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:
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.

Networking… Networking…. LinkingIn…Tweeting…. Working…

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:
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!


OTA – The Intersection of Creativity and Community


Two Boldly Designed OTA Posters

Two Boldly Designed OTA Posters

We must be bold. Why? Because there is power in coming together and using our creativity to address society’s most challenging issues. OTA, founded in 2010, is a Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota movement that has been hosting semi-annual conferences since its inception and garnering a lot of attention. It’s purpose – to bring entrepreneurs, educators, community builders and creatives together – is fulfilled through events with inspirational speakers and attendees with a passion to tap into these ideas, pursue their own ideas and create something broader.

Being bold comes in many forms. After attending the afternoon portion of OTA14 in Sioux Falls, SD, on April 4, I got a taste of this boldness. The quirky Kate Bingaman-Burt, illustrator, teacher and researcher, shared her social experiments that tap into consumerism through her gift of illustration. She boldly set out with project goals to capture information and do research, not knowing where the somewhat lengthy projects would end or what their results might be. Her drive to rid herself of $24,000 in debt was a six year venture! She also embarked on a 28-month project to capture photos and illustrations of her daily consumption of things (note, this was before the debt project). This led to Princeton Press’ publication of three books focused on consumerism including What Did I Buy Today?

We heard from the rapper-like Baratunde Thurston, former Director of Digital of The Onion and co-founder of Cultivated Wit (see his short bio for lazy people). He shared his family history of activism, politics and journalism, insight from his time at The Onion and his inspiration for his organization and projects like How To Be Black. I laughed so hard, I cried. The premise for Cultivated Wit is “one that badgers less, can persuade all the more. Artful ridicule can address contentious issues more than can severity alone.” Thurston and team display definite boldness in creating just the right amount of humor in their work to strike an emotional chord with an audience that turns negativity into inspiration for positive action. See the bit on Congress.

Next up, the soft-spoken journalism and graphic artist husband and wife duo Tina and Ryan Essmaker, co-founders of The Great Discontent (TGD). TGD is an online and now print magazine featuring interviews on beginnings, creativity, and risk. They boldly tackle long-form journalism style stories that take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to read (another case for transitioning to print, as they originally envisioned their publication). They both were raised in small town Michigan and talked in general about the Creative Class idea – creativity doesn’t come from a location (like a big city) – it comes from within and can happen anywhere.

Illustrators Bring Creativity to Life

Illustrators Bring Creativity to Life

OTA did a great job showcasing that diversity with speakers from San Francisco (Roman Mars) to New York (Thurston and Scott Harrison) to local artists and entrepreneurs. Throughout the day, talented illustrators created lively graphic presentations of the concepts by speakers to display on poster boards (see picture). The day ended with Brant Cryder, President Yves Saint Laurent, sharing ideas about what it means to be a legend and introducing his good friend, Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water. Harrison, a 10 year NYC city nightclub promoter, shared his eye-opening experience on his first trip to Africa to document doctors’ healing work for people in Libya through photography and stories.

It changed his life and began his quest to help 800 million people worldwide who are without clean, safe drinking water. Boldly, Harrison flipped the idea of charity on its heels. By delving into the essence of emotion and delivering stories, results and actionable opportunities for people in his immediate circle, he founded Charity: Water. By being as transparent as possible, training people as engineers in their communities for management of clean water drinking sites and through technology co-ventures (i.e. with Google), Charity: Water to date has funded 11,712 water projects in 22 countries.

Harrison closed out the day by sharing the story and video of 9 year-old Rachel, a legend in her own right whose wish has given 37,770 people clean water. What a powerful testament and inspiration for the entire crowd to do the Birthday Pledge though Charity: Water.

My 10 year-old Creative Mind at Work

My 10 year-old Creative Mind at Work

On the drive home (which was MUCH safer than the snowstorm-induced slush-covered I-90 on the way over) to small town Jackson, MN, where I was raised, I thought about the elements of a creative class. Several speakers, especially the artists, talked about the making of things and accepting the unsettling feelings they had when they were not inspired or creating. These feelings are what drives creatives to create. Before I left my small town for college in the big city, I had this desire to make and create things. What happened to that?

Coincidentally, when I reached my parents’ home last Friday night, my Mom had boxes of saved memorabilia including my own illustrations as a 10 year-old of everyday items (like Kate), storyboards of plays and graphics and type clipped from trendy magazines that adorned my walls throughout childhood. I absolutely loved to create. Could I get some of this back? Not sure yet, but the conference inspired me to boldly contemplate it.




Business CYA: Collect Your Assets

Do you have an abandoned Twitter account? Has your LinkedIn account remained untouched for months due to login failure or lost password? If you had to name your businesses fonts and color palette – in RGB too – could you easily access it?

I truly enjoy working with small businesses. Whether that means organizing a new venture into social media, creating messaging that resonates with a new untapped audience or planning an event, the issue isn’t a shortage of ideas. Most often I find the hurdles to any new marketing initiative (aside from budget and expectations) are capturing an accurate picture of past efforts and gaining access to graphic design assets, various accounts and a list of client emails. If you as a business owner are ready to step up your marketing efforts, there are some steps you can take to prepare.

Why is this necessary? In a word: efficiency. The more background information you can share with a marketing consultant or someone within your company taking on various marketing roles, the more efficient and informed your new direction will be. Laying the groundwork for successful marketing starts with your history and your brand identity. And in order for the marketing pro to assess your accounts and stats to present a plan, they will need access to your website and social media accounts. Take existing stock based on the outline below. This will indicate if you’re ready to begin and who you need to involve. If your graphic identity is lacking, it’s best to start there, perhaps working with a marketing and graphic design professional.


What marketing have you done to date? As an exercise in marketing, formally summarize your thoughts chronologically, by medium (print, web, direct mail, social media) and measurements – How many did you reach? How much did it cost? What was effective? What didn’t work as well? Who are your current clients? What do your potential clients look like? Who are your partners? What does the competition look like? A simple two-page or so snapshot of this history is very helpful as a starting point.

Brand Identity

Graphic Assets
Taking stock of your existing graphic assets – your logo in all forms (low res, high res, eps, jpg, png) your logo type, your logo in circle, square, whatever the format, is important. You also want a file of any graphics for advertising and marketing purposes created for your business not only in pdf but in original artwork form. Designers have to recreate art files if you only have a pdf or final artwork. So essentially every time a new designer touches your brand, it changes it. I see this happen a lot when publications offer design services for small businesses. Or when business owners have multiple initiatives where many hands touch the brand across different channels that either don’t offer the level of customization needed or coding knowledge is required to customize i.e. email marketing services like Constant Contact.

Photography comes in many forms and with the increasing wealth of social media channels to share your brand, capturing and tagging your images is essential. I just read a post from The Creative Group about the high level of interest generated when businesses show the inner workings of their companies. Instagram is a great tool that uses filters to further convey the look and tone you’re going for with a photo and messaging. It’s forgiving to amateur photographers no doubt. Get in the habit of recognizing these photographic moments if not to post now, they can be great to have in your archive to reference and post later. This applies for video too.

Do you have a set of fonts for your brand? Businesses can have several fonts, but starting with a core of three is a good rule of thumb. Consider a serif, sans serif and a web-friendly font (see Digital Operative’s post). Typically this range of fonts can achieve the look and feel you’re going for whether it’s an event invite, an email, blog post or e-newsletter.

Websafe Typefaces

Websafe Typefaces

Color Palettes
I recently worked with a client, LTI Management, who worked with Nancy Wojack Henderickson, a graphic designer, to expand the palette beyond her company’s three main colors of gray, green and orange. It now includes a blue and red. More choices can help clients discern different elements of your brand and fine-tune the look and feel you want to convey to different markets. Be sure to know your CMYK’s and RGB’s – see Crux Creative’s overview. In general, CMYK is for print and RGB is for web. When you’re creating anything on the web, the RGB’s should match your palette. Email marketing services and more typically have fields where you can specify your RGB, rather than guessing at it.

Access to Accounts

Many telling facts can be found in website analytics and social media following and traffic. Make a spreadsheet! This is a key tool for you and your marketer to access. Include the media (i.e. Facebook), email associated with the account, username, password and existing followers or participation. Doing this step upfront will assure you can keep the momentum going on your marketing efforts.

Build your Lists

Maybe you’ve been doing a stellar job collecting client emails and information, but haven’t done anything with them yet. Or maybe you haven’t been collecting this information (and categorizing it) in an organized way. This is something you can start on your own right away. It can take some time… For your list, create it in Excel with categories like company, first and last name, title, email, phone, address, website, social accounts and whatever categories are relevant for your business (client, partner, vendor, potential client, media, etc). The list can be exported for use in various marketing outreach tools and it serves as your main distribution channel for all of the great marketing ideas you want to share.

There you have it. Take inventory, collect, then contact a marketing professional to put your plan in action.