OTAFargo: Boldness Knows No Boundaries

Forget about your goals. Forget about what you thought you wanted do to upon graduation. Forget about controlling your professional path. Just be bold.

The seventh in a series of semi-annual events, OTA pulled off another top-notch event in Fargo on September 12 (#OTAFargo). The OTA name stems from the later part of its tri-state partners’ names: Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Duh. After I fought the urge to assign a word with each letter, it revealed itself to me. The OTA logo sports a circular arrow running though the state outlines to signal the groups’ goal: to inspire intersections in creativity and community.

Highly Content with The Great Discontent

Highly Content with The Great Discontent

In April 2014, I only attended a half-day of the OTA Sioux Falls event, due to a surprise messy spring blizzard that closed down I-90. View the event download I wrote here. I was definitely more optimistic as I set out for Fargo from Minneapolis (a 3.5hour drive) on September 12, a promising beautiful fall day. The core of the event took place from 8:30a.m. -5:00p.m. Specific workshops the day prior as well as comp tickets to Dessa in concert for all OTAns were options as well. I opted to get up at 4:00a.m. to make the day’s speakers and head out after the event.

Back to boldness. Thirteen diverse speakers interspersed with compelling videos by Passenger Productions, funded by the Bush Foundation, delivered big on inspiration. Speakers and artists featured via video boldly shared more than their profession (#WeMustBeBold). They shared inspiration and how they happened upon their life, which for the majority of them isn’t defined in terms of work/life balance per se. The boundaries are blurred. Intentionally and thankfully.

Richardo Crespo, CCO at Th13teen and former Global Creative Chief at 20th Century Fox and Mattel, confirmed this view when I asked him about work/life balance. I mean, sh*t the California dad of four surfs nearly every day and churns out a ton of creative. He noted that we’ll get more of a glimpse into that when Fast Company relays his interview in an upcoming issue.

OTA speakers have some swagger for sure. Larry Smith, Catalyst of Six Word Memoirs, has a collection of celebrities’ six words. If you haven’t checked it out, do so. It’s been a huge help getting me to the essence of things lately, like this speaker summary for instance. OTAns: please send me your six words on a speaker’s influence via email or on Twitter @SparkTracker. (Also look for OTA to do something with each person’s Six Word Memoir soon)

Ricardo Crespo, CCO at Th13teen and former Global Creative Chief at 20th Century Fox and Mattel (@_ricardocrespo_): Start. Stop. Continue. Beware the shuffleplay.

Greg Hartle, Founder of $10 and a Laptop (@greghartle): $10 In My Pocket. Need coffee.

Cathy Brooks, founder/Chief Human Officer, The Hydrant Club (@cathybrooks): What happens in Vegas? Dog park.

Ellen McGirt, Business Journalist, Fast Company alum, nervous novelist (@ellenmcgirt; @ImJustPo): Don’t know? Ask Po. #ILYMTW informant.

Wes Eisenhauer, Frontman of Soulcrate, Photographer (@soulcrate): Wordsmith on stage. Speechless with camera.

Larry Smith, Founder of SMITH Magazine and Catalyst of Six Word Memoirs (@larrysmith): Intimidation. Out-sixing the sixer creator.

Lonnie Carter, Playwright of Lost Boys (and Girl) of Sudan (@lonniety): Critics: critique me more. It’s welcome.

Kevin Kirby, Ashoka Fellow, CEO and Co-founder of Face It Together (@faceit2gether): Addiction solution demands lifetime of management.

Jason Roberts, Founder of Team Better Block (@mannytmoto): Add tires, paint, palettes. Presto! Places.

Elizabeth King, Founder and Executive Director of Agency for Emerging Voices (@elizabethonline): Passion pit. Google it. It’s legit.

The Gregory Brothers, Creators of Auto-Tune the News (@gregorybrothers): Old tools. New ideas. Funky politicians.

Greg Brandeau, Author of Collective Genius, Former CTO of Walt Disney, Former SVP of Pixar (@gregbrandeau): People Pokers. Paradoxes. Discuss amongst leadership.

While the majority of speakers weren’t necessarily born, raised or currently living in an OTA state, their perspectives from coast to coast felt relative. If attendees didn’t feel grounded enough, taking in the videos between presenters offered a dose of Midwestern, of the land, creators. The videos by Passenger, a South Dakota production company, featured various OTA-based creative types from a National Geographic photographer (Joe Riis) to musicians and foodies. The type of living they conveyed awakened my small town roots. They really got something right. That something was essence.

57 and Sunny = Inspiration

57 and Sunny = Inspiration

Emcee and OTA creator Hugh Weber, kept the momentum going and did something new at this event based on past event feedback. He instructed the audience to talk to the speakers during breaks at a specific area. A nice move given the large number of student attendees (a bus of students made the trek from the Sioux Falls area) who might have needed some encouragement. I met several speakers this way, but not in the “let’s exchange business cards” kind of way. In the entrepreneurial chill vibe that’s part of OTA’s cool factor, business card exchange is not the focus (see Twitter). But real conversations do happen.

I could write a blog post on each speaker’s session. Maybe I will… For now we’ll keep it to a summary of the intersections of ideas I heard from more than one speaker.

  1. Embrace Serendipity: Cathy Brooks shared the official definition of serendipity: “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.” You may not necessarily know the outcome or goal of something you do, but know that it’s putting you in the right place and time for the universe to respond to you.
  2. Don’t Think, Just Do. A motto by Wes Eisenhauer and a concept many others touched on. Spending too much time overthinking or waiting until things are perfectly in place before you begin and you’ll never start. Be okay with failure. Improve and try again. These presenters shared their path of being lost, not knowing what to do careerwise/ lifewise and sort of stumbling onto something fulfilling in their lives.
  3. Find Your Essence. This is your story. Where do you come from, what inspires you? Find a way to connect that to your life’s work. One particular example: Larry Smith’s storytelling concept as is plays out in Six Word Memoirs.
  4. Channel Empathy. Elizabeth Banks shared some compelling stats as a commentary on our society’s challenges. Even though technology connects us, there are gaps in generations and factors causing more isolation. We’re talking one out of three homes are single households and there are less married couples than any time in recent history. Reminder: being connected creates empathy and makes us more human.
  5. Tap into a Support System. Many speakers touched on the importance of mentors and collaborators and just people who call you out on stuff. They keep you grounded when needed or tell you to jump in and go for it. Always use them to widely test your ideas organically before throwing them into the marketplace for a potential epic fail, Brandeau recommends.

As I walked out of an afternoon session, I dropped my OTA Six Word Memoir in the box in exchange for the first copy of The Great Discontent (TGD). It read:  Inspired. Now What? Don’t Think. Do.

A Taste of Twin Cities StartUp Week #TCSW

Have you heard? During Minnesota’s first Tech StartUp Week September 9-12, there’s quite the impressive line-up of events going on — 23 to be exact. Known among avid tweeters as #TCSW (Twin Cities StartUp Week) I’d be surprise if it wasn’t trending. No doubt some entrepreneurs are going all in this week including the weekend-long bootcamp. I made it to a mere three events. Here’s a little taste of startup from the week.

Sept 10, Day 2:
8:00-9:15a.m.:
I hit up 1 Million Cups St. Paul at the James J Hill Center. Lee George and Greg Fouks with the center kicked of the morning with an overview — they do this #1MCSTP thing every Wednesday along with other cities around the country. The event on this particular day was additionally promoted through startup week, so many new people were in attendance for the first time. The format is a six minute presentation by each of the two presenters. The goal is to give a summary of their business and open it up to the audience for constructive feedback and conversation.

First up was Davis Law where founder K.M.Davis shared the firm’s story to-date starting with a rebrand and leap of faith to use a non-traditional url for their site: davismeansbusiness.com. From the non-pretentious photography, pricing structure disclosure to blog posts about entrepreneurial issues it shouts: We are not a typical law firm! They focus on business law and have already broken down barriers. They’re accessible — you can find one of team Davis in CoCo spaces around the Twin Cities (St. Paul, Uptown and Minneapolis).

Next up was Yemyo. Founder Frankie Poplau shared an overview of Yemyo’s product called Standard Sightline. Poplau’s career in education and in business as an executive consultant backed by a PhD in education and a master’s degree in technology, all drive her vision to use technology to catapult teaching and learning into the hands of the students. Her presentation struck many cords with the audience — all chiming in to share their views on the product with a nod to focus her sales approach as much as possible. As a parent of two, I believed the most compelling ideas are motivating and engaging youth to learn in their own way and involving the parent. I was excited about the possibilities even after only a glimpse of the technology (check out ideas around this general movement using #EdTech as in education and technology). The largest hurdle? Layers and layers of standards, politics and policy and implementation.

9:15-4:15p.m.:
Networking… Networking…. LinkingIn…Tweeting…. Working…

MNCup105:00-7:15p.m.:
Next up: The 10th annual MNCup Final Awards Event at the University of Minnesota, McNamara Center. It was Minnesota feel-good at its finest. Large corporate sponsors supporting entrepreneurs who are truly startup. Paul Douglas’ emcee style complete with weather references and one parting word of wisdom for the go-getters in the group: tenacity. MNCup founders reminiscing about their first brainstorming meeting around the MNCup idea. A recap of impressive numbers to-date: $160M raised in venture capital for startups, 13,000 participants; and new initiatives in 2014: Food/Ag/Beverage category and women entrepreneurs. Oh and Jonny Pops.

We heard elevator pitches from two groups of presenters (runners-up and winners) in seven categories. RoomPoll ran two audience vote tallies via smartphones during the event (winners: TCMobileMarket and Jonny Pops). 75Fahrenheit, a proactive, energy-efficient temperature control system for buildings, took the #MNCup10 Grand Prize. On that note, the evening came to a close. It was a high-energy crowd of 200+ of entrepreneurs, supporters, corporate sponsors and mentors from the program (80 in total have served in this role). I met several people in a short time involved in startup efforts from predictive education models and software development to co-working spaces and social sharing technology called CameraSlice (winners of the Beta.MN 1.5 9.9 event).

Sept 11, Day 3:
7:30-9:15a.m.:
It’s early, but I’m still late. I walk into the in-progress Bootstrappers session at the U of MN Carlson School of Management around 7:45a.m. My new fun female #TCSW friend later confirmed that it indeed was a room full of dudes (70 men and 6 women to be exact). The panel of four including Daren Cotter, InBoxDollars; Chad Halvorson, thisCLICKS; Matthew Dornquast, Code42 and Clay Collins, LeadPages, openly shared their early startup phase to present-day insight. They covered the VC versus bootstrapping approaches and covered challenges, benefits, pitfalls and advice.

Where to begin downloading all the great info they shared? I’ll start by saying that the structure worked well. They all told their business story (unfortunately my being late meant missing most of Daren’s), then each answered the same question from the moderator with time for Q&A at the end. Here are just some of the highlights by keyword:

On PR/Marketing:

  • Seek out PR and competitions. For us TechCRUNCH gave us a platform. It helped with hiring, provided more expertise and financial rigor (Clay)
  • Skydiving without testing your parachute is not a good idea. First establish your minimum viable audience. Tools like Kickstarter can help. We pre-sold our first product to raise money before running with it (Clay)
  • Think disruptive marketing for B2B sales. We’ve invested in content marketing like blog, podcasts and webinars (Clay)

On MN (Because all of their businesses are Minnesota based, we got to hear their perspective on MN niceness)

  • Ratio of fortune 500 companies to start-ups is an advantage in Minnesota, but don’t look to geography as your ecosystem (Clay)
  • In general, we need to talk about money more than we do in MN. We need to share actual data (Clay)
  • Tech and bootstrapping align really well. And in Minnesota, the retention and loyalty factor is higher than the coasts (Chad)

On Co-worker Togetherness:

  • Productivity and getting people together in a room is still key. Added challenges come with employees working via mobile including lower productivity. BTW, internet telephony still sucks (Clay)
  • If you have remote employees, do not consider or treat them as second class employees. If everyone at headquarters works with a mobile mindset then this is less of an issue (Chad)
  • Be an optimist. Think of everyone in your company as co-founders (Matthew)

On Money Changing Everything:

  • Eventually we needed outside resources, but having money or not is not the issue. It’s more like what you do with it operationally. i.e. Google not an inventor but kills it on execution (Clay)
  • You have to love what you do and or create a capital-efficient model. We receive revenue in hand before we pay our expenses (Daren)
  • Ask about what the VC community is looking for and build that data into your business so that appeals to VC in future, even if that is not your current intention (Matthew)

On Lack of Defining Moments:

  • The customer validates. As an entrepreneur, at some point – 50 some customers in, you start to feel like you know something inside. Like it’s going to work (Chad)
  • It’s not really a dramatic defining moment, rather a series of small stepping stone decisions to get you there. Don’t do drastic. Keep your day job until you’re completely motivated, obsessed and passionate (Clay)
  • Tap into customer psychology base. Reverse engineer the process. Find out where this is happening organically (Matthew)

All of this insight. Now what? I could sense many entrepreneurs in the room moving into the “it” moment of their successful future business office space with visions of ping pong tables and beer fridges one panelist described. The event definitely delivered quality insight straight from CEO’s and founders of top Minnesota companies at a unheard of value ($5.00 — my $7.00 parking was more). After further delving into these companies and leaders — all with clear, concise branding and websites — I want to learn more.

My #TCSW was a glimpse into our Minnesota startup community via these three events. It was a good first taste of what’s to come as this community continues to grow. Well done to all involved in what is shaping up to be a most successful first Twin Cities StartUp Week!