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Book publisher Hillcrest Media launches CoffeeandBooks.com

Although coffee shops have always attracted book lovers, one local publisher is using technology to make that relationship even more rewarding.
Minneapolis-based Hillcrest Media Group recently launched CoffeeandBooks.com, an online venture that pairs coffee house partners with publishers, with plenty of incentives thrown in for reading groups and bibliophiles.
Hillcrest CEO Mark Levine actually bought the domain name four years ago, but let it idle while he built the company into a leading local publisher, growing the company through other business divisions like Mill City Press, BPR Book Group, and Publish Green. Then, a chance connection with the head of Dunn Bros. put the site on a fast track.
"Once we had that anchor partner, the site became a priority," says Levine. "Dunn Bros. is very entrepreneurial, as are we, so it was a great partnership." The publishing firm tested the model about two months ago by putting together events for authors like Don Shelby and promoting them on CoffeeandBooks.com. When huge crowds showed up, they knew they'd found a powerful combination.
"The success we found with those early tests is very encouraging, and we're ready to go to the next phase," Levine says. That will involve putting a point-of-sale stand in participating coffee shops, with a selection of eight books, including both fiction and non-fiction. Although titles and publishers have yet to be fully finalized, Levine notes that some of the books will come from local favorites like Milkweed Press and the University of Minnesota.
He says, "So many publishers are dying to find non-retail places to sell books, and this is a fresh concept, so we expect to see a great deal of interest." Readers will also benefit from incentives like discounts on food and drinks, and a gift card for each book purchased. 
Source: Mark Levine, Hillcrest Media Group
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Advance IT Minnesota unveils new award for young women in technology

Technology group Advance IT Minnesota unveiled a new award that could give some high school girls a major boost in their technology careers.
The first annual Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing Award will be open to girls in grades 9 through 12, and is tied to a national competition from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).
Advance IT decided to take on the award because of the shortage of skilled technical workers graduating from college, according to Ann Thureen, a vice president at Unisys Corporation.
She says, "Encouraging students at the high school level to see the possibilities of the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] field is a great way to get them into the right college tracks to sustain and grow our IT industry in Minnesota. We see more young women going to college than young men. We need to tap into this valuable talent pool and expose them to the opportunities for great paying jobs in IT."
Advance IT is administered through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, and serves as a connection point among employers, educators, and IT professionals. The group's mission is to position Minnesota as one of the top states in the country for IT-related employment.  The award will help to bring the organization closer to that goal, says Russell Fraenkel, Advance IT Minnesota's Director of Collaborative Programs and Outreach.
"The Aspirations Award provides an encouraging environment for young women to gain greater awareness of technology career options and sets the stage for them to become more deeply engaged in determining their education and career path," he says.
For high school girls who are ready to compete for the award, act fast: the deadline for entries is Nov. 16th, but entries that come in before Oct. 31 will be eligible for the national award as well.
Sources: Russell Fraenkel, Advance IT; Ann Thureen, Unisys Corporation
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Argos Risk empowers SMBs for better financial decisions

Small companies spend a large chunk of time on customer acquisition and supplier management, but it can be tricky to determine if those external contacts will be a boon to business or a drag on the accounting department.
Minneapolis-based Argos Risk intends to turn the process into a streamlined, simple strategy that can benefit any company. The firm provides a monthly subscription service that allows enterprises to monitor the ongoing financial health of customers, suppliers, and even competitors.
The tactic lets Argos clients manage risk, and also gives them a tool to determine which customers deserve more credit or more sales efforts directed their way. The software-as-service was designed for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in particular, says co-founder Steven Foster, because companies of that size often lack the resources to do extensive risk management.
The Argos "stoplight system" gives users a quick indication of potential credit problems, and an alert system kicks in when a customer or supplier starts heading from yellow to red. Foster says, "We've had very good feedback about the system; people really appreciate how helpful it can be when making decisions about their customers or suppliers."
Recently, the company introduced another risk-management tool, but this time it's for the SMBs themselves. Argos Risk Defender monitors a company's credit and issues an alert if problems are cropping up. Company president Lori Frank compares it to LifeLock, the identity-theft prevention tool for individuals.
"This is an era when identity theft is the fastest growing crime, and businesses aren't immune--far from it," she says. "We're helping to address the problem, and to help companies that may have been compromised."
The company is finding strong traction for its products, and expects strong growth in the year ahead, including hiring in some key positions. "We take a field that's complicated and make it easy for our customers," says Frank. "When you do that, you can always find growth."
Sources: Steven Foster and Lori Frank, Argos Risk
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Minnesota Cup announces division finalists

Now it's down to 19.
The eighth annual Minnesota Cup continues to draw attention in announcing the division finalists, whittling the top contenders down to just three companies in each category. The contest features high tech, bioscience and health IT, clean tech and renewable energy, general, and student divisions. Four contenders are competing in the social entrepreneur category.
Finalists include OrthoCor Medical, which proposed ideas for noninvasive therapeutic devices to alleviate pain, and PreciouStatus, a mobile application that allows care providers to interact with patients' family members throughout the day.
Division finalists will deliver an eight-minute presentation to a panel of judges, and winners will be announced on August 29. The grand prize will be awarded on Sept. 6 at an event held at the University of Minnesota.
This year's competition has been closely watched, in part because it offers the highest total prizes in the Cup's history. One finalist from each division will receive $25,000 in seed capital ($10,000 in the student division), and runners-up each receive $5,000. The grand prize winner will get an additional $40,000.
Cup co-founder Scott Litman believes that the contest serves as a catalyst for innovation in the state. He notes that selecting the top ideas is always a challenge, since the Cup draws impressive applicants every year. Those who've won in the past or have been finalists went on to attract significant investment, he adds: "Our track record shows the level of intelligent and inspiring entrepreneurs in the state is truly remarkable."
Source: Scott Litman, Minnesota Cup
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Online education company Sophia lets teachers "flip" their classrooms

Fast-growing online education firm SOPHIA has been ramping up hiring and reach over the past 16 months, and with a new way to "flip" a classroom, it's likely to expand even more in the year ahead.
The Flipped Classroom Certificate was introduced in April, and since then, nearly 100 teachers have earned the designation, with another 500 in the process. The professional development certificate involves a relatively new teaching method that reverses or "flips" the traditional homework model.
In a flipped classroom, students view multimedia tutorials as homework, then use class time to complete assignments. This gives teachers the ability to provide one-on-one assistance, and to explore a concept more fully if it seems that students are struggling or particularly curious about an aspect of the subject.
Since students are online so much of the day, the model allows teachers to capture students' time more effectively.
Beyond the certificate, the company provides free teaching and learning tools in a variety of subjects, including math, science, English, humanities, fine arts, and languages. Founder Don Smithmier notes that bringing SOPHIA to the whole world was a goal from the start, and one that the company reached quickly. In just its first two days, SOPHIA saw people logging in for the tools from nearly 70 countries.
"We're working in a new category of education, which we call social education," says Smithmier. "It's at the leading edge of learning effectiveness, so there's no path to follow where someone else has led. That can be daunting, to be the first one to forge the path, but it can be exciting, too."
Source: Don Smithmier, SOPHIA
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Software firm KeyedIn Solutions boosts growth through global expansion

Started in late 2011, Minneapolis-based KeyedIn Solutions has been on the fast track ever since.
The company provides software-as-a-service (SaaS) and consulting for small to midsize businesses, specializing in areas like enterprise resource planning and project management. The past year has been a whirlwind of acquisition and hiring and CEO Lauri Klaus notes that they see more opportunity ahead.
"We're working to establish ourselves in the marketplace, and we're aggressive in reaching that goal," she says. "We've made more progress in a shorter amount of time than I would have anticipated, and that's exciting. We're looking toward long-term growth, definitely."
To keep up the momentum, KeyedIn is thinking globally. Recently, the company announced that it would be opening a new office in Monterrey, Mexico, and it is likely to expand in South Africa within the next year. Already, the firm has a presence in nine U.S. cities as well as the United Kingdom and Australia.
The Mexico office will be led by Christian Orellana, a software industry veteran with experience in channel and project management, Klaus notes. He'll be responsible for all channel sales in the region as well as strategic partnerships, and Klaus believes that growth in the country will be rapid as a result.
"Technically, I think we're still considered a startup, but we don't feel like that," she says. "With this expansion and other global opportunities, we feel like we're really finding our place and creating new opportunities as we go."
Source: Lauri Klaus, KeyedIn Solutions
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Minneapolis launches smartphone app for city services

Want to report a particularly nasty pothole, or let the city know about a traffic light issue? Now there's an app for that.
The City of Minneapolis recently launched the new Minneapolis 311 smartphone app, which allows users to report service requests, including complaints about road wear, signal problems, and graffiti.
The app uses GPS technology to pinpoint the location of the problem, and sends that information to the appropriate city department.
Minneapolis 311 originated in August 2004 as part of the Minneapolis One Call Project; the number (311 in the city, 612-673-3000 from outside) is staffed between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. According to the program director Don Stickney, about 70 percent of all calls are for information, and the remaining calls are for transfers or requests for service. Stickney notes most of the highest-used service requests can be processed online, which makes the new mobile app a strong addition to the program.
"The City answers between 1,000 to 2,400 calls per day on average," says Stickney. "Not only does the new Minneapolis 311 Mobile App give Minneapolis citizens a convenient and efficient way to report issues, the Open311 integration enables the City to automatically and seamlessly respond to those issues outside of traditional contact center business hours."
Another advantage for residents is the ability to check in on requests that have already been submitted. The app also generates an email when the request has been completed by the relevant agency.
The app was built by Connecticut-based SeeClickFix, a software developer specializing in these type of apps for government and community group clients.  
Free to download, the app is available for iPhone and Android, and those with Blackberry or Windows phones can submit reports to 311 through SeeClickFix.com.
Source: Don Stickney, City of Minneapolis
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

BringMeTheNews gets major funding boost, readies for more growth

Online broadcast reporting service BringMeTheNews (BMTN) made some news itself recently, when the company announced that it had raised $3 million in capital from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC).
In announcing the funding infusion, SMSC chairman Stanley Crooks noted that the company is the face of 21st century media since it's local, social, and mobile.
The SMSC has been a sponsor of the firm for almost two years, but this major funding boost will help to spark even more growth, according to founder Rick Kupchella.
He notes that BMTN has grown to nearly 20 employees, including some notable names in the local news scene. In addition to Kupchella, who's been an Emmy-winning investigative reporter and TV news anchor in the Twin Cities for two decades, BMTN includes other high-profile news reporters and producers like Don Shelby, Eric Perkins, William Wilcoxen, and Amy Hockert.
"There's a lot to be proud of with the tremendous growth we've seen in BMTN in just three years," Kupchella notes, adding that the firm has aggressive plans for growth in the next three years.
The investment will allow BMTN to enhance the user experience of the site, he says, as well as provide the funding needed for improving the speed and relevance of the content. Also, the company is eyeing additional markets. Already, the news delivery system has been dubbed the top radio newscast in the state by the Society of Professional Journalists, and Kupchella is hoping to bring that expertise and reputation to other areas.
Source: Rick Kupchella, BringMeTheNews
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Creative agency Zeus Jones helps clients find their purpose

The Twin Cities are rich in creative agencies, and have drawn attention for the breadth of options from spunky startups to established major players. Recently, industry magazine Advertising Age showcased the local area, noting that it's little wonder that so many agencies get their start here since Minneapolis is a "smart and artsy town."
One of the prime examples, the article noted, is Zeus Jones, a Minneapolis-based firm that focuses on building brands and providing customer experiences and messaging that stand out in the marketplace.
Founded by advertising executives who'd worked together at large local agency Fallon, the company was started in 2007 as a way to deliver marketing instead of advertising, states Zeus Jones co-founder Adrian Ho.
"We had a simple idea: that the reason people like companies has to do with what they do, not what they say in ads," he says. "We have an idealistic view of what that means, and for the last five years, we've been figuring out what that means."
In general, he adds, Zeus Jones assists companies in thinking about how they define their brand, and helping to rebuild that brand around a purpose. Ho says, "This goes above and beyond products. We figure out the best ways to bring their purpose to life." That could mean product design, retail design, strategy, or other creative services. Clients have included Thymes, Nordstrom, and Purina ONE.
The agency has 32 employees, and is currently hiring and growing. Ho notes that the business plan didn't center around growth, but as the firm has drawn more clients, it's been a natural evolution.
"We think there are better ways to communicate a company's message than running ads, and we're seeing that proved on a bigger scale here," says Ho. "Clients respond to that."  
Source: Adrian Ho, Zeus Jones
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

August events: Collaborative Innovation, Datavenu, Exporting in 2012, EPCON

The Collaborative Innovation Series
August 2
University of St. Thomas College of Business, Minneapolis Campus
46 Eleventh St. South, Minneapolis
7:10am - 11:20am
$45 for members, $105 for non-members
The Collaborative, a membership organization focused on growing companies and investors, frequently provides education opportunities, and this upcoming morning seminar is part of its "innovation series." Speakers will focus on larger topics like choosing angel or VC investors, leveraging advisors, and growing through new hires. 
August 7 & 8
University of Minnesota
Carlson School of Management
Fee ranges from $25 - $125, depending on type of pass
Organized by local entrepreneur Barbara Bowen, Datavenu focuses on personal data, economic development, and the information economy. The first day of the event brings together leading speakers to talk about IT developments and data policies, while the second day is an "unconference" that features an agenda created in real time by participants.
Exporting in 2012: The Practices of Profitable Companies
August 22
Mortenson Construction
700 Meadow Lane North, Golden Valley
8:00am - 11:00am
$79 before Aug. 14, $119 afterward
Hosted by Enterprise Minnesota, this seminar brings together experts and business leaders who will discuss the export process and how attendees can better navigate this particular strategy. There will be several examples of how local companies are selling internationally, and connecting with global business experts who can streamline the process.
The Engaged Philanthropy Conference
August 23
Hyatt Regency Minneapolis
4:00pm - 8:00pm
Also known as EPCON, this conference focuses on social innovation in Minnesota, and is hosted by Social Venture Partners Minnesota, an organization made up of entrepreneurs and corporate leaders who are attempting to address the state's social issues. Now in its fourth year, the conference features a competition for identifying top social entrepreneurs, and keynote speaker Tim Knowles from the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

Higher ed tech firm Reeher boasts a series of recent client adoptions

Major fuel sources for any university or college program are donations, leading every institute of higher education to refine its fundraising programs as much as possible. That's leading St. Paul-based Reeher, a technology firm that helps institutions fine-tune their fundraising strategies, toward robust growth as a result.
The company recently noted that Fordham University adopted the platform in order to reach a $500 million campaign goal. Before that, the University of Toledo joined Reeher for its own campaign. Saint John's University selected Reeher in April as a way to improve its donor identification and management.
Founded in 2002 by Andy Reeher, the firm has developed a technology platform that helps institutions find up to 40 percent more donors, resulting in more fundraising dollars and less time spent chasing leads. Reeher discovered that most universities and colleges were investing significantly in fundraising relationships, only to find that most of the donations came from a handful of large donors.
Using predictive technology, Reeher is able to make fundraising more cost-effective for institutions, and the company's growing reputation is opening more doors all the time.
Reeher says, "These institutions see a lot of fundraising management technologies come and go, and they tend to wait to see what's working for someone else before they make a choice on what they'll use. So, one of our big drivers is that with this growing list of customers, we anticipate more inquiries and momentum going forward."
Source: Andy Reeher, Reeher
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Angel Tax Credit program continues robust funding for small businesses

The Minnesota Angel Tax Credit Program recently celebrated its second birthday, and boasts some impressive numbers for a two-year-old.
Since its launch in July 2010, the program has attracted more than $126 million in private investments for small, entrepreneur-led companies in the state. According to Mark Phillips, Commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), over 100 businesses have received funding in 2012 alone. Companies attracting the most attention from investors and angel funds tend to be software, biotechnology, and medical device firms.
The program has been a tremendous help for promising businesses, Phillips believes. Some of the companies earning funds could be the state's next big high-tech success stories, leading to job growth and a more robust local economy.
Run by DEED, the program provides incentives to investors or investment funds, steering them in the direction of putting money into emerging companies, particularly those focused on high-tech endeavors. The Angel Tax Credit gives investors a credit of 25 percent for investments of at least $10,000, and the past few years have shown that plenty of investors are eager to take advantage of that incentive while helping to get innovative companies off the ground.
Over two-thirds of $12 million in tax credits allocated for this year have already gone out, Phillips noted, and DEED expects the remaining credits of about $3.3 million to be allocated by the end of August.
The program is slated to continue operation through the end of 2014, and if everything works as DEED expects, close to $236 million will have been invested in Minnesota high-tech startups by the time the program ends.
Source: Mark Phillips, Department of Employment and Economic Development
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

HomeVisor connects realtors with buyers and sellers nationwide

Searching for the right realtor can sometimes feel like dating--everyone is hunting for that special someone who's trustworthy, friendly, and compatible. Where are the sites that give you a strong realtor match the way dating sites pair you up with romantic candidates?
HomeVisor comes awfully close. Started by real estate agent Brett Doshan, the service aims to bring buyers and sellers together with realtors who understand their needs.
Doshan says, "A first-time, 22 year-old buyer usually wants a younger agent, whereas a retiree likes to work with someone their own age. That's just one example of preferences that people have. Buying and selling real estate is a big part of someone's life, so they want to make sure they feel comfortable with the agent."
In order to find just the right agent for each client, Doshan and his team spend hours on the phone, talking with agents around the country to get a sense of personality types, reputations, experience, and other factors that go into a recommendation.
There are some competitors that try to do a similar match-up, but Doshan says that they usually have a pool of agents that pay to be part of the service. When a buyer goes to one of their sites, they simply put in his or her zip code, and get a list of agents. "The focus of those sites is to get agents to sign up, to expand their databases," he notes. "Our focus is on buyers and sellers, to find out what they really need."
Doshan's comprehensive matchmaking skills have allowed HomeVisor to go national, within only a few years since it started. The company employs five people, and the founder expects strong growth for the future. "We just want to constantly get better at our service."
Source: Brett Doshan, HomeVisor
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Information services firm DelaGet caters to restaurant industry

Sometimes, it pays to specialize. For Golden Valley-based DelaGet, customers come from only one industry segment, and it's that focus that's causing the company to attract investment and keep growing.
Spun out of restaurant franchisee Border Foods in 2000, the firm creates financial reporting software for restaurants, which can use the applications to track information like server performance and food inventory. A franchise restaurant owner can glance at sales results for all restaurants, for example, or look at the transaction-level activity of one cashier.
Over the past five years, DelaGet has expanded its services to include brand programs, notes CEO Bruce Clark: "We go in and create solutions for a brand, and that program becomes a best practice." The company works with some of the most visible restaurant chains in the country, including Taco Bell, KFC, and IHOP.
Another unique aspect comes with creating different platforms that can be customized to a restaurant's needs, Clark adds. DelaGet's software-as-a-service offering is on 40 different platforms, representing a significant part of its intellectual property, he says.
DelaGet's strength in the industry is getting the company noticed: in December, the firm attracted $400,000 from angel investors.
The company currently employs about 80 people, and has strong plans for growth. Although it boasts an impressive customer list, there are still numerous restaurant brands that fall within DelaGet's core market, notes Rick Berglund, VP of Business Development.
He says, "One stage of our growth will be to build brand relationships, and from there, we can expand services. We're seeing success on several levels so we're anticipating that we'll be accelerating our growth in the near future."
Sources: Bruce Clark and Rick Berglund, DelaGet
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Smartpress boosts printing power for small businesses

Small business owners face limitations when it comes to bulk buying; the lack of huge orders sometimes usually means they have to pay higher prices, or order more than they'd like.
For printing, Smartpress.com is trying to correct that imbalance. The Chaska-based company has operated for the past three years, and sees steady growth in offering online printing services that cater to retailers, graphics professionals, and small businesses.
The range of printing options is vast, from car magnets to sales booklets, and a custom banner-printing service can produce hanging banners up to 150 feet long.
An online calculator sets the company apart, believes president Chuck Reese. Clients can get accurate pricing quickly, rather than waiting for a quote request from a more traditional printer.  
Another area of differentiation is proofing, he adds: "With many printers, the file that you send in is the one that gets printed, because no one looks at it. But we have someone really look over everything that comes in." Many times, the proofer catches layout and copy errors, saving a client from having to redo an order.
Because of its distinctive service, Smartpress.com has found a dedicated audience, and strong growth as a result. It's been adding to its 128-employee roster, and Reese notes every year brings 250 percent growth.
Currently, the company is adding custom sites for clients so they can implement print-on-demand service, which is helpful for clients like ad agencies and franchises. Reese says, "Everything we see shows that same strong growth rate going forward."
Source: Chuck Reese, Smartpress.com
Writer: Elizabeth Millard
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