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Tech consultancy Lotus + Lama finds growth through Apple specialization

Although there are now plenty of tech experts at Apple stores, Martin Thomas was a lone Mac guru when he and his wife, Kate, started Lotus + Lama in 1995.
"At that point, you didn't see everyone with Apple products like you do now," he says. "There was just a smaller, dedicated group of people who loved the technology."
Thomas had been a recording engineer earlier in his career, in an industry where Apple found early adoption. When he showed an aptitude for fixing the computers, people began to find him and ask for help. He says, "At some point, it became obvious that I'd have more work if I focused on computers instead, and since I was only using Macs, that's the direction I went."
The consulting firm has gotten more robust over the past 17 years, particularly with remote log-in ability, freeing Thomas from doing extensive on-site work. Kate provides project management services, and the firm does website design as well. Clients range from advertising agencies to recording studios, non-profits, and graphic designers.
Even with the Apple store Genius Bars offering technical assistance, Lotus + Lama continues to establish a larger client base, mainly due to Thomas' ability to give technology advice with a long-term vision, not just a quick tech tweak.
"With clients, I get to know their frustrations, and how they organize their files," he says. "Every client has a different approach as to how they use their computers and networks. If they go to an Apple store or other tech, they have to tell their story again and again. With me, I already know their story because I've been part of it."
Source: Martin Thomas, Lotus + Lama
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Echobit offers social network for gamers

Forget the image of the lonely gamer in the basement rec room, spending hours playing an elaborate game alone. With the huge boom in multiplayer options, gaming is more like a college campus these days, where everyone is rushing around together and having conversations along the way.
But that environment can feel fragmented, believes local technology company Echobit. CEO Adam Sellke says, "Believe it or not, the act of gaming can represent a fair amount of work. It's like downhill skiing without a chairlift; the skiing is fun, but getting to the top of the mountain is tough."
Gamers need to be able to manage their game profiles, find other players, do online chat as they're playing, and coordinate other tasks to streamline their play. Echobit makes it all easy with their product, Evolve, which acts as an online matchmaking engine for gamers in the same way that Facebook aggregates content under single profiles and allows people to "meet" others who share their interests.
The company got kicked off in 2008, but has only been in open beta since the beginning of 2012. Word is spreading fast, though: since January, they've doubled membership for Evolve, and hope to have 100,000 members by the end of the year.
In addition to Sellke are two other co-founders, Soren Dreijer and Michael Amundson, and it's likely that they'll  garner more seed capital and look toward hiring in the near future.
"As gaming becomes more and more popular, we all need for it to become simpler," says Sellke. "This is a way of connecting people, making gaming more social, and taking the management out of it so people can enjoy their games more."
Source: Adam Sellke, Echobit
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

App developer Blacktop Interactive focuses on helping kids learn

Although mobile devices like the iPad are wildly attractive to children, local app developer Christopher Black found that the tools don't have many apps that are geared toward that audience.
"You can find some storybooks from major brands like Disney, but there didn't seem to be many options for kids' books, especially from small local publishers," he says. "We wanted to create something people hadn't seen before."
About two years ago, Black founded his own contract work and app development firm, Blacktop Interactive. When his girlfriend had an idea for a children's book, the pair realized it could lend itself well to an online storybook, and "Turtle's Day at the Beach" was born. The interactive storybook, designed for ages 3 and older, is available as an app for Nook, Blackberry, and Apple devices.
That app has been followed by "Rainbows are Colorful," an app to help children learn about colors, and coming soon is a painting app that allows kids to digitally color illustrations of animals.
"Now that we have the platform, we wanted to continue reusing that and going down that path," says Black. "It just makes sense in terms of our strategy and our interests."
Black hopes to have at least eight apps on the market by the end of the year, and to keep going strong after that. So the next time kids reach for a coloring book, they'll want to make sure it's got a full battery charge first.
Source: Chris Black, Blacktop Interactive
Writer: Elizabeth Millard 

Web technology firm Origin Eight looks to open source for a distinctive edge

For most business owners, having a website is essential, but they can be tricky to manage for those who aren't IT-savvy.
Local web technology firm Origin Eight believes that it doesn't have to be that way. The company, which brands itself as a consulting group rather than an agency, specializes in a core set of technologies based on Drupal, an open source framework.
(Quick primer for non-techies: "open source software" involves freely available source code that anyone can use for building applications, and Drupal is an open-source content management system that's used specifically for developing websites.)
Because of the use of Drupal, Origin Eight's clients have more power to tweak their own sites, notes company founder Seth Viebrock.
"A lot of existing sites are built on solutions that make it difficult for users to edit their own content," he says. "Redoing these sites in Drupal is worth the effort, because it allows the end user to embrace this new way of doing things. Basically, our growth comes from people looking to make their lives easier."
Founded in early 2010, the firm has built some high-profile sites, including ones for Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, and Rihanna, as well as Boston entrepreneur hub Greenhorn Connect and social networking site swapbeats.com.
For the future, Viebrock notes that the company wants to grow in a sustainable and consistent way, and expand into other sectors like education. "We're always looking at other ways to differentiate ourselves, in addition to building awesome websites," he says. "But of course, we'll keep doing that, too."
Source: Seth Viebrock, Origin Eight
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

VP Booths bets on old-fashioned photo booths as next big trend

Many brides have fond memories their wedding days, but Meghan Phillips has an unusual recollection: the power of the photo booth.
She and her husband Jacob (founder of RoadTab, which was previously covered in The Line) had a photo booth at their nuptials, since she's always had an affinity for the quirky kiosks, and the French film Amélie just deepened that love.
In November 2011, they decided to create a side business, to help other wedding parties and guests, as well as corporate workshop attendees. VP Booths was born, and Phillips says it's taken off nicely.
"I've been surprised at how many people want booths at their events," she says. "We'll be busy for quite some time."
In order to accommodate more people in the booths, she and Jacob designed a kiosk that would be larger inside, and have a partition rather than a curtain. Because she missed having video clips from her own wedding, Phillips made sure that users could record short video messages as well as opt for traditional photo strips.
In terms of growth, Phillips has been talking with relatives in other states, as well as an entrepreneur in Canada, but nothing has been decided yet about possible expansion.
"Right now, we're just having fun with it, and enjoying creating the business together," says Phillips, then she laughs. "We now have a one-year-old, so working on VP Booths is like date night."
Source: Meghan Phillips, VP Booths
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Paper Darts transforms from zine publisher to creative agency

In the middle of the recession in 2009, Jamie Millard (no relation to this writer) was ready to find work in publishing. There was just one problem: there were no jobs for her.
After graduating at the top of her class and having done five internships, Millard still couldn't find a position. "So, I decided to stop asking for permission and create my own," she says. Together with a couple other enthusiastic, literary friends she formed Paper Darts in order to create a new literary magazine.
"We saw the opportunity to jazz up that genre with a more lighthearted tone, to pull in the mainstream reader," she says. "That was our mission, to fill the void of unemployment with something useful."
Although Millard eventually landed a job at the Charities Review Council, she and the other founders kept the magazine going and even hired an editorial director to bring more cohesion to the firm. Recently, Paper Darts published its first book, and the staff members were excited to learn about the book publishing process from start to finish, Millard notes.
The firm has slowly turned into a creative agency as well. They'll be redesigning the popular Pollen newsletter, and taking on other projects as they crop up. Millard says, "We're trying to build a model that can support a full-time staff, but right now, we're just happy with the creative projects that we have. We're having fun with it."
Source: Jamie Millard, Paper Darts
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Choo Choo Bob Show debuts, looks to grow through strategic expansion

Strategic expansion, grassroots marketing, and corporate sponsorship: these aren't exactly what you'd imagine when watching the Choo Choo Bob Show. But behind the cheery talk about trains and friendship on the new show, a strong business and brand are being built.
The show started after Bob Medcraft, owner of St. Paul-based Choo Choo Bob's Train Store, did a television commercial for the store with Joe Martin and Wilson Webb. The trio had fun making it and subsequent feedback convinced them to do a TV show about trains. At first, they'd envisioned something on cable access, but then they decided to create something with more polish.
"The finished shows turned out great; kids loved them and parents were really positive," says Medcraft. "I decided that I was going to do everything I could to find someone who could help us raise money and get more episodes made." He turned to University of Minnesota professor Bob Vince, who offered to finance the project. Vince and Medcraft formed a company, and the Choo Choo production engine got turned on.
Because the show is too "old fashioned and atypical" to match what's on Disney and Nickelodeon, Medcraft notes that they're creating a Choo Choo Bob Network, which will pay to broadcast the show throughout the region. They're also putting together a live show that will go on tour, with the first show April 14th at the Riverview Theater.
"We came to the conclusion that if we want to get the show on TV, then we'll have to do it ourselves," he says.
Source: Bob Medcraft, Choo Choo Bob Show
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Entrepreneur combines music and programming for Hypergolic Motion

Music composition and software programming may seem like they reside in opposite areas of the brain, but one local entrepreneur believes they co-exist quite nicely, and he's built his business around the fusion of the two abilities.
Minneapolis-based Hypergolic Motion got its start when composer Zachary Crockett wanted to keep more of the royalties from his music. In the traditional model, a music publisher would retain a portion of royalties, so Crockett opted to become a publisher himself. Since he's been doing programming for a number of years, it made sense that he'd continue that work under the Hypergolic name as well.
The company gets its name from a term used to describe rocket propellant--something that's "hypergolic" ignites on contact with another substance. After igniting the company in 2009, Crockett has taken on projects like desktop applications and mobile development, as well as internal corporate websites.
The blend isn't as clumsy as it might seem. Crockett notes that although music and programming are distinct arts, they share some unique qualities.
"They're both very natural for me, because there's analysis and synthesis in each," he says. "If you take a problem, whether it's a developing software or creating music, you have to understand the bigger vision, and then break that down into smaller pieces."
Through his work as a composer, Crockett makes many contacts in the non-profit world, and that sometimes leads to discussions about technology needs. As a result, Hypergolic Motion has built up a robust client portfolio of nonprofits.
"I think there's a perception that nonprofits aren't worth pursuing because they don't have a ton of money," says Crockett. "While that may be true, I find that the projects are more satisfying, and the clients are so grateful for the chance to be more efficient and have better systems in place."
For the future, Crockett looks forward to blending more programming with his music, and finding harmony in each.
Source: Zachary Crockett, Hypergolic Motion
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

DigiFabLab gives students digital prototyping capability

Students at the University of Minnesota's College of Design will now have even more prototyping power, thanks to the debut of a new digital fabrication laboratory, nicknamed the DigiFabLab.
The facility lets students create 3D models of their work, and includes laser cutting technology, and equipment donated by Eden Prairie-based Stratasys.
Previously, students had access to some 3D modeling and fabrication equipment, but the DigiFabLab's new systems let them work in hard plastic to produce stronger models, according to Associate Dean and Professor Lee Anderson. These types of models can be beneficial for simulating joint connections in buildings, for example.
An additional laser cutter in the lab makes it easier for students to cut building facades with more precision, a process that's usually very complicated and time-consuming when done by hand.
In the future, the DigiFabLab anticipates adding more equipment like computer-controlled modeling, a lathe, and routers.
"Whenever you can represent an object in a different way, it gives you new insight into what that design can do, and you can see aspects of it in a fresh way," says Anderson. "Looking at a building design as a sketch and as a 3D model create two different ways of seeing the same thing, and that contributes to your understanding of it."
Source: Lee Anderson, University of Minnesota
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Entrepreneur flea market kicks off with networking event

A new type of networking event is on the calendar for early October: a flea market that brings together entrepreneurs so that they can barter their services with one another or embark on collaborations.
That's the hope, anyway. Organizer Kareem Ahmed, an entrepreneur himself, envisions the event as a connection point for those who are trying to grow their businesses.
He hopes to draw a broad array of professionals, including content creators, illustrators, and marketing experts along with musicians, video producers, artists, and fashionistas.
The event's site notes that the flea market was created because Ahmed has heard too many people say, "I have this great idea for an app but I just don't know how to find a programmer," or "I have this great idea for a product but I don't know anyone who can help me create a prototype."
Ahmed says, "As an entrepreneur, I feel like I have a ton of ideas, but I need the connections to help bring them to reality. I think that's very common, so I came up with a way to network--not to find clients, but to grow a network of fellow professionals who can be helpful for projects."
Planned for October 5th at Urban Bean in South Minneapolis, the flea market has only a few spots still open as of this writing, showing that demand for an event of this type is strong.
Ahmed anticipates a monthly flea market where entrepreneurs can share ideas, present case studies, and talk about the future of their particular industries. He says, "We all go through challenges and struggles, and we can learn from one another."
Source: Kareem Ahmed, Entrepreneur Flea Market
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

CRAM wants to revolutionize home entertainment tech

Finding entertainment options isn't much of a feat these days, with Netflix streaming video, Hulu, iTunes, and many others competing for your attention. But what happens when you turn off your connection?
Entrepreneur and technologist Daren Klum believes two things: that a lack of Internet shouldn't mean a night of channel surfing or board games, and that you should have access to a huge amount of entertainment options.
To bring both to life, he created CRAM, a system that uses cartridges loaded with music, movies, TV shows, and other content. "I call us 'Netflix on steroids,'" he says. "Or, like Redbox in the palm of your hand."
With the service, a customer can use a special device that wirelessly streams the content to up to four other devices. That means someone could be watching a movie in the living room, while another is listening to music upstairs, and the kids could be accessing educational content from a handheld out in the treehouse.
Up to 360 movies can be stored on a single device, and users will pay about $20 per month to gain access to unlimited content.
The product hasn't launched yet, but it sure has some heavy hitters getting it ready. In addition to Klum, who has a long track record of creating technology products, the company has advisors that would make any startup swoon, since they hail from CBS, Sony, Disney, and Best Buy.
The startup has secured $600,000 in investment already, with part of that coming from St. Thomas' William C. Norris Institute. The product will officially launch in January, at the high-profile Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
"The growth potential here is phenomenal," says Klum. "Once we hit the market running, we plan to expand from a staff of 8 people to hundreds of employees. It's all really, really exciting."
Source: Daren Klum, CRAM
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Bust Out Solutions unveils its first mobile game: Brahmageddon

What do web and mobile engineers and consultants do for fun? Design mobile games, of course.
The latest local game addiction comes from Bust Out Solutions, a firm that engineers websites and mobile apps for clients like Best Buy, Minnesota Public Radio, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Pedal Brain.
Employees at the firm have long wanted to build a product for themselves, but were always too busy with client work, according to founder and developer Jeff Lin.
Despite the client deluge, a small team eventually got together and created Brahmageddon, a whack-a-mole type of mobile game that uses characters from the great classical epics of India, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Players have to defeat cannibal demons by smacking the on the head as they pop up.
“We had a number of concepts, and this one just seemed silly and unique,” says Lin. “It’s on the simpler side of game design, because we just wanted to see what we could do.”
Although Bust Out engineers designed the game as a nice stress reliever, without intentions of selling it, Lin ended up chatting with a major game distributor who gave him some encouragement about future game development. The game has even provided a return on investment, by selling over 100 copies through Apple’s App Store.
“The project was a success in that we proved we can design games and launch them, and still have fun doing it,” he says. “This has given us all kinds of ideas about where we could go from here.”
Source: Jeff Lin, Bust Out Solutions
Writer: Elizabeth Millard

Coffee House Press expands e-book line

Although e-books took their sweet time catching on with the reading public, the development of e-readers like Nook and Kindle has created a sense of momentum, and now it seems that on every bus and plane, there's someone clicking through their reading selections.
The rush for e-books left some smaller publishers scrambling to stay in the race, but Coffee House Press, an independent literary publisher in Minneapolis, caught up fast. Recently, Coffee House began publishing all of its new-release titles as e-books, and is currently converting selected backlist titles as well.
The progress toward e-books began slowly for the press, says publisher Chris Fischbach. About a year and a half ago, the company released some e-books and saw very slow sales, only about 10 per month. But when it made the shift toward releasing e-books at the same time as its print versions, there was a huge jump in sales.
At this point, e-book sales represent about a third of overall sales, but that number is hard to track because publishers never know exact sales figures until their new releases have been out for at least a few months. That's because bookstores regularly return unsold hardcovers before paperback versions are released. One advantage to e-books, Fischbach says, is that their sales figures are known immediately. Also, they don't get returned by stores or consumers. 
Another benefit to e-books is the ability to carry multiple books at the same time, he adds. Some people may download a number of e-books for reading later, instead of buying books and stacking them in an unread pile at home.
Publishers may be gravitating toward e-books because the production costs are low, in addition to high consumer demand. But that doesn't mean the e-books are for everyone.
"Personally, artistically, I prefer a paper copy of a book," says Fischbach. "There's just something about holding a book and reading it that way. I don't think I'll ever be the e-book-reading type of person."
What he anticipates for the future, though, is that more will be done with video elements and graphics within e-books, turning them into their own particular genre. For example, a travel book about Minneapolis could feature short videos to illustrate unique features of the city, or interviews with local celebrities.
Whatever happens with the e-book, look for Coffee House to be ready. At this point, the publisher is on track to meet all that click-click-scroll demand.
Source: Chris Fischbach, Coffee House Press
Writer: Elizabeth Millard


Children�s book publisher Lerner expands digital catalog with first iPad offering

Minneapolis-based children's book publisher Lerner Publishing Group has released its first iPad app, a visually rich and interactive digital version of the book Journey Into the Deep, which Lerner published in 2010.

Rebecca L. Johnson, who wrote the award-winning book, also developed the app for the Apple iPad, says Terri Reden, vice president of marketing and digital products for Lerner Publishing Group.

The book and app highlights the work and newly discovered aquatic life of the Census of Marine Life, an international effort conducted between 2000 and 2010. The app includes content not found in the book, says Reden, as well as photo slideshows, videos of sea creatures, links to websites, a discussion guide, and a video introduction with author Rebecca L. Johnson.

The inaugural app is a new aspect of Lerner's emerging digital catalog, which includes e-versions of its books, as well as more than 120 "interactive books" aimed at K�5 students who struggle with reading.

While those other offerings are aimed at Lerner's primary audience--schools and libraries--the iPad app is targeted more towards families, says Reden, specifically for 9�14-year-olds (although younger and older individuals may appreciate the app's colorful images and/or breadth of information).

Reden described the creation of the app as a sort of act of discovery, spurred by Johnson's own interest in creating the application. Lerner is not actively developing a next app, but the company is looking back at its catalog to see what other titles might work in the format.

The company continues to expand its other digital offerings, says Reden.

Source: Terri Reden, Lerner Publishing Group
Writer: Jeremy Stratton

Solutions Twin Cities heads to the North Side for Vol. 4 of innovators' forum

It's a good way to feed your head, 21st-century-style: through the rapid-fire delivery of ideas that will be Solutions Vol. 4.

Since its first gathering in 2007, Solutions Twin Cities has been packing houses (local theaters, to be precise) with audiences eager to hear about the work of "solutionists" from a broad range of disciplines, but with a common goal: to improve the world and the lives of the people who live in and on it.

The evening will include video, music, performance, and conversation on a broad range of ideas in a fast-paced, digestible format: "20 images x 20 seconds each = 6 minutes, 40 seconds."

Solutions Twin Cities is now a project of Works Progress, a West-Bank based "network of creative collaborators" that is behind a growing list of past and ongoing projects.

The event will take place on Friday, March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Capri Theater, 2027 W. Broadway Ave., in Minneapolis. A social hour follows at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8�16 ("pay what you can").

Organizations and individuals may also sponsor some of the 50�100 tickets that Works Progress has set aside for adults and teens in the community through the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC), says co-founder Colin Kloecker.

This is Solutions' first foray into North Minneapolis. NRRC member Ariah Fine, whom Solutions Twin Cities co-founder Troy Gallas had met at a separate Works Progress event, was instrumental in bringing the forum to the North Side.

"The more we learned about him, and about the council, it just seemed like a natural fit to work with them," says Kloecker.

While this fourth volume is the first in two years, Kloecker says Works Progress would "like this to happen twice a year, all over the city, and in a new place every time." They hope to direct the content, as much as possible, toward the community into which it is held, he says.

Among the local presenters, for instance, Vol. 4 will feature North Minneapolis resident, educator, artist, organizer, and writer Amoke Kubat, author of Mothering Mothers and founder of the Yo Mama Institute.

Other "solutonists" will include:

Daniel Klein, producer, host and chef of The Perennial Plate, an online video series about "socially responsible and adventurous eating."

Laura Zabel, director of Springboard for the Arts, an economic development organization located in Lowertown St. Paul that connects independent artists "with the skills, information and services they need to make a living and a life."

Joseph Adamji and his students from the Kitty Anderson Youth Science Center, at the Science Museum of Minnesota, that "empowers young people to change their world through science."

Mirelle Zacharis, artist and co-curator of No Assumption, "a collaborative art exhibition that took place inside a foreclosed home in Northeast Minneapolis."

Matt Olson, co-founder of rosenlof/lucus, ro/lu, (ROLU), an independent design and art studio focusing on "landscape work, furniture design, relational architectural projects, urban planning and innovative collaborative public art."

Virajita Singh, senior research fellow at the Center for Sustainable Building Research, who is "working to raise funds for communities that need sustainable design services."

Hamilton Bell, project director of the Wilder Foundation's Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, a "cradle-to-career" community-wide effort to ensure that children in St.Paul's Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods "succeed in school and life."

Scotty Reynolds, founder of Mixed Precipitation, a performance group that produces short-form projects "highlighting social engagement, and encouraging the exploration of public and private spaces, as well as collaboration across disciplines."

Source: Colin Kloecker, Works Progress
Writer: Jeremy Stratton

78 arts and culture Articles | Page: | Show All
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