Features

Young Entrepreneurs 2017

By Megan Gosch

We are proud to present our third annual cohort of Young Entrepreneurs — those who are 35 or younger and have founded or cofounded a business. While some feared we would run short of Young Entrepreneurs this year, we are happy to report that we received a record number of applications and are featuring more than ever before. Please get to know them, because many are well on their way to prominence. We also have updates from Young Entrepreneur alumni, who are increasingly productive despite their advancing years.

Her Name is Yeh
The Arlee Park Twins
Pan-Asian Food Partnership
The Internet Cat Woman
The Sweet Spot Between Spotify and a Real DJ
Direct Mail Disruptors
The Full List of Young Entrepreneurs
Updates from Our Young Entrepreneur Alumni

Her Name is Yeh

Megan Gosch

 

In the incredibly competitive field of food blogging, Molly Yeh (pronounced “yay”) stands out. On her popular blog, "my name is yeh," the quirky, grounded blogger connects personally with readers. She chronicles major milestones and Minnesota farm-life antics as well as recipes inspired by her Jewish and Chinese heritage, often with a Midwestern twist. After studying percussion at Juilliard, Yeh married a soon-to-be beet farmer and settled in East Grand Forks, where she focused her efforts on blogging. Yeh (28) has since been named a Forbes 30 under 30 and the blog was named Saveur’s Blog of the Year. She even launched her own cookbook, Molly on the Range.

After studying percussion, why did you decide to start a food blog?

Well, I’ve always kept a diary. Since the day I could write, I’ve had this passion for documenting what’s going on in my life and the world. At first, the blog was just basically an extension of my diary, so I’d write about adventures like weekend trips from New York and fun things I was doing with my friends. Over time it became clear that what I really wanted to blog about was food.

When I lived in New York, my writing was mostly about restaurants and then I discovered this passion for cooking my food. I realized how rewarding it was, and how it could be cheap and healthy to cook your own food rather than going out for all your meals, so I started blogging about recipes.

Did you foresee it becoming a business?

Not at all. Naomi Davis of “Rockstar Diaries” and I, we overlapped at Juilliard. Just before I graduated, a friend told me she’d made her blog a career and that was the first time I realized it was possible to blog professionally. After that I was motivated to make it work because blogging and making food are two of my biggest passions. To be able to do both as a job is really rewarding.

Would you have done anything differently if you’d have known you could blog as a career?

I love playing music, but if I had known blogging could be a job maybe I would have gone a slightly different route so I could have done both. It all happened quite quickly, that I learned it was a job, and then I was like "all right, I want to make that my job.” I think I would have tried to do both at once.

When and how did the blog become a full-fledged career? 

The business became official in 2013 when I started working with sponsors and publications like Betty Crocker and Food52 to create recipes and photos. Other brands followed. That generated enough income to eventually make it a full-time job. In the beginning I was also negotiating contracts and corresponding with sponsors by myself so the first steps there were figuring out various rates and how to communicate with sponsors on a business level.

What do you think sets you apart?

I really work to make recipes you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Not just recipes, but things like cake decorating ideas or techniques for flavor combinations. There are hundreds of carrot cake recipes on the internet, but I approach them and think “how can I use my experiences, my inspirations, my travels, my spice cabinet — which probably is the weirdest spice cabinet in East Grand Forks — to make this different?” A big reason why people come to my blog is that they know that they're going to get something new I think, and I really love experimenting to make that happen.

Partnerships and sponsored posts are a regular part of professional blogging, but I see you’ve partnered with a few local brands and businesses. Are local partnerships important to you? How do those partnerships come together?

Definitely! They pop up in all sorts of different ways. These days a lot of the partnerships come through my agent Daniel and so he'll work those out so a lot of that business-y stuff is something that Daniel focuses on. It’s great because then I have more time to bake cakes during the day and do recipe development ― that's where my true passion is. Full disclosure, I'm literally playing with marzipan right now because I have a cake post that I'm shooting tomorrow, so just the idea of making a physical food object is where my greatest passion lies. While I loved partnering with brands, local brands especially, the idea of working out contracts and working out specifics of what the partnership is going to look like is definitely more Daniel's forte.

How have things changed with the success of the blog and your new book? Any plans or concerns around growing your team or taking on new projects?

Absolutely. That's something that I do think about quite a bit is should I hire various jobs out and should I maybe rent out a studio space in downtown Grand Forks? How do I grow this business? To be honest, one of the reasons that I love it so much is that I get to wake up whenever I want, wear my pajamas, just stumble into my kitchen, play with food all day, and then just have a lot of creative freedom with it. That’s something that I never really want to give up. I love being able to have that freedom. I have consciously made the decision to keep all of the recipe development in my kitchen, keep the photography in my kitchen, and then there are certain things that I’m not as good at or don't love doing as much, so those are things that I can have others do. The bulk of the creative work is done right here in my kitchen.

What does a typical day look like for you?

My typical ideal day is one where I wake up at around, I don't know, like 9:00 a.m. and then look at Instagram. Then I'll just cook all day and test recipes and make cake. Basically just testing recipes is my favorite way to spend a day. Once I have a few recipes ready for the blog I'll have a day where I photograph. Writing the blog posts eventually gets done, but mostly it's just a lot of time spent in my kitchen recipe testing or photographing. I love it.

Your work and brand are closely tied to your personal life. How do you feel about sharing your personal life with your followers? Do you find there are any drawbacks or limitations?

Having a personal brand online is parallel with having a personality in real life. It's fun and important to be yourself, and when done right, it's very freeing. If ever there's a question over whether or not I should be working with a specific brand or doing a specific project, the answer is usually as simple as looking inward and asking myself if this brand aligns with my personal values and style. I also think of my online community as friends, so if I wouldn't recommend a brand to a friend in real life, then that's not the brand for me.

What's next for "my name is yeh"?

I’d love to dive deeper into longer-term, more complicated recipes. Right now I’m working on a short rib recipe that takes 48 hours and I’m working on bagels because we don’t have a bagel shop in Grand Forks. These are things that I’ve always thought of as difficult recipes, but I’m just now deciding to just go for them.

 

The Arlee Park Twins

Megan Gosch

 

For Ashley Hewitt Lemke and Jamie Hewitt Budnick, the twin sisters behind the darling new modern-vintage boutique Arlee Park, entrepreneurship runs in the family. After watching their parents juggle the stress and long hours that come with business ownership, the sisters pursued careers in management and marketing. Through a string of serendipitous events, the duo’s creative talents and shared passions led to the launch of two businesses.

The twins (32) became full-time photographers before wading into vintage retail, selling thrifted goods online. As word spread and demand grew the sisters set up a brick-and-mortar shop in April.

What inspired Arlee Park?  Was a vintage boutique always part of the plan?

JAMIE: Our parents started their own business and our father always told us “don’t do it. Don’t start your own business.” After he passed away, we also remembered him often saying “be happy and do what you enjoy.” There was a point where we realized his advice had become contradictory for us, our passions ultimately lead us to start our business and we felt like we needed to follow that. 
ASHLEY: First we traveled and kept a blog. That’s when we realized we had a passion for photography and started Ash & James Photography. That was just the path we went down. I don’t think we ever thought we’d start another business, but there was something about that challenge that really intrigued us. I don’t think we ever thought we’d start another business, but we had always wanted a boutique together.

You started Arlee Park on Etsy. Why open a physical store?

JAMIE: We started the Etsy online shop in 2016. We listed a bunch of items, and what we really enjoyed was the sourcing. Wedding season picked up and we put the shop on hold. When we got back to listing in November we got a great response so we tried a few pop-ups in my house.
ASHLEY: The pop-ups went so well we wondered “how cool would it be to actually have a brick-and-mortar store?” We looked at a space in December and within two weeks we had the keys.

You grew up together, went to school together and now you’re business partners. What is it like to work with your sister?

ASHLEY:  Jamie is more on the creative side and I handle more of the business side of things. We balance each other.
JAMIE: We get a lot of comments like “I could never work with my sister.” But it just works for us.
ASHLEY:  Yes, and we are very similar, but it’s not a problem. Our personalities are different, but we have the same morals, same thoughts, the same everything. I can’t imagine doing this without her. If I didn’t have Jamie, I wouldn’t do Ash & James.
JAMIE: If I didn’t have her I wouldn’t do any of this. I know that for a fact.

Based on your backgrounds, a shop like Arlee Park seems like a natural next step for you two. Have your backgrounds shaped Arlee Park?

JAMIE: We come from management and marketing and I think that gave us the base knowledge to run a business. Also, seeing our parents go through it first-hand prepared us as well. It gave us an idea of how much work our own business could take. Even now, everything we’ve learned through Ash & James — understanding how make something visually appealing — has made a difference, especially with a lot of our work being tied to Instagram. Being professional photographers has given us that leg up.

 I imagine a background in photography would be especially helpful now, when so many business connections are made through Instagram. What role does Instagram, or social media in general, play in your business?

ASHLEY: So many of our customers find us on Instagram and we’re able to make sales directly through our posts.   
JAMIE: It’s one of those things that we know it's necessary, it's definitely beneficial, but it can be time-consuming. We’re styling and editing each shot before we post, we’re setting a lot of time aside day-to-day for that. And then there’s the strategy of it all. We’re trying to experiment with posting on specific days and play around with timing, but you could spend full days just working on Instagram. We’re trying to find a balance between managing that element and the rest of the business.
ASHLEY:  And I think when we compare our time spent on Etsy, we’re getting more out of [Instagram]. On Etsy, we’re taking five different photos and adding a description and measurements, and for someone to find us, the customer has to be searching for something so specific. It’s quicker to use Instagram and it’s proven to be a better selling tool ― we can post an item and soon after that somebody’s commenting “I need that.”

There aren’t many vintage stores you could also describe as modern. What do you think sets Arlee Park apart?

ASHLEY: We didn’t want Arlee Park to be like any other vintage store. We wanted to get away from that retro feel and showcase items in a modern environment where people could imagine them in their home. 
JAMIE: Our shop’s entirely curated. We’re different from most vintage or consignment shops in that we’re not filled to the brim. Everything here was hand-picked with an aesthetic in mind.

Are there any challenges you feel you’re up against as younger entrepreneurs?

ASHLEY: There does seem to be a misconception around the work we’re putting in. We do have people visit the shop and say things like “it must be nice to hang out post to Instagram all day.” They’re only getting to see a small part of our business. This didn’t come together overnight.
JAMIE: Yes, there’s so much more going into this than most seem to grasp. We’re strategizing through every part of the business from sourcing the items we sell, to styling them and getting them up online or out on the floor, pricing, and more. We’re also spending hours each week scouring stores and sales from top to bottom, every rack, every hanger. A lot of those sales turn up nothing. And because we sell one-of-a-kind items, that effort can’t be reused or recycled. We’re not like other stores were you might have 20 or 30 of the same item and can use the same picture and price for each.

What’s next for you both and for Arlee Park?

JAMIE: We’d like to list more items online and hopefully reach a larger audience. Even just growing our location might be best.
ASHLEY:  Our original dream for Arlee Park was to have a mobile shop but at this time, but Minneapolis doesn’t have a mobile retail license. We still have this truck we’re hoping to get up and running to operate as a mobile store. It needs paint, a new engine, almost everything, so that will be another big project. We’ve also played with the idea of an in-store collaboration, featuring exclusive items in the store created through partnerships with local artists or creatives.

We’re always joking around asking “what is our next business?” I think there’s something that intrigues us about the unknown and that opportunity to challenge ourselves to learn new things, just like with Ash & James. We were self-taught. We had to figure out every element of that business and make it our own.
JAMIE: We’re big dreamers, but we’re also very realistic and know what we can handle. The next step we take will feel right for us.

 

Pan-Asian Food Partnership

Raha Khan

 

When Xiaoteng “X” Huang took his first sushi class three years ago, he was a Cornell grad with a degree in industrial and labor relations. After a string of corporate jobs, he revisited a life-long interest in Japanese cuisine and the restaurant industry. 
At the end of the class, X approached the instructor, John Sugimura, with an idea to open a culturally authentic Asian restaurant that doesn’t intimidate customers. 

In 2016 they co-founded PinKU, a Japanese street food restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis. 

Did your background affect this choice?

XIAOTENG: The inspiration behind the business is deeply personal. My parents came to the U.S. in 1993. They left behind their good jobs to wash dishes in Chinatown, because they wanted me to have every opportunity possible. I joined my parents in 1999 and we settled in Marshall, Minn. Living there had a great influence on me. I was a minority and they always embraced me as an immigrant. My family really appreciated their curiosity and openness to learning about Chinese culture. 

Do your customers have that curiosity?

XIAOTENG: Even in that first minute of interaction with our restaurant, most people already feel that it’s something different and authentic. They see our art, the menu board and we always come out from behind the counter to help them through the menu. Right away it opens them up to a new experience.
JOHN: Since we’ve been open, not one person came back to us and said “I really don’t like this.” People have been open to learning more about the food. They want that real, family version rather than whatever generic kind they’ve had before.

What made you open to hearing X’s idea when he approached you?

JOHN: What captured my attention was the opportunity to connect with a younger generation of entrepreneurs because they brought something different to the table. X had big ideas, but also a realistic plan and expectations. He was prepared for the work it would take.

How does PinkU represent today’s world?

XIAOTENG: We represent a successful immigrant story and a succession. John’s grandmother immigrated to America in the 1920s and ran a restaurant until she was put in an internment camp for four and a half years. Now we’re carrying on her tradition of serving authentic Japanese food. In my case, I came to this country not speaking a word of English, and so many people from my community helped me along the way. I think it’s my obligation to give back and lead a positive impact in return.

The Internet Cat Woman

Steve LeBeau

Kady Lone (age 27) -- aka the Cat Woman -- became an internet entrepreneur by accident. She is a graphic designer by trade, but things began to change when she started posting photos of her new cat, Pudge. That led to her becoming a co-owner of a site known as Cats of Instagram, which has eight million followers. Those numbers translate into interest from sponsors as well as fans seeking cat-themed merchandise.

MNBIZ: I hesitate to call you the “cat woman,” but that's what we refer to you as. You are the owner, but also the producer of the Pudge the Cat website.

Katie: That is what I've come to be known as, “the cat lady of the internet world,” I guess you could say.

MNBIZ: Well you've worked your way up in the world. Then you're also the proprietor of Cats of Instagram.

Katie: I co-run that account with a guy named Eli, who founded it out in California.

MNBIZ: Cats of Instagram – are your officially connected to Instagram, are you an employee? 

Katie: No, we're not affiliated with Instagram. They want us to make that clear I suppose. Our official business name is something different, and Eli has it founded under his name. Legally it's separate from Instagram, but we call ourselves “Cats of Instagram” because it started on Instagram, it's an Instagram account where we curate cute cat photos that other people post on Instagram, and we post them to our account, which now has over eight million followers. It's just sort of like a way to push your cat out there to more people, and that's actually one of the ways that Pudge sort of became famous back in the day, because Pudge started on Instagram. I started posting pictures of her on Instagram.

MNBIZ: Tell me more about Pudge, the actual cat. She is like the star of this. She made you what you are, kind of.

Katie: Yes, everything started from Pudge. To start from the beginning, I went to school for graphic design, and when I graduated in 2010 I decided I wanted to get a cat. I had grown up with dogs and was sort of looking into cats, and found this breed called exotic short hair. That's what Pudge is. They're known for being more like a dog than a cat; I guess you could call them a Garfield-type cat. They look a lot like Garfield with the big round bodies and flat faces. I found Pudge in Chicago and I drove down there to get her. It was a four hundred mile trip to Chicago and then back.

MNBIZ: When did you make Pudge a star? Or when did Pudge make you a star? It could go either way.

Katie: I was taking these pictures of her as a kitten because she was really cute, and I studied graphic design so I also had a nicer DSLR camera -- this was back in 2010. I also had an Instagram account for myself, so I would post what I ate that day and then the occasional picture of Pudge. I had taken these pictures on my nice camera, and so I started getting these random people following me, and commenting, and wanting to see more pictures of Pudge. These nicer photos kind of stood out back in the day, because everyone had an iPhone 3 and it just didn't take as nice photos. I started getting people asking me to post more pictures of Pudge, and so I just did that, and eventually it took over my account and I can recall the time that it changed from my account to Pudge's account. It was right after the first internet cat video film festival, because there was this other internet famous cat named Little Bub, that was coming into town.

MNBIZ: Were you working as you and Pudge were becoming famous, did you have a day job?

Katie: I did, as a graphic designer. I was moving around various small firms and I was at a lead designer at a small little boutique firm. And just as people started asking me to post more pictures of Pudge on her page, people would see a photo and say, "I want this on a t-shirt." Or, "I want a calendar with Pudge's picture in it." I thought, "Well, I went to school for graphic design. I can do that. I can make a website and I can make all these products, and I can sell them." I started doing that. I had one holiday season of doing that, and it took up a lot of my time, because I would do all the orders myself. The next holiday season, I told my employer that I was going to take three months off around the holiday season, and then I would come back to work after that, and I never did. I think that probably 2013, or 2014.

MNBIZ: What’s the story of how you found Pudge?

Katie: My story with Pudge is unique. Not many people have that same kind of story. Where I was going with this that is I don't really have that sort of change to spread on the world, where it's like sharing her back story. She doesn't really have that going for her. It's just mostly about sharing cute content and making people happy. I get tons of comments from people when we have meet-and-greets in person, people coming up to me and just saying how much Pudge makes people happy and changes their lives for the better.

MNBIZ: A lot of businesses they look for ways to scale up. I cannot imagine you scaling up any more than you have, but you could. Do you envision ever expanding your business somehow?

Katie: I mean, in terms of followers it's always growing, usually at an exponential rate, especially for Cats of Instagram. I think we are trying to expand for Cats of Instagram. We're looking to open a store where we can sell merchandise.

Last year we sold some of that stuff in person at this convention called Cat Con, that we've gone to -- it will be three years now in a row. We're looking to have an online store so that people don't have to be somewhere in person to get that stuff. Then maybe potentially trying to grow our business some way together. Right now Eli's in California and I'm in Minnesota, and sometimes that's difficult working separately. We're trying to figure out a way to make that work better.

MNBIZ: Your business seems to be pretty organic, it just kind of happened. Are there people that try to do this?

Katie: For sure, yeah, especially now that it has happened to a few cats. There are people that try to make their cat famous and it's something that people will either email me about, like, "Hey, I'm trying to make my cat famous." Or will ask me in person at meet-and-greets, or I've spoken on panels where the questions are things like how do you make your cat internet famous? It's a big question that people want to know out there. The answer's that you cannot really force it. There's a couple of things. The market is very saturated these days, so it's hard to break through. Also, in terms of creating viral content -- because that's where internet cat fame would come from -- some viral moment. You cannot really create viral things, they have to be something that you capture that is genuine, that you share, and people respond to.

MNBIZ: How does Pudge take all this?

Katie: I mean, on one hand she's just a normal cat, but on the other hand I do think she kind of knows that she's internet famous. We've done photo shoots and things, and it seems like year after year, or time after time, she gets better at these photo shoots. I'll just set her in some place she'll sit there until she gets the idea that the photo has been taken, and we're good to go.

MNBIZ: Do you dress her up a lot?

Katie: That's not really my main approach with her. I've done hats and some of those things, but it's not really Pudge's shtick, uniforms, but some cats, some internet famous cats, that's their thing.

MNBIZ: What does the future look like for cat lovers?

Katie: I think it's going to stick around, I don't think it's going anywhere. Although the market is saturated, you do see other cats coming out. They just have to do something very unique that sets them apart, then accounts like Cats of Instagram help them get out there, or things like Buzz Feed, or things like that. Trend wise, I don't know that I can predict anything. It's always a surprise to see what happens next I guess in the cat world.

MNBIZ: What is a typical day like? What's a work day for you?

Katie: It varies. The work I do for Pudge is a bit different than the work I do for Cats of Instagram. For Pudge, I'm generating content, and for Cats of Instagram I'm curating user-generated content. For Pudge, I might need to take some photos, or I'll just simply go through photos I've already taken and post some photos.

For Cats of Instagram, we have submissions, people can submit their content rather than us having to go through everything on Instagram, and trying to find something and reaching out to those people and waiting for them to email back. That's how it used to be, but now people can just submit, so it's easier to go through those things. Then posting every two to three hours, five to ten times a day.

MNBIZ: You also contribute to charity?

Katie: Yup. Most of our appearances or meet-and-greets, or tickets sales of any kind of that sort that we do for Cats of Instagram, a portion is donated to charity. Really the only people we've worked with in that regard has been Cat Con, and they donate proceeds to charity through their ticket sales. The meet-and-greets that we do there, all the money that goes to the tickets, we don't see any of it. It just goes to those charities and Pudge's merchandise that I sell, a portion of that goes to charity.

It kind of depends on the margins on each product. The margins are a little bit better on certain products, so I'll donate more for those products, and maybe a little bit less on other products that have a slimmer margin. Then there are other times too, I think there was one time there was a shelter in New York or something that had a fire. We donated all the proceeds to charities for one day on the website. We try to make an effort to donate when we can. Basically, whenever we're making money on anything, which is usually just merchandise or ticket sales.

MNBIZ: You must have worldwide followers.

Katie: Oh yeah, for sure. Some of our best content comes out of Asia. I would say the first internet famous cat would be Maru from Japan. He's this big, round Scottish Fold that sits in boxes. That's his thing. His owner will give him various boxes and he'll sit in a box, whether it's huge or tiny or whatever it is.

Some good content comes out of that area, but we've got them everywhere. And now that people can submit, they can just submit in their own language and we'll just post it in whatever language that they send us in. That's kind of nice too, because then the captions that we have for the photos aren't in English all the time. People can relate better I think now.

 

The Sweet Spot Between Spotify and a Real DJ

Steve Lebeau

 

The artificial intelligence for selecting an engaging program of dance music — SparkDJ — was originally based on the actual intelligence of James Jones, Jr., age 28, who worked as a DJ while studying engineering and business at Notre Dame. He came to Minneapolis to work at Target, doing data science and analytics. Last year he quit, and joined John Boss to launch SparkDJ. Last winter the fledging company won the Golden iPod at a BetaMN competition. In July, its app was accepted by Apple to be sold at the iTunes store. 

You’re from New Orleans, a city known for music. Is that where you got into music?
Actually, it wasn’t. The music didn’t take off until college. Notre Dame was a very expensive school, so I had to find a way to make ends meet. I got into DJing, because I did a return on an investment analysis to determine the best way to make money. I was looking at day trading, at work study and at tutoring, and the one that rose to the top was DJing. You can DJ for four or five hours and make a really good chunk of change that can cover multiple months of rent. 

Eventually I had so many offers for gigs I couldn’t do them, because I was only one person. That’s where the idea was born. I wondered if I could create an algorithmic clone of myself that people could use instead of me showing up.

Was SparkDJ the name you always used?
No. I had a name I thought would draw out the fact that we’re using artificial intelligence, but also that we were focused on the dance floor: Dance Floor Data Men.

That’s terrible.
Yeah. Yeah. And so, when John came on, he was like, “We’ve got to change the name. Nobody’s going to know what you’re talking about, man.” So we brainstormed and came up with SparkDJ.

What are the key elements of being a DJ that you can program into your app?
I would say there’s three things. One is reading the crowd. Another is song curation. Then the other is engaging the crowd. The way we approach it is we take song requests on the app, where you can send the song requests from your phone right to the DJ. We do seamless song transitions, so that’s something that’s really unique to our core technology. Thirdly, when the song requests come in, the crowd can vote on it, and so the good songs rise to the top and the bad ones go to the bottom. We use that data to get an understanding of what the crowd likes, so we can truly read the crowd.

 

Direct Mail Disruptors

Steve LeBeau

The co-founders of Inkit are out to disrupt the direct mail industry by automating the process, enabling mailings on demand versus the current process that takes 30-to-90 days. Michael McCarthy, CEO (age 25), and Abram, CTO (age 21), met online, and launched their company in early March. They already have some national clients, plus they are in the beta phase of a partnership with one of the world's largest marketing automation technology companies. Despite their youth, both have substantial experience: Michael with U.S. Bank and defunct startup Yik Yak; Abram joined Leadpages right out of high school, and ran his own consulting firm since he was ten.

MNBIZ: You started programming when you were six?

Abram: I did started programming when I was six because honestly, I just got frustrated at the time. It was my dad's computer and it wouldn't do anything the right way, in my mind at least. It didn't work as smoothly or as easily as I thought it should -- and this was back with Windows XP.

MNBIZ: What year was this?

Abram: About 2003ish. And that is kind of why I started. I just got very frustrated with the way it worked. So I started automating these different tasks and of course I started practicing more when I realized that programming could help me through school in different ways to make my homework assignments go much quicker and easier, simply because I could write up a little script in a programming language called Python, which would help me a lot in reducing the amount of time.

MNBIZ: Most six year olds if the computer didn't work the way they wanted, they would just throw it.

Abram: Yeah, even today I find myself wanting to throw a computer, quite honestly. Software development is one of those things where we all try to make a computer easier to use and every single one of us fail no matter what our best attempts are. Simply because software engineering is very complicated and there's so many different types of people in the world who all want a computer to work a certain way. Now of course, I will often think that the stuff that I write is perfect because it's biased towards my way of thinking. But the real challenge is when you have a software company like Inkit where you're trying to cater to a whole bunch of different people's needs. And that's where you really need to have that 10,000 hours of work in to know how different people think and how to program for all those different use cases.

MNBIZ: Let's talk about who came up with the concept for Inkit.

Michael: I think we kind of both did. One of the biggest reasons we decided to get into the direct mail space specifically was my background working on some ad copy and content for social media campaigns such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and also Abram's background running a consulting business that focused primarily on social media and SEO. We found in the last three or so years that large companies started playing more in the social media space, which in turn has driven up the actual cost per, essentially driving up the whole bidding process, so that putting those ads in front of audiences is now relatively more expensive than it once was then, say 2008 or 2009. Because that bar's now been elevated, there's been a resurgence in companies, especially small and medium size companies that are looking for ways to grow and that are very, very focused on their bottom line and also the analytics behind how they're growing. There's been this resurgence toward direct mail. We found that to be really, really interesting and it sparked our curiosity to actually take a stab at disrupting this space.

MNBIZ: How did you guys meet?

Michael: Funny enough, we met just through online. I was looking for someone to work with on some projects and started kicking ideas around, and this is one of the things that we decided to team up on. But it was kind of a work in progress. It wasn't just a spur of the moment thing. It was pretty gradual.

MNBIZ: Do you both collaborate for your vision?

Michael: I would say we collaborate on nearly everything. I would say though how we divide a lot of just our day-to-day is, I tend to typically be doing more of the operational side of things and Abram's typically more on the technology side, which again is just a division of labor that makes sense for the two of us. But I would say either one of us could probably switch roles at any time if that were to happen or if we wanted to move it around, but at this point, no.

MNBIZ: When did Inkit actually start rolling? Did you have to do a lot of technical work to get the system in shape first?

Michael: Yeah. I would say we started hammering it out last February, I guess, January, February of 2016 and we really started actually hitting it hard on the development side, which is the coding aspects of it in August and then really cranked it up in October. We launched actually in early March of this year.

MNBIZ: Did you start getting clients right away?

Michael: We did yeah. So we have been working primarily with a lot of local businesses. However, we also have a few customers based in other states and nationwide.

Abram: New York and San Francisco areas mostly, outside of Minneapolis.

MNBIZ: Another thing about Inkit is that for lot of these tech companies, it's hard to understand even what they do or what they make. It's just kind of abstract almost, but your output is solid.

Michael: I think we do. I think the physicality of it is definitely great from the aspect of you can touch it, you can hold it, you can feel it. You're actually producing something solid, but underlying that output it's all software that actually leads up to it being printed and mailed. So everything, our biggest advantage over anybody else is that we're able to do this exponentially faster. On demand versus 30 to 90 days. We also have the ability to make every single piece dynamic. Most printers -- actually all printers -- will make you have a minimum order size. So say that's 10,000 pieces, all 10,000 pieces need to look identical and exactly the same. Whereas our process, all 10,000 could be different.

You could do different sorts of A/B testing or one looks different than the other. How do those perform? And we also don't have any minimum batch sizes. So let's say there's a day where I want to send just one postcard, we're able to handle that, whereas a lot of other printers will want to consolidate that into a bigger batch and that might take a couple days to bundle all those together.

MNBIZ: Tell me about the Hubspot connection.

Abram: Actually they reached out to us and were really, really excited about this whole new way that they could use their online marketing platform and have a whole other channel or avenue to touch potential prospects or leads or customers. They found this to be just a tremendous opportunity for them where, by adding our company onto their platform they could have a leg up over potentially Salesforce or Oracle. It would be another really key defining feature for them and we're really excited about that being us first.

MNBIZ: Do you have a five year plan and a 10 year plan? Or do you have a six month plan?

Abram: We'd be lying if we said that we didn't have any plans for the future. But as we know from many, many successful software and marketing companies from many industries, the most successful companies have started out and have gotten very good at doing one thing and doing it way better than anybody else. So we start there. And of course, then we go on to maybe do other things when we get to a point where we have the operational handle on direct mail. But for now, direct mail is our bread and butter and that's what we're sticking with.

Michael: Very much like Amazon. If you look at the history of Amazon, the Amazon idea is that it was still a book company, and it was putting Barnes & Noble and Borders out of business. That was their business. And now look at where they're at. They're putting retail out of business.

Abram: It's one of those things where we're just trying to get very good at our one thing, which happens to be direct mail now, but who knows? Let's see what the future holds.

Michael: I think our biggest strength for us going forward is going to be this automation site, which I think we're really, really excited about. And it's very exciting from the standpoint that we're going to essentially be able to streamline workflows and allow both small, medium and large companies to have access to direct mail, make it more affordable and also make it faster to actually get to the end user. It’s pretty exciting because we'd like to think we're doing it 50 to maybe 100 times better than the actual current process, which is leaps and bounds.

 

The Full List of Young Entrepreneurs

57FIT
Marcus Watson, 33, Founder, Owner and Personal Trainer
About: A personal training business empowering clients to improve their lifestyle through overall fitness and health.
Quote: “I want people to be happy and healthy. If I can help others lose weight, gain mobility, confidence, the ability to play with their kids longer, prevent disease, and leave an impact which can be shared for the ages, then I have done my job.”

651 Lab
Brandon Latack, 32, Founder and President
About: A Minnesota-based up-and-coming advertising agency.
Quote: “My vision for 651 Lab is to become the leading advertising agency in the challenger brand category while inspiring people to follow their dreams. I love listening to stories of people who follow their dreams. Having experienced that same fear and excitement, I want to encourage and inspire other people to follow theirs.”

Activated Research Company
Andrew Jones, 29, Co-founder and CEO
About: A rapidly growing MN-based technology company and creator of the award winning Polyarc® system (and the world’s only equimolar carbon detector).
Quote: “Whether we know it or not, we all rely on simple and accurate chemical analysis in nearly every area of our life. ARC’s technology is revolutionizing the traditional method of chemical analysis, bringing better, faster and cheaper results to scientists around the world.”

allé travel
Irina Vishnevskaya Fogelson (pictured right), 29, Founder and travel planner
About: A custom travel planning agency and app with a focus on assembling curated, experiential adventures.
Quote: “Our work brings curious, excited travelers into the world to explore and experience. We believe that experiences designed to get travelers out of their comfort zone have the power to create more open-minded, conscientious and compassionate people.”

Amalli Talli
Allison Black, 28, Owner and Co-founder
About: An online clothing retailer catering to the needs of tall women.
Quote: “We launched this company because we are determined to fill a void that we have always experienced personally. By specially curating and designing our own clothing to fit taller proportions, and at a price that won’t break the bank, we have positively impacted women in 46 states, Canada, Scotland and the U.K.”

Apparatus
Leili Fatehi, 34, Owner and Principal; Laura Monn Ginsburg, 33, Owner and Principal
About: A full-service public policy and affairs practice focusing on complex issues at the nexus of social, natural, and built systems and issues surrounding robotics, self-driving vehicles, virtual reality, nanotechnology and other emerging areas.
Quote: “We are responsible disruptors. We advance technologies, policies and strategies that push the envelope to destabilize and restructure the physical, social, economic and political systems that are disproportionately unjust in their treatment of and outcomes for marginalized people and communities.”

Bazaar MPLS
Steven Lewandowski, 29, Founder and Consumer Marketing, Insights & Analytics Lead
About: An eCommerce retailer committed to selling Minnesota-made products and helping equip local businesses with tools such as community-based marketing to reach local consumers.
Quote: “Local businesses drive local economies, employ our friends and neighbors, empower Minnesotans and enrich communities. Our work to help local businesses compete in a demanding market makes Minnesota stronger, more competitive and more invested in our communities.”

BetterWorkforce
Hannah Carney, 34, Founder
About: BetterWorkforce works to bridge the gap between college graduates with disabilities and employers through education, relationship-building and the arts.
Quote: “Working to find jobs for people with disabilities is not a new problem. However, we continue to use the same methods over and over. BetterWorkforce aims to facilitate learning that will bring about real change by bringing employers and college students/grads with disabilities to think about best practices related to disability inclusion in the workplace.”

Blue Penguin Coffee
Tom Shu, 27, Founder and CEO
About: A pop-up pour-over coffee bar and specialty coffee online store.
Quote: “Primarily, Blue Penguin Coffee looks to make specialty coffee much more accessible than it’s perceived to be. My vision for Blue Penguin Coffee is to make coffee fun, to grow it into a worldwide online coffee community where people come to learn and teach each other about all things coffee.”

Blueprint
Lisa Vongchingtrong, 24, Founder and CEO
About: A service designed to empower newcomers to a new city and connect them to their new community through personalized guides or “blueprints,” noting places, events and organizations of interest.
Quote: “We strive to welcome newcomers to cities, serve as a partner in the onboarding process and make sure that everyone, regardless of background and ethnicity, is able to create an authentic life that they love.”

Blush & Pearls Studios
Heather Sahli, 29, Owner and Creative Director
About: A luxury planning and design studio focused on event and wedding designs, high-end custom stationery, floral, linen and decor rental, and photography.
Quote: “Blush & Pearls Studios is more than a business, it's an experience. From catered meetings, to a unique focus on the clients, we have built a truly luxury planning and design experience.”

Bolton Bees
Chiara Bolton, 32, Co-founder Travis Bolton, 34, Co-founder
About: A family-owned, first-generation beekeeping and raw honey business, creating the nation’s first honey produced in solar gardens. 
Quote: “Overall, we hope to create a better beekeeping environment by selling local bees, local honey, and standardizing a honey that supports pollinator-friendly solar power.”

Ceiba Fórte Law Firm
Inti Martínez-Alemán, 32, Founding Attorney
About: A provider of affordable legal representation and counsel to hardworking Latinos (who don’t qualify for free legal aid but can’t afford to pay market-rate attorneys) in civil and business law matters.
Quote: “The overwhelming majority of law firms serving Latinos exclusively do immigration, family and criminal law. But nobody is taking care of Latinos’ needs in housing, real estate, employment, etc. Ceiba Forte is doing this exclusively and at lower rates than market rate.”

ClinicianNexus Inc.
Katrina Anderson, 28, CEO and Co-founder
About: Creator of tools and services used to simplify the matching, communication and tracking of clinical rotations, schools and health system leaders.
Quote: “We believe that by providing a central platform for education, recruitment and discussion, clinicians will be able to transform the way they deliver care.”

CoBeck Construction
Nathaniel Cote, 32, Vice President and CEO
About: A general contractor serving the Twin Cities metro area.
Quote: “Construction companies, although often a dime a dozen, come and go. CoBeck, based in a conservative yet innovative approach, seems primed for the long haul and will be a player into the future.”

CoCreateX
Anthony Tabet, 21, Co-Founder
About: A community of creators building resources including a workshop, lab space, a network of connections in a variety of industries, and a passionate team.
Quote: “CoCreateX has discovered tremendous, synergistic opportunities that arise from inter-generational, inter-discipline, inter-industry interactions and collaborations. We recognize the opportunity in helping creatives succeed by being who they are and doing what they love.”

Collabatory, LLC
Hassaan Khan, 23, President and CTO
About: An organization providing startups and large companies with physical prototypes, customer discovery and field research services.
Quote: “Our mission is to integrate field research with prototype design, working toward the development of a market-sensitive, successful product through a team of experienced engineers and product developers.”

Driven Coffee
Matt Vassau, 34, Founder and CEO
About: A small team of artisans working to responsibly source, craft roast, and meticulously brew the best coffee possible.
Quote: “At Driven we believe great coffee can lead to an even greater purpose. To live out this philosophy we donate 5% of all web coffee sales to organizations that advocate positive change in our communities and around the world.”

Elite Medical Scribes
Marcin Kubiak, 32, Vice President of Customer Care; Yuriy Vasylenko, 30, CEO and President; Cody Wendlandt, MD, 32, Medical Director and Vice President of Medical Affairs
About: A medical staffing and training organization providing documentation services to healthcare systems, hospitals, physician groups and independent practices.
Quote: “Elite makes a real impact in healthcare by helping to address significant physician shortages, allowing providers to be more efficient and productive. Removing the burden of documentation from physicians enables healthcare providers to have more face-to-face time with their patients.”

Emma Penelope Acupuncture
Emma Penelope, 29, Founder and Acupuncturist
About: A licensed acupuncturist and herbalist offering acupuncture, Reiki and cupping services as well as nutrition treatment plans and private home yoga classes.
Quote: “We all have a version of our best selves, and stressed-out isn’t that version. It’s time to connect the dots of your healthcare experience, take pause and reboot. I pin. You pause.”

Events by Lady K
Ryan Kroening, 32, Founder and Principal
About: A Minnesota-based, LGBT-owned event design-and-management firm that specializes in attendee-centered, culturally sensitive, inclusive and engaging events for mission-driven clients.
Quote: “We believe that each and every attendee should feel welcomed, celebrated and included as part of a gathering. Our approach to planning centers around accessibility and diversity, and aspires to a Universal Design framework where those most marginalized and forgotten are the focal point, not an afterthought.”

fjorge
Tim Barsness, 31, Founder
About: fjorge is a technical partner with advertising and marketing agencies. We create customized web applications, optimized content-managed websites and integrated iPhone, Android and iPad apps.
Quote: “We are reliable, loyal and honest in a world where your technical partners can’t always be trusted. Remember, there is no ‘I’ in team. Or in fjorge.”

Genovest
Dustin Passofaro, 27, Founder, Chief Technical Officer and Partner
About: A startup creating investment research tools to empower individual investors find strong stocks, test investment strategies, track trades and more.
Quote: “We save and make people money by showing them how to invest in themselves by becoming educated in what works for building or managing their stock market investments. We reduce their investment risk by taking away their reliance on any outside entity who may or may not have their best interests at heart.”

Get Bizzy Inc.
Alex French (pictured left), 27, CEO and Co-founder
About: The creator of Bizzy Coffee, a line of shelf-stable cold brew coffee concentrates.
Quote: “Our mission is to energize people to achieve their goals. With a national network of goal-oriented people helping each other achieve their goals, anything is possible!”

Goat Consulting
Reed Thompson, 26, Co-founder and Managing Partner
About: Goat Consulting provides strategic consulting and business services to brands and manufacturers for the Amazon.com sales channel. 
Quote: “We want to help brands and manufacturers, specifically in Minnesota (where we live, work and play), understand the best strategy for selling on the Amazon channel and to help grow this new (and often difficult to understand) sales channel.”

Graveti & Workmand
Alex Rodriguez, 23, Co-founder and CEO
About: Workmand is a project management and communication tool for construction contractors. Graveti is a social venture that hosts a series of events and programs as well as content to help people of color succeed in the Minnesota startup ecosystem.
Quote: “Workmand: We want to build software and tools that make life easier from the workers, SMB owners and project managers all the way to large projects and home owners. Graveti: We are helping people from marginalized communities have pathways to success.”

Grlk
Peter Chehadeh, 34, Owner and Creator
About: Creator of a small-batch, all-natural, no preservative, vegan garlic sauce made from family traditions and recipes.
Quote: “Grlk was created to pass on my family’s food traditions and social practices. I grew up sitting with my family, sharing our days or past experiences over handmade Lebanese food. These memories are why I created Grlk and brought it to market.”

GrocerKey
Jeremy Neren, 33, Founder and CEO
About: GrocerKey combines eCommerce technology, eCommerce grocery operational experience, and proven strategies to help regional grocery chains adapt in a digital world. We manage and operate ShopWoodmans.com, the eCommerce grocery business of Woodman’s Markets.”
Quote: “Regional grocers are often the biggest employers in their communities. We help them continue to thrive by offering eCommerce and digital solutions so their customers remain loyal.”

HabitAware, Inc.
Sameer Kumar, 35, CEO
About: The creator of a smart bracelet used to help manage compulsive behaviors, such as hair-pulling, nail-biting and skin-picking.
Quote: “The people who suffer from the behaviors we help manage often deal with these disorders privately. Many people regard these behaviors simply as 'bad habits.' Our company helps educate the public about these disorders and also provides a solution.”

Higher Recruitment
Brittany Ritchie Sievers, 33, President and founder
About: A woman-owned permanent and contract recruitment and placement firm for healthcare and chemical-specialized personnel.
Quote: “My vision is to become a GSA Schedule Preferred Vendor for government contracts relating to contracting medical professionals and full-time roles for STEM related professionals. We will position ourselves in the recruitment industry to be the go-to firm for these professionals.”

Hlee Lee
Hlee Lee-Kron, 32, Sole-proprietor
About: A community-based, globally minded storyteller offering a wide range of services including program development in arts, media and activism, media production, event photography.
Quote: “I believe in the power of the people. I believe in bringing communities together. I believe in supporting leaders and teams with a passion that can change the world. I’m extremely passionate about what I do and the people I work with. You’re out there everyday building community, and I want to be a part of that!”

HuesBox
Jasmine Harris, 33, Co-Founder and Director of Communications; Jenae Harris, 29, Co-founder and Director of Brand Partnerships
About: A monthly subscription box service focused on health, beauty and wellness products developed specifically for people of color. HuesBox also works to create community, connecting people of color interested in all things health and beauty and encouraging entrepreneurship in communities of color.
Quote: “Our vision for our future includes making a substantial market impact by focusing on minority consumers. We believe the increasing desire for tailored products will encourage mainstream brands to make deliberate investments in minority consumer markets.”

illumine financial
Tyler Furger, 26, CEO
About: A retainer-based financial team working to simplify and enhance the financial lives of business owners, executives and more.
Quote: “The financial advice industry is ripe for change and our community needs to know that there are teams like illumine financial committed to doing business differently.”

Insight Brewing
lan Klages-Mundt, 31, Maestro
About: Minnesota’s first 100% solar brewery, which embodies adventure through beer and the desire to continue learning about brewing.
Quote: “Our brand tells the story of a mythical brewmaster who travels the world in an Odyssey-esque adventure in search of the world’s finest beer, all while bringing these stories (beers) back to our consumer. Our tagline is ‘We Craft Legends.’”

Italian Eatery, Carrara Concepts, CC Holding
Eric Carrara, 32, Owner and CEO
About: Italian Eatery is a full service upscale neighborhood eatery. Carrara Concepts is a hospitality management and consulting company. CC Holding is a real estate holding company focused on urban neighborhood and creative reuse development.
Quote: “We are driven by the growth of our employees. It is my true belief that the only way to keep your key employees is to provide a place for them to flourish. We find that our success comes with employees who are fueled by their passions that align with our vision to serve.”

JP Ecommerce
Josh Pribyl, 32, CEO
About: A local manufacturer of private label brand bed and bath products.
Quote: “I started in my parent’s garage in 2008, struggled for the first few years before pulling things together and the growth took off. This took determination, perseverance, resilience and hard work. We are now growing into to the largest distributor of high quality bed and bath products.”

Juggernaut Fitness
Josh Johanson, 21, Founder
About: A small local gym founded for those looking to minimize physical effort while maximizing results.
Quote: “My vision for Juggernaut Fitness is simple: to help people create better versions of themselves more efficiently.”

Kayla Hollatz
Kayla Hollatz, 24, Copywriter and Brand Strategist
About: A copywriter and brand strategist serving creative entrepreneurs and small businesses in the visual industries.
Quote: “I want to continue growing my personal brand and thought leadership in my field, and inspire others to start lean businesses that can be designed around their ideal lifestyle for more freedom, flexibility, and fulfillment.”

K-Mama Sauce
Kyung Chun ‘KC’ Kye, 34, Founder and President
About: Creator of an authentic vegan Korean hot sauce.
Quote: “Our mission is to add flavor to life! My vision is to create a social-minded company that makes an impact in the food and beverage industry by expanding the American palate, as well as giving back to nonprofit and public entities such as food banks, homeless shelters, and access to higher education for underprivileged students.”

Kreative Clothing Designs
LaToya Lewis, 30, Owner and Fashion Designer
About: Parent company of Uniquely Regal, a clothing brand designed as sensory clothing for special needs children.
Quote: “I hope for my brand to be known, wanted and respected worldwide by families and professionals as a resource created to not only support their children with special needs, but to encourage confidence and inclusion as well.”

Logosphere Storysmiths
Mo Perry, 35, Principal
About: A boutique content production agency that provides writing, editing, ghostwriting and communications strategy services.
Quote: “Marketing is an ever-shifting landscape, and we’re in an age in which clarity, authenticity and transparency matter more than ever. Stories make the world go round. They connect individuals, foster compassion and empathy, transmit bold new ideas, and plant seeds of aspiration and inspiration.”

LUMA - Luxury Matchmaking
April Davis, 33, President and CEO
About: A woman-owned boutique matchmaker search firm helping singles find their perfect match.
Quote: “We want to be the premier upscale matchmaking service locally for executives and business professionals. Unlike other matchmaking sites and services, we will meet in person with members to ensure compatibility.”

Mill City Laser
Hannah Aderinkomi, 35, Owner/Operator
About: A laser hair reduction business offering services to customers of all skin types in a spa-like setting, at very competitive pricing.
Quote: “Many folks who have skin that is brown, dark brown, or black have been turned away from getting laser hair reduction treatments, as many technicians and businesses are unable to treat them. We are able to provide services to folks who have these skin types.”

Namakan Fur
Maggie Davis, 34, Founder and CEO
About: Creator of high-quality, budget-friendly faux fur ruffs that attach to any hood or collar using a proprietary magnetic design.
Quote: “As born-and-bred Minnesotans, we know the key to surviving winter is embracing it. We’re building a winter lifestyle brand aimed at embracing winter, both outside and indoors, and are currently creating additional products like warm pocket liners and faux fur throws.”

New Lion
Richard Anderson, 30, Founder &CEO
About: A mission-driven digital product company providing software design and development, and product business consulting.
Quote: “We plan to grow to be a national company. Our mission is to help 10,000 ventures launch and reach sustainable revenue. We're focused on creating a support system to help ventures go from idea to sustainable revenue.”

New Rules
Christopher Webley (pictured left), 29, Founder and CEO
About: A communal marketplace combining co-work, retail and event space — run as a public benefit corporation.
Quote: “We believe our presence in the Northside will be integral to the sustainable growth and cultural preservation needed to retain talent, innovate culture and flourish into a destination for artists, professionals and creatives seeking new opportunities to positively impact underserved communities in the Twin Cities.”

Next Day Animations
Caitlin Rogers, 32, Founder, Productions Director
About: Producer of engaging and persuasive explainer animations for businesses and nonprofits.
Quote: “We’re growing as a business, but we also care deeply about our impact on the world, and that makes us do things non-traditionally. Our target clients aren’t necessarily the ones with the largest budgets, they’re the ones working on issues that we care about most.”

North Mallow
Michael Nelson, 28, Founder and Owner
About: Creator of all-natural, gourmet marshmallows in a variety of flavors.
Quote: “Regular marshmallows have so many artificial ingredients and terrible flavors. Many products have had a gourmet option like chocolate, popcorn and more—but marshmallows have not yet. Our gourmet marshmallows will make not only a better s’more, but also a better experience for the family!”

NV Couture
Martika Lowers, 27, Owner and Founder
About: An online women’s boutique that offers clothing, hair extensions and accessories
Quote: “Fashion at NV Couture is a way of living and expression through your apparel. We believe we are in a generation of freedom and breaking down barriers! Our clothes are edgy, and embody the culture of today.”

Oneshot Media
Jack Eickof, 22, Co-owner and CEO
About: A tech-driven company creating 3D/Virtual Reality interior space models, still real estate photography, aerial drone photo & video, PDF floor plans, and lifestyle videography for residential and commercial clients.
Quote: “We're working to change current real estate marketing trends to empower real estate agents to sell more homes in less time. We re-define customer service with our small, nimble team of millennials willing to go the extra mile to create an amazing customer experience for every person we work with.”

PAIKKA
Marlo Munch, 27, Co-founder and Co-owner; Angie Trygg, 29, Co-founder and Co-owner
About: A small, women-owned industrial-event venue specializing in weddings, nonprofit and corporate events, performing- and visual-arts events, and makers' markets.
Quote: “We're committed to working with nonprofits and community organizations, as well as our wedding and corporate clients, to provide a space for connecting and building relationships. As a small team, we have the agency to make decisions that positively impact our community and all of our clients.”

PB Crave
Austin Riess, 26, Co-founder and President
About: A premium, all-natural, kosher peanut butter brand with an emphasis on corporate giving.
Quote: “We dream of being a disruptor, of altering corporate America for the better. If we can push initiatives such as having more products connected with a cause, what an example we can set for all of the other companies in the world.”

PerformTel
Kyle Hannah, 30, CEO
About: Provider of voice, email chat and back-office services for startups, small business and ecommerce companies.
Quote: “We didn’t get started in the call center industry to be “just another BPO”. Our team of innovators is working diligently every day to build new and exciting applications We inspire young people to take action and pursue their dreams and goals.”

Reece Law
Wynne Reece, 30, Partner
About: A boutique civil litigation and business law firm, founded on the pillars of the legal profession, and a passion for the law shared between a father and daughter.
Quote: “We're able to provide large firm expertise in a boutique setting, thereby making legal counsel accessible to creatives, makers and other small-business owners. For us, it's not about the money; it's about helping dreamers feel secure while they're doing just that: dreaming.”

Rise Bagel Co.
Jen Lloyd, 35, Co-Founder Kate Lloyd, 33, Co-Founder
About: A local bagel bakery specializing in old-world artisan bagels with a modern twist: organic ingredients.
Quote: “Beyond building a better bagel, we are focused on elevating the overall customer experience. We aim to craft the highest quality product, showcase the art of bagel-making and provide a better value to our customers. But that’s just the beginning. We believe there is great opportunity—and an urgent need—for positive change in the food industry. We aim to make the best product, and cause no unnecessary harm to the environment.”

Roomera VR
Thong Nguyen, 35, Founder and CEO
About: A Virtual Reality platform company providing both the technology and the associated services via Roomera Studio.
Quote: “Much of the attention and funding for VR is going toward hardware, entertainment, gaming and real estate. We focus on B2B and help companies envision the future so they can innovate faster and make better decisions today.”

Señoras de Salsa LLC
Danielle Wojdyla, 33, Founder
About: Creator of fresh, authentic Mexican salsa hand-crafted in small batches.
Quote:    “Minnesota-based Señoras de Salsa’s mission is to empower Latina women and share our bold, distinctive flavors with you, the community. We need to be able to share our story in a meaningful but respectful way so that our consumers can understand the power of their purchase.”

SGI
Sarah Gordon (pictured right), 34, Founder and CEO
About: A women-owned company providing security guard personnel and services, ranging from energy security and disaster response to property management and special event security, throughout the Midwest.
Quote: “With only about 13 licensed protective agents and private detectives as women, this is a very untapped industry for women. SGI’s motto is prudence, passion & perseverance in all we do. What makes SGI different is the belief that our employees make all the difference with our clients.  I believe our methods of doing business are the highest standards in our industry.”

SMCpros
Tyler Olson, 31, Founder and CEO
About: An award-winning social media agency helping hundreds of businesses, brands and agencies build traction online, specifically in social media.
Quote: “We believe we make an impact in the world by siding with the risk-takers, the life-long learnings and always challenging the status quo to create growth.”

Social Butterfly
Brandon Poliszuk, 21, Founder and CEO
About: A creative agency incorporating photography, videography, graphic design 
and more to help businesses curate their identity online. 
Quote: “We simplify the marketing process for companies while building their brand and identity. Some people call it good marketing, we like to call it the #ButterflyEffect.”

Solution Blue, Inc.
Mitchell Cookas, 33, Co-founder 
and Vice President
About: A civil engineering, site planning, landscape design and water resources firm focused on innovative water management and sustainable site development.
Quote: “We’re dedicated to designing multi-functional green spaces such as parks, plazas, parking lots, roadways, athletic fields and other outdoor spaces that provide social, environmental and economic benefits. Our motto is ‘Water Matters’ because water is the most vital resource on Earth and we should manage it accordingly.”

Spoils of Wear
Jill Erickson, 34, Owner
About: A sustainable women’s boutique focusing on fair trade, organic and locally sourced fashion.
Quote: “Fashion is the next frontier for conscious consumerism. There are many elements to this industry that go unseen — fiber production, labor practices, environmental impacts, supply chains, etc. More people are becoming curious about what goes into our clothes (similar to food), but it’s hard to find stores that are pursuing the answers and solutions.”

Strut
Rachel Gabriel, 32, 
Founder & Creative Director 
About: A brand strategy and design agency specializing in brand identity development, web design and development, cinematic video production and commercial photography, and print design and production. 
Quote: “We create brands for clients such as The Mayo Clinic, saving lives every day; GoRout, a technology startup that was recognized at this year’s Super Bowl; to biotech companies in pursuit of curing cancer; to rebranding an educational institution over a century old.”

Tech Guru
Daniel Moshe, 32, Founder and CEO
About: A customer service company that just so happens to do IT.
Revenue: $3M projected in 2017
Quote: “We don’t just take care of your computers, we take care of you. We live our values and one of them is empathy. We take the time to get to know and understand each of our clients so that we can make their work with us the bright spot of their day.”

Teeny Bee Boutique and Peregrine Kidswear
Kristie Case, 34, Owner and Founder    
About: Teeny Bee Boutique is a specialty baby store featuring unique and beautiful clothing, toys, and books. Peregrine Kidswear is a line of gender neutral baby pajamas in bold black and white prints.  
Quote: “We recognize the messy and noisy and ever-changing realities of parenthood. We stock the store with mom-invented products and practical things that make life easier for parents and happier for babies.”

Thousand Lakes 
Sporting Goods    
Grant Prokop, 26, Co-owner
About: A sporting goods store specializing in high-end fishing and outdoor apparel.
Quote: “Our model (new, private and independent) is fading within the industry and we offer a level of expertise and knowledge that does not come without passion and drive to improve the experience of those walking through our door.”

Travel Young 
Outdoor Adventures
Clark Varin, 21, CEO
About: A millennial-focused travel company planning and guiding local, national and international camping adventures. 
Revenue: $120,000 in 2016
Quote: “We’ve served over 600 clients and have seen tight friend groups form, dozens of people end up meeting their future roommates, best friends find each other on our trips, and we’ve helped international students better integrate into the U of M community.”

Truegopher Asset Liquidation
Jackson Venjohn, 20, Founder and CEO
About: A liquidation firm specializing in the liquidation of assets for businesses and individuals. 
Quote: “We value hard work, aggressive negotiation and customer satisfaction most among other things. These are the principles and values that we take pride in at Truegopher and bring to each and every relationship, each and every day.”

Vilendrer Law and Hitsfu
Ellie Vilendrer, 34, CEO and Founder of Vilendrer Law; Co-Founder and COO of Hitsfu
About: Vilendrer Law provides corporate law services including entity formations, business advisement, contracts, IP services, and dispute resolution. Hitsfu provides predictive technology to help mobile application makers make better business decisions.
Quote: “We create a meritocracy for apps, leveling the playing field to allow the cream to rise to the top. Plus, my practice is unique in that I focus on resolution of disputes outside of court—having a background in litigation, but realizing how wasteful and destructive it is.”

Vision Investment
Camille Thomas (pictured left), 33, Founder and Lead Visionary
About: A coaching and consulting firm curating powerful experiences for corporate businesswomen and female entrepreneurs through 1:1 coaching, live workshops and events.
Quote: “The Vision Investment exponentially increases the confidence of the women that we serve. When women feel confident in their businesses and careers, they are empowered to change the financial trajectory and mentality for not only familial generations but also for the communities around them.”

Waterfront Restoration
Thomas Suerth, 31, Founder and President
About: An aquatic invasive species control and prevention services organization providing environmentally responsible SCUBA lake weed control, as well as watercraft inspections services.
Quote: “We want to remove the barriers that prevent people from enjoying our lakes and would like to reduce people’s reliance on chemicals to control invasive aquatic plants and animals. By 2050, we would like to have reduced the use of aquatic chemicals by at least 2.0 million pounds.”

WOODCHUCK USA
John Guenveur, 27, Co-founder; Benjamin VandenWymelenberg, 27, Co-founder and CEO
About: A manufacturing studio designing and producing custom, high-end wood products, from money clips to gift boxes.
Quote: “After watching Simon Sinek’s 'Start With Why' TED Talk back in 2012, we were inspired to build a strong mission around our passions: To bring jobs back to America, nature back to people, and quality back to products. That’s why we’ve always manufactured in the USA and fostered a team culture around outdoor adventure.”

Updates from Our Young Entrepreneur Alumni

We asked the Young Entrepreneurs of yesteryear to drop us a line and tell us what's new.

 

Abdul M. Omari
PhD, Founder and CEO, AMO Enterprise
"AMO Enterprise has continued to thrive over the past year with over 30% growth in revenue and, more importantly, making an impact on lives. We have collaborated with institutions and organizations around the country and have expanded the reach of the “you” in leadership seminars as well as bias and cultural intelligence trainings. We are happy to report that we are staying true to our mission of “Helping people better connect in individual and team settings.”

Christine Hehre
Owner and Creative Director, junebird creative
"2016 was a great year for junebird creative! Our second official year in business brought many new clients, a couple new partnerships, and of course (as with any start-up) some great “opportunities” — lots to learn and continue to build! 2017 opened with the official incorporation of the company, a necessary and exciting step as we continue to “grow up.” This year we hope to refine our offering and at the same time expand our network and partnerships, all with the goal of offering clients the expertise they need to run their own companies."

Dessa Darling
CEO, Doomtree Records
"In the past year, I have contributed to The Hamilton Mixtape, made my orchestral debut with the Minnesota Orchestra, served as Artist in Residence for WNYC (New York public radio), contributed to The New York Times Magazine and announced that my collection of essays will be published by Dutton, Penguin Books in 2018." 

Eric Sannerud
CEO and Farmer, Mighty Axe Hops
"Mighty Axe Hops continues to grow! In 2016, Mighty Axe closed an investment round to expand to 40 acres of hops. Expansion to 80 acres is coming in 2017 and will make Mighty Axe Hops the largest hop farm in the north. Thanks to Mighty Axe Hops, the flavor of Minnesota terroir is coming to your beer!"

Jasmine Russell
Head Founder and Lead Data, Monicat Data 
"Since Minnesota Business magazine’s 2016 Young Entrepreneur issue much has shifted. Co-founder Kim Gersta and I decided to step back from the technology development of Proceed, thus offering room for growth for my most recent venture, Monicat Data. Monicat Data is a data management & research agency specifically focused in providing strategic data solutions for artists & creative supporting organizations. Since launching September of 2016, we have aided creative clients such as Springboard for the Arts, Rhymesayers Entertainment, Fashion Week MN, The Bush Foundation and Mu Performing Arts (to name a few) with data solutions."

Joe Keeley
Founder, President and CEO, College Nannies, Sitters and Tutors 
"Just before last year’s Young Entrepreneur Issue, Joe Keeley (now 36) sold College Nannies, Sitters and Tutors (CNST) to Bright Horizons Family Solutions (NYSE: BFAM) and wasted no time in taking advantage of the corporate synergies. Keeley has retained his post as the leader of the CNST franchise organization and the brand is growing faster now than ever before through the sale of new franchise territories and the growth of the on-demand My Sitters app."

Jonathan Keller
CEO, Life Floor
"In 2016, Life Floor became cash-flow positive and grew by 125%. In 2017, our team is looking to build a scalable company and has purposefully slowed growth (goal of 50-75%) to make investments in the company’s infrastructure, team and processes. We raised $1.2M this year in an over-subscribed round to enable us to do this, bringing our total of $4.5M raised since our 2011 founding. We are also spearheading a process to create a safety surfacing standard for all aquatic playgrounds, which should hopefully be adopted by year-end."

Joy McBrien
Founder and CEO, Fair Anita
"Since being featured in 2015, we’ve been working hard to grow our business so that we’re able to provide more fair trade jobs to women around the world. It’s working! Our sales are growing, 300%+ year-over-year. We’re now in over 50 stores across the country and we have six amazing team members (yippee!). We’ve developed new product lines with artisans in Chile, Vietnam, and Mexico, working to create economic opportunity for over 8,000 women in 16 countries. We’re looking forward to another exciting year of growth ahead!"

Luke Riordan
Founder/CEO, DAYTA Marketing
"This past year our team has been busy paving the way for growth and expansion. We have spent time and money investing in our operations and technology in order to scale, thanks to multiple capital raises. We’ve developed self-sustaining training modules to eliminate the need for a stand-alone training department. We’ve also developed the DAYTA Dashboard, our proprietary client relationship management software, to fill a gap in the marketplace for client-agency communication."

Martha McCarthy Krueger 
Co-founder and CEO, The Social Lights
Emily Pritchard
Co-founder and COO, The Social Lights
"The Social Lights (TSL) added new team members, new clients, and a new office in 2016-17. Our team nearly quadrupled in size, growing from six full-time employees to 23 since the start of 2016. The spike in personnel was largely due to the agency’s portfolio development. In 2017, TSL worked with over 30 brands on a local, regional, and national scale. At the turn of the year, an expanding client roster, growing team, and necessity for new tools led to a minor change in scenery, the team moving into a larger office just down the hall."

Melissa Harrison
Founder and CEO, Allee Creative
"Melissa Harrison has been quite busy continuing to push the envelope through her work with Allee. She was recently selected for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2017 Emerging Leaders program. Allee has also experienced significant growth, adding three additional team members (with two more expected this year), securing new office space, and signing on with 14 new clients, including international speaking engagements for organizations such as the Association of Accounting Marketing, International Association of Administrative Professionals and IABC International. Allee recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary and is on pace to exceed revenue expectations in 2017. The company has seen an average of 33% revenue growth each year for the past 3 years."

Mitch Reaume
CEO, The VOICE Community
"The VOICE Community has continued to grow and establish ourselves in retail while growing in our commitment to use business to fight for things that matter. In January of 2017, we launched a second brand, Northern Glasses, offering pint glasses printed with sleek, modern designs for just about every occasion and personal aesthetic. NG is led by a social mission, “Get A Glass, Give A Gallon,” where 7% of glassware sales go towards solving the water crisis in developing nations."

Muhammad Abdurrahman
PhD, Cofounder and former CEO of Reemo, currently Cofounder and CEO of Clutch
"To improve the health and safety of vulnerable people, Clutch is developing tech tools to help threatened people secure their communities and gain peace of mind. Major groups of focus include African Americans, LGBT (especially Trans women), Muslims, LatinX, and targets of sex trafficking and sexual assault."

Phillip Christenson
Co-founder, Financial Adviser & Portfolio Manager, Phillip James Financial
"After a three-fold increase in Phillip James Financial assets under management in 2016, we moved into a larger office and hired a new employee in early 2017. There are very few fiduciary “fee-only” financial advisers in Minnesota, especially those who integrate tax preparation and planning into the process."

Rob Flessner
Co-founder and CEO, Vugo
"Rob continues to lead Vugo on its mission empowering the passenger entertainment experience in rideshares, fleets and self-driving cars. Vugo won the High-Tech Division of MN Cup in 2016 and has added 10,000 rideshare drivers to its platform in the U.S. This summer, Vugo is launching pilots with at least two of the largest rideshare companies in the world. Vugo believes that by as early as 2021, transportation could be free through in-vehicle media and marketplace interactions with passengers."