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Beautiful Solutions to Everyday Problems

In celebration of Women’s History Month we have reached out to a variety of female entrepreneurs to share their journey and give some insight on how to navigate building a business.

Marj Weir is a designer and innovator with extensive experience and a creative entrepreneurial background. Her mission is to create beautiful solutions to everyday problems.

How did your entrepreneurial journey begin?
I started as a freelance graphic designer over 30 years ago, though I worked part time at the State for insurance and a steady paycheck. In 2004 I quit to get my product, Prep & Serve to market. My husband at the time had a great job as a chef, but later was let go. We filled out time rehabbing homes, opened Sail Away Cafe, and I also did real estate on the side.

Current projects and or business ventures you are working on?
My current products are PrepAndServe.com, EZBarBox.com and EZLightWraps.com. Last week I met potential licensing partners and investors at the International Housewares Show in Chicago. This weekend, I’m at the Minneapolis Convention Center for EZLightWraps.com in the Twin Cities Women’s Expo, then the Home and Garden Show the following two weekends.

Most important things to consider when starting a new venture or start up?
Partner with others with dissimilar talents early on – it is a long road ahead. Do research and ask yourself is there a market? Do research at the Hill! Join Meet-ups and trade groups, from competitive products or ventures. Survey people – share your ideas to get real feedback.

As a women in the industry what opportunities or barriers have you experienced?
It’s amazing to me that men totally run the housewares industry, where most products are used by women. I was told early on – ‘you need a penis to play in that field’ – they were not kidding. There is change, but slow. What I saw last week at the Housewares show are more product startups, many founded by women. Personally, I’ve had more men than women help move things forward.

What women have made the biggest impact on your entrepreneurial career so far?
My mother, who is very creative; my friend Angie Polacek, who co-founded a manufacturing company and invested in rehabbing homes with me; and Marie Forleo’s B School has been a great resource.

What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs just getting out of gate?
Keep track of connections and categorizing them. Someone may be the person you need down the line and it is frustrating to lose track of them.

What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs that are stuck or have had their first failure?
In the entrepreneurial world failure is not looked down upon, it depends on what you learned from the experience and where you went after. Remember it is the journey, not the end!

What is different about Minnesota and the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Still mostly male, medical and tech, but it is great to be in the Midwest, feels safe and people like to help.

Has the Hill center played a role in your success as a female entrepreneur?
Yes, I’m armed with the research to validate ideas. I’ve spoken several times at 1 Million Cups and continue to meet great connections that way.

To find out more information about Marj Weir Products please visit marjweirproducts.strikingly.com.

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An Online Plan to Modernize Age-Old Shipping Industry

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews 1 Million Cup presenters for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press.  Recently we connected with presenter Tom Venable. See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase on March 10, 2017.

According to the Inland Waterways section of the 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report, the waterway system supported “more than half a million jobs and delivers more than 600 million tons of cargo each year, about 14% of all domestic freight” and “between 2000 and 2014, the average delay per lockage nearly doubled from 64 minutes to 121 minutes.”

While delays are inevitable, freight shippers and receivers do have an opportunity to maximize their margins by making sure they limit (or eliminate) miles when a cargo container is empty. Enter Basin Commerce, offering technology to a business that currently relies heavily on low-tech solutions, to save time, money and headaches.


CEO/co-founder: Tom Venable
Age: 56
City you live in: Excelsior
City of birth: Peoria, Ill.
High school attended: Edina High School
College attended: University of Minnesota


Name of company: Basin Commerce
Website: www.basincommerce.com
Twitter: @basincommerce
Business start date: October 2016
Number of employees: 9
Number of customers: 15


Q. What led you to this point?
A. I have over three decades of experience starting and managing software companies all over the country. Most notably in the Twin Cities, I was SVP of sales for Digital River for most of the ’00’s.

In 2016, I met one of my business partners who was a lifelong commodities trader. Scott Stefan explained to me the inefficiencies of the bulk freight market and I explained to him the efficiencies of ecommerce techniques. So we teamed up to create the first and only on-line marketplace for bulk freight transportation services.

It is the story of a commodity guy meets an ecommerce guy in a bar one night, and thus Basin Commerce was born.

Q. What is your business?
A. Based on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Basin Commerce aims to increase the utilization of the U.S. Waterway System for the transport of bulk materials and other heavy loads that are typically moved via rail and trucks. We do this through an online service similar to Uber or Expedia. At ibookfreight.com a “shipper” can request pricing for moving large quantities of bulk commodities from a myriad of suppliers across the country using the Inland Waterways System.

Q. Where do you go for help when you need it?
A. My three co-founders and a network of trusted advisers I have built up over 30 years.

Q. What problems does your business solve?
A. The manual, cumbersome process of finding, buying and managing bulk freight services via barges and trucks.

Q. What big obstacle or hurdle did you have to overcome?
A. We have to overcome the hurdle of changing human behavior in an industry that has been around for over 100 years.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?
A. Sales, leadership and the understanding of how to build a software company.

Q. What are you most proud of?
A. Besides my 33 year marriage and three adult children it would be the speed by which we were able to launch Basin Commerce and start generating revenue quickly….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 8AM – 4PM, Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.jjhill.org.

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Medical & Life Science Industry Research at the Hill

If you’re thinking of getting into the fast-growing industries of medicine or life science, trying to get verified information can be a real challenge. HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, protects your health information from being distributed, but can make getting demographic profiles for your business almost impossible. Thankfully, the James J Hill Center has specialized resources to aid your search!

Researching a particular medical procedure? Use the American Hospital Directory. Available here on-site at the Hill, this high-powered directory will not only let you pull up a list of hospitals and clinics by geography, specialty, and procedures provided, but will also let you investigate the finances of each organization listed. You can learn whether or not your future clinic can corner the market in your state on the latest, cutting edge medical offerings.

Keen to start a non-profit that supports biological conservation? Maybe you dream of leading a crew of volunteers to the next big ecological discovery. Use the Hill’s subscription to the Foundation Directory to find grants to fund your expedition. You can search both public and private grantmakers by topic. Did you know that there’s almost $11 billion dollars in grants available to support wildlife biodiversity work? Come in and check out with grant is right to fund your life’s work in the life sciences.

Interested in learning more about the resources at the Hill? Thrilled by the prospect of in-depth data analysis? Schedule a 20 minute appointment with our staff to learn about our database classes, memberships, and research support services.


Written by Jessica Huffman, Business Outreach Librarian, at the James J. Hill Center. If you have more questions about the reference library at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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Angel Investing 101

An angel network is a group of investors who make individual investment decisions. In the case of Gopher Angels, our accredited investors collaborate on any deals of interest. There is a disciplined approach to this process and we have an administrative director who manages the due diligence.

An angel fund requires a minimum investment by angels of X dollars to go into a pool or fund to be managed by an individual or by a committee who deploys the dollars.

Seeking and using angel dollars should come after funding by friends, family, and self financing.

Angels generally invest in seed sage or early stage companies. By our definition seed stage is conceptual with a business plan supported by research to validate the business model.

Early stage is further along. It has a minimum viable product/prototype, a patent or being tested in the market with potential customers. The business can be pre-revenue but with some proof of concept. Better yet, there will be some level of revenue with paying customers.

While each fund/network/individual have their own criteria, here are some highlights:

  1. An exit such as an acquisition or an IPO where there is a return on investment within 5 to 7 years.
  2. Angels look for companies that can scale with a significant market potential.
  3. A team with relevant experience. This can be management but also can include a strong board of advisors.

So when angel investors pass on what could be a very successful business it is because there may not be an exit in sight, the company is not tapping into a large market potential or concern that the team does not have the skills to execute.


Further reading:

  • Rob Wiltbank, “Investment Practices and Outcomes of Informal Venture Investors”
  • Guy Kawasaki, The Art of the Start
  • Brad Feld, Venture Deals


David Russick is an established entrepreneur and angel investor. Russick is co-founder, Managing Director, and Board Member of Gopher Angels.  Russick was also founder and CEO of TUBS, Inc., a family owned waste and recycling business operating in the Twin Cities, Denver and Cleveland.   In addition, Russick serves on the Board of Advisors for the Dakota Venture Group.  Russick has been featured in the “Star Tribune,” “Twin Cities Business,” and the “Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal.” “Twin Cities Business” named him a “2014 People to Know – Finance.”  

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Forget Balance! 3 Ways Leaders Can Navigate Imbalanced Lives

“Work-life balance” is a running theme in this hectic world, but also an elusive goal. The phrase is plastered everywhere as people aspire to achieve ideal harmony between family life and professional career.

The demands of both, however, make it difficult to pull off, especially for anyone in a leadership position – and maybe there’s a good reason for that.

Balance is bull—-. A perfect work-life balance is not possible for those in leadership positions. It’s more useful to strive for work-life integration, where you not only bring your work home, but also bring your home to work.

In debunking the balance theme, here are three tips for leaders to help them accept and maximize an imbalanced schedule:

1. Stop and breathe.

Balance is an illusion in our external lives, but it can be created internally as a mechanism that gives busy people the ability to cope better with challenges. This emotional equilibrium is a measured thought choice that gives us more control of our responses to situations.

When I catch myself reacting, I stop and ask, ‘What am I telling myself? Is it true or head trash?’ This helps me unravel what’s factual from a kneejerk emotional response based in fear. I stop and breathe until I find my internal balance again.

2. Learn to say no.

Many people have difficulty saying no, and many who do say no are consumed by guilt. Saying yes before fully analyzing the commitment can lead to being over-committed and overwhelmed, so it’s a matter of prioritizing what you say yes and no to.

Every time you say yes to something, you’re also saying yes to much more. Tell them you’ll consider, but first sit down with a pad and pencil and list all those additional things you’re taking on by saying yes. Finding balance is a matter of saying yes and no to what fulfills you and your life without overcommitting.

3. Don’t be afraid to follow.

When we’re over-committed and feeling imbalanced, we have to take a hard look at what’s ahead and stop doing things that aren’t working. A leader empowers others by giving them space to lead or take a larger role, thus lightening the leader’s load.

You can’t always make things happen, and you can’t do it all. At times you have to let go and let others take the lead.

There will never be a 50-50 balance. but you are still able to fit in all of the things that are important to you by slowing down, choosing what to say yes and no to and accepting help.

Written by Sue Hawkes, bestselling author, award-winning leader,  Certified EOS Implementer, Certified Business Coach, WPO Chapter Chair, and globally recognized  award-winning seminar leader.  She is CEO of YESS! and has designed and delivered dynamic, transformational programs   for thousands of people.


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What’s Cooking? Food and Beverage Industry Research at the Hill

With the Big Game less than three days away, sporty folks are finalizing their beer and grocery lists for all their party treats, and what a Minnesota selection they have. It’s never been a better time to discover Minnesota-made food and drinks, and for those entrepreneurs interested in riding the “Shop Local” wave, your research journey starts here at the Hill.

For the amateur beer-brewery looking to go pro, IBISworld’s report on Craft Beer Production in the US (OD4302) for annualized growth forecasts over the next five years. If you can guess the estimated industry revenue by the end of 2022, and just a hint- it’s absolutely higher than you could imagine, the first round is on us! IBISworld’s industry-specific predictions allow entrepreneurs to plan for growth, be it slow or meteoric, giving your brewery’s business plan an edge in a crowded market.

Prefer your bread in a non-drinkable form? Check out IBISworld’s report on bakeries! Bakery Cafes in the US (OD4319) not only predicts industry growth, but also includes a discussion of key success factors and a breakdown on the major players in the industry. With this report, a budding baker can size up the competition as well as be sure to hit the highlights for a successful business within the industry. Curious about market size? Pop in to the Hill to use SimplyAnalytics to identify consumer behavior trends and spending habits at the national, state, and local level. Before you set your heart on a restaurant that only serves broccoli, check out how much consumers in Minnesota spend on food in restaurants. That way, you don’t over-stock when the hottest new trend turns out to be cabbage.

Confused about where to start? Considering starting your own Minnesota sports franchise after the playoffs? Make an appointment with a business librarian at the James J. Hill Center and let us connect you to the business information you need.


Written by Jessica Huffman, Business Outreach Librarian, at the James J. Hill Center. If you have more questions about the reference library at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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5 Smart Research Tips 

Do you have the next great business idea? Is your small business ready to move into the mainstream? If so, you probably know that business intelligence is key to making an informed decision about the next stage of your career. That means you’ll need to navigate the exciting world of business reference sources! 

Getting started with your research can feel overwhelming. With so many websites, topics, and techniques to choose from, it can seem like doing research is more trouble than it’s worth. With a little guidance, however, you too can find the key facts to jump-start your business.  

Here are 5 smart research tips from the James J. Hill Center: 

1) Start with Broad Topics 

It’s very tempting to search for the exact fact you want, but looking up “2010 household spending trends” might be counterproductive. By searching so specifically, you might miss a great article on that topic that doesn’t have your key words included. Instead, start with wide-ranging topics like “household income” and “domestic spending trends” to maximize your research results.  

2) Limit your Date Range 

When searching online or in the databases at the James J. Hill Center, pay attention to the date range on your results. You don’t want to build a pitch deck around an article on real estate trends only to find out it’s from 2002. Give yourself a range of two to five previous years to find the most recent information. 

3) Use Synonyms 

Is your search for “trade shows” coming up short? Remember, there’s many different ways to describe what you’re looking for, so brainstorm some alternate search terms. You may hit the jackpot when searching for “convention expositions” instead.  

4) Combine Resource Types 

Plenty of people are satisfied with a couple online searches, but true entrepreneurs go beyond Google. While some helpful information, such as the Economic Census or labor statistics, are freely available online, subscription databases can elevate your research process. The James J. Hill Center subscribes to a series of databases, such as IBISworld and Business Source Premier, that contain valuable information not available anywhere else. Stop in to use our resources on-site!  

5) Ask for Assistance  

Remember, research is a long, slow process, but it’s not something you need to handle alone. Make an appointment with a business librarian at the James J. Hill Center and let us connect you to the business information you need.  


Written by Jessica Huffman, Business Outreach Librarian, at the James J. Hill Center. To meet with Jessica about your research needs, make a free appointment hereIf you have more questions about the reference library at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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Shop Talk: NAICS and SICs

If you’ve taken a stab at industry or market research, chances are you’ve come across NAICS and SICs. When used to your advantage, these code systems are handy ways to search across multiple database and search platforms to achieve targeted results. They were created as a way to classify industry areas with the purpose of collecting, analyzing and publishing data relating to the economy.

SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) codes have been around since 1937, and appear as a 4 digit number that represent an industry. NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) is a newer system, established in 1997, and will show up as a 6 digit number that will help you find extremely targeted information. NAICS codes were developed to replace SICs, but you can search via both systems in most business databases.

Most business databases will allow searches via NAICS and SICs, which is helpful because each database uses its own distinctive terminology and classifies information in a different way. Using your unique industry code will help you cut through the information faster, and saving time is in everyone’s interest.

While we love using NAICS and SICs to search quickly, they are not for every situation – like searches that span across multiple industries. For this situation, the researcher will want to use other factors like company location, size or annual revenue to help narrow down their search.

For the DIY business researcher, the simplest way to find your NAICS code is through a web search for your industry name (or description) and “NAICS,” which will generate your code. For a detailed, browsing list, try the US Census Bureau for the official list. Librarians are also available to help navigate through the search process at the Hill, which is a great reason to visit us for an appointment!


Written by Lindsey Dyer, Director of Library Services, James J. Hill Center. If you have more questions about the reference library our our historic collection at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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Strong Data for Minority Own Businesses

There is very strong data to support investment in minority owned businesses in Minnesota. Data from the 2012 Survey of Business Organizations and the Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs 2015 reveal these important insights.

1) Minority business created more jobs than the largest employer in Minnesota: The Mayo Clinic, the largest MN employer, employed 39,000 jobs, estimate of DEED. Minority owned businesses as a group in comparison, employed over 70,000 people with an annual payroll of $1.7 billion.

2) The number of minority businesses grew faster than non-minority businesses: While the number of minority businesses grew by 53 percent during the period 2007-12, the number of non-minority businesses declined by 3 percent.

3) Minority business job growth increased at a higher rate than non-minority businesses: While minority businesses achieved a 68 percent growth in jobs during the period 2007-12, non-minority business jobs grew by only 10 percent.

4) The number of minority female owned businesses grew faster than female owned businesses: While the number of minority female businesses grew by 78 percent during the period 2007-12, the number of non-minority businesses grew by 19 percent.

5) The number of minority veteran owned businesses grew faster than veteran owned businesses: While the number of minority veteran businesses grew by 130 percent during the period 2007-12, the number of veteran businesses grew by 6 percent.

6) The fastest growing industries for minority firms were mining, utilities, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, management and other services: The number of minority owned firms in five out of 18 industries more than doubled between 2007 and 2012.

Most of minority businesses are at the critical stage with sales between $100,000 and a million dollars. Policy attention is needed to help them grow. Our study of African immigrant entrepreneurs revealed that they needed most help with marketing and new product development apart from access to capital. Female entrepreneurs had unique needs compared to male entrepreneurs. Most of these entrepreneurs received very little help from public or non-profit organizations.

Research shows the minority economic status improves when minority entrepreneurs are successful as the wealth base of the community expands.

Bruce Corrie is Professor of Economics and Associate Vice President for University Relations at Concordia University-St. Paul.

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The American Hospital Directory: A Hidden Gem

The region spanning from the Twin Cities metro area down to Rochester is such a hotbed of healthcare organizations and medical device companies that it’s known as “Medical Alley.” In fact, a 2015 article by EMSI notes that the Twin Cities Medical Alley has far more medical-related jobs than any other metro area in the United States, over 10,000 more than New York. Minnesota is clearly a leader in the medical industry housing such influential companies as 3M, Medtronic, the Mayo Clinic and the Medical Alley Association.

The business reference library at the James J. Hill Center is here to help professionals in the medical device industry find the information they need. We offer a highly specialized database, the American Hospital Directory.  This database can be accessed for free at the Hill Center in downtown Saint Paul.

The American Hospital Directory is a tool that medical device sales professionals find invaluable for finding detailed information about hospitals in their market. Data is collected from both public and private sources such as Medicare claims, hospital cost reports and commercial licencors. Using this directory, you can learn a hospital’s specialties, bed count, revenue broken down by services and more.

This type of research is a vital tool in the medical field.  To have the ability to compare and contrast hospitals by patient statistics, revenue and services puts you at the top of your game and on the road to success. Stop by the Hill today, have a conversation with one of our business librarians and use this hidden gem.

Written by: Leah Kodner, Business Librarian, James J. Hill Center.

If you have more questions about the reference library at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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Patrons with accessibility needs please access our ground floor elevator entrance via Kellogg Ave at the back of the building. Please ring the doorbell on the right hand side of door and a Hill staff member will assist you. If you have questions or concerns please call 651.265.5500. We look forward to having you visit.

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