Every Cent Counts

It’s that time of year again. The holidays are approaching, the weather is turning colder and end-of-year giving messages are out. That final reminder to donate to your charity (or charities) of choice and make the tax-deductible gift shows up in your inbox.  And it works! 30% of all donations in the United States happen in December (MobileCause). But why does it work? What is it about the end of the year that pushes people to donate?

Plenty of research has been done to show people give because it makes them happier, makes them feel like they have contributed and made a difference in their community, and the tax deduction is a major incentive to give large sums. But, again, why do these matter?  The Guardian asked this same question, and came up with three slightly different – but similar – concepts, two of which I’d like to expand on.

First, the idea that charitable giving is ruled by empathy and compassion, instead of logic and reason. People donate to causes they care about because they are affected through personal experience and/or a compelling campaign. The decision to donate is pushed by these feelings.  The last months of the calendar year are focused on holidays and family, both of which drive the message of love and comfort, and in turn encourage community members donate to help those who cannot enjoy this season be it because of an illness, lack of resources or larger personal issues dictating their time. The act of giving born out of compassion and empathy in this busy and cold time at the end of the year is a very positive action for our community.

Second, the article states “charitable giving is contagious – seeing others give makes an individual more likely to give.” Donating to charity and a cause you care about sets an example for those around you, and gently encourages them to do the same. The hope in setting the example is others – coworkers, children, friends – will be inspired to give to a cause they are affected by or care about. It is the ‘pay-it-forward’ concept. It’s easy to share on your giving on social media and hope others follow suit.

Giving works and every cent counts. Giving and helping others makes us happier, gives us purpose and is tax-deductible! Donate to a cause you care about and make your money count. This season, consider donating to the James J. Hill Center and help honor the legacy of our founder by continuing to support entrepreneurial spirit in the 21st Century.

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The Key Relationship Entrepreneurs Often Overlook


Whether you are a brand new business owner, a seasoned entrepreneur or still deciding if your idea is worth pursuing, you’ll need advice. But who to go to? The internet will have some answers. You can stop by government agencies and nonprofits – like the James J. Hill Center – to help you get started and navigate. But one of the most important relationships an entrepreneur can have is a mentor. The startup experience is full of challenges and can be unknown territory, and having a relationship with a mentor is vital to navigating the terrain.

There is no right or wrong way to have a relationship with a mentor. It can be someone you meet with on a weekly basis and closely monitor progress and planning with, or a contact you reach out to sporadically when a problem arises that you are unsure how to fix. But there are certain qualities and key characteristics a mentor should possess.

It may seem obvious, but a mentor should have experience and proven success in their own professional career. With experience comes perspective and foresight, both of which are invaluable for an entrepreneur. It is difficult – maybe impossible – to avoid making mistakes, but if you can learn lessons from a mentor’s mistakes, it’s easier to avoid mistakes or at least be prepared to handle them as they arise. A mentor with experience will also feel confident giving advice, and you can feel confident receiving it. Trust is key, and it is much easier to trust a mentor with experience and a proven track record of success or growth.

Integrity and sincerity also play a huge role in a successful mentor/mentee relationship. A good mentor will be encouraging and smart. A GREAT mentor will be honest and insightful. While compliments and soft encouragement are nice, they are not productive, nor do they set anyone up to accomplish their goals. The “tendency towards candor is so important because as an entrepreneur you have limited time to get your company off the ground and reach profitability and long-term growth” (Rob Ebrahimi, Forbes contributor). As a mentor, it is important to ask the tough questions and bring perspective on the market and the idea. Time is valuable and the conversations should be frank to ensure you and your venture are on task and on track.

Mentoring is an important relationship for both parties. The mentee receives invaluable advice and guidance and is able to expand their network and knowledge to create a company or idea to better the community. The mentor has the chance to share their experiences to better the future of a new professional and their field of expertise.  As entrepreneurs, the right mentorship relationship can set you on a positive path for success. Consider finding a mentor or becoming one to enhance your business experience.

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The Hill November Reference Round-Up

From coffee to ships…


  • Our reference library staff assisted over 130 researchers in November.
  • While most researchers were from Minnesota, this month we had visitors from Wisconsin, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, and even Arizona.
  • The library added SimmonsLOCAL to our SimplyMap subscription this month. Come check out this new database resource, which features unique demographic data that can be valuable for market research.
  • The majority of our first-time researchers in November were referred to our library by a colleague.
  • One patron conducted demographic research related to coffee shops in the Duluth area to identify potential new markets.
  • Another researcher came in for our Meet the Expert program.  She stayed to research potential funding sources for community programming focused on women.
  • Two older gentlemen stopped in to view our space. One of the men had worked for, a Minnesota-based company that invented BINAC, the first general-purpose computer.  The men were surprised to learn that James J. Hill had owned ships in addition to the railway and were interested to know whether our shelves held any resources related to UNIVAC.


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A Conversation with Scott Schwefel


Scott Schwefel brings over 25 years of entrepreneurial experience. Starting in 1990 by founding Benchmark Computer Learning, which grew to Minnesota’s largest technology training company.   Scott was named to Minnesota’s 40 under 40 of successful top executives in the year 2001. He also founded Insights Twin Cities, delivering the Insights Discovery System to businesses all over the world.

How did your career as an entrepreneurial begin?

Like many baby boomer entrepreneurs, with a paper route at age 12.  Then a lawn mowing business, then after college I bought into a month old food company called Tinos, which we sold to Schwanns in 1991, then started Benchmark Computer Learning, which we sold in 2003, and then started Insights Twin Cities, which we sold in 2014.  It all started with the mindset I was taught at age 12, that is I could make choices everyday about the work I did, and to whom I would trade my skills for compensation.

What has been the largest hurdle and/or success you have experienced?  

Y2K was the hardest.  As a tech business, our revenues dropped over 40% in 2000, and we had several layoffs, but ultimately survived by buying our largest competitor Mindsharp in 2002. I learned that everything works out in the end, and if it isn’t working out, then it’s not over yet.

What is the best nugget of advice you can give fellow entrepreneurs? 

Program your mind everyday for success and resilience.  Read books, watch videos, draft and post your goals. Surround yourself with people who support your goals and dreams, and never, ever, ever give up. It is the only way you can do the work when it is the hardest, by being clear on why you are doing it in the first place.

What is it about Minnesota and how has it managed to keep you here?

I moved to Minnesota in 1982 from rural Wisconsin, and fell in love with the Twin Cities.  Just big enough, and the nicest people in the world.  Now, after 35 years here, I can’t imagine ever living anywhere else.

What do you think is the best way to empower Minnesota’s entrepreneurs? 

First, to acknowledge everyone is an entrepreneur, that truly everyone is self-employed.  It’s a mindset, not something designated on your tax form.  Everyone who works, who agrees each day to trade their skills to someone else for compensation, is self-employed.  Everyone is the CEO of themselves, and each day CHOOSES to trade their skills for compensation to an employer, to customers, to clients, etc.  Once a person accepts this reality, then they realize they are in charge of what they choose to do, and also that they can make better choices, to better their circumstances, and increase their income.  It is this mindset that enables entrepreneurs to keep driving in the face of adversity, knowing that they are making the choice to be an entrepreneur, and that success is ultimately within their ability to CHOOSE. My advice for entrepreneurs, “There is always a better way, keep looking for it, and never, ever, ever give up”

Join the James J. Hill Center on Monday, December 6th at 9AM as they host Scott Schwefel and his presentation Communicate in Full ColorREGISTER NOW.


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Before Planting and Harvesting…


Farmers Need to Glean Data.able-logo

Leah Kodner, Library Specialist from the James J. Hill Center, interviews Entrepreneur and
1 Million Cup presenter, Chris Lukenbill from Bright Agrotech  with product ABLE As seen in the Pioneer Press, Startup Showcase on November 19, 2016

In order to thrive, business owners need access to information. They need to have an understanding of their industry including its trends, new developments, growth patterns, and regulations. Farmers, of course, need all this information too, as well as reliable technical information.

It was this need for information that gave Chris Lukenbill the idea for Able, a software that helps farmers strategically plan their crops, understand the market, and manage their finances. Able, a product of Bright Agrotech, is designed to give farmers the most up-to-date knowledge available without wasting valuable time digging for information. With data aggregated from farmers across the world and connections to local farming organizations, Able provides farmers with the tools they need to grow their farm business.


Name of company: Bright Agrotech (product is called Able)

Website: https://BrightAgrotech.com; https://able.ag

Business Start Date: 2010 for Bright Agrotech; 2015 for Able

Number of Employees: 30+ for Bright Agrotech and five for Able specifically

Number of Customers: Approximately 6,000 for Bright Agrotech and 1,300 for  Able specifically


Name: Chris Lukenbill

Age: 33

City of birth: Bemidji, Minn.City you live in: Rochester, Minn.

High school attended: Warroad High School, Warroad, Minn.

College attended: South Dakota State University, Brookings, S.D.


Q. What led you to this point?

A. I am a software developer by trade who has a large interest in the environmental impact of agriculture.

Three years ago I started a greenhouse operation in Rochester, Minnesota. My goal was to help my community to understand the challenges of local food production and to improve its effectiveness, especially in challenging climates like Minnesota’s.

Through starting a farm, I came to understand that the challenge wasn’t in growing food but in READ FULL ARTICLE

You can hear from startups like this one each Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit jjhill.org/1-million cups


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Get Connected for Success


Networking. We often hear how dreaded it can be for professionals. People feel awkward, uncomfortable and fake, but we know it’s important – some might say vital – in today’s workforce. Networking has the potential to lead to job opportunities, partnerships and increased knowledge about the community and business network around you.

We’ve seen the most beneficial relationships here at the Hill come out of our networking opportunities.  According to an article from Hubspot, 95% of professionals surveyed say face-to-face meetings are essential for long-term business relationships.  So how do you make these connections? Here are three simple ways we feel are a great starting point.

First, find a networking group that appeals to you. Business networking is hosted here at the Hill the last Wednesday of every month for an hour before 1 Million Cups –  both great networking opportunities but there are many around the twin cities and with a little research on your industry or interest you will be surprised at the variety.

Second, when it comes to networking, practice makes perfect. It is a skill anyone can learn. It is easy to find helpful articles with tips and tricks to make networking less painful like “7 Tips for Networking” and “Learn to Love Networking”.  Advice varies from focusing on topics you’re interested in, to asking open ended questions to keep the conversation flowing, to knowing what you want to get out of the interaction. But what this all comes down to is effective communication with your peers and colleagues.

Third, communicating clearly and effectively in a professional setting is crucial to successful relationships and partnerships. So what makes a good communicator? How do you understand your own communication style? The Hill is hosting two sessions of “Communicate in Color” to help answer these questions. Learning how you as a leader communicate, and how others communicate with you, can lead to a positive and rewarding environment for you, your peers and colleagues. Presenter Scott Schwefel is a communication expert and serial entrepreneur who has spoken to over 1,000 companies on how they can leverage new communication strategies to increase sales, profits and productivity. We’re excited to have him share his resources and knowledge with our entrepreneur community.

By incorporating these three important tips you can feel more confident in your networking skills. And by joining us here at the Hill at any of our upcoming events you can practice! You never know what will come of a short conversation.

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Giving when you buy, to yourself and to others


Leah Kodner, Library Specialist from the James J. Hill Center, interviews Entrepreneur and
1 Million Cup presenter, Susan Langer from Live.Give.Save. Inc.  As seen in the Pioneer Press, Startup Showcase on November 5, 2016

According to a recent poll conducted by the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 48 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have no retirement savings.

Susan Langer of Live.Give.Save. wants to try to fix that problem, while at the same time providing a way for Americans to more easily donate to charities. Live.Give.Save. allows users to add a small amount of money to each purchase they make using their smartphones, allowing them to painlessly build retirement accounts and contribute to worthy causes.


Name of company: Live.Give.Save. Inc.
Website: www.livegivesave.com
Business Start Date: Feb. 1, 2016
Number of Employees: 2
Number of Customers: 0


Name: Susan Langer|
Age: 55
City you live in: Red Wing
City of birth: Red Wing
High school attended: Ellsworth High School, Ellsworth, Wis.
College attended: University of Minnesota


Q. What led to this point?

A. I am a wife, stepmother and entrepreneur. My professional background spans banking, marketing and philanthropy. At U.S. Bank (then First Bank), I installed and managed their first customer-relationship management system. I later helped build and launch First Bank’s first website, as well as market their credit card portfolio. From there I launched my own marketing firm, Mosaic Marketing, where I blended branding with direct marketing before it was in vogue to help small- and medium-sized companies move to the next level. My international and philanthropic work — traveling to over 30 countries — is what drives my passion for creating a virtuous ecosystem that encourages, empowers and equips all to be better.

Q. What is your business?

A. Live.Give.Save. is an all-in-one mobile platform that empowers and rewards consumers to effortlessly boost retirement savings and increase charitable giving. We do this by leveraging existing behaviors in spending with one-touch simplicity. Our proprietary three-way payment process allows consumers to add a self-defined amount of money to each purchase they make using their smartphone. These micro amounts are automatically applied to their retirement savings and charity (or cause) of choice. One act = three gifts: Spend on self today, save for tomorrow and help someone in need.  READ FULL ARTICLE

You can hear from startups like this one each Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit jjhill.org/1-million cups



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Start Up Showcase

An app that could become the life of the party!


Leah Kodner, Library Specialist from the James J. Hill Center, interviews Entrepreneur and 1 Million Cup presenter, James Jones with Spark.dj.
As seen in the Pioneer Press, October 22, 2016


Many people are unable to hire DJs for house parties because of the expense, instead making do with preset playlists and streaming services. But they know there are a lot of advantages to using a DJ — because unlike playlists and streaming services, DJs can take requests, play songs at a preferred tempo, and tailor song choices based on the various events and stages of the party.

James Jones believes he has found a happy medium between a live DJ and a streaming service. Spark DJ is an inexpensive alternative to DJs using smart software to create the perfect musical atmosphere for any party, providing the experience of a live DJ at a fraction of the cost.


Name of company: Spark DJ, Inc.
Website: http://spark.dj
Business Start Date: Feb. 15, 2016
Number of Employees: 5
Number of Customers: 0 (pre-revenue). Signup being taken for the beta trial.


Name: James Jones
Age: 27
City where you live: Minneapolis
City of birth: New Orleans
High school attended: Brother Martin High School, New Orleans
College attended: University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.


Q. What led to this point?

A. I’m a self-taught software developer and professional DJ. I’m originally from New Orleans. I went to the University of Notre Dame to attain a dual degree in mechanical engineering and economics.

I worked for Target as a stats analyst for three years. As much as I enjoyed working there, the Spark DJ venture was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, so I left. We entered the Minnesota Cup 2016 and placed as a semifinalist in the High Tech Division.  READ MORE…

You can hear from startups like this one each Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. The James J. Hill Center is a nonprofit in downtown St. Paul that provides access to business research, educational programming and a place to work. The Hill is open to the public 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.JJHill.org/go/1MCSPL.

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Hill Spotlight: Snobcorn


A Hill Spotlight conversation with local entrepreneur Patty McDonald.

Describe your business. What do you want people to know about your company?

Snobcorn is a gourmet popcorn business with one goal: to transform the Great American Snack into something truly special. Snobcorn is for popcorn lovers who are adventurous, passionate, and craving something new. It’s time to go beyond cheese corn, caramel corn, and kettle corn. Let’s give Mocha, Gingerbread, or Caprese a try. How about Bourbon Brown Butter, Margarita, or Tex-Mex popcorn? Yum! Snobcorn uses only non-GMO popcorn, avocado oil, and all natural ingredients.

How can your product contribute to the Twin Cities business ecosystem and community?

Just like craft beer, coffee, and chocolate, popcorn is ready to be elevated for a superior taste experience. Popcorn is a healthy snack, a blank canvas, and it’s ready for a makeover. Most people say they enjoy popcorn, but many people are not satisfied eating unhealthy or tasteless varieties found at movie theaters, popped in their microwaves, or at the mall. Snobcorn will provide a healthy, delicious, and unique popcorn snacking experience for popcorn lovers everywhere.

What is your dream for your future and/or the future of your business?

My dream for Snobcorn is that people will enjoy the Great American Snack at the highest level possible. I want to raise the bar for popcorn. It can (and should) be extremely delicious, use the best ingredients, and be as healthy as possible. (And it should never, ever, taste like styrofoam.) My dream is that the word Snobcorn will define gourmet popcorn in the truest sense of the word. And that Snobcorn will be enjoyed by popcorn connoisseurs, foodies, and proud popcorn snobs everywhere.

What opportunities have you engaged with at the James J. Hill Center?

I have used the James J. Hill Center for my research on the popcorn industry. The very helpful and knowledgeable staff has pointed me in the right direction as I figure out where Snobcorn fits within the marketplace. The James J. Hill Center has been an invaluable resource for me in getting Snobcorn off the ground.

How has your involvement with the James J. Hill Center helped further your entrepreneurial and business goals?

From preliminary research, to crafting a business plan, to finding answers to my questions, the James J. Hill Center has been a fantastic place to begin my journey of starting my own small business.

Join us every Wednesday from 9AM to 10AM for 1 Million Cups and get an inside peek on two local entrepreneurs as they present their startups to a diverse audience of peers, mentors, and entrepreneurs. 

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The Hill Reference Roundup

From Georgia to NOVA…


October at the Hill was buzzing with visitors from as far as Georgia to our own Nova Classical Academy.  They stopped in to build lists, research start ups or just catch a glimpse of history. Another prefect example of the vast array of people our Reference Specialists visit with day to day.

Here are some of the examples of who, what and why people stopped in…  

  • Our reference library staff assisted over 130 researchers in October.
  • Most researchers were from Minnesota, though one researcher this month was visiting all the way from Savannah, Georgia.
  • Several researchers this month came to use our resources to build a list of businesses.
  • It was a great month to build a list of businesses, as we began a subscription to A to Z Databases this month. Come check out this new resource, with the most up-to-date data and a user-friendly interface.
  • The majority of our visitors in October are in the start-up or growth stage of their businesses.
  • One researcher investigated digital strategy and digital disruption using our journal subscriptions to titles like Harvard Business Review, McKinnsey Quarterly and Sloan Management Review.
  • Another researcher explored demographic data related to recreation trends to help develop a marketing plan.
  • A group of about 30 students from Nova Classical Academy stopped in to view our space. As one girl gazed at the second level of the building in awe, she asked our librarians, “What do the people in those offices do?!”

 We look forward to seeing you at the Hill.  Contact a Reference Specialist today!

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We are in the process of renovating the James J. Hill Center to make the space more accessible to individuals with wheelchairs or limited mobility. This construction includes major renovation of our interior elevator. Due to this renovation, elevator access to the building and second floor for persons with accessibility constraints will be limited. A manual mobility Liftkar operated by a trained JJ Hill staff person will be available so that individuals in wheelchairs have access to our space. To schedule assistance before your visit, or if you have questions, please contact 651.265.5500. Unfortunately we are unable to transport electric scooters. Elevator construction will begin October 31, 2016 until completion in April, 2017. We apologize for any inconvenience during this construction. Thank you for your understanding.

This project has been financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society and the F. R. Bigelow Foundation.