its website. Put another way, it’s a “complete 4G business-in-a-box.”

As a (primarily) B2B firm that markets to smaller communication service providers—rural telephone companies, communications/electric cooperatives, local public utilities, and entrepreneurs who see a money-making opportunity in bringing fast, reliable mobile and fixed Internet service to previously underserved areas—LocaLoop doesn’t deal directly with individual subscribers.

It does, however, offer a complementary, consumer-facing brand called synKro, which is enabled by LocaLoop’s four-patent cloud technology. SynKro allows operators to immediately deploy this “brand-in-a-box” and leverage LocaLoop’s existing marketing infrastructure, salesforce, and client-facing services.

On top of the cachet of an increasingly recognizable brand, synKro offers benefits like on-demand support, automatic payment collection and mobile compatibility—“data roaming,” as LocaLoop describes it—with other synKro-enabled providers across the country. Subscribers who want to use their mobile devices outside their regular provider’s service area can be confident that they’ll enjoy access to consistent, high-quality broadband Internet.

If this sounds novel, it should. According to Torarp, LocaLoop’s solution is a superior—and innovatively disruptive—alternative to the three main categories of service providers that currently operate in LocaLoop’s target markets. These are larger telecom firms with huge “legacy” investments in fixed (aka landline) broadband systems that require government subsidies to remain profitable; smaller firms that rely on wireless LANs or early-generation (and thus uncompetitive) broadband technology; and wireless carriers (AT&T, Verizon, and others) whose 4G coverage is designed for high-density markets and isn’t profitable or consistent in rural areas, if it’s available at all.

Each type of provider has its own shortcomings. The legacy operators “don’t know of any other way [to profitability] than relying on subsidies,” says Torarp, and the LAN/first-generation wireless broadband operators can’t afford to scale or maintain the technology at sufficient densities. It’s possible that mobile carriers could one day build out profitable, tower-based 4G networks in rural areas, but that’s still a decade away, at best.

By then, a new technology may have usurped 4G broadband anyway—a problem that LocaLoop’s continuously updated Software-as-a-Service/Infrastructure-as-a-Service (SaaS/IaaS) avoids by adapting its “cloud service platform” to newer generations of wireless broadband hardware as they emerge.

In fact, LocaLoop’s technology is the first rural wireless broadband service that offers a speedy path to profitability for operators. According to Torarp, a new client with access to an existing tower and 180 subscribers needs less than $30,000—or $1,000 per month, if its equipment is leased—to get started.

All things being equal, the technology’s break-even point is around 100 subscribers per tower location, and an operator that adds 50 subscribers per month should recoup its investment in less than six months. When compared to the multimillion-dollar deployment costs of existing rural broadband technologies, LocaLoop’s solution looks like a steal.

Aside from local operators and entrepreneurs, LocaLoop serves vertically integrated customers like energy firms that maintain labor-intensive operations in remote areas. Its solutions are also cost-effective for prosperous farmers and ranchers who wish to set up their own towers and act as their own operators.

What’s next for LocaLoop? Growth—and plenty of it. “From a technology or business point of view, nothing prevents us from becoming a billion-dollar company [over the next decade],” says Torarp. “From now on, it’s about effective business plan execution and access to enough expansion capital.”

Sounds like a plan.

Source: Carl-Johan Torarp
Writer: Brian Martucci

Global Water Dances connects water issues around the world

Even in an increasingly interconnected world, few events or movements are truly global in scope. Global Water Dances (GWD), a biannual event aimed at raising awareness of water issues in various parts of the world, is among the precious few. GWD is a complex effort governed by a steering committee and facilitated by thousands of dancers and choreographers. But it owes its existence, in large part, to the efforts of one woman: Marylee Hardenbergh, a Minneapolis choreographer and Artist-in-Residence at Hamline University’s Center for Global Environmental Education in Saint Paul.

At 1:30 p.m., on March 22 (the United Nations’ World Water Day), the Center will host a film screening to benefit GWD. The event will include short films about GWD and presentations by local water activists from H2O for Life, Friends of the Mississippi River, the National Park Service, and other organizations.

Global Water Dances grew out of Hardenbergh’s “One River Mississippi” project, a simultaneous, six-city dance event that was “the world’s largest site-specific performance,” according to the website for the 2006 event. The project was just one of many that Hardenbergh has overseen as Artistic Director of Global Site Performance, a 501c3 nonprofit.

In 2008, Hardenbergh attended a gathering of Laban Movement Analysts in Europe and showed a documentary about the event. The attendees were floored by the event’s scope, the artistic freedom of performers at individual sites (in New Orleans, for example, one of the performances incorporated local jazz music), and its unabashed advocacy of river-related environmental issues. Many wanted to participate or contribute somehow, but most lived nowhere near the Mississippi. The solution was an international dance event focused on general water issues: Global Water Dances.

Given the scale of the undertaking, the first GWD wasn’t held until June of 2011. In total, 60 sites—on all six populated continents—participated. Part of the appeal, Hardenbergh says, was the fact that “the event can be easily replicated anywhere, using local resources.”

The first GWD was a “rolling” event, scheduled for 5 p.m. local time at each site. The timing was meant to be convenient; folks in North America didn’t want to get up in the wee hours for a truly simultaneous performance. But it was an inconvenience for the Australian contingent, which struggled on through twilight conditions (it was close to the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, after all). Hardenbergh hopes to avoid the daylight issue by scheduling the next performance for 2 p.m. on June 15, 2015.

Hardenbergh and the other organizers, which are based in Canada, Germany, Colombia, and the United States, hope to forge official partnerships with local, national, and maybe international water advocacy organizations to a greater degree than the previous two events. While the event is a high-profile, ready-made means of drawing attention to pressing environmental problems, says Hardenbergh, “the nice thing about a dance is that it’s not an overtly political expression.”

Source: Marylee Hardenbergh
Writer: Brian Martucci

Creative Minneapolis introduces user-curated community

It’s not quite “Pinterest for professionals” or “Facebook for freelancers.” But CreativeMinneapolis.com, developed by Mark Sandau of the Minneapolis design firm Sandau Creative in the North Loop, is an interactive, user-curated, free online community for designers, illustrators, writers, and other artists who want to get their work noticed.

After kicking the idea around for several months, Sandau soft-launched the site in early February. He invited his close friends and colleagues to make submissions and approvals. He followed up with a proper kick-off at the end of February.

According to the website, Creative Minneapolis’ member-submitted, member-approved content is “about the creative work, people, and events in and around Minneapolis.” After a trial period, during which creatives can submit their own work but can’t approve other members’ submissions, users gain “editing” privileges that give them a say over the approval and placement of the site’s content. By “hyping” chosen posts, editors can push compelling work to the “top” of niche-specific silos like “advertising,” “copywriting,” “photography,” and “digital.”

“This platform isn’t revolutionary,” Sandau says. “It’s evolutionary, an interesting idea.” The fact that users can shape submitted content—and, thus the very appearance and nature of the site—is a powerful proposition.

Sandau’s worked in the industry for nearly two decades. Prior to founding Sandau Creative 10 years ago, he worked several entry-level jobs. He then landed at Fallon for a seven-year stint. He understands how tough it is for rank-and-file creatives—especially freelancers, who often toil around the margins of the media and advertising industries—to get their work noticed by the right people.

Even smaller agencies like Sandau’s, unless they have a “sexy brand” under their belts, might not have the resources to devote to a tradeshow exhibit or promotional campaign. Creative Minneapolis aims to be a highly visible virtual portfolio for these folks.

Current focus notwithstanding, there’s nothing stopping Creative Minneapolis from morphing into something bigger or broader. In the future, Sandau hypothesizes, a close-knit group of gearheads could use the site to share pictures, videos, or animations of modified cars or motorcycles, and the most interesting of the bunch would bubble to the top alongside portfolio pieces from local graphic designers. 

“Done right,” he says, “Creative Minneapolis has the potential to mirror the audience that’s watching and contributing.”

For now, Sandau is content to see where this all leads. He has a business to run, after all, and doesn’t have unlimited time to promote the site. That’s okay, he says. “At the end of the day, it’s just fun to see other people’s work.”

Source: Mark Sandau
Writer: Brian Martucci

Lyft kicks off rideshare service at Public Functionary event

Lyft, a San Francisco-based ridesharing company that has expanded into nearly two dozen U.S. cities over the past 12 months, kicked off its Minneapolis-Saint Paul service last week with a stylish launch party at Northeast Minneapolis’ Public Functionary. Guests mingled to beats from DJ Sarah White and quaffed free brews from Indeed Brewing Company. Glam Doll Donuts and Maya Cuisine catered.

The beats and brews weren’t the only free items on display at PF. Lyft used the event to showcase its Lyft Pioneer program, which offers two weeks’ worth of complimentary rides—up to a $25-per-ride limit—for Twin Cities residents who download its app.

Lyft bills itself as “your new best friend with a car.” That’s actually pretty accurate: The company works with freelance drivers who use their own cars to move riders, who “hail” rides using Lyft’s mobile app, around a pre-determined service area. It’s basically a taxi service without a car barn, human dispatcher, or official licensing system.

This last bit has gotten Lyft in hot water with some local governments, including Minneapolis’. Officials fret that Lyft circumvents restrictions against unlicensed, “for hire” taxicabs. Lyft counters that it carries liability insurance worth $1 million per driver, far exceeding that of many taxi companies. For now, riders shouldn’t worry too much about the service’s legality—any liability falls on the shoulders of the company itself, not its users. And Lyft’s proponents contend that the progressive, even revolutionary potential of an on-demand ride-for-hire app is self-evident.

According to Tricia Khutoretsky, Public Functionary’s founder and executive director, such progressiveness drew the two organizations together. Khutoretsky got in touch with Nic Haggart—the point person for Lyft Twin Cities, although he’s actually based in San Francisco—through “mutual contacts,” she says, and the idea for a launch party at PF sprouted from there.

“[Haggart] thought Public Functionary would be a good fit” for the type of launch event that Lyft had already held in 20 other cities, says Khutoretsky. More so than many other galleries, Public Functionary has a diverse audience that’s heavily involved in the Twin Cities’ creative industry. Many members of the “Lyft community,” meanwhile, are hardworking creative types who either drive to make a few extra bucks or ride because they lack cars of their own.

Lyft and PF might be very different organizations, but they share a singular devotion to finding new solutions to old problems.
“We’re always thinking about how we communicate and share resources with an eye towards sustainability,” says Khutoretsky. As a company that promotes ridesharing, Lyft is nothing if not sustainable, and the launch party served as a means of “giving support for their concept, which we are totally behind.”

In return for the warm welcome and much-needed visibility, Lyft will be sponsoring PF’s next exhibition. As the organization looks for new ways to break the “stuffy” art gallery mold, it’s likely to host more mutually beneficial events of this nature.

Khutoretsky is careful to draw the distinction between this “sponsorship” model and the “space-for-hire” approach that many small galleries use to raise funds. Working with like-minded organizations is a boon, she argues, as long as it doesn’t compromise PF’s image as an accessible, progressive, occasionally subversive exhibition space that values small donors and community engagement.

“One of our resources is our space,” says Khutoretsky, “and we continuously seek ways of using it without diluting our identity.”  

Source: Tricia Khutoretsky
Writer: Brian Martucci

Videotect continues to bring levity to serious design issues

Now in its fourth year, Architecture Minnesota’s popular Videotect contest, created “to bring more voices and more creativity into public debates about key built-environment issues,” is getting a bit of a makeover. The basic parameters remain the same: Inspired by the contest’s open-ended, sometimes offbeat prompt related to architecture, design, or the use of public space in the Twin Cities—this year it’s “Two people walk into a bar…”—entrants create informative, entertaining videos.

This year, the entries must be between 30 and 90 seconds in length, which is shorter than in the past. “The first year, entrants had four weeks to create two- to four-minute videos,” says Chris Hudson, Architecture Minnesota’s editor and Videotect’s originator, “and they just about killed themselves” getting it done. That first contest—the topic was the Minneapolis skyway system—produced some memorable videos, though, including a hilarious 3D rap battle about streets vs. the skyways.

Also this year, in addition to a shorter main entry, contestants can submit as many six-second Vine videos as they like. The ultra-shorts must promote contestants’ main entries in some fashion, but don’t come with any other restrictions. “Vine? Everybody’s doing it! So we wanted to, too,” Hudson says.

“Two people walk into a bar…” has inspired entries that focus on design’s power to promote quality social interaction in bars, cafes, and eating establishments. All 15 videos are available for public viewing in the Videotect section of Architecture Minnesota’s website. Notable entries include “Sharing Space,” a heartwarming series of drawings that re-imagines bars as “impromptu performance spaces;” “Taproom Roadshow,” a humorous send-up of the PBS classic, set at Minneapolis’s Victory 44 restaurant; a time-lapse video of Alchemy Architects’ design and construction of the tiny, circular Bang Brewery in Saint Paul.

The contest winners and runners-up are chosen by a rotating panel of notable judges: Top prize is $2,000 and runners-up receive $500 each. There’s also a $1000 Viewers Choice Winner created through public voting on the website. This year’s judges include Omar Ansari, founder of Surly Brewing Company, who has become the panel’s resident expert on the business of socializing, an architect from Gensler, and two local film experts. “We’ve gotten lucky [with the judges],” Hudson says. “We ask people with expertise in film or in the theme, and they're generous enough to say yes.”

WCCO’s hilarious Jason Derusha hosts this year’s Videotect presentation on March 13 in the Walker Art Center’s Cinema. During the event, videos are shown, the audience roars with laughter, judges astutely comment, and attendees hobnob. Hudson wants Videotect to be about much more than a night of conversation and laughter, though.

Videotect welcomes submissions from design and architecture experts, but the contest’s true aim is to get regular folks talking about the important, if sometimes dry and complex, issues that vex people who work in the business. Architecture Minnesota originally planned to organize a more formal design competition for younger architects, but soon discarded that idea in favor of an open-to-all video contest with looser rules and an offbeat approach to weighty questions.

He hasn’t looked back. “I think Videotect's biggest achievement is simply making a subject matter as intimidating as urban and architectural design a whole lot of fun,” says Hudson. “What the videos have lacked in sophisticated design commentary, they've more than made up for in entertainment value…[that’s] a very valuable thing.”

Source: Chris Hudson
Writer: Brian Martucci

Mobile tech company ThisClicks hits its stride with new funding

Saint Paul-based ThisClicks, a mobile technology company in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood that specializes in “workforce solutions” apps, recently received $4 million in new funding from three venture capital firms. In its sixth year of operations, ThisClicks is hitting its stride.

Founder and CEO Chad Halvorson aims to boost the company’s sales force and press ahead with the rollout of its time-clock app, WageBase. He’s also planning to move to a larger office in Saint Paul, and double the company’s employee headcount from 15 to 30 by December.

WageBase is ThisClicks’s second product. WageBase is a startlingly simple concept: a remote time-clock app that lets hourly employees clock into and out of work from anywhere. (A GPS tracker ensures that they’re doing so from the workplace, not bed.) The app is especially useful for big diffuse workplaces, such as construction sites.

The building blocks of Halvorson’s company have been in place for a decade and a half. As a part-time grocery jockey in the late 1990s, Halvorson grew sick of making extra trips to the store to check his weekly schedule. He dreamed up an online employee-scheduling program—WhenIWork—that would eliminate this problem. He shopped a prototype version of the app with a contact at the Mall of America, but it didn’t pan out.

“There were just too many barriers,” he says. “Many people still lacked high-speed Internet and the mobile space didn’t really exist yet.”

Halvorson bided his time with other projects. He founded a Web consulting firm in college. In 2005 he partnered with a video design company to found Meditech, a “full-service development and marketing agency for the medical device industry.” Meditech eventually acquired Boston Scientific, St. Jude’s, and Medtronic as clients.

In 2008, with the mobile revolution in full swing, Halvorson gave his teenage dream another shot. He built a new version of WhenIWork—he’d registered its Internet domain back in 1998—and used his own funds to build an organic business-development campaign driven largely by content marketing and word of mouth. He describes this approach as “consumerized B2B marketing.”

“We don’t want to market directly to the guy in the suit,” says Halvorson. Instead, ThisClicks focuses on scheduling managers and supervisors at small- to medium-size companies, counting on WhenIWork’s obvious benefits to impress upper management and engender long-term contracts.

In fact, WhenIWork has taken off—the app now counts recognizable businesses like 1-800-GOT-JUNK? as clients—without a traditional sales force or seed funding. Halvorson hired his first business development staffers in late 2013, and the recent capital infusion represents ThisClicks’s first debt tranche.

This was deliberate. “Before we could consider raising money, we needed to figure out how to make money,” says Halvorson. “When you raise money first, it’s easier to learn how to spend money.” To ensure that his company would survive if it couldn’t find decent financing terms, he vowed not to raise outside funds until ThisClicks was taking in at least $1 million in annual revenues.

It helps that, unlike many tech entrepreneurs, the Minnesota-raised Halvorson took a low-key approach to success. “We weren’t interested in breakneck growth” to start, he says. Figuring out how to appeal to hourly workers and schedulers was far more important.

What’s the endgame for ThisClicks? On this point, Halvorson sounds a lot more ambitious. “We want our apps to be the most important tools in employees’ and managers’ pockets,” he says. “We’re focused on being the premier provider of cloud-based workforce solutions.”

 

Art Leadership Program a win-win-win

Corporate sponsors have long played an integral role in the development and dissemination of art and culture. OST USA, an IT company with a 125-employee office in the North Loop's TractorWorks Building, is further advancing corporate sponsorship.

As the highest-profile partner of the Art Leadership Program (ALP), an ongoing collaboration that provides emerging artists with resources, guidance, and access to markets, OST supplies studio space (ArtLab 111) near the building’s loading dock for the dozen or so artists-in-residence it has already sponsored (usually for three to six months), and a lobby gallery (Gallery One) that regularly hosts exhibitions and openings for ALP’s participants.

“OST is the quintessential corporate partner,” says Ron Ridgeway, ALP’s founder and chief visionary, who launched the partnership. Ridgeway is also a mixed-media artist and corporate branding consultant. “We maintain a meaningful venue [for our artists], as well as curatorial services and placement… as exhibitions are becoming an art form in themselves. These days, it’s all about the experience.”

One ALP alumni launched from the program into high-profile commissions. In early 2012, local artist Elizabeth Simonson displayed her “systems-based” installations at BMW of Minnetonka’s Gallery One—an off-site ALP exhibition space. That same year, she built on a commission for the Walker Art Center’s lobby with a $25,000 fellowship grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Simonson “set the benchmark for our program,” says Ridgeway, but there’s nothing stopping future ALP participants and residents from notching their own victories. Ridgeway describes ALP’s corporate sponsorship model as a classic win-win-win: Artists get funding and market exposure, corporations get the positive PR that accompanies art patronage, and business districts or neighborhoods gain valuable physical assets.

“What’s been most beneficial [about working with ALP] is just getting our work out there,” says Twin Cities artist Booka B (aka Adam Booker), a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University who is showing new work with Lindsay Splichal, a recent graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, beginning March 6 in Gallery One. But creating art is just one piece of the puzzle, he adds: “You also have to connect with the community.”

Traditionally, companies that invested in art curated permanent collections that would eventually “gather dust,” as Ridgeway puts it. The rotating installations or exhibitions put on by ALP’s visiting or resident artists, in contrast, feel like organic additions to offices, building lobbies, and other public spaces, he adds.

ALP has also hosted an exhibition at International Market Square and is currently working with potential tenants of Nicollet Avenue’s 9’s on the Mall. “We hope to build a sustainable model for this type of partnership,” Ridgeway says.

Sources: Ron Ridgeway, Art Leadership Program; Adam Booker
Writer: Brian Martucci

WholeMe launches line of healthy products

For most people, a diabetes diagnosis is a wake-up call. For WholeMe co-founders Mary Kosir and Krista Steinbach, it was a business opportunity.

In the mid-2000s, Kosir’s husband developed adult-onset Type I diabetes—an unusual, but not totally unheard of, condition that progresses differently than the age-related insulin resistance we know as Type II diabetes.

The news forced the family to eliminate gluten, grains, and most dairy products from its diet. Kosir embraced the new restrictions, sharing experimental cereal and bar recipes with friends, neighbors, and associates at her local CrossFit gym.

That’s where she met Steinbach, the former pastry chef at Minneapolis’ Bachelor Farmer. Steinbach was coming off a lifestyle change of her own: In 2011, she’d competed in (and won) a 30-day “food challenge” that required contestants to eliminate refined sugar, gluten, grains, and certain other substances from their diets. By the contest’s end date, her chronic gastrointestinal issues had vanished and her energy levels were higher than they’d been in years.

“The challenge taught me how much food impacted my daily life,” she says, “and pushed me to learn more about nutrition.”

The two women had a lot in common, so they officially joined forces in early 2013. Kosir’s first creation, the energy-dense DateMe bar, was already making waves—“Everyone was telling me to start selling them,” she says—but Steinbach brought years of culinary expertise to the table. In addition to the DateMe bar, the duo created the WakeMe cocoa bar and EatMe cereal.

And so WholeMe was born. Thanks to their CrossFit connections, the co-founders had a ready-made market of active, health-conscious clients. Kosir and Steinbach also have stocking arrangements with gyms across the metro area, and they’re looking to find other places, like yoga studios and food co-ops, that attract a similar clientele. “We want to be closer to our customers,” says Steinbach, not tucked away on a shelf at a big-box store.

WholeMe’s bars and cereals are made from whole foods that haven’t been treated or altered in any way. “Our goal is to create relatively simple products where taste comes first,” says Kosir. “At the same time, we need to be mindful of what we’re putting in our bodies.” She’s quick to note, wryly, that WholeMe’s only preservative “is a refrigerator.”

Kosir and Steinbach think they’ve found a sweet spot for their products. “There’s lots of room to grow in this segment,” says Kosir. Many “healthy” foods don’t taste very good, she argues, and most tasty foods aren’t that healthy.

The two women hope WholeMe’s simple promise—healthy, delicious food for all—resonates beyond Minnesota’s borders. Less than a year after their official launch, they’ve already shipped to gyms and stores in North Carolina, California, and Hawaii. Their burgeoning e-store puts the rest of the world at their fingertips. In March, they hope to make some new friends at the Natural Foods Expo West in Anaheim, California.

It doesn’t hurt that they have a cheeky, catchy brand campaign and an experienced chef. They plan to expand their “gear concept” with more merchandise options, like T-shirts and hats, says Kosir. They expect WholeMe’s “beta testing” arm, branded NewMe, to produce seasonal or limited-release products exclusively for online sale. If a NewMe creation is well received, says Steinbach, it could become a permanent addition to the lineup.

Ultimately, Kosir and Steinbach would like to see WakeMe, DateMe, and EatMe—and whatever else they dream up—in the likes of Whole Foods, Lund’s, and Byerly’s.

Their ambition doesn’t come cheap. To cover their travel expenses and fund WholeMe’s ongoing expansion, they’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign that aims to raise $40,000 by February 24. To encourage participation, Kosir and Steinbach plan to give donors dibs on the first-ever NewMe creation.

Source: Mary Kosir
Writer: Brian Martucci

Punch Pizza gets SOTU shout out for raising "wage floor"

“And Nick helps make the dough…only now he makes a lot more of it.”

With those words, spoken by President Barack Obama during last week’s State of the Union (SOTU) address, Nick Chute became the Twin Cities’ most famous pizza maker. Moreover, Chute enjoyed those moments of fame while seated with Punch Pizza co-owner John Sorrano behind the First Lady during the joint session of Congress.

Why did President Obama showcase Chute, and his bosses Sorrano and John Puckett, during the State of the Union? Because in a notoriously low-margin industry, Punch’s owners have taken a bold risk, raising the company’s “wage floor” to $10 per hour.

The President devoted several minutes of last week’s address to “honoring the dignity of work,” as he put it, noting that the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is about 20 percent lower than the wage floor during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

In a recent press release, Punch’s owners characterized their decision to raise workers’ wages as a simple business calculation. “As we continue to grow Punch,” Sorrano stated in the release, “we recognize that only the most dedicated employees will position us to compete and maintain the highest quality food and the best service in the market.”

Puckett also underscores the importance of investing in the things that matter most to a business, regardless of how those investments might affect margins in the short-term. Punch has been around for 18 years, he notes, “and we aim to get 10 percent better each year. We’ve invested in real prosciutto, authentic marble for our customer areas…and now we’re investing in our people.”

Previously, the company started most entry-level employees at $8 per hour, so a bump to $10 represents a 25 percent hike across the board. Puckett isn’t sure how long it will take for this “investment” to pay off, but he does know how much it’ll cost: $3 million over the next decade, assuming Punch stays at its current size—which it won’t.

Although there aren’t any plans to franchise the business or mount an aggressive expansion, Punch’s co-owners plan to open one new store per year for the foreseeable future. With nearly 300 current employees across eight stores, that translates to roughly 30 new hires per year.

As a private company, Punch isn’t required to make detailed financial disclosures, but the wage raise “will result in a significant hit to our profit in the short to medium term,” says Puckett. “Ultimately, we’d rather be higher-quality and less profitable than lower-quality and more profitable.”

By making work worthwhile for entry-level employees, Punch’s co-owners hope to make their managers’ jobs easier. Well-compensated cooks and servers are more likely to prioritize work over other obligations, the thinking goes, increasing the chances that bosses can put schedules together without too much arm-twisting.  

And employees who earn a living wage tend to stick around for longer, learning valuable skills that improve the customer experience and create a deeper talent pool from which to draw management candidates. Over time, the whole enterprise runs more smoothly and boosts its reputation among diners, who may even feel comfortable paying a little more for Punch’s irresistible Neapolitan pies.

It’s too early to tell whether other business leaders in traditionally low-wage sectors will follow Punch’s example. While political handicappers are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a federal minimum wage hike—Obama’s goal is $10.10 per hour—not every SOTU attendee was as thrilled as Chute. Any legislation would have to make it past Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has always been cool to the idea.

Sources: Punch Pizza release, John Puckett
Writer: Brian Martucci

Truhealth MD: a delicious "therapeutic intervention"

Patients at risk for heart disease know they need to eat better, but cooking nutritious meals is time-consuming. Also, truly beneficial foods often don’t taste very good unless they’re well prepared. According to Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, a practicing cardiologist, her new company Truhealth MD aims to solve both issues.

Truhealth MD is a Minneapolis company whose four employees manufacture and market its line of health food products. The company’s offerings include heart-healthy pancakes, oatmeal, bars, smoothie mixes, and “anytime sprinkles”—fiber-rich flakes that mix well with yogurt, fruit, and granola.

“[In large part], heart disease is a nutrition-related problem,” says Dr. Klodas. After 18 years as a cardiologist, she’s identified four common nutrients that at-risk patients often lack: antioxidants, omega-3 acids, fiber and phytosterols, a broad class of steroid that may lower “bad” cholesterol.

The trick, she says, is “supplying clinically meaningful amounts of these nutrients in a delicious package…and turn every meal into a therapeutic intervention.” While other “healthy” foods, like FiberOne cereal and Clif bars, may contain sufficient doses of fiber and omega-3 acids, few contain significant quantities of phytosterols. This is largely an issue of ingredient cost, says Klodas, and it’s a major point of distinction for her products.

Meanwhile, the taste issue basically solves itself. “We tend to forget that real, wholesome, nutritious foods actually taste good,” says Dr. Klodas. 

Many of the company’s customers report impressive reductions in their LDL and triglyceride readings within weeks of beginning a twice-a-day regimen.

Robert Kirscht, a Twin Cities-based sales director in his late 40s, is a typical case. Kirscht’s job duties—“I’m traveling and entertaining clients about half the time,” he says—make it difficult to eat right or exercise regularly. A family history of heart disease doesn’t help either. Last spring, his longtime physician confronted him with an especially bleak blood-work report and issued an ultimatum: Take a cholesterol-lowering statin drug or else.

“I wasn’t comfortable with that choice,” says Kirscht. “So I asked for 30 days.” He started using Truhealth’s products—“I usually sprinkle the ‘anytime flakes’ on my granola [in the morning] and have a cranberry or chocolate bar in the afternoon,” he says—and began to feel better almost immediately.

When he returned the next month for a round of follow-up tests, Kirscht’s doctor was thoroughly impressed. Among the highlights: his triglyceride reading dropped from 150 to 99, his LDL dropped from 155 to 118, and his HDL rose from 45 to 53. The only drawback, he says, is that he has to hide his “delicious” stash from his two teenage daughters.

Truhealth MD’s products aren’t endorsed by the FDA, and Dr. Klodas stresses that they’re just one component of a healthy lifestyle—albeit a powerful one.

Patients who truly commit to cooking heart-healthy meals, exercising regularly, and making other smart choices, says Dr. Klodas, may see even better results than Truhealth’s meal-replacement regimen can promise. “But those people are rare,” she adds. “[Our products] make dietary advice actionable…and help our customers think about what other lifestyle decisions they might be making.”

What types of decisions? Consider a hypothetical customer who, every day for a solid year, replaces a plain bagel and Snickers bar with single servings of Truhealth pancakes and chocolate bars. To absorb comparable amounts of phytosterols and antioxidants, said customer would need to consume a ton of broccoli and 150 pounds of kale over the same period. For many, that’s not an appetizing prospect.

After all, says Dr. Klodas, “Who wants to eat 150 pounds of kale?”

Source: Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, Truhealth MD
Writer: Brian Martucci

SimpleRay Solar maximizes sunny business potential

For Geoff Stenrick, owner and president of the Saint Paul-based SimpleRay Solar, sunshine is much more than a mood-lifting respite from winter’s bitter chill. It’s a way of life.

In 2006, Stenrick quit his job as a Saturn salesman and channeled his longtime fascination with renewable energy into a nascent solar panel business called SimpleRay Solar. He enrolled in a comprehensive training course in solar technology, installation techniques, and parts engineering, then signed on with three U.S. distributors and began selling their equipment through his website.

His timing couldn’t have been better. While SimpleRay’s early customers were often hard-core environmentalists committed to green living, the launch of California’s rebate program, in 2007, drew building contractors onto the site. Similar incentives followed shortly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and other East Coast states. Still, Stenrick’s gig remained low-key through the late 2000s: After his daughter’s birth, in 2009, “I would have to send emails and work on the website while she napped,” he says.

Because of generous rebate programs, falling manufacturing costs, and end-users’ increasing demand for panels and accessories, things are much busier now. In 2011, Stenrick hired his first employee, a car-industry colleague. His company’s 2012 revenues were sufficient to earn a spot on the “Inc. 500” list for 2013. Last year, after several additional hires—SimpleRay now has seven employees—he moved into a permanent office on Raymond Avenue, in the Creative Enterprise Zone on the Central Corridor’s Green Line.

Stenrick’s team doesn’t just sell solar panels out of this new space: As part of a transaction, SimpleRay’s in-house engineering and design professionals often help clients plan and optimize their arrays.

The most exciting development, though, may be Minnesota’s recently passed “Omnibus Energy Bill,” an aggressive renewable-energy law that requires “all utilities in the state [to] procure 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar generation by 2020,” according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. By the end of the decade, predicts Stenrick, this requirement could boost in-state solar panel sales by a factor of 40.

Already, the law has dramatically increased the likelihood that the Aurora Solar Project, a planned cluster of about two dozen solar arrays in the state’s eastern half, will be built. SimpleRay doesn’t typically sell to utilities—it prefers small and medium-sized commercial and residential contractors, although it will soon contribute to a one-megawatt array in the area—but the increased demand that accompanies large-scale utility projects is sure to reduce panel costs and render the technology competitive with fossil fuels.

“A solar system works like a furnace,” says Stenrick. “You don’t need to replace it every five years. Instead, you’re basically prepaying for your power over the 20-plus-year lifespan of your system.” Thanks to industry-standard warranties that guarantee efficiencies of at least 80 percent over a 25-year span, this leads to dramatic long-term savings.

Even in Minnesota, with its short winter days and frequent cloud cover?

Yes, says Stenrick, noting that Minnesota gets more sun than many solar-friendly East Coast states—and far more than Germany, the world’s reigning solar energy leader. “On average, Germany gets about as much sunlight as Seattle,” he says, “and look at what they’re doing over there.”

Stenrick doesn’t minimize the obvious environmental benefits of solar power—“It’s better than blowing up a mountaintop for coal,” he half-jokes—but he’s more interested in touting the cost side of the equation. In California, solar power is already cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and the Omnibus Energy Bill suggests that Minnesota isn’t far behind. Eventually, Stenrick believes, the tax credits and rebates that currently support the U.S. solar industry will be obsolete.

“The whole idea of where you get your power from [will] totally change by 2030,” says Stenrick. “We hope to ride that wave.”

Source: Geoff Stenrick, SimpleRay Solar
Writer: Brian Martucci

CoCo starts new school for "inspired and dangerous"

For some time now, CoCo has set the standard for creative and professional collaboration in the Twin Cities. The coworking space recently opened its third location, in Uptown, and now boasts well over 100 startups, creative firms, designers, and developers in its membership rolls.

Two of CoCo’s founders, Kyle Coolbroth and Don Ball, have launched a brand-new project, Jump! A School by CoCo. The school aims to actively develop participants' creative ambitions rather than passively providing a place for them to play out.

“Since starting CoCo four years ago…we've seen many [business owners] succeed. We've also seen many fail,” says Ball. “It's really sad to see the pain that someone goes through when they can't make their dream a reality.”

Part motivational seminar, part team-building exercise, and part business incubator, Jump! aims to give entrepreneurs a head start and reduce the likelihood of “preventable failure.” Ultimately, says Ball, the school can fill a gaping need in the region’s creative economy.

“I'm not sure what else is like Jump! school,” says Ball, although he identifies the School of Life in London and Chris Gillebeau’s World Domination Summit as kindred spirits. “[Currently], entrepreneur education focuses on skills—how to program, design, manage a business, pitch to investors, and so on. All of that is important, depending on what you're up to. But are you up to the right thing? We didn't see anyone helping people figure out that fundamental question.”

Jump!’s mission—to give anyone wanting to launch a radical career shift, charity, business, or other special project the self-confidence, motivation, and practical tools necessary to take the plunge into the startup world—is embodied in three course offerings. The first, Springboard, is a 90-minute crash course in Jump!’s philosophy and approach. The $50 class, which will happen at least once per month through June, promises to “leave [attendees] inspired and dangerous.”

Intrigued Springboard attendees—or truly motivated folks who want to dive right into an intensive curriculum—can sign up for FlightPlan, a two-day, $500 marathon that encourages attendees to strip away external expectations, outgrow learned responses to stress, and discover “what truly activates [their] passion and imagination.”

Graduates of FlightPlan may move on to Solo Club, a practical, immersive experience that runs for 90 days and results in the creation of a formal business plan or creative project. More detail about this offering will emerge as Jump!’s student body grows.

Where does this all lead? Ball and Coolbroth haven’t even taught a class yet—the first Springboard meeting is scheduled for January 20—but the future looks bright. The Twin Cities area has no shortage of creative talent, and Jump! has no direct competitors. Should the school pan out, there’s also nothing stopping Jump! from exporting its model to other creative regions.

“We want to help people zero in on what is truly motivating because it comes from deep inside,” says Ball. “If you build your life's work on that foundation, then you're much more likely to be successful in that work. And everybody from customers to partners to investors [gravitate] to people who are coming from a place of power and authenticity.”

Source: Don Ball, co-founder, Jump! A School by CoCo
Writer: Brian Martucci
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