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Great Lakes Clothing Company grows "life at the lake" brand

 
A successful Kickstarter that netted Great Lakes Clothing Company more than $20,000 will allow the custom clothing company to move into a new collaborative work space on March 1. The company will share space near the North Minneapolis riverfront with several other Minnesota companies—including Marked Leather, Mill City Fineries, and the U.S.-made artisanal clothing and product distributor William Rogue & Co.
 
“We’re committed to the idea of native businesses sticking together, sharing resources and space,” says cofounder Spencer Barrett, hinting at the prospect of future apparel and branding partnerships with Great Lakes’ co-tenants. The move will roughly quadruple Great Lakes’ floor space, from 600 to about 2,400 square feet,
 
For now, cofounders Barrett and David Burke plan to use the expanded space to grow their inventory and make way for new hires to manage inventory, sales and the company’s expanding online presence.
 
Great Lakes has already shipped its branded T-shirts, crew sweaters, polos and accessories — including koozies — to 47 states, building buzz largely through word of mouth, a no-frills video marketing campaign orchestrated by Barrett, and a “brand ambassador” program that recruits college students to sport its clothing on campuses across the Midwest.
 
Customer service doesn’t hurt either. The co-founders include a handwritten thank-you note with every online order and send a follow-up email about a week after each customer’s order arrives.
 
According to the co-founders, Great Lakes’ brand centers around “life at the lake,” a laid-back, nostalgic vibe that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent a warm day near a body of water in Minnesota. The brand’s mascot is an understated loon, a Northern archetype that needs no introduction.
 
“We found a huge gap in the apparel market,” explains Burke. “No one in Minnesota, or anywhere in the Midwest for that matter, was taking advantage of our unique Northern lifestyle and fusing those ideals into a brand. We strive to create fun, useful and well-made products inspired by life at the lake.”
 
“We were inspired by shared memories of time spent around the water” in the Twin Cities and up north, adds Barrett. “It’s a common experience shared not just by people in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Minnesota, but by anyone who lives near fresh water.”
 
Another Great Lakes differentiator: Unlike many of their competitors, including similarly sized startups, Burke and Barrett are committed to a totally American-made supply chain. The pair will oversee all design work at their new Minneapolis studio, even as the company grows.
 
Great Lakes currently relies on a North Carolina manufacturer to supply the bulk of their unfinished shirts — “that’s where most of the American textile industry operates these days,” explains Barrett — with partners in the Twin Cities handling embroidering, printing and other final touches.
 
Though the online sales model is working well for now, Burke and Barrett are hoping to diversify in the months ahead. A last-minute decision to put on a popup store during the holiday season paid off big time, “blowing past our already pretty ambitious projections for November,” says Burke.
 
The co-founders are already exploring additional popup opportunities at outdoor events — including a “winter golf” tournament on Lake Minnetonka in mid-February — and, possibly, local brewery taprooms.
 
But “the dream,” says Burke, “is a flagship store that gets right to the core of the Great Lakes brand,” with an expansive retail area up front and a fulfillment center in the back.
 
“The popup experience has really reinforced the importance of personal connections for us,” says Burke, noting that in-store conversion rates are about five times higher than online. “We want to be as friendly and hospitable to the customer as we can.”
 

Tangletown/Wise Acre's farm-to-table growth

The calendar still says winter, but Tangletown Gardens is ramping up hiring, and investing in initiatives to make the popular South Minneapolis business “even better at what we grow, what we produce, and what we create for our customers and the communities we serve,” says co-founder and principal Scott Endres.
 
That doesn’t mean, however, that Endres and co-owner Dean Engelmann will tear up a playbook that has worked for more than a decade.
 
“The growth of our business has always been organic,” Endres says. “We make sure things as are as good as they can be before taking the next step. Right now, we feel there is room to grow and refine all aspects of our business without having to take on new ventures.”
 
Tangletown Gardens’ current ventures keep Endres, Engelmann and their staffers plenty busy. The flagship garden center at 54th & Nicollet supports a flourishing garden design and consulting business that counts some of the Twin Cities’ most notable companies, nonprofits, government organizations and individuals as clients. Off the top of his head, Endres lists the Museum of Russian Art, the Minneapolis Park Board, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the U of M’s Horticulture Department as “garden partners.”
 
Endres and Engelmann met while enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s horticulture program. They worked in the landscape design business before setting out as partners and founding Tangletown. Careful product selection and innovative cultivation strategies play a role in their success, along with their backgrounds. According to Endres, Tangletown has “thousands of...perennial, annual and vegetable varieties,” along with “the most diverse group of unusual and hard-to-find woody plants in the Upper Midwest.”
 
In addition to the garden center, Endres and Engelmann run Wise Acre Eatery, a bastion of the Twin Cities’ farm-to-fork movement, and a 100-acre farm in Plato, which supplies Wise Acre and a flourishing CSA. According to Wise Acre’s website, “80 to 90 percent of what we serve is grown sustainably” on the Plato farm.
 
Since opening in 2012, Wise Acre has been joined by a host of farm-centric restaurants across town. But it remains unique. “Unlike the owners of any other restaurant we know of, we are the folks sowing the seeds, nurturing plants, and tending the animals in the morning, then delivering the harvest to our restaurant’s kitchen in the afternoon,” says Endres.
 
Endres and Engelmann grow produce year-round in state-of-the-art greenhouses to maintain their locally grown supply. The owners also keep Scottish Highland cattle, two heritage pork breeds and free-range poultry on the farm — a self-contained food ecosystem that relies on “biology, not toxic chemicals,” says Endres.
 
“Healthy soil creates healthy food and gardens, which ultimately create healthy people,” adds Engelmann.
 
This philosophy reflects Endres’ and Engelmann’s upbringing. Though horticulturalists by training, both grew up on small working farms in the family for generations. “Our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers knew the way they treated their land would shape its future,” says Endres. “We farm today in much the same way as the farms we grew up on.”
 
Current Tangletown Job Listings in Minneapolis
 
  1. Garden Designer
  2. Container Designer
  3. Gardener
  4. Seasonal Garden Center Associate
  5. Seasonal Landscape Team Member

 

MNvest and MN-SBIR to reduce funding barriers for startups

Two new initiatives, MNvest and MN-SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research), are aiming to give Minneapolis-St. Paul startups and entrepreneurs a competitive leg up. Both initiatives lessen or remove existing barriers to funding for early-stage companies.
 
MNvest is a legislative proposal that could pave the way for “equity crowdfunding,” which would remove some red tape from existing securities law and allow young companies to raise up to $5 million from members of the public in any 12-month period.
 
Currently, Minnesota startups can raise funds in three ways, none of them ideal. First, they can register with state and federal securities regulators, a costly and stringent process that’s unrealistic for capital-starved entrepreneurs. Second, they can limit advertised investment offerings to accredited investors — roughly the state’s wealthiest one percent.
 
Third and most common: They can make a private, unadvertised offering, sometimes known as a “friends and family round,” but can’t solicit on the Internet or through other public means. In all cases, startups must either shoulder unreasonable costs or remain unable to accept investments from most members of the public.
 
MNvest’s value proposition appeals to lawmakers and constituents alike, says Winthrop & Weinstine attorney and MNvest proponent Ryan Schildkraut. “The question is simple: Why should only the wealthiest people be able to use the Internet to invest in businesses with compelling ideas?”
 
MN-SBIR is a conduit to the federal SBIR program, which offers access to more than $2 billion in business grants from nearly a dozen federal agencies. Individual grants range from less than $150,000 for Phase I (early stage) companies to as much as $4 million for Phase III (established, generally medium-sized) companies.
 
MN-SBIR provides technical support, proposal writing assistance, cost analyses, commercialization planning and other services for startups and small-to-medium-sized businesses seeking grant money. The Minnesota program also offers regular workshops, including a February 24 proposal-writing workshop and a March 26 overview workshop, for participants and interested parties.
 
MN-SBIR is “often the only source of capital available” to startups and small companies perceived as high-risk by traditional lenders, including venture capitalists, says MN-SBIR director Pat Dillon.
 
The program also pumps federal dollars into Minnesota’s economy. “We send so much of our [tax] money to Washington,” says Dillon. “This is one way for us to get some of it back.”
 
But both MN-SBIR and MNvest face challenges.
 
As a legislative proposal, MNvest is currently working its way through committees at the Capitol. Though the bill has bipartisan support and “has not run into major opposition from any group,” the legislative process offers no guarantees, says Zachary Robins, Schildkraut’s Winthrop colleague and fellow MNvest proponent. House and Senate versions of the bill still need to be reconciled into a single draft, a process that can take time. A full vote could happen anytime between now and late spring, with the governor’s signature required for MNvest to become law.
 
“We’re cautiously optimistic about MNvest’s prospects,” says Robins.
 
MN-SBIR faces a different set of obstacles. The state government recently restarted the program after a decade-long hiatus. MN-SBIR remains under-resourced due to its newness and funding realities, with Dillon and a small team of consultants sharing responsibilities.
 
“I’m a hard worker, but I’m not Superwoman,” Dillon laughs.
 
The continued economic vitality of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Minnesota more broadly, could hinge on the success of MNvest and MN-SBIR. Both find the state in the unfamiliar position of playing catch-up with others, including some of its closest neighbors.
 
MNvest, for instance, is similar to bills already passed in Wisconsin, Indiana and other midwestern states. Last year, Schildkraut found out about Craftfund, a Milwaukee-based brewery crowdfunding platform that takes advantage of the Wisconsin law.
 
“I assumed we had something similar on the books in Minnesota,” he recalls. When subsequent research failed to turn up anything similar, he and Robins set MNvest in motion.
 
“We’re just young and energetic enough to try to get a law passed,” says Schildkraut.
 
Meanwhile, MN-SBIR aims to dramatically increase Minnesota’s share of the federal SBIR pie. Local companies account for just $30 million of the $2.3 billion total, a disproportionately small share relative to population. California and Massachusetts alone account for nearly 50 percent of the available amount.
 
“We could do a whole lot better given our size and existing entrepreneurial energy,” says Dillon.
 

College of Design students craft tap handles for micro-breweries

A novel partnership between several local craft breweries and the students in a College of Design class at the University of Minnesota produced innovative tap-handle designs, and laid the groundwork for future collaborations between creative students and the Twin Cities’ booming beer industry. Sarah Sheber, a fabric developer at Target, taught the Product Form and Model Making class. Her intention was to give students a window into the workings of the small, creative businesses reshaping the Twin Cities’ economy.
 
“I pursued smaller [breweries] purposefully,” she says. “I wanted students to have a chance to learn as much about [the breweries’] brands as they could, to see as much of the business as possible and understand the different roles that go into producing local brews. With a large company [like Target], individuals own a small piece of the process. With small companies, each member of the team needs to be flexible, to know the business and the brand, and be able to wear a lot of hats.” 
 
Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Northeast Minneapolis participated in the project. So did Mighty Axe Hops, which produces high-quality, locally grown hops for brewers in Minneapolis, St. Paul and elsewhere; and Excelsior Brewing, a suburban taproom and brewery.
 
Students produced multiple tap-handle designs for each business, some attempting improvements on existing designs and others completely reimagining the brands’ ethos. Breweries had the option to purchase finalized tap handles, which otherwise remain student property.
 
The collaboration had two overarching goals. First, Sheber wanted to students to experience the creative freedom and creative expression that inform commercial design projects. “The idea was to act like a client, providing support and feedback as students worked through each design,” says Matt Hauck, Fair State’s director of operations.
 
Not every design was practical. One student incorporated powerful rare earth magnets into a prototype, recalls Fair State CEO Evan Sallee, making it impossible to detach and move. “There was a lot of trial and error,” says Sallee, “but it was great to be engaged with talented students who are passionate about design.”
 
Some designs eventually solved problems of which Hauck and Sallee weren’t even aware. “The students we worked with put a lot of thought into the ergonomics of their final designs, something we’d never even considered,” says Sallee.
 
Sheber and her students unveiled the final tap-handle designs during a December 16 happy hour fueled, naturally, by free beer from Fair State and Excelsior. Sheber is already planning to bring back the collaboration for next year’s class, possibly with new brewery partners.
 
“We’ve had interest from brewers of all scales,” says Sheber, some of whom urgently need updated branding.
 
At Fair State, Sallee and Hauck may take a pass on using any of last semester’s designs. But they’re open to future collaborations that keep their branding fresh and distinctive.
 
The local craft beer community is largely chummy and supportive of new entrants, says Sallee. “But positioning among other breweries’ tap handles at bars is still important,” he notes. “You want your design to stand out in the right way.”
 

Tiny Diner is top Small Business Revolution story

Kim Bartmann’s Tiny Diner has just been honored as the country’s top “Small Business Revolution” story by Deluxe, a business services company based in the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs. The South Minneapolis restaurant was the first stop on Deluxe’s nationwide Small Business Revolution tour, which will profile 100 U.S. companies during the coming months in honor of Deluxe’s 100th anniversary.
 
Small Business Revolution was initiated in response to what Deluxe sees as the country’s increasingly impersonal, digitized economy; a place where conducting anonymous online transactions is often easier than seeking out independent, brick-and-mortar businesses owned by our friends and neighbors.
 
“We’re less likely to know who we’re buying from,” according to Deluxe’s Small Business Revolution website. “We’re exchanging data instead of sharing experiences. In too many places, the magic and the meaning [of doing business] have begun to fade.”
 
According to Deluxe, Small Business Revolution taps “award-winning independent filmmakers and photographers to honor” businesses that “create something more personal, more local, more meaningful for all of us.”
 
Bartmann’s participation required a couple of phone interviews and a “fairly long day of shooting,” Bartmann says—not a bad deal for national exposure.
 
“I was thrilled to be approached,” she says. Bartmann owns Tiny Diner and seven other restaurants across the Twin Cities. “I’m interested in taking part in anything that promotes small business here.” She found her way onto Deluxe’s radar, she says, because she’s a prominent booster for the Twin Cities Metro Independent Business Alliance, a key small business organization.
 
Deluxe immediately bought into “the pretty powerful little project we have here,” says Bartmann. Tiny Diner is “engaging sustainable food production in a real way,” she says, “thinking through how we can close the loop in the traditionally wasteful restaurant industry.”
 
As a diner that offers food at a moderate price point and caters to a regular, neighborhood-centric crowd, says Bartmann, Tiny Diner has an even greater responsibility to be sustainable than high-end “destination” restaurants.
 
Case in point: Tiny Diner’s patio-top solar setup is “the largest visible solar array” in the Twin Cities, she said, as all larger arrays are on high roofs or hidden behind greenery. Despite the array’s size, Bartmann offset about 90 percent of its cost through various state and federal rebates.
 
Bartmann is justifiably proud of Tiny Diner’s food, too. “Our challenge is to think about how we can make typical diner food, like hash browns, better,” she says. “You can go and eat at a lot of restaurants, but you’re not always being fed.”
 
After Tiny Diner, the Small Business Revolution tour hit The Shed Fitness and Bogart’s Donuts, both also in Minneapolis. The tour heads south to Kansas next, though Deluxe is still accepting nominations for businesses to be featured in the tour’s later stages, regardless of location.
 
 

SVL helping to transform MSP into national tech hub

Startup Venture Loft (SVL) tripled its physical footprint with a move into an 8,500 square foot space in the North Loop’s McKesson Building last September. The new digs were the final piece of a year-long rebranding and restructuring process that transformed SVL from Healthcare.mn, a healthcare-focused business accelerator, into a coworking hub and incubator for “investable startup companies with high growth potential,” says owner and executive director Peter Kane.
 
“Expanding to an 8,500 square foot space grabs people’s attention and lets them know we’re serious,” says Kane, who wants to “make the Twin Cities the best place in the country to launch a startup.”
 
Thirty early stage companies mostly in the healthcare and technology sectors now rent space at SVL, up from just five in November 2013. Healthcare.mn remains an SVL tenant.
 
Turning the Twin Cities into a tech hub requires a self-contained ecosystem of entrepreneurs and talented knowledge workers, plus venture capital funds, angel investors and service providers such as intellectual property lawyers and marketing specialists, who support and promote entrepreneurial efforts.
 
Kane cites Chicago—a city not known for its technology industry until recently—as a model for the Twin Cities. 1871 is the beating heart of Chicago’s tech startup scene, with tenants ranging from idea-stage one-person companies to established VC funds that funnel capital into proven technology concepts. Decision-makers from big technology and healthcare firms, including Google, either rent space in or routinely visit 1871, providing startups with access to larger, more lucrative markets and creating buyout opportunities—known as “exit strategies” in startup parlance.
 
SVL also aims to bridge a generational and cultural gap that hinders local startups’ growth. Many Twin Cities entrepreneurs, especially in tech and healthcare, are Millennials with different values and business strategies than the older, more experienced executives and investors they typically pitch ideas to. Kane’s two previous startups both failed in part, he says, because established company executives didn’t take him seriously.
 
“Our culture is somewhat risk averse, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Kane. “But [decision makers] want to know that you’ve been vetted, and that’s a tough sell when you’re a 20-something entrepreneur and everyone across the table from you is a baby boomer Pharm.D.”
 
“The response is often ‘who are you’ and ‘why should I trust that you know what you’re doing,’” he adds. “There isn’t the sort of informal vetting network that exists in more established tech centers like Silicon Valley and New York.” Kane wants SVL to be a core node in that network. With the support of a competent, technology-driven community, entrepreneurs associated with SVL would have a de facto stamp of approval from investors and corporate decision makers.
 
Bringing entrepreneurs and business leaders together also requires a mature digital media sector that trumpets the Twin Cities’ startup scene as worth of national and international attention—and investment.
 
“We’re not always great at telling our story [in the Twin Cities],” says Kane. “We need a beacon—the media—that churns out stories with national appeal and raises the local startup scene’s profile to where it needs to be.”
 
 

SPS Commerce positioning retail supply-chain software for global presence

SPS Commerce, a retail supply-chain software company that occupies six floors in downtown Minneapolis’ Accenture Tower, has added about 200 employees since 2012. “And the rate of hiring is not slowing down,” says Peter Zaballos, VP of marketing and product. SPS Commerce has more than 800 employees as of this month. The company just added a new floor to its downtown headquarters, with an option for additional space in the building.
 
“We’re positioning to become a world-class, global supply-chain business” in the tech space, he adds. “That’s making us a magnet for talent in the Twin Cities region and around the world.”
 
Most of SPS’ employees work at its Minneapolis headquarters. The firm also has a big presence in New Jersey, as well as international operations centers in Beijing, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Sydney, Melbourne, London and Kiev. Each office will grow “organically” even as SPS adds employees in Minneapolis, says Zaballos.
 
SPS Commerce’s ambition got big boost last month, winning MHTA’s prestigious Tekne Award for best software platform in the “established company” category. SPS was one of 12 Tekne winners this year, out of more than 100 entrants. According to an SPS release, the company won plaudits for “embracing innovation and the changes that today’s retailers are facing, while giving global organizations access to an established online trading community.”
 
“The Tekne win really communicates to the local and national tech communities that SPS is on the forefront of the ongoing reinvention of retail,” says Zaballos. “We’re on the move.”
 
SPS Commerce is also raising its profile in the booming Twin Cities tech community. The company’s CEO and CTO earned Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s prestigious Titans of Technology Award in September. And the company routinely hosts events for programmers and business professionals at its offices.
 
“We enjoy sharing our success with other members of the local technology community,” says Zaballos. “It’s a great opportunity.”
 
Zaballos and other SPS executives are thrilled with the Twin Cities tech community’s progress. Zaballos came to SPS less than three years ago, after extended stints in major coastal tech hubs: Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle. He’d never set foot in the Twin Cities. But he was “stunned by the breadth, vibrancy and depth” of the industry.
 
“The quality of the people here is amazing,” he says. Local professionals are also “aware of the game they’re playing”—a game, Zaballos argues, largely controlled by elites in the Bay Area and New York. “To compete on a global basis, you need to play in that league,” which the Twin Cities does very well, he says. Finding competent, talented workers is easy here.
 
SPS Commerce helps retail clients manage and expand digital sales channels, providing analytics, inventory management and seamless interfacing with suppliers and other software platforms.
 
“Things that seem easy to do when you’re shopping online are actually super complicated for retailers,” says Zaballos. A dramatic increase in mobile device use complicates matters further. “Mobile shoppers are especially high maintenance,” he says.
 
More than 55,000 retailers and suppliers now use SPS’ solutions. But most local residents have still never heard of SPS Commerce, despite current revenues of nearly $130 million.
 
When Zaballos took his current job, the company had no marketing department to speak of. “Our sales team was and is really good at getting suppliers into our network,” he says. “We got to around $100 million in revenues and tens of thousands of users before anyone [outside the retail industry] had heard of us.”
 
SPS kept its low profile despite an IPO back in 2010. It’s listed on the NASDAQ, under the ticker symbol SPSC. “Being public is a big advantage for us,” says Zaballos. “Prospective clients and employees can look at our annual reports and financial disclosures and know that we’re a fundamentally sound, growing business.”
 
One item of note in SPS’ public filings: The company currently has $170 million in cash on hand, an impressive sum for a firm of its size. That cash pile will support SPS’ aggressive hiring and expansion drives—and possibly spur more exciting investments in the future.
 
And the company is finally investing in publicity for itself. “We’re thrilled to be telling our story,” says Zaballos. “We want talented Twin Cities professionals who share our values to see a future with us.”
 
Current SPS Commerce Job Listings in Minneapolis
 
  1. Account Executive
  2. Business Analyst
  3. Marketing Acquisition Manager
  4. Software Engineer
  5. Supply Chain Strategist
 
 

Urban Growler expands menu, kitchen, beer selection and distribution

Urban Growler is booming. And co-founders Deb Loch and Jill Pavlak have a lot on their plate, from a long-awaited kitchen and menu expansion to a new Kickstarter campaign and a rapidly growing distribution footprint. The St. Anthony Park brewery now has 22 employees, with 17 between the brewery and taproom, and 5 in the kitchen. That’s up from about a dozen when the brewery first opened.
 
“We thought we could get by with 12 or 13 people,” says Pavlak, but Urban Growler’s runaway popularity quickly spurred another hiring round. “You need to have enough [employees] to provide excellent customer service,” she says. “That’s what keeps people coming back.”
 
The kitchen expansion tops on the agenda. Pavlak hopes to have the kitchen expanded by mid-winter, but warns of unexpected delays or complications.
 
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned since we began,” she laughs, “it’s that timetables can slip.” She and Loch had to push back Urban Growler’s opening date several times due to unforeseen complications.
 
The new kitchen’s menu will expand to include burgers and other entrees made from organic, locally sourced meats. Urban Growler cultivates relationships with local producers whenever possible, says Pavlak, noting a particularly poetic relationship with Mark and Jesse Gilbertson, a pair of western Wisconsin farmers who frequent the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. Pavlak hands off Urban Growler’s spent grains to the Gilbertsons to be used as animal feed
 
“They tell us their cows, hogs and chickens love them,” says Pavlak. “The grains are sweet, but also wholesome and protein-rich.”
 
Once the new menu is in place, Pavlak and Loch plan to buy beef, and possibly pork and chicken, from the Gilbertsons, creating a sustainable circle. Pavlak says the new kitchen may also use spent grains in house-made bread and cookies, though “we’re still working on the recipes,” she warns.
 
Pavlak says the new kitchen’s Kickstarter campaign should be live before Christmas, but details on the funding amount and timeline still have to be worked out.
 
Separately, Urban Growler is also feverishly producing more beer to satisfy an expanding roster of brewery and restaurant clients, despite frustrating delays in fulfillment for Urban Growler’s branded tap handles. “We’re still sending out prototype tap handles,” laughs Pavlak.
 
Distributed beers include Cowbell Cream Ale, City Day Ale and Graffiti IPA. Most confirmed accounts are in the western suburbs, but Pavlak mentions Bar Louie in Uptown and Muffuletta in St. Anthony Park as local adopters. In October, a Muffuletta-Urban Growler beer dinner sold out in seven hours. “[Muffuletta’s manager] said that was a record,” says Pavlak.
 
Beyond the kitchen, Urban Growler’s interior configuration is changing for the better. Come January 1, the co-founders will take over a storage area next door that will house a gigantic cooler that now juts out into the seating area. The expanded kitchen will occupy part of its former footprint, with expanded seating and standing room in the remainder.
 
And Pavlak and Loch are weatherproofing the brewery, widely known for its spacious, sunny patio. An interior vestibule, installed in November, should shield the high-ceilinged brewhouse/taproom from outdoor cold.
 

Parking Panda helps take pain out of parking

Drivers can now reserve and pay for parking spots in advance at most major sports and event venues in the Twin Cities, including the XCel Energy Center, Target Center, Target Field and the Hennepin Theater Trust, thanks to Baltimore-based Parking Panda. The parking-logistics company entered the Twin Cities market within the past 12 months and has already amassed more than two-dozen clients.
 
That initial response vastly exceeded Parking Panda’s expectations. Target Center saw more than 3,500 reservations for a single concert, says Parking Panda marketing director Bryan Lozano, just days after the company went online there.
 
“The Twin Cities has quickly become one of our best markets,” says Lozano. “We’re providing a service that really wasn’t available before and tapping into the region’s dynamic urbanism,” he adds. Parking Panda, he continues, is one more solution in a transportation mix that includes a world-class bike infrastructure. and multiple bus and train lines running connecting the two cities.
 
Lozano ascribes Parking Panda’s rapid adoption to its “great partners.” The company works directly with teams, like the Minnesota Wild and Twins, to promote its parking services and encourage fans to reserve space ahead of time. That reduces congestion before and after games.
 
“One of the biggest drivers of traffic and congestion is people driving around looking for parking,” says Lozano.
 
In addition to major sports and entertainment venues, the company also contracts with garages near West Bank academic buildings, the Minneapolis Convention Center and in the heart of Uptown’s business district. All are big draws for out-of-towners likely to be impressed by the Twin Cities’ smooth parking and transit infrastructure.
 
Parking Panda lets garage and lot operators set prices for individual parking spaces on the Parking Panda site. Drivers can search for spaces near their destination, selecting the cheapest or most affordable ones, and then reserve and pay in advance. Parking Panda takes 20 percent of each transaction and forwards the remaining 80 percent to operators.
 
Though it doesn’t yet do so in the Twin Cities, Parking Panda also lets homeowners and small business owners rent out extra spaces in small lots, driveways or alley, creating new income streams for individuals.
 
Parking Panda doesn’t have a local office, though a single sales rep does support operations in the Twin Cities. The company is exploring opportunities to organize parking for major events like the Minnesota State Fair—which could involve working with hundreds of property owners in Midway and the North Side of St. Paul. That may require a more robust local infrastructure and could create more opportunities for frustrated Twin Cities’ drivers.
 
“Parking can be a painful experience,” says Lozano. “Parking Panda works every day to take the pain out of parking.”
 
 

BoomBoom Prints: New local online shop for baby/parent accessories

Twin Cities’ parents have a new source for unique, high-quality baby apparel and nursery decorations: BoomBoom Prints, an online marketplace based out of an “informal coworking space” in downtown Minneapolis. BoomBoom Prints (BBP), says Jennifer Weismann, BBP’s PR consultant, is “Etsy meets Pottery Barn.”
 
Fresh off a July 2014 launch, BBP already has 4,000 unique pieces for sale and about 500 participating designers—many of them based in the Twin Cities. The company has four full-time employees and three part-timers, says CEO Brett Brohl, with tentative plans to add more after the holidays.
 
A recently closed fundraising effort earned $400,000, a tidy sum for a startup. “Our funding round allowed us to make key hires, invest in our platform and expand our offerings,” says Brohl. BBP started as a marketplace for wall art, he explains, but now offers clothing, stationery and baby/parent accessories as well.
 
Founded by new dad Ryan Broshar and “serial entrepreneur” Brohl, BBP sources designs from a rapidly growing community of artists—including many in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
 
“I heard about the site from a friend of a friend,” says Twin Cities’ artist Kate Worum, who chose BBP as her first online sales channel. “BoomBoom Prints felt more approachable: They are local, have the artists’ interests in mind and they advertise by word of mouth.”
 
Worum is not alone. Another local BBP artist, John Gerber, has created such items as a bib captioned “Feed me” and a onesie that asks “Who you calling baby? Thought so.” Kate McCollow’s wall art features baby-themed fantasy scenes and serene watercolors depicting familiar Twin Cities’ landscapes.
 
BBP artists set their own prices, using the company’s suggested multipliers to arrive at a fair retail price. BBP then takes a cut of the sale and passes the rest on to the designer.
 
Though the Etsy comparisons are inevitable, Brohl points out a key difference: BBP is completely turnkey, handling every nitty-gritty aspect of selling artwork online, from printing and shipping to returns and customer contact. Etsy and other online marketplaces ask artists to do these tasks.
 
Worum appreciates BBP’s full-service approach. “I run a freelance illustration and design business by night, and work as a trend forecaster for apparel and accessories at Target during the day,” she says. Her hectic schedule makes it impossible to fulfill orders herself or even print her own work. “With BoomBoom Prints, all I have to do is make my art, click a few buttons and move on with my day.”
 
There may soon be more local “BoomBoomers” like Worum. Though about 50 percent of BBP’s designers are international, says Brohl, “we’re really concentrating our efforts on developing artists in our backyard. There’s so much artistic talent and diversity here.”
 
Brohl and his team often reach out directly to local artists and invite them to sell their work on BBP. With no upfront costs, they’ve already found lots of takers. “We’re excited about the future,” says Brohl. “We’re making a go of it.”
 

Outsell racks up impressive growth figures

Outsell, based on the 32nd floor of the Capella Tower in downtown Minneapolis, is one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. according to Inc. Since 2010, Outsell has roughly tripled its employee base and quadrupled its revenue. The company earned a spot (#455) on the 2014 Deloitte Fast 500, a closely watched list that tracks revenue growth at public and private North American companies. According to Deloitte, Outsell is Minnesota’s third-fastest growing tech company.
 
And Outsell shows not signs of slowing down. The company has added 15 jobs this year, bringing its total headcount to more than 100, and predicts an equal or greater number of employees for 2015.
 
“Our people are our most important asset by far,” says founder and CEO Mike Wethington. “We’re constantly looking for talented, self-starting candidates, especially web developers, data analysts and marketing specialists.”
 
Outsell’s current office space measures about 18,000 square feet, with a variety of spaces that encourage collaboration. Depending on the pace of hiring next year and beyond, says Wethington, his company may soon need to exercise an option to expand into the Capella Tower’s 31st floor.
 
Outsell was started in 2004, when Wethington, a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” bought Judson Bemis’s Solv Technology, which had developed an online lead generation solution for auto dealers. Wethington and his first employees improved and streamlined the platform, developing analytics to predict customer preferences and deliver automated, high-value marketing material.
 
For instance, a recent car buyer might receive emails or texts advertising oil changes, tune-ups and vehicle-appropriate accessories consistent with the buyer’s past purchasing and web navigating habits. “We customize and automate everything for the dealers so they can devote more resources to selling and fixing cars,” says Wethington.
 
“The experience is brand-consistent, like Amazon,” he explains, allowing independently owned and franchised dealers to use the same platform and analytics as others selling the same model. Outsell currently works with about 1,000 U.S. dealers and seven automotive brands, sending out automated communications to about 10 million consumers per month.

If you’ve recently purchased a new or used vehicle from a franchised dealer, there’s a good chance Outsell is behind the marketing emails and texts it sends you.
 
Despite its reach, there’s room for Outsell to grow. Dealers spend well over $1 billion per year on marketing, says Wethington, and many don’t yet use automated customer-contact solutions.
 
Even as Outsell racks up impressive growth figures and finds new ways to improve the customer experience, the company devotes significant resources to employee retention. The company offers unlimited paid time off, with no questions asked, and no distinction between sick days and vacation time, a rarity in the modern workplace.
 
“We place a lot of trust in our employees,” Wethington explains. “We expect them to take care of their work and reward them for holding up their end of the bargain,” –i.e., getting their work done on time.
 
Outsell also offers a profit sharing program for all associates, including entry-level employees, as well as performance bonuses, a matching 401(k) and tuition reimbursements for associates looking to further their careers with advanced degrees.
 
In a typical year, says Wethington, Outsell devotes 3 to 5 percent of total operating income to charitable contributions. The company’s employee-led Caring Committee partners with the Minnesota Keystone Program to distribute financial resources and manpower to groups like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the ASPCA.
 
Giving back to the local community is a win-win experience for employees, says Wethington—just like every workday at Outsell. The company’s perks earned it a spot on a recent Star Tribune list of best Minnesota work environments.
 
“We love being based in the Twin Cities,” he says. “We’ve got a talented, smart, kind workforce that understands the value of hard work and doing the right thing.”
 
Outsell Jobs in Minneapolis
 
Senior Software Analyst

Senior Software Developers
 
 

Aimia's move to downtown Minneapolis adds momentum to 2025 Plan

The Minneapolis Downtown Council recently announced that Aimia, a consumer loyalty and engagement management firm, would move its U.S. headquarters, along with more than 300 employees, to a 50,000-square-foot space in the North Loop’s Butler Square building. Aimia previously occupied space in a Plymouth office park near I-494.
 
Aimia is the latest company to relocate, expand or retain space in downtown Minneapolis since the launch of the Minneapolis Downtown 2025 Plan. Other notable companies include CenterPoint Energy, Valspar, XCel Energy, Olson and Be the Match. Three years into the Downtown 2025 Plan, the momentum is palpable.
 
“Aimia saw the merits of moving downtown...and all the opportunities and progress on display here right now,” says Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council & Downtown Improvement District. “Our mission is to create an extraordinary downtown.”
 
One of the core goals of the Downtown 2025 Plan is to create a more vibrant, energetic downtown for workers, businesses and residents. Another goal is to accelerate economic and cultural progress by eliminating the either/or distinctions between those three categories. The plan recognizes that a truly world-class downtown core needs a diverse mix of uses, and a high density of people, ideas and economic activity.
 
“Cities with a strong central business district thrive because they have companies, big and small, working in close proximity [and collaborating] with clients and partners,” Cramer says. “When the area as a whole succeeds, it creates new opportunities for everyone involved.”
 
The addition of thousands of new residents has raised downtown Minneapolis’s profile, too. With a broader, more creative pool of potential recruits within walking or biking distance, talent-driven companies like Aimia find it much easier to justify the temporary cost of moving downtown.
 
“Our population has risen to more than 37,000 people,” Cramer says, “and we’re seeing apartments and condos under construction across the area.” The increasing density of creatives downtown dovetails with other Downtown 2025 Plan initiatives, including the recently announced Minneapolis Idea eXchange and a street beautification partnership with the University of Minnesota’s College of Design.
 
Aimia’s move is just another sign of how far downtown Minneapolis has come. “For the first time in decades, we’re seeing an incredible trend of people moving in toward the downtown area,” Cramer adds.
 
“Downtown Minneapolis is a leader for the [Twin Cities] region,” he adds. “If it thrives, the region as a whole thrives.”
 
Aimia Jobs in Minneapolis
 
Director of Business Development - CPG, Retail, Finance
 
IT Sales Engineer
 
Mobile Delivery Manager
 

Prohibition Kombucha: Hippie elixir to haute mixer

The latest craft brew to come out of Minneapolis-St. Paul isn’t made from barley and hops. It’s Prohibition Kombucha, a fermented beverage made from high-quality teas and fruit or floral flavorings.

The tasty product of a partnership between former Herkimer brewer Nathan Uri and Verdant Tea founder David Duckler, Prohibition is the region’s first homegrown kombucha. The company’s three kombucha flavors are available at about a dozen co-ops, coffee shops and farmers markets around the Twin Cities, including Mill City Farmers’ Market, Seward Co-op, Spyhouse and Kopplin’s Coffee.

Uri has bigger aspirations, though: He’s teaming up with Minneapolis-based Tree Fort Soda to build a larger kombucha brewery at a to-be-determined location in the Twin Cities.  Eventually, Uri envisions a product line available at cafes, restaurants and grocery stores throughout the country, plus satellite breweries on the East and West Coasts to supply customers in other regions.

Prohibition Kombucha’s creations are healthy -- really healthy. “Depending on the quality of tea and type of yeasts and bacteria used, there can be varying levels of amino acids like L-theanine, healthy sour acids like malic and acetic acid, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and other nutrients,” says Uri. “Our kombucha is also low in sugar and calories, slowing the glycemic load of a meal when consumed with food.”

According to Uri, all Prohibition Kombucha varieties have less than one gram of sugar per ounce and no more than 56 calories per pint.

Popular with the counterculture movement in the Southwest and West Coast, kombucha is novel concept in the Twin Cities. “Currently, the main reason people drink Kombucha is for the probiotic content,” explains Uri, “which can be as simple as one bacteria or as many as 20 beneficial yeasts and bacteria.”

The microbes ferment a mixture of tea, sugar and other natural ingredients, producing carbonation, crisp flavors and a trace, non-intoxicating amount of alcohol. A multi-organism fermenting base is called a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts, or SCOBY.

Kombucha doesn’t always taste great, though. Without naming names, Uri fingers “some other brands” that have a funky, sour, “sharkbite” flavor that’s too tangy to be pleasant. Prohibition uses high-quality black and oolong teas, plus carefully selected secondary ingredients, to achieve a “crisp, cider-like acid-sugar balance,” Uri says.

The fermenting process does produce trace amounts of alcohol -- less than 0.5% by volume. Though 0.5% isn’t intoxicating, Uri and Duckler are sensitive to sober customers’ concerns.

“We completely and unequivocally respect and support” those who avoid kombucha for any reason, says Uri. “That said, others in recovery enjoy our Kombucha without issue. It's a very personal choice and we want everyone to lead healthy and happy lives, so we label our product accordingly.”

In fact, Prohibition Kombucha probably wouldn’t exist if not for Uri’s temporary decision to quit drinking. In 2012, while living in Portland, he hankered for the sensory and aesthetic experience of a fine wine, great beer or perfect cocktail.” He tried his first “small batch craft” kombucha, loved it, and began brewing kombucha at home.

Soon realizing the importance of quality tea to quality kombucha -- many other kombucha producers use low-quality teas or “the bare minimum” of a higher-grade variety, he says -- Uri moved back to the Twin Cities and contacted Duckler, an old friend. Now, Uri exclusively uses Verdant Tea’s black and oolong teas in his kombuchas.

“Since [Duckler] sources the finest, freshest and highest quality Chinese teas available in the US, it’s a natural partnership,” he says. One that could soon bring a fermented, cocktail-quality and (almost) totally non-alcoholic beverage to your local coffee shop or grocery store shelf.

 

Creative City Roadmap welcomes arts insights

Creative City Roadmap, the City of Minneapolis’ ambitious plan to highlight and strengthen the city’s creative assets, is entering its next phase. Until November 21, an online survey allows city residents to share insights about Minneapolis’ current cultural strengths and offer new ideas for widening the city’s “dot” on the American cultural map.
 
The results of the survey will inform the drafting of the actual Creative City Roadmap, a 10-year arts and culture plan to be released in 2015. The Creative City Roadmap will replace Minneapolis’ current 10-year arts and culture plan released in 2005.
 
In addition to inviting rank and file Minneapolitans to take part in the survey, the city tapped two “artist engagement teams” to “engage with people [around the survey], especially those who are part of traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities,” says Rachel Engh, creative economy program associate for the City of Minneapolis.
 
The teams include local creatives Chrys Carroll, Keegan Xavi, Sha Cage and E.G. Bailey. Their duties encompass in-person surveying, “anecdotal data gathering” through community engagement initiatives, and drafting and editing the Creative City Roadmap document.
 
The Creative City Roadmap process is run by a steering committee that oversees five working groups focused on core intersections of the creative economy: placemaking, creative engagement, lifelong learning and sharing, supporting artists’ work and the arts’ relationship with the “mainstream” economy.
 
“The role of arts and culture in the city of Minneapolis, and the way the city chooses to support these industries and activities, is changing,” says Engh. “The Creative City Road Map’s vision is that arts and cultural activities have the capacity to expand the economic pie and help more people reap benefits.”
 
“Many major U.S. cities have citywide arts and culture planning documents,” she adds. “[We’re also] acknowledging the value a new plan for arts, culture and the creative economy could have for Minneapolis,” both by “making Minneapolis a more welcoming and desirable place to live and giving underserved Minneapolitans access to economic and social returns.”
 
Creative City Roadmap kicked off with a September 17 public house at the Textile Center on University Avenue and a September 24 followup event at the Pillsbury House & Theater in South Minneapolis. The information-gathering phase of the project will run through September 2015, with regular programming and feedback during that time. According to Engh, at least two more open houses, in the mold of the Textile Center and Pillsbury House events, are planned for the coming months.
 

The Foundation expands in Minneapolis and to San Diego

The Foundation is moving its 20+ employees from a small office shared with Atomic Data into a bigger space in the recently renovated Ford Center, near the heart of the North Loop. The “single source IT provider,” which serves as a one-stop help desk for design, architecture and nonprofit firms that use Apple systems, is also opening a new office in Co-Merge, a coworking space in San Diego, in what could be the first phase of a multi-city expansion.

A rapid expansion and a shift into mobile device support for national retail chains “caused us to run out of physical space” for housing employees and “storing pallets of iPads and iPhones,” says Matt Woestehoff, director of operations and business development. “Meanwhile, Atomic Data”—a data center operator co-owned by Jim Wolford, sole owner and CEO of The Foundation—“was growing rapidly and basically kicked us out of their office,” Woestehoff says with a laugh.

The new digs are “definitely an upgrade,” he adds. The Foundation shares one floor of the Ford Center with Seed, a small startup incubator that focuses on biotechnology and other high-tech ideas. Seed uses an old chemistry lab on one side of the building.

The Foundation’s new space belonged to a boutique soap manufacturer, a longtime client of The Foundation’s, which moved its operations to Milwaukee after a buyout by Johnson & Johnson. The space has a 32-desk bullpen and easy access to a highly secure storage area for valuable electronics. The Foundation has access to a guest parking lot, a huge perk for the 300-odd local clients that had to use meter parking at its old location.

Though The Foundation is growing rapidly, the Ford Center space should be fine for the foreseeable future. Unlike many IT companies, The Foundation lacks an office-based salesforce. “We’re not salesy people,” says Woestehoff. Instead, the company relies on referrals and search traffic to generate new business. The company’s engineer-heavy workforce spends “40 to 45 hours per week, per person” on site at local clients’ offices, freeing up space at the Ford Center.

The flexible work model first led Woestehoff and the team to explore the possibility of a second office last year. Two employees, an engineer and operations specialist, expressed interest in moving to southern California and remaining part of the team. Woestehoff investigated and found that San Diego’s business culture is remarkably like the Twin Cities’, “very forward-looking in terms of technology, but laid back and supportive too,” he says, without the competitiveness of tech hubs like San Francisco and New York.

Using The Foundation’s experience with CoCo, “a valued partner” that the company has worked with for years, Woestehoff found Co-Merge and set the two employees up there. It’s still early going, but initial business development efforts have been successful. He’s confident the move will pay off, noting that other cities with similarly forward-looking yet supportive cultures could be ripe for additional offices for The Foundation.

But not too fast. In today’s fast-paced IT world, The Foundation, now in its 15th year, prides itself on patience and strategic thinking. “A lot of our friends have gone out of business because they’ve acted fast and made mistakes,” he says. “If it takes another 15 years to open a third office, so be it.”
 
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