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By All Means
62 minutes | 7 days ago
Peace Coffee Owner/CEO Lee Wallace
In the 1990s, when Lee Wallace told business schools she was interested in studying the intersection of mission and money, they steered her into public policy. It was a time before B-corps and one-for-one brands. “Purpose” wasn’t the business buzzword it is today. But even armed with that master’s degree in public policy, Wallace continued to believe in the power of doing good while doing well. Eventually she found her way to a for-profit company founded on a mission to help farmers. That was Peace Coffee, an early champion of the fair trade model to create a transparent and sustainable system that directly benefits farmers and their communities. “The thing that’s so amazing about being presented with the opportunity to run a business founded to do the right thing is authenticity,” says Wallace, who came on as CEO in 2002 and bought the business in 2018 from its founding nonprofit, the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. Today, Wallace is a recognized leader in social enterprise business, as well as fair trade enterprises and specialty coffee importers. She holds leadership roles in the Climate Collaborative and the B corps movement. And she doesn’t apologize for Peace Coffee’s success, because selling more coffee means purchasing more coffee beans at fair prices from farming cooperatives around the world. With a new eco-friendly Minneapolis manufacturing facility, Peace was well positioned at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis to respond to the sudden spike in coffee bean sales for home brewing. In 2020, Peace Coffee doubled its store accounts with Target and added 70 more Whole Foods stores. Despite losing the 15 percent of sales that came from restaurants, theaters, and offices, Wallace says she expects to end the year up 17 percent. But the challenges persist. The Peace Coffee headquarters is just off East Lake Street, near the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct that was burned down in protests following George Floyd’s killing. She talks about what it will take to restore the multicultural neighborhood’s vibrancy. And although it had not yet been announced publicly at the time of this conversation, Wallace shared that Peace Coffee is getting out of the coffee shop business to focus on growing wholesale. But even in that, she found a way to make it count, by partnering with nonprofit Wildflyer Coffee, which provides jobs to homeless youth. After our conversation with Wallace, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Case Frid is an assistant professor in the department of entrepreneurship whose work focuses on how business relates to community. “A corporate purpose is about your core reason for being and the impact your organization wants to have on the world,” Frid says. “It’s got to be relational, not transactional.”
65 minutes | 14 days ago
Dogs of Instagram/ Lucy & Co Founders Ashley + Ahmed El Shourbagy
Have you ever come up with what you thought was a really clever social media handle, sure to be your key to fame and fortune, only to find it’s been taken? Ahmed El Shourbagy is the envy of all would-be influencers. He’s the guy who grabbed the handle @dogsofinstagram in 2011. It happened not with a business plan in mind—influencer marketing wasn’t even a thing back then in the early days of Instagram—it was just a fun way to gather cute images of dogs, like his own Boston terrier/pug mix, Lucy. But as the following quickly grew to hundreds, thousands, and then millions, Ahmed and his now-wife Ashley, whom he met on day 10 of @dogsofinstagram, started seeing possibilities. They also saw the limitations of building a brand on a social media platform. Ahmed and Ashley parlayed a social media following that now stands at 4.7 million into a retail brand and platform they own. Lucy & Co. is a direct-to-consumer brand specializing in stylish dog accessories and apparel (the likes of which you might find on @dogsofinstagram). It took a while to find its footing, but Lucy & Co. it is now the fastest growing and most lucrative part of their business, with demand accelerated in 2020 thanks to a pandemic uptick in dog ownership and online shopping. Ahmed and Ashley talk about the paths that led them to entrepreneurship, the evolution of influencer marketing, and the transition from founder to CEO of a growing company. Then we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Retail marketing expert Kim Sovell, participating adjunct marketing faculty, says the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated conversion to online shopping. “We’ve seen 10 years worth of changes in the way we shop in just a few months,” she says. Her best advice to retail brands launching today: “Know your consumers at a granular level.”
72 minutes | 21 days ago
Tastefully Simple Founder + CEO Jill Blashack Strahan
“Sales will take you anywhere.” That skill took Jill Blashack Strahan from a small farm town where she ran a café and didn’t dare to dream much bigger to founder and CEO of national meal prep brand Tastefully Simple. At its peak in 2008, Tastefully Simple hit $143 million in sales with 20,000 sales associates executing home parties in small towns and big cities across the country. Mission: bringing people together to answer that age-old question, “What are we going to eat for dinner?” But after hitting that peak, sales began to slide. And slide. For 11 straight years, Tastefully Simple lost ground. For nearly seven years, there was no profit whatsoever. Strahan invested her own money to keep the company afloat—ignoring the advice of several turnaround consultants. “I just believed in my heart it was not time to give up on this.” Indeed, Tastefully Simple is once again profitable. With a much leaner executive team and renewed focus on sales and marketing training, Tastefully Simple was well positioned to pivot to virtual parties during the Covid-19 pandemic and has benefitted from renewed interest in home cooking and a desire to socialize—even if over Zoom—around food. Strahan takes us on her entrepreneurial—the jobs that led to her a-ha moment and the sacrifice it took to pull it off. “Fear is a great motivator,” she says. But what would a business professor have told her during the dark days of declining sales? After our conversation with Strahan, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship points out the fundamental difference between founder and CEO. “There’s a commitment and passion in an entrepreneur that is different than in a CEO. In terms of economics, she should have found a buyer. But from a personal standpoint, it made sense to keep going.”
61 minutes | a month ago
Neka Creative Founder + CEO Rosemary Ugboajah
“Our vision is to be a role model for inclusion in the industry,” says Rosemary Ugboajah, founder and CEO of Neka Creative, a Minneapolis-based brand development agency that makes inclusion a centerpiece of every project it takes on through a proprietary process dubbed Inclusivity Marketing. She entered the advertising industry without many preconceptions, having grown up primarily in Nigeria, without television. While in college in London to study engineering, she found herself drawn to design; an opportunity to learn the business side of advertising led her to the University of Minnesota. Ugboajah started her agency a decade ago, after years of working in other agencies and for Target Corp. She calls Neka Creative her “protest movement”—a response to stereotypes being perpetuated in marketing and a lack of diversity in the field. Her efforts toward inclusion included eliminating set office hours and diverse hiring practices. “We made a commitment and we’re still working on it. You’re always working on it.” The racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd left Ugboajah feeling frustrated. “I was so angered by all the commitment emails I received—‘We’re committed to racial equity; we’re committed to diversity and inclusion.' I kept reading for concrete action steps, thinking: there’s no plan here. You have to tell us what you’re going to measure….People don’t want to stay in an uncomfortable place, but there’s no quick fix to becoming inclusive.” Ugboajah shares how her upbringing in Nigeria and London influenced her views on equity and inclusion, and steps businesses can take to move toward transformative change. After our conversation, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business diversity, equity and inclusion ambassador Nakeisha Lewis. “It’s a great time for making change, holding people accountable,” Lewis says. “My suggestion: think about what are some actionable things we can hold our organizations to. Business organizations understand metrics: recruitment, retention, how are we ensuring voices are amplified.”
69 minutes | a month ago
So Good So You Co-Founders Rita Katona + Eric Hall
It’s a good time to be in the business of selling immunity. Minneapolis-based wellness company So Good So You makes plant-based juice shots packed with probiotics that support the immune and digestive system. Each variety is named for the “need’ it addresses: Energy, Sleep, Detox, and the No. 1 seller, Immunity. At the start of 2020, the 2-ounce So Good So You shots were sold at 3,000 stores; now they’re at more than 4,000 stores in 47 states including Target, Publix, and Sprouts. The company, which has the backing of investors, managed to meet and exceed its 2020 sales projections and hit profitability. “What the pandemic has done is accelerate this movement of people understanding that investing proactively and managing their own health pays dividends when it comes to their immunity,” says co-founder Rita Katona. In 2014, she left a corporate job at Target Corp. to start a health and wellness company with her husband Eric Hall, a serial entrepreneur. It started as a cold-pressed juice café called Juice So Good, which expanded to three Minneapolis locations. Juice shots were simply an item on the menu, but became so popular, Katona and Hall decided to packaging them for wholesale and quickly realized the shots were a far bigger opportunity. “In entrepreneurship, you can’t let any single failure stop you,” Hall says. “You have to keep iterating.” So Good So You recently introduced its biggest innovation to date: a sustainable bottle it calls the BtrBtl that features a proprietary additive which allows it to biodegrade in landfills at an accelerated rate. “Everything we do goes through the filter of is it the best we can do at this moment for the environment?” Hall says. “This a long-term investment that is authentic to who we are, but we did it because we think it’s the right thing to do.” It’s one of many things the couple loves about building their own company: “As a company, you can do more good in the world than you can as an individual.” Katona and Hall talk about their very different paths to entrepreneurship, the opportunities ahead in the wellness space, and the importance of being willing to pivot. Afterwards, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, emphasizes the important of listening to consumers in the early days of a startup.
55 minutes | 5 months ago
Abilitech Founder + CEO Angie Conley
Abilitech Medical is on the brink of launching the first-of-its-kind wearable assistive device that makes it possible for patients with upper-limb weakness or injury to use their arms for everyday activities. “This is my imprint on the world,” says founder Angie Conley. Even before the Abiliitech Assist device becomes widely available through hospitals and clinics, it has already won numerous awards including the Tekne Award for innovation from the Minnesota High Tech Association and the Grand Prize and Top Woman-led Business at the Minnesota Cup, which is the largest state-led business competition. Abilitech has also been recognized as a Top 20 Medical Device Startup You Need to Know by MassDevice magazine; and a Top Promising Life Science Company by Rice University. So far Conley has raised $12 million, primarily in equity funding. Abilitech is Conley’s first startup, but years of experience in the medical device industry prepared her for the challenge. Following several years as a senior product marketing manager for Medtronic and a medical device marketing consultant, Conley took on the executive director role at Magic Arms, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that works to help children with orphan medical conditions including muscular dystrophy. It exposed her to the need for an assistive device, and she quickly realized it would take more money than a nonprofit could raise to solve it. “The mission is what carries you through,” Conley says. The opportunity is significant: Abilitech’s initial market of multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy patients with enough hand function to operate the device is around $2 billion; Conley has her sights set on the stroke rehab market, which she says pegs at $30 billion. “It’s an exciting opportunity to fill an unmet need and change the lives not just of patients but their caregivers,” Conley says. After our conversation with Conley, we go Back to the Classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Dan McLaughlin, director of the Center for Innovation in the Business of Health Care at Opus discusses the med tech innovation happening beyond computers, in the area of motors and sensors. Emerging technology is an area of particular interest at St. Thomas. “That’s the best part of health care,” McLaughlin says. “You get to make those human connections and really change people’s lives.”
48 minutes | 5 months ago
Xena Therapies Founder and CEO Tammy Lee
Tammy Lee launched a line of wearable cool therapy medical devices in February, 2020, and one month later, she had to shut down her new company due to Covid-19. It wasn’t the start she dreamed of for Xena Therapies. But then, Lee’s entire career is built on unexpected turns. Lee studied journalism and political science and landed a job as a Washington D.C. news correspondent. She crossed over to politics to become press secretary for then U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, a “prairie populist” from North Dakota. “I loved helping to influence public policy.” In 2006, she ran for U.S. Representative of Minnesota’s fifth district and lost. “The way I ran that campaign opened the door to the next great opportunity.” Lee was hired by Northwest Airlines to oversee communications during the Northwest-Delta merger. Then after vice president roles with the University of Minnesota Foundation and Carlson, Lee was recruited for the role that changed her career trajectory. Recombinetics, a St. Paul-based gene editing tech startup hired Lee for its No. 2 spot. She led the government approval process for Recombinetics’ technology. When the company’s CEO left, she took over. “I didn’t know anything about gene editing,” Lee says. “But what the board needed was someone who could tell the story of Recombinetics, raise capital and launch the company into the future. I knew how to raise money, and I knew how to tell a story.” She raised $34 million for Recombinetics. That success led to the next opportunity, at Nanocore, a Red Wing, Minn. startup that was developing cool therapy devices made with “phase change material” formulated to 58 degrees. Lee says she fell in love with the products—particularly a vest designed to cool women experiencing hot flashes due to menopause. But she left Nanocore in December 2019 after less than a year on the job. “It was a great product, but not the right business plan or access to capital.” In January, 2020, Lee launched Xena Therapies and hire back all 10 of Nanocore’s employees. She built out two product lines: Opal Cool wearable cooling devices for women—like the “Gal Pals” bra inserts; OnyxCool for orthopedic pain relief. The plan was to start by selling into hospitals and rehab centers, but just weeks after Xena Therapies' launch, most were shut down due to the pandemic. Pivoting to direct to consumer was tricky—“The product is so new, people don’t know to search for it.” Lee says she made the decision to ramp up marketing. “While many were retrenching, I decided to double down on my investment.” It’s slow going, but she says OnyxCool will soon make its QVC debut; Opal Cool is starting to get picked up by obstetrics and chiropractic practices. Lee estimates that the pandemic has set her business plan back only by about six months. Lee says everything she does even today comes back to storytelling. “What I think the common thread is for those of us who are entrepreneurs: we are naturally curious about learning about new things. And when you go into journalism, I think that’s your primary driver: you love to hear other people’s stories, you love to learn about them and you love to tell a story that is compelling to your audience. Founders and entrepreneurs are very much that way. They’ve got a story about a product that they want to tell the world.” After our conversation with Lee, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Dan McLaughlin, director of the Center for Innovation in the Business of Health Care at Opus thinks that in the wake of Covid-19, more startups will take a consumer-driven approach to pain relief and med tech. “A lot of health care system I grew up with has been turned on its head,” McLaughlin says. “A lot of people getting virtual care, and it works great. Direct to consumer is really strong…I don’t think we’ll ever sit in a waiting room for a doctor again.”
49 minutes | 6 months ago
HabitAware Co-Founders Aneela and Sameer Kumar
Aneela Idnani Kumar started pulling out hair from her eyebrows and eyelashes when she was a girl. In her early 20s, she Googled her secret habit and discovered it had a name: trichotillomania. An estimated one in 20 Americans suffer from what Aneela calls “the most common disorder you’ve never heard of.” In 2013, she finally revealed her struggle to her husband Sameer Kumar and together, they set out to find a solution—something that would alert Aneela when she started to reach for her eyebrows. They tried bangles; they created slap bracelets with craft store supplies. “We knew we needed something that would detect movement in hands,” Sameer says. Armed with that conviction, the couple entered a Minneapolis hackathon, where they met their chief technology officer and lead hardware engineer. Within 48 hours, they had the foundation for what would become HabitAware’s innovative product, the Keen, a behavior alert bracelet that sends vibrations when it detects movement. That awareness helped Aneela retrain her brain and stop hair pulling. “Our a-ha came at a moment when the technology was available and the Fitbit had made it cool,” Sameer says. Since launching in 2017, HabitAware has sold tens of thousands of Keen bracelets and won numerous startup awards, including Time magazine’s Best Innovations, and a 2019 National Science Foundation research grant for $225,000. The Kumars hope to grow HabitAware into a company that “helps with any behavioral problem where lack of awareness is the hurdle.” Prior to starting HabitAware, Aneela worked in advertising and Sameer in finance. “I truly believe that the ad industry is the basis for everything a startup needs to do: understanding your market, understanding that messaging. In that respect, I had been helping that process along for a number of years.” Having a mission has made it easier to keep moving foward, Sameer says. ""When things get hard, you have to focus on the reason why you're in it, which for us was to solve this problem." “It feels incredible,” Aneela says of HabitAware’s success. “Growing up, I assumed I’d have a regular, normal American life. Now I get to have the American dream.” After our conversation with Aneela and Sameer, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. “Technology is transforming healthcare,” says Dan McLaughlin, director of the Center for Innovation in the Business of Health Care at St. Thomas. He suggests other possible applications for the HabitAware technology.
23 minutes | 7 months ago
Check In: Anytime Fitness CEO Chuck Runyon
“We do not want to go back to being the way we were,” says Chuck Runyon, co-founder and CEO of Self Esteem Brands, the parent company to Anytime Fitness, Bar Method, Basecamp, and Waxing in the City. Anytime, the largest of the brands, has nearly 5,000 franchise locations on seven continents—all of which had to shut down over the course of about five weeks due to Covid-19. For a company based in Minnesota, Anytime Fitness was early to realize the potentially catastrophic threat of the coronavirus because of its clubs in China. But even as those locations shut down, Runyon says, “We thought it would be contained. After Anytime’s 20 clubs in Italy closed, “it escalated quickly.” In the U.S., Missouri clubs were the first to close and then every day, every week, came another. “Like dominoes.” “In all the years we’ve sat around in meetings of what if…never did any of us anticipate shutting down nearly 5,000 clubs around in the world in five weeks.” But since they have, Runyon says he wants to make the most of the unprecedented experience. “Let’s learn, let’s adapt, and let’s be better because of it.” Anytime, Bar and Basecamp have been releasing digital content including coaching, workouts and even recipes and nutrition tips. Some of the content is free to the public and has drawn a new audience. Going forward, Runyon says, “We want to make sure we offer an omni channel experience.” Changes will also come to Self Esteem Brands’ home office in Woodbury, Minn. where around 350 employees work. “We’ll be more nimble, faster, and adopt some work from home policies. We’ll analyze travel…I think we can be leaner, and every bit as productive.” One thing Runyon doesn’t think will change: enthusiasm for the gym. “Eighty percent of health club members say they are looking forward to getting back,” Runyon says. “I think it’s going to be a mini-January…. with a nice surge of people wanting to get back to normal.” Anytime is prepared to step up its cleaning protocol, modify traffic, and whatever else is required. “There’s no playbook for this,” he says. “I’ve been unbelievably proud of how the team has adapted so quickly, It’s been an incredible experience in so many ways.” After our conversation with Runyon, who previously appeared on By All Means with his co-founder and president of Self Esteem Brands Dave Mortensen, we go back to the classroom with University of St. Thomas marketing professor Gino Giovanelli. “The thing I loved about my classroom was the community. It’s the same for a health club. What they’re selling is camaraderie.”
21 minutes | 7 months ago
Check In: Love Your Melon's Zachary Quinn
Anticipating that face masks are going to be a necessary accessory for the foreseeable future, Love Your Melon is ramping up its collection and returning to the buy one, give one model that made the beanie brand famous: for every mask purchased, the company will donate one to someone in the medical community. “Seeing how people are being instructed now to wear them whenever they’re out in public, I don’t think there’s any chance that this production goes away for the next 6 to 12 months at least. They need to keep being improved,” says Zachary Quinn, LYM co-founder and president. Quinn appeared on this podcast in 2019 to share the LYM founder’s story, which started as a classroom project at the University of St. Thomas. To date, LYM has given more than $7 million to the fight against pediatric cancer and 191,000 hats to children battling cancer. Now, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, LYM is making face masks for hospitalized children and their families, who are at high risk of contracting Covid-19. The company committed to donating 50,000 masks and is now making masks available for purchase to support the cause. A few styles and colors are being made in both cotton and surgical wrap material. Quinn talks about the process of quickly jumping into production, while also responding to increased online demand for Love Your Melon's core products. “People are coming out to support brands that are working hard to make a difference,” Quinn says. But the fate of LYM's flagship showroom in the North Loop of Minneapolis is up in the air, he says. The lease is up at the end of the year. As for leading his team, which is now working remotely, Quinn says he is “making myself available – no matter whether the request is large or small. Everyone is trying to help, everyone has something to offer. I’m trying to focus on being inclusive.” The added pressure is actually helpful, Quinn says. “Under pressure you find a lot of peace and calmness. I’m excited to be hands on and have a purpose. That’s what I’m feeling good about: having a purpose and a unified mission.” After our conversation with Quinn, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Digital Marketing Professor Gino Giovanelli says LYM is well positioned to succeed in these unusual times. “They have the ability to reach customers through social media, which is very powerful. And they’re not dependent on bricks and mortar retail.”
31 minutes | 7 months ago
Check In: Punch Pizza's John Puckett
In the course of three days in March, Punch Pizza went from record sales to shuttering its dozen Twin Cities restaurants and furloughing nearly 400 employees. “It took us by surprise how quickly it happened,” co-owner John Puckett said. With businesses like Punch upended by coronavirus, we're checking in on some of the entrepreneurs who have shared their founder’s stories on past episodes of the podcast to learn how they are navigating uncertain times. Prior to the crisis, about a third of Punch Pizza’s business was takeout. When it became apparent to Puckett and his partner, Punch Pizza founder John Sorrano, in mid-March that they may need to temporarily close their dining rooms, they installed phone stations in the basement of their Highland Park location in St. Paul to prepare for going takeout only. But an internal virus scare derailed that plan. “We thought we had a Covid-19 infection among staff. It turned out to be a false alarm, but we just realized, given the outbreak, we were going to have sick employees. We just said, there’s no way we can operate in a safe manner. “The world can live without Neapolitan pizza for a couple of months.” That was March 14—three days before Gov. Tim Walz ordered restaurants in Minnesota to shut down their dining rooms. Since then, Puckett says he’s been working around the clock on disaster aid, business interruption insurance, and planning the reopening. One of his biggest learnings: “Do not work with a bank that you don’t know the owner and senior management team. I thought it was smart to have a big national bank with resources, but those big banks neutered all the local bankers….we got burned. I feel so grateful to the small community banks that have been working around the clock to help small businesses.” Another change likely to come out of this disruption for Punch: “I don’t think we’ll be buying a lot of things from China after this. Domestic sources, U.S.-made products, even if it costs a little more…we will appreciate those local relationships a lot more.” As they begin to hire back some staff and prepare for reopening, Puckett says everything is on the table—like the possibility of remaining closed on Sundays. “When you go to 0 revenue, 0 profits from having a very successful business, you think differently about work/life balance,” Puckett says. “Restaurants are notorious for eating up people. A mandatory day off is an idea my partner and I think would help our culture and make it even stronger.” A May opening feels overly optimistic to Puckett. He says Punch won’t reopen until he can be sure employees are equipped with protective gear. He estimates recovery could take more than 2 years. “Quick service formats generally have an advantage. We’re going to make sure we have a really great value offer for our quality.” And when they do open, Puckett says, “I’ll be right in there making pizzas, serving customers on a hands-on basis until we get too big to do that. We want to reengage our entire team on serving the customers.” After our conversation with Puckett, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Marketing professor Gino Giovannelli emphasizes the importance of taking a wholistic and strategic approach to challenges. "We've got to come out of this better than we came into it."
48 minutes | 8 months ago
Proozy Founder + CEO Jeremy Segal
Proozy just may be the biggest overstock deals website you’re not shopping—yet. But hundreds of thousands of people have discovered Proozy, which, like Nordstrom Rack or T.J. Maxx, offers discounts on brand apparel from Nike, Adidas and many others. Unlike its big box competitors, Proozy is strictly e-commerce—emphasizing daily flash deals and relying on analytics to determine its inventory. Based in Eagan, Minn., Proozy hit $40 million in revenue for 2019 and Segal expects to double that in 2020. The company started out in 2006 as Lyon’s Trading Company. Jeremy Segal was just 16 years old when he started buying overstock golf equipment from pro shops and selling it to support his own golf aspirations. Realizing his knack for selling was greater than his game, he expanded into activewear and then apparel and accessories for the whole family. “We don’t function like other retailers,” Segal says. “We’re using data to make decisions, and optimizing with tech. We’ve built repeatable, predictable business you can replicate.” Segal talks about his strategy and plans to grow Proozy into a $160 million company. This interview was recorded back in December, before the Covid-19 pandemic, but Proozy has continued to grow and make news. Proozy is hiring to keep up with demand, which Segal predicts will only grow as consumers become more price-sensitive coming out of the global crisis. After our conversation with Segal, we go Back to the Classroom with Dan McGlaughlin, a faculty member in the operations and supply chain management department at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. He says Proozy is “using data in a fascinating way.” McGlaughlin uses Amazon as a case study in the classroom and points out the retail giant started with one product: books, much like Proozy started with golf equipment. “Amazon found one thing it was good at and the same thing is happening here.”
55 minutes | 8 months ago
Episode 41 — Jeff Gau, Marco CEO
Marco was a typewriter dealer when Jeff Gau landed a sales job with the St. Cloud, Minn. company in 1973, fresh out of college after serving in the U.S. Air Force. He steadily rose through the ranks and helped Marco evolve from selling printers and shredders to businesses into a full-fledged IT services provider with 60 offices throughout the U.S. and more than $400 million in annual revenue. Through the years, Marco has continued to evolve with technology and grow—even as some of its early products became obsolete. “Change is great as long as it’s happening to someone else,” Gau jokes. But Gau got comfortable with change, overseeing dozens of acquisitions for Marco, which was employee owned from 1989 to 2015. When it was acquired by Norwest Equity Partners, many employees became millionaires overnight. And proof positive of the company’s strong culture of community and collaboration: they kept right on working. “Running a business is a team sport,” Gau says. “We play to our strengths.” Gau says the key to being a strong leader is not only knowing your personal strengths, but recognizing things that others can do better. “You need to give up control to get control.” Gau shares lessons he’s learned in leadership, collaboration, culture and adaptability. Afterwards, we go Back to the Classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, who zeroes in on the way Gau has continued to welcome change and even seek it out. “Analyze your market, understand what’s going on," Deeds says. "Know your core capabalities and keep expanding on them. That’s how you win."
64 minutes | 8 months ago
Replay: Woodchuck USA Founder + Chairman Benjamin VandenWymelenberg
His company makes lifestyle products out of wood, but when the coronavirus crisis hit the U.S. in March, Woodchuck USA founder Benjamin VandenWymelenberg immediately started thinking about how he could help. His wood laser cutting machines proved ideal for making the face shields needed by health care professionals. By the end of March, Woodchuck had produced more than 200,000 PPE products. Last summer, Ben shared his founder's story with host Allison Kaplan and talked about how he stays motivated and engaged as a leader. This episode was originally released Sept. 4, 2019. ****** Wiping out on Rollerblades and cracking his iPhone prompted Benjamin VandenWymelenberg to make his first phone case out of wood scraps. An architecture student who had grown up on a farm, he liked the idea of bridging technology and nature. Friends asked him to make phone cases for them, and that was the beginning of Woodchuck USA. In a matter of months, Woodchuck was selling through Best Buy and Target. Now seven years old, the Minneapolis-based manufacturer of wood products counts Google, US Bank, Ecolab, and Aveda among its custom clients, and sells in gift stores across the country. Woodchuck plants a tree for every item sold, which has resulted in millions of trees planted on six continents. From the start, Woodchuck’s mission was far broader than its product collection: “Nature back to people. Jobs back to America. Quality back to products.” Says VandenWymelenberg, “We might give up on the product, but we’re not going to give up on the mission.” While the core company continues to grow, Woodchuck also added an interiors division which makes wood dividers and panels for offices. Meanwhile, VandenWymelenberg, 28, has gotten into real estate development, buying the building that houses Woodchuck and creating a startup hub in Minneapolis. He’s also building a nature center in central Minnesota. And he found time to visit all seven continents, and write a book about entrepreneurship called “The World Needs Your F-ing Ideas.” On this episode of By All Means, VandenWymelenberg talks about mission, marketing and the challenge of shifting his focus from founder to leader. He shares some early failures and missteps that he believes helped him get where he is today. Success, he says, is “literally a lot of failing and getting back up.” After our conversation with VandenWymelenberg, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Faculty Director Mike Porter sheds light on how to get new products on store shelves, and the potential pitfalls of borrowing startup capital from friends and family.
49 minutes | 9 months ago
Replay: Caribou Coffee co-founder and Punch Pizza co-owner John Puckett
On Monday March 16, in the face of a national emergency, John Puckett joined Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz at a press conference announcing that restaurants and bars must close to stop the spread of coronavirus. It's a death blow for many in the hospitality industry, but Puckett said "it's time to hunker down and protect our vital resources." How do you lead through crisis? This conversation from our first episode of By All Means in April 2019 is sure to provide some inspiration. *** John Puckett and his wife Kim had a case of “the Mondays” that struck almost as soon as they landed corporate jobs after business school. “Life is too short to spend Sunday night dreading going in to work on Monday,” John says. “We felt like life is … too precious to not really feel connected to your work and passionate about what you’re doing.” That conviction led to the creation of Caribou Coffee, now the No. 2 coffee chain in the U.S. It's No. 1 in Minnesota—the one market Starbucks doesn’t dominate—and that’s because of several strategic decisions made by the Pucketts. They grew the chain to more than 100 stores before selling in 2000. A year later, John became co-owner of a small but beloved St. Paul restaurant called Punch Pizza. He’s spent nearly 20 years growing Punch slowly, locally and without any outside investors. Puckett explains why he was determined to build a different sort of company his second time around. Following our conversation with Puckett, we go Back to the Classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, who explains the pros and cons of venture capital and why slow growth is under appreciated in business today.
53 minutes | 9 months ago
Episode 40 - Kent Pilakowski, Food Startup Investor and Advisor
Behind every successful founder are the advisors, investors, mentors, and marketers who are integral to getting it right. Kent Pilakowski is one of those behind-the-scenes experts who helped to build Beyond Meat, Talenti, Good Karma and other hot food brands that have sold or gone public. Pilakowski shares his journey from General Mills to entrepreneurship and talks about the evolution of the food industry and what it takes for a new brand to break through today. “Food has become a lot more fashionable,” says Pilakowski, who got a sales job with General Mills out of college in the 1990s and moved more than a dozen times before landing in general management at corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. He worked on two organic acquisitions: Muir Glen and Kaskadian Farms, and that opened his eyes to the opportunity for industry disruption. “Entrepreneurs start a business for passion, for health, to save the world, to save the environment. I saw a groundswell happening.” Pilakowski likes to say he isn’t the “ideas guy,” but he can spot a good one. He took six months to de-program himself from corporate culture and spent time talking to entrepreneurs before setting up a team and getting into position to help build businesses. “Early on, it’s all about the entrepreneur—not the business. You’re betting on the scrappiness that they’re going to figure it out. Often, the business itself has to do a complete 180.” Pilakowski has seen seismic change in food entrepreneurship since the early days of his career. There’s more money, more innovation, and actually, he says, it makes success that much more elusive. “A lot more people want to change the world. Now when you walk the halls of food industry shows, there are 8 million different ideas. There’s more money coming in, which enables entrepreneurs to do stupid, non-scalable things. Very few are making money.” Pilakowski offers advice on defining success, and knowing when to sell. He also talks about the decision to sell his own firm to spend more time with his three young children. After our conversation with Pilakowski, we go back to the classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship. Deeds points out the important role a partner like Pilakowski can play for an entrepreneur. “They bring things to the game you don’t have: branding, marketing, fulfillment. You either have to find it, or learn it.”
66 minutes | 9 months ago
Episode 39 - Matchstick Ventures Partner Ryan Broshar
Growing up on an Iowa farm taught Ryan Broshar about taking risks and working hard. And it made him realize at an early age that he’d rather sell the corn than harvest it. His first startup, a university-based publication business called University Guide, grew out of an entrepreneurship class assignment at the University of Minnesota. It became a profitable business that Broshar sold two years out of college. While pursuing an MBA at Colorado University-Boulder, he got involved in the emerging startup community and worked for an investment fund. It was 2008—“the economy was crashing, but (tech startups) weren’t going down; they were thinking forward.” When he and his wife moved back to Minnesota to be closer to family, Broshar saw an opportunity to support the Twin Cities startup community. He co-founded BetaMN, a support system for founders that puts on a showcase-style event to connect founders with investors. Next, he co-founded Twin Cities Startup Week, which has become a national draw, attracting large companies and investment dollars to Minnesota. He was instrumental in bringing the Tech Stars Retail Accelerator program to Minnesota, and served as managing director for four years before leaving to concentrate on Matchstick Ventures, a seed stage firm focused on early stage tech companies in the Midwest and Rockies. In 2019, Matchstick raised $30 million in its second round. The fund has invested in 50 companies to date including Upsie and Inspectorio. “What I really liked about my own startup was the start,” Broshar says. “I like the zero to one of building a company. One to 10, I get kind of bored and start thinking, what’s the next idea? When you’re investing, you’re always starting. It’s a great fit for me.” Early stage investing appeals to Broshar because of the mentorship component. “You have to have empathy for the founder and understand there are going to be pivots. When you’re an early investor in an early stage company, it’s part financial support, part cheerleader, party psychologist. Being a founder is a lonely road and a lot of times, they look to investors as their strength.” What do Broshar and his Matchstick partner look for in startups? “We like to support founders that are underdogs. That come from untraditional backgrounds. People who have the feeling they were put on Earth to solve this problem. They’re obsessed with what they’re doing.” Being a venture capitalist isn’t for everyone. “You’ve got to love coffee,” Broshar says—only half jokingly, describing the significant amount of time he devotes to meeting potential founders, partners and investors. And you have to get comfortable saying no. “The Midwesterner in me wants to please everyone,” Broshar says. “It really comes down to: Is this a fit, is it a good use of my time. I’m trying to be very clear about the kind of stuff Matchstick likes to invest in. And if I can make connections, I'm happy to do that.” As for the VC world in general: “Venture capital is insanely risky,” Broshar says. “It’s the only profession in the world where you can be wrong the majority of the time and still be the best at it.” After our conversation with Broshar, we go back to the classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Entrepreneurship professor John McVea points out that less than half of a percent of all startups get venture funding. Of them, less than 1 percent make it to $1 billion in value, but those “unicorns” as they’ve come to be known, generate the lion’s share of publicity. While VC money is less prevalent than the media would have you believe, “Venture capital has had a huge cultural influence,” McVea says. “Along with the VC model came the idea of the lean startup: get a quick product out the door really fast, try it, measure and learn, pivot, redesign. It’s opened the door to a lot of people who would have been reticent—afraid they didn’t have the perfect idea. Many entrepreneurs learn as they go.”
36 minutes | 10 months ago
Episode 38 - Branch founder and CEO Atif Siddiqi
Atif Siddiqi knew he wanted to build a business. When considering problems to solve, he harkened back to his high school sales job at a t-shirt shop, where there was no automated system for employees to trade or pick up available shifts. Years later, he discovered, not much had changed. He launched Branch in 2014 as a scheduling tool for hourly employees. It has since evolved into a mobile-first platform on a mission to “make the lives of hourly workers financially better.” Branch provides no-cost advances on earned wages. The app is used by hundreds of thousands of hourly employees at large companies including Life Time and Target. Along the way, Siddiqi has become an authority on the topics of employee satisfaction, financial wellness, and how employee engagement can help a company’s bottom line. “What we hear is employees are looking for more predictability in their schedules as well as flexibility. Uber has made it possible to pick up a shift any time—that’s driving consumers to want that from their workplace,” Siddiqi says. “Unemployment is at all time low. Companies are having a tough time attracting talent. When they do, the vast majority are seeing 60 to 100 percent turnover annually. The average cost to hire a new employee is $2,500—that’s recruitment, on-boarding, training. Anything we can do to slow down churn goes a long way toward the bottom line. It’s investing in growth.” Forty percent of Branch users have no money in the bank; 75 percent have less than $500. “An unexpected expense can really derail their personal and work lives,” Siddiqi says. A California native, Siddiqi moved his company to Minnesota in its early days to participate in Target Tech Stars. The experience was critical to Branch’s success. “For an entrepreneur, working with a big organization is like a black box—you don’t know how decisions are made. It allowed us to peer inside the black box, understand how tech initiatives are implemented, how they’re deployed, how new tech interacts with all the existing tech already in place. It was really fundamental to us understanding how to deploy within an organization. One of the things we got really good at: reducing amount of friction to implement.” By the time Branch completed Target Tech Stars in 2016, the company was growing and Siddiqi decided to make Minneapolis headquarters, and home. “The Twin Cities has a lot of great talent, especially around enterprise B-to-B software.” Branch employs 65 (up from 45 when this interview was recorded just a few months ago), has raised more than $10 million, and is making money, Siddiqi says. “If we can help employees continue to grow their account balance over time after downloading the app, that’s success for our team—our North Star and what guides us.” As far as advice for other entrepreneurs? “Start building,” Siddiqi says. “There’s no substitute for actually building product, learning from customers and hearing what they have to say.” We dig into that strategy in Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. John McVea, an associate professor at the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, says there’s been a huge change in emphasis on entrepreneurial strategy from ready, aim, fire, to fire, ready aim. “We used to teach: think, research, plan, execute. Logical, not random. But when we talked to real life entrepreneurs, very few operate this way. They jump off a cliff and try. They make mistakes, pivot, learn, and keep going. Often they end up in a place that is different than we would have ever intended.” The takeaway? “I’m not saying don’t plan,” McVea says. But he urges entrepreneurs to take a more outward focused approach. “Spend time making a product, making mistakes, and learning.”
64 minutes | 10 months ago
Episode 37 - Mercury Mosaics Founder and CEO Mercedes Austin
From maker to manufacturer: Mercedes Austin started making ceramic tiles in her apartment 18 years ago, and today, her company, Mercury Mosaics, occupies a 15,000 square foot factory in Minneapolis that produces tile for Room & Board, lululemon, PF Chang, major hotel chains, and other large clients as well selling direct to consumer. In the next year, Mercury Mosaics will open a second manufacturing center in Wadena, Minn. and a third is already being planned—both with a focus on creating jobs in small towns. It’s been a long and winding road for Austin, who stumbled into ceramics while studying psychology and took on apprenticeships to learn the trade while waiting tables to pay the bills. “I didn’t start out with the greatest self-worth,” Austin says. “My mom didn’t give me money, so I always had to figure out a way. Becoming resourceful, not having anything handed to you—it always motivated me to do really well by any means necessary. I’m most proud that I didn’t turn out how everyone said I would.” Ten years ago, as Mercury Mosaics gained momentum, Austin stopped making tiles so she could concentrate on growing the business. She shares stories of how she gave tile away to make connections with architects and how she changed her sales strategy seven times and eventually stopped paying commission to create a more cohesive team focused on growth. “I’m not afraid to start things over,” Austin says. Since eliminating the commission structure, sales have grown by 25 percent. “We formed a team that is working together versus internal opponents.” After our conversation with Austin, we go back to the classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship. Deeds zeroes in on the key to Austin’s success. “She started with passion for art and craft. But her passion today is about managing this business. She’s really evolved. She’s been open to learning and picking up the skills she needed.” That transition is essential, he says, for a founder to become a successful CEO.
55 minutes | 10 months ago
Episode 36 - Jonny Pops Co-Founder and CEO Erik Brust
Erik Brust was still a teenager when he came up with the idea for an all-natural popsicle—a fruit smoothie on a stick. He and some friends started making them in their dorm at St. Olaf College and by the time they graduated, Jonny Pops was a brand on the rise in the frozen foods industry. Eight years later, St. Louis Park, Minn.-based Jonny Pops is sold nationwide at Target, Costco, Sam’s Club and many other chains. In 2018, Brust and co-founder and chief financial officer Connor Wray were named to Forbes 30 under 30 list of young entrepreneurs. At 27, Brust is CEO of a fast-growing company with nearly 50 employees…most of whom are older than he is. “They love telling me I’m younger than their kids are,” he says. Brust talks about how he got Jonny Pops off the ground (“I don’t see any other way to get a business going unless you commit 100 percent to it.”), the lonely process of raising money (“It’s very humbling to go out there and pitch your idea and hope that people are going to believe in you and then give you money to go live that out.”), and transitioning from founder to leader. “I’ve shifted from individual contributor–making pops, working farmers’ markets—to, how do I hire people who are better at this than I could ever be, and have a consistent culture.” He shares his biggest mistake: being too slow to hire. “You realize how much stronger you are when you have amazing people working on the business.” And Brust discusses the opportunities ahead for Jonny Pops. “We’re in 12 to 15 percent of grocery stores. Now we’re setting our sights on 60 to 70 percent and thinking about how to kick off big advertising campaigns and innovate new, exciting flavors. All of those are fun for us right now.” After our conversation with Brust, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. John McVea, an associate profession in the entrepreneurship department, talks about the different leadership styles require to take a company from startup through growth. “In the startup phase, you need someone with really clear vision. Almost autocratic. Never compromise. You also need a person who is charismatic,” McVea says. “You get to a certain point in growth when suddenly growth is not the singular objective. Consistency, efficiency, cost, management become important as well. This is when you see many serial entrepreneurs leave. They don’t find it fun, and don’t make it fun for anyone else.”
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