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Innovation + Job News

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KNOCK looks toward global customers for expansion

Successful creative agency KNOCK is likely to find even more open doors in its future, with expansion of its brand strategy, advertising, and design services to global clients.
The agency's CEO, Lili Hall--quoted in our lead feature this week--has been zipping around the world in the past six months, and just completed a Master's degree in international practice management. She's in talks with business connections in countries like Saudi Arabia and India, and she anticipates much more global work coming to KNOCK in the near future.
"Global is really becoming our focus," she says. "We have a great partner who's consulting with us about cultural relevance, and we feel very connected to global networks in a new way."
Hall founded the company in 2001, just a few months after 9/11, and she admits the timing was challenging. Without a business plan, and in a tricky economic climate, KNOCK might have faltered if it hadn't been for Hall's passionate belief in creating an agency based on the right way to treat colleagues and clients.
"When I started the company, I reflected on the attributes of people I admired and respected," she says. "But I also thought about the situations I'd seen that were negative. I created a list of 'how to never treat people,' and in many ways, that's become a major part of our philosophy."
For example, KNOCK stands apart for blending creatives with account professionals, which is an unusual arrangement for an agency. Those two "sides" tend to do battle, but Hall saw the power of collaboration from the start, and has shown that blending those viewpoints creates more strength for clients. In other words, when thinking about how never to treat people, the first lesson is: don't make your colleagues into enemies, just because of their job titles.
Hall also credits transparency, a proactive approach, and internal entrepreneurial energy for driving growth throughout KNOCK.
Source: Lili Hall, KNOCK
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Grocery Shopping Network sees more hiring, digital marketing success ahead

Most consumers haven't heard of Grocery Shopping Network (GSN), but it's likely that nearly everyone has seen the company's work. The Minneapolis-based firm creates digital tools for grocery retailers and packaged goods manufacturers, resulting in a wealth of online and in-store promotions.
With the surge in digital marketing efforts and greater interest in food and cooking, GSN, currently on a roll of hiring and expansion, is likely to have even broader reach in the near future. The company's distinctive analytics capability is leading sales on a national level, promising to expand GSN's market reach, according to company spokesperson Albin Andolshek.
"We’ve built a great deal of strength on the regional level, and now we’re seeing more national campaigns emerge," he says. "With the new digital shopper marketing tools we have access to, our clients have access to unlimited reach."
Started in 1996 as a website developer for the grocery industry, GSN has been beefing up its offerings ever since. The company added e-grocery.com in the late 90s, then brought in software that let clients add recipes and online coupons to the mix.
GSN still offers end-to-end solutions for websites, but it also integrates online display advertising into its services. Both areas of the company are growing, and attracting partnerships with sites that focus on grocery shopping, coupons, deals, and cooking.
Part of the unique digital marketing that GSN provides is deep integration with digital marketing resources. For example, if a grocer runs a special on coffee and wants to target only coffee drinkers in the store's loyalty card program, GSN helps them find those individuals and tailor a message to reach them.
As a result of strong growth and expanded services, GSN has been hiring and expanding, Andolshek says. "We have milestones we want to hit, and we're excited to keep growing."
Source: Albin Andolshek, Grocery Shopping Network
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Digitiliti drives growth with strong product functionality

Digitiliti was founded in 2005 to offer basic database backup and disaster recovery software, and has been expanding ever since. Having moved to cloud backup services just a few years later, the company is now poised to continue its innovation curve with more services around unstructured data.
In most companies, unstructured data comprises about 80 percent of an enterprise's information, in the form of emails, documents, records, audio and video files, online journal articles, and other non-database formats. This type of data can be difficult to search and store without an effective tool for addressing backups and security.
"We looked at that data and wondered how we could make it useful," says Billy Cripe, Digitiliti's Vice President of Marketing and Sales. The company came out with a flagship product, digiLIBE, that offers archiving, sharing, and access to all unstructured data in an enterprise. Even better, the product can collect all business content from any device and put it into Digitiliti's cloud-based system.
The company currently has nine employees, and Cripe says it will continue to operate in lean and efficient mode, but Digitiliti is growing in terms of client numbers. Enterprise content management as an industry has been stagnant in the last five years, but nimble technology like Digitiliti's is surging in popularity as companies use content for collaboration, peer-to-peer file sharing, and other efficiency gains.
"The technology is changing so rapidly, and that's really exciting," says Cripe. "What we focus on is building functionality that adapts to how people need to deal with information."
Source: Billy Cripe, Digitiliti
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

The Social Lights launches social media training program

Minneapolis-based social media and digital marketing agency The Social Lights (see The Line's previous coverage here) recently unveiled a new training and certification program that could boost the number of social media professionals in the Twin Cities.
The six-week accelerated course will be designed to equip qualified candidates with the knowledge and skills to shine as full-time social media community managers. Training is done in a classroom setting as well as online, blending client projects, industry speakers, and case studies. Participants learn to manage multiple platforms and pages, measure the success of their efforts, and develop creative content.
"Over the past three years of managing social media on behalf of a variety of brands, we've learned what it takes to be a strong Community Manager and act as the eyes, ears, and voice of a brand," says Martha McCarthy, co-founder of The Social Lights. "We've also noticed that an increasing number of social media positions require years of experience, but most candidates have no formal training, and limited experience."
During the past year, McCarthy and her partner, Emily Pritchard, have spoken with recruiters, HR managers, brand managers, and others, and discovered that many companies are in a similar position when it comes to recruiting social media professionals: the selection is slim, and those who have great potential lack a deeper level of training.
In addition to providing that instruction, the company will act as a placement agency of sorts, matching training participants with enterprises that need those skills.
"We aim to fill the social media talent gap and provide value to our students and clients alike," says McCarthy.
Source: Martha McCarthy, The Social Lights
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Usability firm NiceUX expands into new office space

A beautiful website or app might be satisfying, but if they lack a high degree of usability, they could sink a business.
Minneapolis-based NiceUX focuses on creating digital products that people enjoy using, and their expertise is becoming more in demand as companies across a range of industries rely on sites and applications.
Seeing steady growth, the company recently moved into new offices in the Warehouse District, and expects to grow its three-person team to 10 within the next year.
Founder Jon Hadden says he doesn't want to turn NiceUX into a large agency (or even be considered an agency), but he feels that the firm offers a distinctive service that will prompt further growth.
"What sets us apart is that every project is different, and we have the skills to recognize that," he says. "Each project has unique content and a unique audience, so we do the research upfront before we pick up a pencil to start any design work."
Many agencies produce digital work, he adds, but skimp on making sure that people will be viewing the finished product in a way that most benefits a client. NiceUX makes that endpoint a priority from the beginning, and Hadden believes this creates a higher level of customer service.
"Sometimes at companies, the research on usability gets put on a back burner," he notes. "But it should be a starting point."
Before making the move to new offices, the company was sharing space with another firm in the Grain Belt building, and Hadden feels this shift will kick off a fresh wave of growth. He says, "It's a wonderful space, and we're excited for what's ahead."
Source: Jon Hadden, NiceUX
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Whizkids Tech refines its offerings, anticipates growth

Many IT firms keep expanding their services to include more and more options for repair and implementation, and it's not surprising to find techs sent out for everything from high-level security strategy to home office printer repair.
But there's value in specialization, and at Minneapolis-based Whizkids Tech, the company is refining its offerings rather than broadening them.
Founded in 2009, the company gained significant traction just a year later with its first major client, and grew into a managed service provider, offering managed VoIP and managed IT. With seven employees, Whizkids has maintained steady growth over the past four years, and keeping on track will likely include more focus on the company's strengths, according to Kara Zarate Kneen, the company's Director of Operations.
"This year, we'll see growth through refinement," she says. "We offer something unique that sets us apart from other companies, we have a unique company culture and brand, and clients appreciate that."
One area of greater focus for Whizkids will be its managed VoIP, which handles technology-driven phone systems. The company offers VoIP telephony with support and upgrades, as well as customized systems. Zarate Kneen says that service allows Whizkids to be a full-spectrum technology ally to clients, creating a technology mix that isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.
"Work environments are becoming more integrated with VoIP and IT, and it's powerful to have one vendor that can handle both," she says.
Source: Kara Zarate Kneen, Whizkids Tech
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Office of Higher Ed debuts a Minnesota college planner app

High school students and others looking at postsecondary education will have a powerful new app, thanks to the state's Office of Higher Education (OHE).
The agency recently unveiled the Minnesota College Planner, a mobile application that can be downloaded for free. The tool provides students with resources for exploring college options and managing tasks associated with applying to college. OHE will be rolling out a new website soon to promote the app, and is already sending a lively video introduction to students.
Students can start planning as early as 8th grade, with reminders set for events like ACT testing and FAFSA form completion. Colleges and universities are sorted according to size, location, price, and majors. App users can browse profiles, set up campus visits, and stay updated on changes like tuition increases or new majors.
The app also lets students address financial aid issues as they search for schools, simplifying a process that has traditionally been "more challenging than a few quick swipes on a phone," says OHE Director Larry Pogemiller.
"The mobile site has been designed for students, giving them the ability to have some control and help with their own college planning," he says. "For example, the planner [tools] guide them as to what classes they should be taking in high school to meet the entrance guidelines for their dream career, which can help keep their goals realistic and focused."
He adds that the app was developed as a way to help more Minnesota students prepare for college in an increasingly technological society.
Source: Larry Pogemiller, Office of Higher Education
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Startup NakedTextbooks launched by local university student

Many times, entrepreneurial inspiration comes from seeing a gap in a specific chain of supply and demand. For University of Minnesota student Benjamin Hohl, that gap was filled with textbooks.
As a freshman, Hohl learned that the average college student spends about $900 per year on textbooks, and receives significantly less than that when selling them back to a campus bookstore. For example, Hohl bought a $200 psychology textbook, and sold it back for $15.
"I wondered why there wasn't a better system to connect students who had the books with those who were willing to buy them," he says. "I thought: why not localize it? We all take the same classes, so why shouldn't we connect with each other to get what we need?"
A few years later, the idea came back to him over a holiday break, and he put together a rough website called TextExchange, which he later changed to the "more catchy" NakedTextbooks. After rebuilding the site several times and adding more functionality, he launched recently and had 2,500 site visitors in the first week. The startup has brought on two other university students to expand its marketing efforts.
The setup is simple: users arrange book exchanges in person, stating how much they'd charge for their used textbooks. Hohl anticipates that the service will always be free for users, but will be monetized by local advertising, especially from potential meet-up sites like coffee shops.
Based on how well the site does at the U. of M. in the near future, Hohl expects that NakedTextbooks could roll out to several more campuses next fall, and expand beyond that in subsequent semesters. In addition to textbooks, he sees the site becoming a major exchange point for students, who could buy and sell items like futons or dorm furniture. Eventually, there could even be subscription fees from universities themselves, he believes.
"We think we have a service that's valuable, and at some point, we'll see a revenue stream," Hohl says. "In the meantime, we're just excited about the different directions this could go."
Source: Benjamin Hohl, NakedTextbooks
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Ag software MetaFarms poised for global expansion

As farming and ranching increasingly rely on technology for recordkeeping and trend data, Burnsville-based MetaFarms looks ahead to expansion. Within the next year, CEO Chad Becker anticipates that the ag software will translated into other languages, expanding the software's worldwide reach.
Founded in 2000, MetaFarms provides a web-based data platform for those involved in animal production. For example, someone who raises pigs can bring together information on animal growth rates, feed, transportation and other issues. That kind of data allows farmers to create reports that can track farm productivity and trends, information that's crucial for business effectiveness but can be lacking in more paper-based types of recordkeeping.
Becker, who grew up on a small dairy farm and remembers his family keeping records in a farm journal, has seen firsthand how technology is making farms and ranches more efficient. "Technology can be applied in different ways to help farmers track and organize all types of data," he says. "That helps them to do better when running their farms."
In the last three years, MetaFarms has seen steady growth after some challenging years in the ag market. They're adding to their 14-person staff, and diversifying their software to include other types of animals, such as turkeys and goats. Eventually, Becker says, the company hopes to connect into the whole food supply chain, bringing even richer data to customers.
Because farmers in other countries face the same issues as those in the United States, MegaFarms has seen strong interest internationally in its platform. Becker says, "I'm excited about leading MetaFarms in the company's next phase of growth and success."
Source: Chad Becker, MetaFarms
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

New crowdfunding service LiifGroup already makes expansion plans

When it comes to crowdfunding, most people are familiar with Kickstarter, a site that boosts the potential of artists and businesspeople, with a strong focus on community efforts and creative arts. For those who don't fall into those categories, though, utilizing crowdfunding has been almost impossible.
That is, until now. Savage-based company LiifGroup offers a dynamic platform that allows users to raise money through multiple crowdfunding sites designed by the firm.
Co-founded by Mark Connelly, Jack Cosentino, and Kristi Masser, the platform launched on January 8th, and has already been gaining traction.
"The last couple months have been crazy," says Connelly. "We're vetting projects, looking at financials, and going from meeting to meeting. We're the first crowdfunding company started in Minnesota, and it's obvious already that there was a need for this."
LiifGroup's model differs from Kickstarter, since a venture won't lose all their money if a certain amount isn't reached within a specified timeframe. Instead, they can receive partial funding. LiifGroup generates revenue by receiving five percent of the amount each company raises.
The medical market, in particular, will benefit from the platform. Connelly is an emergency and trauma physician for North Memorial Health Care, while Masser spent 15 years with pharmaceutical giant Merck. That experience, combined with Cosentino's tech startup background, made the trio gravitate first to the many medical device startups in the region.
In addition to its medical crowdfunding site, called LiifMed, the company has a platform for sports-related startups, LiifSport. Connelly notes that another one is being built for luxury goods, and he anticipates a variety of platforms in the future.
"Already, we see growth ahead, and a great deal of opportunity," he says.
Source: Mark Connelly, LiifGroup
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

PatentBuddy sees growth ahead for its unique platform

Thanks to online resources, searching for patents is a snap, and local site PatentBuddy makes it even easier. The site offers patent search, analytics, inventor information, and other services, and as its popularity increases, it's likely that growth can't be far behind.
In June, the site will implement changes that turn the not-for-profit model into a revenue-generating powerhouse. Some features will still be free, especially for smaller law firms and individuals, but for Fortune 100 companies and large firms that maintain extensive patent portfolios through PatentBuddy's tools, a "modest fee" will be involved, says company president Leon Steinberg.
Considering how many users the site has, those modest fees could add up fast. The site as become the largest provider of patent analytics in the world, with over 250,000 monthly visitors.
PatentBuddy got its start in 2007, when patent attorneys Steve Lundberg and Janal Kalis, both shareholders at the Schwegman Lundberg firm in Minneapolis, rolled out the site as a way to increase access to patent information. They found that solo inventors had difficulty getting necessary patent data without relying on law firms for searches and analytics.
They built the site without a plan for revenue, but now that PatentBuddy has grown so robust, the fee structure will be put in place to spur further growth. Steinberg was brought on recently to help shepherd the changes.
"We have a large, well-structured database with just about every piece of patent information available, including foreign patents," he says. "That means we have unique reports and analytics, and we intend to keep being a resource with those for companies large and small."
Source: Leon Steinberg, PatentBuddy
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

CaringBridge founder plans run for Congress

CaringBridge founder and CEO Sona Mehring will be stepping away from the Eagan-based organization to take on a new challenge: Congress.
Mehring started the nonprofit in 1997 as a way for seriously ill people or their family members to create one central, online resource that could keep others updated about health changes. Since then, the site has recorded over two billion visits, and has added distinctive features like a calendar mechanism that lets people arrange tasks like food delivery and doctor's appointment rides.
It's likely that the site will have even more innovation in the future, Mehring notes, alluding to a bold strategic vision put together by the leadership team and the nonprofit's Board of Directors.
As she transitions out of the organization, Mehring expects it'll take about a year for the full shift to occur, and in that time, she'll be exploring her options for a political campaign.
"Bottom line, I want to continue to impact people's lives in a positive way," says Mehring. "Our representation in Congress is out of step with what we need. We need leaders that want to work together to solve problems."
She adds that her background, particularly when it comes to building the highly visited CaringBridge site, has given her not only the insight she needs for this career move, but also the motivation.
"My life and career experiences have provided me with the skills and drive to work hard to move forward versus backwards," she says. "Making a difference within Congress is a next step for me."
Source: Sona Mehring, CaringBridge
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Online deals app lumaNEAR launches in beta

Although online deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial boast plenty of fans, the model can be challenging for consumers and businesses alike. Those who change their minds about a product or service will lose money because they paid upfront, and for companies, demand can be so intense that more than one business has been shuttered by a Groupon deal.
Minneapolis-based startup lumaNEAR believes there's a better way.
The idea for the deal site has roots at the University of Minnesota, where co-founders Scott Sailer and Kyle Ries were roommates while attending the Carlson School of Management. Sharing a passion for business efficiency, the pair tried a number of different startup ideas, but none felt large enough for eventual expansion.
Then, they started listening to complaints about the online group-buying model, and like the lightbulb in their logo, something clicked on. "We wondered what would happen if we removed the friction and hassle from both sides," says Sailer. "People could still get deals and companies could still get business, but without the headaches."
Their venture, developed with creative guru Teresa Facciotto, went into beta on April 6th. The platform lets users navigate a map with posted deals, but doesn't require pre-buying to take advantage of them. Unlike other online deal sites, lumaNEAR lets vendors tweak a deal at any time, or even remove them if they choose.
Best of all for both sides, the service is free. As a bootstrapped venture, lumaNEAR will likely add fee-based premium features for businesses in the future in order to begin turning a profit, but the co-founders are adamant that basic functionality will always be free.
"Our mission is to connect these two groups together, easily and with low cost," says Sailer. "We have lofty goals for expansion, and we're excited to see where this takes us."
Source: Scott Sailer, lumaNEAR
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

BuildTools sees growth as construction industry rebounds

As the construction industry roars back to life after a difficult recession, Minneapolis startup BuildTools is finding robust growth, less than two years after launching.
The construction management software got its start when a local builder approached business development professional Chad Mayes and asked for a software tool to assist with building projects. After a test run, Mayes and his team took the software platform to other builders to see if it was worth further development.
"It quickly became apparent that we were sitting on something really valuable, so we took it from in-house ugly duckling to polished software platform," says Mayes. The new BuildTools application released nationally in the summer of 2011, and since then, growth has been so solid that the tool quickly went international, and is now translated into six languages.
Timing has been key, Mayes notes. During the darker days of the recession, many in the construction industry learned to streamline operations, and they didn't make investments for new software. As the industry regained health, the ongoing desire for efficiency and looser budgets brought a surge of customers to BuildTools.
Designed by builders, the software is ideal for mobile devices like iPads, which are increasingly used by project managers, contractors, and even carpenters, for making lists and referring to construction plans.
Mayes estimates that BuildTools is currently reaching just under 10 percent of the market, which means that major expansion is likely as the platform becomes more widespread.
"Definitely, we see increased growth, and we'll be looking to expand not just locally but also nationally and internationally," says Mayes.
Source: Chad Mayes, BuildTools
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Sport Ngin receives major investment, anticipates growth

Minneapolis-based Sport Ngin just received a major funding infusion that will boost the company's already impressive growth even more. The sports software provider recently closed a $6 million financing round with El Dorado Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Minnetonka and Silicon Valley. That brings their overall funding total to $10 million since the company's founding in 2008.
Sport Ngin began as TST Media, a design and creative agency started by Justin Kaufenberg and Carson Kipfer while both attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "Originally, it was just to make a little extra beer money," Kipfer says, with a laugh. "But by the time we were finishing school, we could see the potential for much more."
Looking for a niche, and drawing on their experience playing sports through high school and college, the pair focused on developing software for sports organizations, first for hockey and then for many other sports.
The software they developed allows teams to manage players, post schedules, and track stats, as well as offer online registration. A tournament package offers tools that let users run everything from a Little League event to a professional playoff.
Currently hiring for a number of positions, Sport Ngin sees more growth ahead, both in employee numbers and in products. The company's revenue has increased 100 percent year after year for the past four fiscal years, and aggressive hiring has increased staff numbers to 120.
"This current investment underscores our progress, hard work, and many successes to date, and validates the widespread adoption of Sport Ngin by thousands of sports organizations," says Kaufenberg. "This capital infusion will enable us to further grow our market presence, and to expand and enhance the functionality of Sport Ngin."
Sources: Carson Kipfer and Justin Kaufenberg, Sport Ngin
Writer: Elizabeth Millard
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