SBDC consultants guide businesses through all stages of development and growth. Here are some notable examples:
The entrepreneurial duo behind Let’s Dish, a popular and fast-growing do-it-your-self meal preparation company, Lundquist and Olson have found a way to take the stress out of dinnertime for harried working families and have come up with the recipe for an entirely new industry in the process.
The concept behind Let’s Dish is simple. They provide the ingredients, recipes, materials and kitchen. Customers do the work and in less than two hours head home with enough prepared freezer-ready meals to last a week or two.
Let’s Dish stores have several fully equipped stations with fresh ingredients sliced, diced and ready to go. Following posted directions, customers assemble different meals at each station and pop them in the provided pans and freezer bags.
The idea grew out of their own experiences trying to balance busy corporate careers and young families and still put a decent meal on the table at day’s end. Far from a Rockwell-like picture of family togetherness, dinnertime had become just one more hectic chore in the daily race against the clock.
“We just started brainstorming around my coffee table one night after my kids went to bed,” Lundquist recounts. “Every step along the way we both kept getting more and more excited and got more encouragement.”
The duo began developing the concept in January of 2003 and opened a store in October of that year. Initially, Lundquist and Olson envisioned multiple stores, but scaled back, fearing the plan was too ambitious for an untested concept. They settled on a single location in Eden Prairie.
Eight meals cost $125; 12 meals cost $165, a price many busy families are happy to pay for a lot of good food and a little sanity. Because the idea was so new, Lundquist and Olson knew they couldn’t use conventional marketing to get the word out. They relied on grassroots marketing, using networks of friends to spread the word to other friends.
“We had a lot of consumer education to do,” says Lundquist. “But as soon as people got it, they got it in a big way and they were really excited about it.”
In the initial stages, as Lundquist and Olson worked to get their idea off the ground, Twin Cities SBDC assistance was essential. They’d put together a good first draft of a business plan, but still needed some expert guidance. Enter SDBC counselor Dick Helgeson. “Dick brought his vast experience to the table and coached us through the areas where we needed to dig a little deeper,” says Lundquist.
Helgeson helped the partners refine their business plan and develop a “more realistic set of expectations” in their marketing budget. Equally important, he led them to receptive lenders after a commercial bank showed little appetite for the endeavor.
Now with three stores in the Twin Cities, one in the Seattle area and one in Baltimore, Let’s Dish is looking at a widespread expansion that will include a core of corporate-owned stores plus independent franchises.
Joe Woods discovered the small but captivating world of the dueling piano bar business 12 years ago while on a golf vacation with friends in South Carolina. “We heard this music and wandered over to the dueling piano bar,” Woods said. “We closed the place down three nights in a row. It was the most fun I’ve had in my life!”
What’s a dueling piano bar? It works like this: Professional piano players sing and entertain with baby grand pianos. Members of the audience request songs and burst out singing at the top of their lungs. Think “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.” The piano players encourage crowd interaction and it becomes one great big romp.
Woods, a former business manager for UPS, spent two years researching the dueling piano bar business while living in San Diego and Des Moines, Iowa. He took several classes at Drake University in Des Moines that were sponsored by the Iowa Small Business Development Center (SBDC) before deciding to come to Minneapolis. The Iowa SBDC referred him to Mike Ryan, director of the Twin Cities SBDC at the University of St. Thomas. Woods wasted no time calling Ryan, who connected him with professional business consultant Cheryl Ann Mozey. “Mike updated my business plan, and Cheryl Ann helped with marketing, demographics and technical assistance after we opened,” Woods said.
Ryan also provided many referrals Woods needed to get The Shout! House, up and running. “He knows where to go and who to contact,” Woods said. “When I needed advice on financing or how to get a liquor license, Mike had the answers and the contacts.”
It has been almost eight years since The Shout! House opened on Block E in downtown Minneapolis, and Woods couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the business. The Shout! House is now open six days a week, and a big part of the business is catering to bachelor and bachelorette parties. Employee turnover is low. Three of his seven piano players have been with him since he opened.
Word-of-mouth and social networking have heightened their visibility. “The dueling piano bar entertainment business is an engaging concept that appeals to a wide demographic,” Woods said. “We just had a birthday party for an 88-year-old woman and our annual employee party.”
“I’m proud of the fact that we have a lease through 2014 with two five-year extensions,” he said. “I’m very excited about the future of the business and the city of Minneapolis.”
“I love having a small business, and I appreciate everything the SBDC has done for me. It’s been a fun ride!”
She may be a woman in a “man’s world,” but Cathy Mackenthun, a fourth generation meat cutter and sausage maker, is the owner and operator of Mackenthun’s Meats & Deli. Her shop sits on the south side of St. Bonifacius, 30 miles west of Minneapolis.
Mackenthun started working full-time for her father, Ruben, in the store in 1978. He passed away in 1979, and Cathy purchased the store in 1981, growing it from six employees to 22. Providing her customers with handmade smoked meats, sausages, jerky and many other products, Mackenthun is passionate about remaining a local, sustainable force in the community.
“The business has really taken a direction in all natural and local,” said Mackenthun. “Because we are small, people expect that. It’s made a huge impact on the store the last four or five years and our numbers really prove it. It’s that feel and look of a co-op. People want to know where their meat’s from and what’s in it. We buy all our pork from a local producer. We buy quite a bit of local beef. As much as we can, we buy local — you name it, across the store.”
“When she’s got an issue, she calls me,” said Enrooth. “I give her a couple options and tell her what I found worked the best with the clients I’ve worked with in over 30 years. It’s kind of a pick-and-choose of what fits best with her style.”
Enrooth said Mackenthun steered the direction of the store into what it is today because she’s not afraid to try new things.
“We’re both on the same track,” he added. “We came to the same conclusion that this is a gem – let’s really polish it and make it shine. She took the lead on it and really did a good job creating a destination shop that people go out of their way to find.”
Mackenthun said it’s challenging being a woman in the meat industry, even today, but consistently putting out quality products is what’s gotten her over that hurdle and kept her business strong.
“Our name has been so established over the years that word-of-mouth by far is our best means of advertising,” said Mackenthun. “You run a sale, and it gets to be an annual thing. People just know. You don’t have to put it out there anymore. They just come in. Longevity has helped.”
As a rule, starting a business is a deliberate act that requires a great deal of planning and preparation. Sarah Bazey is an exception to the rule. She went into business quite by accident. To earn a communications credit as part of her college coursework, Bazey conducted a marketing seminar to introduce a new fiber-reinforced plaster to stucco contractors. “I invited people who I thought might take an afternoon if I fed them lunch,” she recalls. She never expected that they’d actually want to buy the stuff – at least not from her. She couldn’t have been more wrong. The contractors were so impressed with the product that they wanted to place orders that day. “That’s how the company was born,” laughs Bazey, owner of Simplex Construction Supplies, Inc. “Nineteen years later, here we are.”
While the company also sells stucco materials and decorative concrete for residential and commercial buildings, the mainstay of Simplex’s business falls into what is known as the “heavy-highway” construction market. After analyzing the design specifications for road or bridge projects, the company produces estimates of material costs, factoring in everything from concrete and reinforcing steel to joints, fillers and curing compounds to every last nut, bolt or dollop of grease. Construction companies use the information to bid on the projects and then buy the materials from Simplex. In retrospect, it’s not such a surprise that Bazey – who was planning on a career as a sports psychologist before her fateful seminar – would find the road to success in highway construction. “I took drafting instead of cooking in the eighth grade,” says Bazey, who discovered she had a real knack for construction estimating. Before long she was providing job estimates for her father’s small stucco company, learning the business as she went through high school.
It may have begun by accident, but Simplex’s growth has been deliberate. Today, the company does estimates on 500 projects a year in the United States and Canada. “It has been a growth company since day one,” says Bazey, who holds a business degree from Harvard. “If you look at a chart of our sales, it’s just like a mountain.”
The SBDC helped pave the way for that success with financing expertise. “It laid the foundation and it put the structure in place that the company became,” says Bazey, who so respected SBDC consultant Dick Enrooth that eventually she asked him to sit on her company’s board of advisers. “I think it would have been a completely different experience without the help. Who knows how much time and energy and money might have been spent trying to get to the same place, if you could ever get there?”
Cheryl Mohn, husband Bruce and their family owned and operated Mohn Dairy in rural Lakeville, Minnesota for more than 30 years. While milking cows one day, Mohn realized there had to be a better way to carry cow towels, which are used to clean the cow’s udder before attaching the milking machine. So she designed the Towel Tote™, launching a business now known worldwide. What began as a solution to the need to make milking time more efficient is now Udder Tech, a company that designs and markets a wide variety of innovative, quality solutions for clean, efficient dairying.
“As a small business in Minnesota,” Mohn, the company’s president, said, “I want to thank the SBDC for all the great assistance I have received when I needed it. As with any business, there are times you move along well on your own, and then you hit a bump in the road and need some help to make a decision. We felt the advice we received from the SBDC from our beginnings in 1994 were very appropriate for where we were at that time. I look back since then and realize those were all good suggestions for our business.”
Shortly after going to market with the Towel Tote, a competitor approached Mohn to manufacture the product for her in China, or maybe even purchase Udder Tech. She did not want to give up control of her products or company. Her SBDC consultant, Dick Enrooth, helped her quickly research the competitor and overseas production opportunities. He urged her to aggressively go to market with an ad campaign and find her own manufacturing in China.
They then developed a strategic plan to strengthen the company to be able to face any new competition entering the marketplace, and tightened up her accounting system to get a better handle on her costs. As a result, Mohn remains firmly in control and has branched out with many more products.
“A mentor from the business world is just what a young business needs. Just having someone else to talk with and to get suggestions from is so beneficial. Where would you find someone like this without paying an arm and a leg? Once again, thank you so much for the SBDC services that we have received,” Mohn said.
“With Cheryl’s continued growth and expansion,” Enrooth said, “I keep asking how big she wants to get. At the rate she is growing she may need to consider more space, larger inventory and more employees. We have side-stepped this issue several times, but it will be our next discussion item this spring.”
Bryan Johnson, president, founder and all-around problem-solver of Innovative Tools & Technologies, runs a tight shop and leans toward a sleek-looking product. Consider his marquee product, the 12-year-old SuperStand.
Frustrated by bumper covers essentially twisting in the wind during the process of painting, baking and curing, Johnson, a former auto body technician, created SuperStand. Johnson’s innovative, red powder-coated stand holds auto bumper covers smoothly and securely, catching the eye of another shop technician.
12 years and eight patents later, Innovative Tools & Technologies has four employees and has added at least eight major products and accessories for the automotive, manufacturing and aviation markets.
Today their customers include some of the biggest names in the automotive and aviation business: 3M,
Sherwin-Williams, NAPA, Snap-on Tools, CARQUEST Auto Parts, General Dynamics and Cessna.
Johnson was already well into the business before seeking advice on revamping marketing strategies from the SBDC.
“We went there for in-depth information on business processes, procedures and goals,” Johnson said.
Margaret Owen Thorpe, a consultant for the SBDC who has done mostly what she calls “sounding board” work for Innovative said, “These guys have great instincts and know their business.”
“Bryan first asks what the product needs to do and then determines who needs it. Ask them to think outside of the box, they’ll say ‘what’s a box’? They’ll go where the problem leads them,” Owen Thorpe said.
Innovative’s products bear names that accurately represent their uniqueness: UltraRack, X-Stand, Octopus, Mobile Bumper Storage. The products have ranging capabilities that variously hold, adjust, protect, rotate, stabilize, and lock —resulting in better organization and efficiency.
“A big product that no one else has is a well-engineered collapsible cart that folds into itself,” Johnson said.
A strong relationship with their customers and lifelong warranty on their products has remained an Innovative staple. International sales of Innovative products are strong and growing, especially in Israel, Australia, Spain, United Kingdom and Canada. They tap into international markets at the popular International Autobody Congress and Exposition (NACE) in Las Vegas.
For a four-person shop, they can manage to attend two multiple auto body shows, sometimes running simultaneously. Thanks to an online calendar, customers know where to find them in-person, whether that is an aviation show in Orlando or Oshkosh.
A downturn in the economy doesn’t affect Innovative’s business very much. “Innovative is basically
recession-proof,” Johnson said, “People still get into car accidents, the customer turns the vehicle into a body shop, and insurance pays.”
That extra kick in the morning helps Goodwin progress with one cool product: a system for mounting and moving devices on a wheelchair where access, positioning and ease of use are at the forefront of the design.
The system accommodates speech devices, computers, and even cameras. The Mount’n Mover is the newest innovation to come out of Minneapolis-based BlueSky Designs and has unique benefits. Not only does it attach laptops and devices to wheelchairs, users can move it, tilt it, rotate it and change it – making it possible to transfer, and see where they’re driving.
“BlueSky needs to reach people who need the Mount’n Mover as well as those who advise them. That’s difficult when the market is small, and the customers are scattered everywhere,” consultant Margaret Owen Thorpe said.
Owen Thorpe is Goodwin’s consultant and specialist in market development from the SBDC. “In addition, third-party payers – whether insurers or governments – usually expect professional approval of a device before they will cover the cost,” Owen Thorpe said.
Goodwin and Owen Thorpe have worked together to identify professional organizations, government and private entities, publications, web sites, conferences and advocates for people with disabilities so as to reach directly potential Mount’n Mover users and their advisors without wasting energy.
“We want to reach everyone who might need it with limited time and money,” Goodwin said.
The mounting system has its own website, which contains testimonials, useful web links, an overview video and how-to videos on YouTube, links to Facebook and a field to sign up for product updates. Goodwin came up with the Mount’n Mover name.
“I like to play with words,” Goodwin said, “It’s descriptive, it mounts things and it moves. The name also gives customers the image of moving beyond physical, technical or environmental limits.”
Founded in 1997, BlueSky Designs develops products that make activities easier for everyone. Goodwin and her team have more than 60 years’ experience in accessible product design, including designing custom solutions for hundreds of people with disabilities. In 2006, BlueSky’s Freedom Tent, an accessible tent, was awarded the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s da Vinci Award® in recognition of innovative assistive technologies that enable equal access and opportunity for all people.
“You don’t have to have mobility impairment to get into a losing fight with a tent,” said Owen Thorpe.
Owen Thorpe and Goodwin determined the Veterans Administration is a good target for connecting to therapists and end users of Mount’n Mover. The VA is willing to pay for effective assistive devices.
“This niche market really likes Mount’n Mover. VA clients tend to be young people with productive lives ahead of them. The device significantly increases their capabilities and independence,” Owen Thorpe said, “Di sees possibilities where others might see disabilities. It’s fun to work with her because she comes up with simple solutions that work.”
Margaret Owen Thorpe, an SBDC consultant, admits she coined the phrase because, “If you need it or want it, and it needs to be made of metal, Astro Engineering is the place to go.”
Sue and George Ross have owned the 22-year-old Plymouth metal fabrication company for three years, specializing in short run, customized work in food processing equipment, architectural metal products, screw conveyors and augers, and enclosures for electronic and electrical components.
George enjoys finding creative solutions for customers. Ross and Astro’s innovative team developed the first heated augers for use in cheese production. After the cheese manufacturer asked if this would be possible, Ross designed double-walled fluid-filled augers now in regular use.
Most recently, long-time customer Bachman’s Floral Gift & Garden requested a “craneable” cart. The cart consisted of a pallet with wheels that could be lifted by crane for installing rooftop gardens.
Asked how he creates, George said he asks the customer numerous questions, looking ahead to the results that need to be achieved.
“Sometimes there’s conflict and you can work around that. It’s better to recognize conflict and communicate that with the client right away,” George said, “It’s always a challenge to match up the looks of the product with your capabilities.”
Astro’s growing number of satisfied customers has produced increasing referrals for architectural metal work. Fabricating and installing metal trim for an upscale office building in Bloomington provided Astro with a new and challenging opportunity.
“This was a demanding job with tight specifications but one that will really open up some capabilities for us,” Sue said.
The company also specializes in cable railings for decks, stairways, and walkways. Many railings have been for high end commercial and residential properties, but notably the team manufactured cable railing for the walkway below the new I-35W bridge.
Owen Thorpe has influenced Astro to think about what types of projects they really want and how to attract that work. Owen Thorpe has also encouraged their participation in groups like the Manufacturers Alliance to focus on lean manufacturing. Recently Owen Thorpe and Sue worked on completing the company’s quality assurance manual to enable bids for work on future MnDOT and other economic stimulus work.
“I don’t know how she knows what she knows, but Margaret is absolutely fantastic with marketing, and she has been a good mentor to me,” Sue said.