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Startup Showcase: Send best wishes while doing the dishes

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews entrepreneurs for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press.  See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on December 1, 2018. 

Approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards and 13 billion rolls of paper towels are sold and used every year. The unfortunate end game for both these products is the trash. That is a lot of waste. However, what if you had the opportunity to reduce that waste, while still enjoying the tradition of a novelty card and soaking up a mess … all at once? Entrepreneur Carla Scholz is making that idea possible with her businesses Soak it Up and Clards. She has created eco-friendly products that not only appeal to the heart but the mind, and by doing so is impacting the future of our environment.


Name of companies: Soak it Up; Clards

Websites: Clards.com & Soakitupcloths.com

Twitter: @soakitupcloths

Business Start Date: October 2017

Number of Employees: 1

Number of Customers: For Soak it Up we are working with wholesale 120+ gift shops including local locations in St. Paul: Bibelot & Corazon. Also, a few hundred e-commerce through soakitupcloths.com and Etsy.  Clards is just getting up and running.


Name: Carla Scholz

Age: 50ish

City you live in: St. Paul

High school attended: Sevastopol

College attended: University of Wisconsin – Stout


Q. What led to this point?

A. I am a mom, an art director, and an award-winning goat milker. I grew up in Door County Wisconsin. As a kid, I fell in love with goats because my parents created and ran a “Living Museum of Rural America” called The Farm. I designed my first t-shirt when I was 12 that read “I’m a Kid from The Farm.” I’ve been designing stuff ever since. Art directing thousands of retail catalogs exposed me to loads of products and provided an opportunity to come up with original ideas for products like shirts, mugs, snow globes, and greeting cards. All things that nobody really needs. My latest business allows me to create products that are environmentally friendly and useful.

Q. What is your business?

A. Soak it Up sells clever, compostable European sponge cloths. 1 cloth = 1,500 paper towels. By choosing to print on bright colored cloths with a single color, our process uses minimal production materials making them more eco-friendly than similar cloths. Fun regional designs like “Minnesota land of 10,000 lakes and a whole lotta flakes,” “Great Lakes Always have been,” and “Wisconsin proud world capital of bratwurst, toilet paper and more” make sales at (mostly Midwest) gift shops steady and growing. Most are available online too, but you must visit Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, or Minnesota State Parks for custom cloths.

My latest new big idea with Soak it up cloths is Clards: greetings that clean up — literally.

Clards eliminate the waste and give an alternative to paper towels. Multi-function Clards are more than a greeting card, they are a useful, eco-friendly gift that become a daily reminder of the event/emotion given for. Clards appear to be like any high end greeting card but the difference is once wet they transform into soft, durable, long lasting cloths. Monitor the growth of this product at Clards.com.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. I met with a friend from Valley Art Group — a wholesale rep group that specializes in local artists — to pick his brain and learn more about what was trending. He brought a sample sponge cloth and one of my first thoughts was, what else can this be used for? What about a greeting card? After months of research we agreed that if I designed and produced some regional, funny cloths Valley Art Group could sell them. At the same time a retail client of mine agreed to several custom designs. The first Soak it Up Cloths order was placed in September 2017. To date over 10,000 cloths have been sold.

Designing and producing Soak it Up Cloths established manufacturing, sales, materials and time to file a patent for my big idea. I was very fortunate to be chosen by an outstanding attorney through Legal Corps. (recommended at a JJHill Center program called Meet the Expert).

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. Soak it Up cloths and Clards are a healthy and earth-conscious solution to everyday items.

Q. Where do you go when you need help?

A. I ask anyone that will listen for suggestions, meet with people, call old friends, go to networking events and make cold calls.

Q. What big obstacle or hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. Designing a greeting card with unusual material sizes and processes with large minimum quantities has been challenging. Finding a digital printer that was willing and able to try to print on the unique material was key. I recently found a willing participant and samples have turned out well. This will allow for small print runs and customization.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. I enjoy idea generation and problem solving. I have worked with many startups and have learned by others success’ and failures.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. The potential of this idea to make a difference.

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. Manufacturing details including product importing and assembly.

Q. How are you funding your business?

A. To date it both Soak it Up has been funded by sales. A crowdfunding campaign is in the works for Clards for early 2019.

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. Success would be American Greetings (Papyrus) embracing my Clards concept.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. A great entrepreneur needs to trust instincts, ride the highs to survive the lows, and believe it can be.

Q. Why do you do what you do?

A. My parents instilled in me the importance of nature and our environment. Anyone living on this planet has an obligation to future generations to be aware of their impact. I want to make eco-friendly products an easy choice even for extreme or careless consumers.

Q. How did the James J. Hill Center help you with your business?

A. I just finished the James J. Hill Centers first Co.Starters program which helped me fill in the blanks, understand important details, and left me energized and feeling confident. I have made many helpful connections through various events at the Hill including people from Score, Legal Corp, and WIN.

You can hear from startups like this every other Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul. Visit jjhill.org/calendar for scheduled dates.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
8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Thursday. To keep updated on what startup is presenting next or to apply to present, visit www.JJHill.org/1-million-cups

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Startup Showcase: A police body cam app, of sorts, for citizens

Each month the James J. Hill Center interviews 1 Million Cup presenters for the Startup Showcase feature in the Pioneer Press.  See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on November 19, 2018. 

According to Governing the States and Localities, between 2013-2015, 20 of the 25 largest U.S. cities paid out a combined annual average of $1.2 billion in judgments and settlements of lawsuits stemming from real or alleged police misconduct.

Mondo Davison, the developer of new app called SafeSpace, built in partnership with Software for Good, believes he can help reduce those city costs by giving community members a tool to engage and share feedback about the police interactions they witness. With immediate access and later evaluations of these interactions, SafeSpace is hoping to curate enough data to predict negative and positive outcomes based on behavior trends. This  information can then be provided to police departments in real-time to help create preventative and productive strategies to truly create a safer community for all.


Name of company: SafeSpace (built in partnership with Software for Good)
Website: https://safespaceapp.com
Business Start Date: January 2018|
Number of Employees: 1|
Number of Customers: 14 and growing


Name: Mondo ‘The Black Tech Guy’ Davison
Age: 33
City of Birth: St. Paul
City you live in: St. Paul
High school attended: Central High School
College attended: University of Tennessee and Florida A&M

Q. What led to this point?

A. My mission has been to inspire a generation of black males to pursue a career in technology. I have branded myself as “The Black Tech Guy,” to be a trailblazing figure in the tech space and lead to show a more compelling “Plan A” than rapper, trapper, or athlete. During the past eight years I have worked to birth minority-led tech startups with TEAM Studios. In partnership with Dario Otero of Youth Lens 360 and Mary Rick, TEAM Studios brings together tech, entrepreneurship, art, and media to impact the world specifically through the brilliance of youth aged 18-24.  SafeSpace is one of the businesses young cohorts within TEAM Studios has been challenged to scale as an impactful solution to the fear, distrust, and insecurities between police and communities of color.

Q. What is your business?

A. SafeSpaces overall goal is to separate good cops from bad cops as well as ones unfit to serve on the force. Our solution is a two-step approach.

1) Immediate interaction — when being pulled over, a single tap of the SafeSpace automatically alerts emergency contacts and people nearby to witness and record the interaction to increase immediate accountability and transparency.

2) Post interaction — SafeSpace asks specific questions to involved community members about the interaction. Our intent is to curate quantitative and qualitative data in real-time to better understand how the community believes they are being served and how to make these interactions safer.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. I can point to multiple police interaction stories (personal or otherwise) that may have served as the origin for SafeSpace. Unfortunately, the common denominator is black men feel their life is potentially in jeopardy when engaging with law enforcement. Creating a technology tool to decrease the fear and anxiety in that moment makes perfect sense.

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. When people have a conversation about police, it’s likely someone will say, “but not all cops are bad.” This statement is 100 percent accurate. When the follow up question is, “but who is bad?” Nobody seems to have the answer. SafeSpace can solve that problem over time through accurate and real feedback.

Q. Where do you go when you need help?

A. I tend to seek help from people whom I am confident will challenge me. If I’m seeking help, it’s likely because I am facing a tough decision and I consult with people that don’t allow me to take the easy way out.

Q. What big obstacle or hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. Our biggest obstacle to date has been owning the narrative. Internally we perceive ourselves as an independent company trying to make our communities safer. But over the past year our story has been hijacked as the “black people app AGAINST police.”

The past year we’ve had independent conversations with police chiefs, mayors, and community leaders to come together in a joint effort to combat this dynamic problem. But I’ve concluded the topic is too polarizing for all stakeholders to freely opt into a unifying strategy.

Q. What personal strengths or skill sets do you bring to the business?

A. I believe my greatest strength is empathy. I love listening to perspectives that don’t match my own because I genuinely want to understand how people presented with the same information can conclude opposite opinions. With that, I believe I can help craft solutions that meet the needs of people with whom I may not agree.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I’ve never wavered in my journey to change the world. I believe so strongly I am on the right path that it’s not “if,” it’s “when.”

Q. What obstacles must you overcome to be wildly successful?

A. WE vs. Me is the key to success. The more I’m able to surround myself with amazing, dynamic, passionate people, the more successful WE will become.

Q. How are you funding your business?

A. To-date everything has been self-funded or in collaboration.

Q. What would be success for your business in the next 2-3 years?

A. If SafeSpace is operating on all cylinders in the top 25 populated cities, decreasing police brutality, and increasing confidence in local law enforcement, I’d feel a level of success.

Q. In your opinion, what does it take to be a great entrepreneur?

A. (Product + Marketing + Sales) is the recipe for business. But the two parentheses on each end hold it all together. Those parentheses represent TEAM & CULTURE. If a business has all the assets of this equation, success is inevitable.

Q. What haven’t we asked you that we should understand about your business?

A. We currently have a technical barrier. We are only built for iOS (iPhone) to date and seeking financial resources or development talent to build out an Android version. Any support from the community would be helpful.

Q. How did 1 Million Cups St. Paul help you?

A. Post 1MC pitch I had a great conversation with a seasoned PR expert to talk through our story and how to control the narrative. If it weren’t for 1MC I likely would have never met this person.

You can hear from startups like this every other Wednesday, 9-10 a.m. at the James J. Hill Center during 1 Million Cups St. Paul.  Please check the calendar at jjhill.org/calendar for up to date information. 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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It All Adds Up: Gratitude is Good

Way back in January 2018, I wrote my first blog post of the year, All Systems Go, where I shared my work and life theme for 2018. This Has Meaning has been my theme for this year, specifically around making meaningful decisions and choosing actions that lead to targeted growth and building key relationships. Fast forward to November, which is typically a month dedicated to gratitude and reflection. I’d like to share a few points of my personal reflection from my journey through this year.

  1. The Power of Intention – For the last five years, I have purposefully selected an annual theme designed to create focus on how I spend my time, how I set and measure  goals and how I celebrate growth. This simple practice of focus and intention has been life changing. I am a dreamer, a visionary and I thrive at mapping out the big picture. I struggle and often carry feelings of failure when it comes to following through on the simple details required to execute. For years, my weaknesses resulting from inattention to simple details showed up like a humongous STOP sign which stagnated growth and incubated shame. Choosing to be intentional in my planning process has dramatically changed my quality of life and quiets the negative self-talk that once played loudly inside my brain. Being intentional has created space for being grateful…and gratitude is good.
  2. The Power of Community – However you show up in the world; (i.e.: an entrepreneur, a corporate employee, a full time parent, etc) you are guaranteed that there are millions of people who are traveling a path that resembles your path. In spite of that fact, most of us struggle to find a community of like-minded individuals, so we navigate life in isolation. When I finally made connections and became a part of a community of social entrepreneurs, my personal and professional growth trajectory changed. I felt a sense of belonging. I gained instant access to information and inspiration that resonated with me. I felt stronger and supported as a member of the collective. Being connected within community creates space for being grateful…and gratitude is good.
  3. The Power of Vulnerability – I recently completed a comprehensive personality and leadership assessment profile. It was quite intense and very accurate. As I read the narrative which explicitly described my personality, my strengths and how I show up in the world, I felt a sense of pride and satisfaction. This assessment also clearly pointed out my blind spots, my weaknesses and my areas of selfishness. As I read through those pages of details, I felt uncomfortable and exposed. I wanted to rush through those details because I didn’t need reminders of the areas in which I struggle. However, in my quest for choosing behaviors that have meaning, I slowed down and digested the information. Everything that was identified, were things I was aware of, but I wasn’t being intentional in planning growth. It was time to be okay with that information. Accept that information and take action to be better. I chose to be vulnerable and I asked for help as an initial step. Vulnerability opens your heart to acceptance. Acceptance creates space for being grateful…and gratitude is good.

This year has been an amazing year. I have stuck with my decision of intentionally choosing actions that aligned with #ThisHasMeaning. As we coast through the final months of the year, we are presented with a perfect opportunity to slow down and reflect upon our journey through 2018. Reflection creates space for being grateful…and gratitude is good.

Junita L. Flowers,
Baking hope in every cookie. #HopeMunchesOn
Follow her on Facebook. Like her on Instagram. Order your cookies now.
You can also read more about Junita Flowers on her website junitasjar.com.

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Twin Cities Startups and Small Businesses Can Get Free Professional Research Help

We are thrilled to have the James J. Hill Center featured on TECHGEN’s blog Tech Tips for the Twin Cities. Enjoy some great tips by Reid Johnston in his post originally posted on November 5, 2018.

Twin Cities Startups and Small Businesses Can Get Free Professional Research Help

For an entrepreneur, a breakthrough product or service idea is the seed. Research makes it grow. Here’s how Twin Cities startups and small businesses can get professional help researching key business areas, plus some IT areas you’re probably wasting time trying to learn yourself.

Startups and small businesses need information on key areas such as:

  • Your industry
  • Your competition
  • The marketplace
  • Possible funding sources
  • Infrastructure (especially your IT systems)

Google is an awesome research tool for entrepreneurs, but the quality and sources of information are hit-or-miss. Mostly miss. Are you going to entrust the future of your startup or small business to seat-of-the-pants research?

In St. Paul, there is an invaluable alternative: the James J. Hill Center. Let’s take a look at how they can help you find the information you need to succeed…READ FULL BLOG HERE.

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Giving Back & Giving Thanks

November is a month of giving back and giving thanks. Here at the James J. Hill Center, we are thankful for our research services volunteers and interns who are invaluable to our mission of connecting entrepreneurs, business and community. Read on to learn more about our volunteer Sharon Lunak and intern Nick Riordan. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

Sharon: I was raised on a farm in Wisconsin and moved to St. Paul during high school. I worked for Remington Rand Univac and got married at twenty-one. My husband was a pastor in Wisconsin, and eventually we spent seventeen years in Japan as missionaries with our two children, coming back to the U.S. in 1987. My husband taught college students and I went to work at Jostens for the next twenty-five years.
Nick: I am a graduate student in Saint Catherine University’s Masters in Library and Information Science program. Prior to that, I studied Linguistics and Religious Studies at Macalester College.   

What do you do at the Hill Center? 

Sharon: I work as a volunteer receptionist two days a week or as needed during special occasions.
Nick: My work at James J. Hill Center varies by the day. Sometimes I work at the front desk greeting users and assisting them in operating our business resources, other times I am in the stacks reshelving or rearranging the books, and other times I am working down in the archives.   

What inspired you to volunteer/intern at the Hill? 

Sharon: I retired in 2016 and decided I couldn’t sit at home every day. Because my husband gave tours at the Hill House for eight years, it was a good transition for me to volunteer at the Hill Center. 

Nick: I began interning at the Hill in May 2017 to gain experience and exposure to working in a library and archival setting.  Although I was in the process of completing my first year as a library science student, I hadn’t ever worked in a library before. I wanted to see which elements of the profession I liked and which ones I didn’t so I could apply that to my career going forward, and this internship has helped greatly in that regard.   

What is your favorite part of being a Hill volunteer/intern? 

Sharon: It’s great working with the Hill Center staff, who are completely dedicated to making the Hill Center the best it can be. I also love the historical setting and enjoy meeting all the different people coming in to do research or visiting the almost-one-hundred-year-old building.
Nick: Being around all the old books and the overall stateliness of the library. Sometimes when you’re in the reading room, it’s tempting just to stop, look up, and be in awe! 

What is your favorite period in history? 

Sharon: I love learning about my great-grandparents coming to the U.S. from Europe (mid-1800s) and my grandparents learning to live in the U.S. (late 1800s), and, of course, making current family history with our five grandchildren. 

Who is your favorite “Original Thinker”? 

Nick: John Muir. In a time when nearly everyone in power was looking for ways to exploit America’s natural resources for profit, Muir focused on fighting to preserve them and was the impetus for the current system of state and national parks enjoyed by millions each year.   

What is your favorite James J. Hill fact? 

Nick: Hill would travel routes on horseback and determine whether they were suitable for his railroads.  It’s crazy to think how hands-on he was in all his business ventures.  
Sharon: Despite losing sight in one eye when he was young, James J. Hill became an entrepreneur, which led to him becoming a very successful businessman—and leaving the Hill Center as his legacy for all entrepreneurs.

Written by Ann Mayhew, Reference & Support Specialist, at the 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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Non-Profit and Grant Research 

Finding funding for a for-profit business is difficult enough, but how do you go about researching funding for a non-profit? You’ll still have the same operating costs, personnel expenditures, and one-off expenses, but many traditional financing options aren’t good fits for your financial needs. If you’re stuck on how to get the funding you need to get your non-profit off the ground, the James J. Hill Center has two specialized resources that can help.  

The Hill’s GuideStar subscriptions let users research other non-profit and not-for-profit entities across the country. You can search by geography, size, and most importantly by cause type. This can be valuable if you’re trying to see how other non-profits organize themselves financially. GuideStar collects selected non-profits 990 tax forms, in which the organizations provide required financial breakdowns of their operating models. This can provide insight on how to financially set up your own non-profit.  

Beyond GuideStar, the Hill subscribes to Foundation Directory Online, a tool that indexes both 990 forms of non-profits, but also organizations that give grants, organizations that have received those grants, and short descriptions of the grants themselves. Naturally there aren’t filled-out grants to examine, as that is private information, but this tool allows those interested in exploring grants to make initial connections. Users can search for grants and grantmakers by topic, giving cause, grant type, and location of grantmakers and grant-recipients. This lets users explore the funding available to non-profits and additional contact information to explore the application process.  

Confused about where to start? Sign up for an introductory appointment at jjhill.org.

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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A Haunted Hill?

St. Paul is known for its historic buildings, such as the James J. Hill Center. From the houses on Summit Avenue to the Landmark Center, there’s a lot of history here. With such abundant history, comes stories… specifically, ghost stories.  

One of the best-known St. Paul hauntings is at the historic Forepaugh’s restaurant. Originally built in the 1870s as a house for Joseph Forepaugh, this fine dining establishment is supposedly home to a ghost named Molly, a maid who hanged herself after an affair she was having with Mr. Forepaugh was discovered. 

Our employees who grew up in the neighborhood recall hearing stories about the Chauncey Griggs Mansion on Summit Avenue. Built for Chauncey Griggs in the 1880s, the mansion has been both a private residence—at one point owned by Carl Weschcke, who was a publisher of paranormal books and apparently had an interest in the occult—and an art school. One of historic house’s ghost stories is of a maid who hanged herself in an upstairs art studio. (Wait a second, there seems to be a trend here…) 

In 1985, our downtown neighbor, the Fitzgerald Theater, was doing renovations and discovered a balcony no one had previously known was there—and with it, a note written to a stagehand named Ben. Shortly after, tools began moving around on their own, staff began encountering mysterious cold spots, and some could even swear they saw a shadowy figure walking the aisles. 

Of course, you can’t talk about haunted St. Paul without mentioning the Wabasha Street Caves, just across the river from the Hill. These caves were a Prohibition-era speakeasy and hangout for 1920s gangsters, and supposedly, some of these mobsters still hang out in the caves today. 

The Hill Center has had a few eerie occurrences of its own. One staff person swears they’ve seen the chandelier in the Reading Room—the big one by the front windows—swinging on its own at the end of the night. Considering its weight, a chandelier like that is too heavy to sway in a breeze—if there even was a breeze, which is itself unlikely. Another previous employee would always get vertigo in the exact same spot on a catwalk, but never anywhere else. 

More disturbing, a current employee swears they once saw a ghostly apparition! One day after we were closed, our staffperson was standing on the first floor when movement on the second floor caught her eye. It was a woman in a long, black dress. As the employee turned to watch—immediately thinking, “Oh no, a visitor is still in the building!”—the mysterious person disappeared behind a column, never to reappear. While we’re not sure who such a woman would be, you can bet we’re all a little extra leery when it comes time for lights out. 

Are these stories true or just fictions inspired by historic and atmospheric spaces?


Written by Ann Mayhew, Reference & Support Specialist, at the 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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Startup Showcase: Helping First Responders Respond Accordingly

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 Nick Tietz. See interview as seen in the Pioneer Press Startup Showcase originally posted on October 6, 2018. 

A 2017 two year study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that “Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.” And a recent research update by the Treatment Advocacy Center reinforces that “across the United States the unavailability of appropriate psychiatric treatment has forced people with mental illnesses into unnecessary — and too often dangerous — encounters with law enforcement officers, rather than medical personnel.”

Entrepreneur Nick Tietz saw a social need here, a market, and took steps in the only way he knew how — though technology. His ongoing interest in changing lives through technology has ultimately grown into the creation of a vital app that is not only changing lives but saving them.


Name: Nick Tietz
Age: 41
City you live in: Brooklyn Park
City of birth: Bogota, Colombia
College attended: University of St. Thomas (BA – Journalism and Mass Communication); Minneapolis College of Art and Design – Animation; U of M – Naval ROTC Program


Name of company: Vitals Aware Services
Website: www.thevitalsapp.com
Business Start Date: The Vitals app was developed in partnership with the Autism Society of Minnesota. The service was launched August of 2017 in St. Paul.
Number of Employees: 10
Number of Customers: 1,366 Individuals, 26 public safety agencies in Minnesota and Ohio


Q. What led to this point?

A. I’ve spent the last 15 years working for myself as a business consultant, technologist, user experience designer, and serial entrepreneur. I’ve designed more than 100 apps, crafted the strategy to help redefine the public education experience at Minneapolis Public Schools, and led multiple innovation efforts at Life Time Fitness to improve the employee experience and define the health club of the future.

Additionally, I’ve spent the past decade donating my time and creative services at PACER Center, where I serve on their Marketing Advisory Board, producing communication videos and helping with the production of their annual benefit.

I’m very passionate about helping others become the best version of themselves. I am focused on building technology that change people’s lives, so profoundly they can’t imagine living any other way.

Q. What is your business?

A. Vitals Aware Services is a new company creating technology for social good. We are makers of The Vitals App.

Vitals is the first and only company to have created a platform based on community created content and apps on law enforcement/first responder phones. Avoiding costly encounters between first responders and people with invisible and visible conditions and disabilities such as autism, mental health, and other disabilities.

Our community has many members with intellectual, developmental, behavioral disabilities and other mental health conditions such as autism, high anxiety, depression, dementia, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, down syndrome, Parkinson’s, fetal alcohol syndrome, bi-polar and schizophrenia.

Q. What is the origin of the business?

A. The Vitals app was developed by co-founders (Steve Mase, Nick Tietz, G.L. Hoffman, Jim Dolan and Rob Zink) in partnership with the Autism Society of Minnesota. We made this business because we were motivated to “give back” after learning about how vulnerable populations are at risk in their communities. Our idea was to give first responders crucial information at critical times, so tragedies can be avoided.

Q. What problems does your business solve?

A. The Vitals app will keep people safe by helping them communicate critical information in real time to police and first responders.

This is a new product offering in a new marketplace that hasn’t been served well. We are solving a major pain point for municipalities, individuals and first responders across the United States and beyond. The Vitals services works across any geographic boundary and is technology agnostic. Our product has been designed to improve existing police workflows, while closing the information gap that exists today between police and individuals in the community.

The more individuals and families that have the Vitals App the faster we can create safer communities across the U.S.

Q. What big obstacle or hurdle did you have to overcome?

A. Our biggest obstacle has been raising money to build this business. We worked on the business for a year before launching it publicly. We have self-funded this business and raised about a million dollars to build the technology and get this business off the ground. We are finally into our first equity round and are seeking additional investors to help us expand faster and move into additional communities across the U.S.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. Getting calls from caregivers, parents and individuals thanking us for making a product that has saved their lives. When you build a product, you hope that people love it. But when you get to build a product that saves people’s lives, I’m still humbled that we can impact people’s lives in such a positive way.


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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Business Plan Resources

Maybe the most overwhelming task that faces an entrepreneur is writing the business plan. Where to start? What data to include? While some sections, like finances and management plan, are hyper-specific to each individual venture, some sections require data that can be found at the James J. Hill Center. Let’s look at three major components: industry trends, competitor list, and market analysis.

Industry trends can be found in the Hill’s IBISWorld subscription. Within each industry breakdown, organized by both NAICS code and IBISWorld-specific specialized reports, IBISWorld provides a five-year forecast of the industry in question. The reports include some product or service segmentation, allowing researchers to learn more about the newest developments in their industry as well as projections forward.

Developing a competitor list for a business plan allows a researcher to better understand how crowded the market is and how much competition they’ll be up against once their business opens. Entrepreneurs can use the Hill’s subscription to A-to-Z Databases to make this a quick and simple task. Use this directory service to search for similar business listings by industry code, estimated annual revenue, geographic location, and employee size in order to locate your peer businesses for broader understanding of the local competitive market.

When it comes to building a customer profile or doing a market analysis, many business plan writers falter at step one: where to find relevant survey information? Thankfully, the Hill offers SimplyAnalytics, one of the premier consumer demographics and behavior databases. Look up information on household buying behaviors, types of media consumed, household demographics and concentrations by geography. You can even map this information to the state, city, or zip code level, then export a graphic to include in your business plan!

Make a Hill Introduction Appointment today at jjhill.org to learn more about the Hill’s resources and classes, and let us take some of the confusion out of finding data for your business plan.


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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Options Abound For Raising Capital

For startups, financing can be challenging, and often the biggest barrier. Each month we’re focusing on a different financing option in Minnesota for startups and featuring experts in the field. 

(This article originally appeared on BetterSMB)

by April Chen

John Funge, chief product officer of DataTribe, left, and Steven Witt, co-founder and partner of the technology venture capital firm, sat down with BetterSMB to discuss ways of raising capital for new businesses. (April Chen)

Raising capital to start a new company can be challenging, but with the right knowledge, the endeavor can be successful. Knowing the nuances of each way to raise money as an entrepreneur can help a business owner decide which is best.

For people seeking to fund a company, the best source of information is an entrepreneur who has a successful business in the same or similar industry, but in a different market, said Steven Witt, co-founder and partner of DataTribe, a technology venture capital firm in Fulton, Maryland.

“The greatest thing about being an entrepreneur is that anyone that’s been one will be of the mindset that they want to give back and help the next generation of entrepreneurs,” Witt said.

When a business uses a venture capital approach to funding, some ownership of the company is given in return for the services and capital provided by the firm. This huge injection of funding enables tremendous gains that would otherwise be impossible.

For entrepreneurs not seeking venture capital funding, there are other approaches.

One of the most risky ways to startup a company is by borrowing against personal assets. Witt did this when starting his first company, so he could pay himself a “salary,” but he came within days of having to sell his family’s second car because he couldn’t afford the car payment. Some entrepreneurs even take the extreme measure of liquidating their retirement savings, which Witt doesn’t recommend.

Another approach to raising revenue is through crowdfunding, using websites such as Kickstarter.com. Since its inception in 2009, more than 15 million people have backed almost 150,000 projects there. An advantage to using websites like Kickstarter is that the investor doesn’t get equity in the company or future profits. Instead, they get the product, or a discount, once it is released. While there may be less financial risk in funding a business using this route, if the promised product is not delivered, the entrepreneur keeps the capital but it’s almost certain this entrepreneur will never be able to sell anything again. It has the potential to ruin someone’s reputation.

“One of the top reasons these types of endeavors fail is that a supplier that the businessperson negotiated a deal with either goes out of business or changes the terms, making it impossible for the creator to deliver the product to the crowd funders,” Witt said.

The Small Business Administration can help small firms get financing by guaranteeing loans. It also licenses small business investment companies, which are private investors who can make loans, invest in a share of the company, or do both, with federal backing.

John Funge, DataTribe’s chief product officer, said the businesses that would best utilize this method are those opening a franchise where there is already a predictable model, marketing and other resources that have previously proven themselves to be successful.

“Entrepreneurs need to be really thoughtful about their life stage and their future financial obligations since startups can put extreme stress on a family and personal life. Someone in their 20s likely has more to lose than someone in their 40s who is more established financially,” Funge added.

Business owners can also seek angel investors, who are sometimes found among especially wealthy friends or family. Angels often invest on more favorable terms in comparison to traditional lenders. They often look for something in return for their investment, such as a seat on the board of directors or participation in day-to-day operations, according to the Small Business Administration.

Regardless of how an entrepreneur obtains funding, Funge said business owners should line up two professionals to help their business get the right start.

“Founders of all stripes should find an accountant and a lawyer that they can work with who specialize and can serve as trail guides for starting the company,” Funge said.

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