A Taste of Twin Cities StartUp Week #TCSW

Have you heard? During Minnesota’s first Tech StartUp Week September 9-12, there’s quite the impressive line-up of events going on — 23 to be exact. Known among avid tweeters as #TCSW (Twin Cities StartUp Week) I’d be surprise if it wasn’t trending. No doubt some entrepreneurs are going all in this week including the weekend-long bootcamp. I made it to a mere three events. Here’s a little taste of startup from the week.

Sept 10, Day 2:
I hit up 1 Million Cups St. Paul at the James J Hill Center. Lee George and Greg Fouks with the center kicked of the morning with an overview — they do this #1MCSTP thing every Wednesday along with other cities around the country. The event on this particular day was additionally promoted through startup week, so many new people were in attendance for the first time. The format is a six minute presentation by each of the two presenters. The goal is to give a summary of their business and open it up to the audience for constructive feedback and conversation.

First up was Davis Law where founder K.M.Davis shared the firm’s story to-date starting with a rebrand and leap of faith to use a non-traditional url for their site: davismeansbusiness.com. From the non-pretentious photography, pricing structure disclosure to blog posts about entrepreneurial issues it shouts: We are not a typical law firm! They focus on business law and have already broken down barriers. They’re accessible — you can find one of team Davis in CoCo spaces around the Twin Cities (St. Paul, Uptown and Minneapolis).

Next up was Yemyo. Founder Frankie Poplau shared an overview of Yemyo’s product called Standard Sightline. Poplau’s career in education and in business as an executive consultant backed by a PhD in education and a master’s degree in technology, all drive her vision to use technology to catapult teaching and learning into the hands of the students. Her presentation struck many cords with the audience — all chiming in to share their views on the product with a nod to focus her sales approach as much as possible. As a parent of two, I believed the most compelling ideas are motivating and engaging youth to learn in their own way and involving the parent. I was excited about the possibilities even after only a glimpse of the technology (check out ideas around this general movement using #EdTech as in education and technology). The largest hurdle? Layers and layers of standards, politics and policy and implementation.

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

Next up: The 10th annual MNCup Final Awards Event at the University of Minnesota, McNamara Center. It was Minnesota feel-good at its finest. Large corporate sponsors supporting entrepreneurs who are truly startup. Paul Douglas’ emcee style complete with weather references and one parting word of wisdom for the go-getters in the group: tenacity. MNCup founders reminiscing about their first brainstorming meeting around the MNCup idea. A recap of impressive numbers to-date: $160M raised in venture capital for startups, 13,000 participants; and new initiatives in 2014: Food/Ag/Beverage category and women entrepreneurs. Oh and Jonny Pops.

We heard elevator pitches from two groups of presenters (runners-up and winners) in seven categories. RoomPoll ran two audience vote tallies via smartphones during the event (winners: TCMobileMarket and Jonny Pops). 75Fahrenheit, a proactive, energy-efficient temperature control system for buildings, took the #MNCup10 Grand Prize. On that note, the evening came to a close. It was a high-energy crowd of 200+ of entrepreneurs, supporters, corporate sponsors and mentors from the program (80 in total have served in this role). I met several people in a short time involved in startup efforts from predictive education models and software development to co-working spaces and social sharing technology called CameraSlice (winners of the Beta.MN 1.5 9.9 event).

Sept 11, Day 3:
It’s early, but I’m still late. I walk into the in-progress Bootstrappers session at the U of MN Carlson School of Management around 7:45a.m. My new fun female #TCSW friend later confirmed that it indeed was a room full of dudes (70 men and 6 women to be exact). The panel of four including Daren Cotter, InBoxDollars; Chad Halvorson, thisCLICKS; Matthew Dornquast, Code42and Clay Collins, LeadPages, openly shared their early startup phase to present-day insight. They covered the VC versus bootstrapping approaches and covered challenges, benefits, pitfalls and advice.

Where to begin downloading all the great info they shared? I’ll start by saying that the structure worked well. They all told their business story (unfortunately my being late meant missing most of Daren’s), then each answered the same question from the moderator with time for Q&A at the end. Here are just some of the highlights by keyword:

On PR/Marketing:

  • Seek out PR and competitions. For us TechCRUNCH gave us a platform. It helped with hiring, provided more expertise and financial rigor (Clay)

  • Skydiving without testing your parachute is not a good idea. First establish your minimum viable audience. Tools like Kickstarter can help. We pre-sold our first product to raise money before running with it (Clay)

  • Think disruptive marketing for B2B sales. We’ve invested in content marketing like blog, podcasts and webinars (Clay)

On MN (Because all of their businesses are Minnesota based, we got to hear their perspective on MN niceness)

  • Ratio of fortune 500 companies to start-ups is an advantage in Minnesota, but don’t look to geography as your ecosystem (Clay)

  • In general, we need to talk about money more than we do in MN. We need to share actual data (Clay)

  • Tech and bootstrapping align really well. And in Minnesota, the retention and loyalty factor is higher than the coasts (Chad)

On Co-worker Togetherness:

  • Productivity and getting people together in a room is still key. Added challenges come with employees working via mobile including lower productivity. BTW, internet telephony still sucks (Clay)

  • If you have remote employees, do not consider or treat them as second class employees. If everyone at headquarters works with a mobile mindset then this is less of an issue (Chad)

  • Be an optimist. Think of everyone in your company as co-founders (Matthew)

On Money Changing Everything:

  • Eventually we needed outside resources, but having money or not is not the issue. It’s more like what you do with it operationally. i.e. Google not an inventor but kills it on execution (Clay)

  • You have to love what you do and or create a capital-efficient model. We receive revenue in hand before we pay our expenses (Daren)

  • Ask about what the VC community is looking for and build that data into your business so that appeals to VC in future, even if that is not your current intention (Matthew)

On Lack of Defining Moments:

  • The customer validates. As an entrepreneur, at some point – 50 some customers in, you start to feel like you know something inside. Like it’s going to work (Chad)

  • It’s not really a dramatic defining moment, rather a series of small stepping stone decisions to get you there. Don’t do drastic. Keep your day job until you’re completely motivated, obsessed and passionate (Clay)

  • Tap into customer psychology base. Reverse engineer the process. Find out where this is happening organically (Matthew)

All of this insight. Now what? I could sense many entrepreneurs in the room moving into the “it” moment of their successful future business office space with visions of ping pong tables and beer fridges one panelist described. The event definitely delivered quality insight straight from CEO’s and founders of top Minnesota companies at a unheard of value ($5.00 — my $7.00 parking was more). After further delving into these companies and leaders — all with clear, concise branding and websites — I want to learn more.

My #TCSW was a glimpse into our Minnesota startup community via these three events. It was a good first taste of what’s to come as this community continues to grow. Well done to all involved in what is shaping up to be a most successful first Twin Cities StartUp Week!