Our Elevator Pitch?

Our Elevator Pitch?

It’s about food, health care, the arts, and design.

One of the pillars of business wisdom is this: Do what you do well; eschew all else. Strong businesses know and practice this intuitively.

Over the years, Minnesota has put a stake in the ground on some important technologies, spawning such companies as Control Data, Sperry Univac, Unisys, and Cray Research. Yet a long string of fateful decisions, including Bill Norris’s to take Control Data into the Plato Learning quagmire, led to an indigenous technology industry now bobbing up and down in the backwaters of innovation.

Okay, so that ship has sailed. What other strengths can the state build on, and how? Several months ago, John Foley, founder and CEO of Level, a Minneapolis marketing communications firm, came up with what he calls a “half-baked” answer to that question, and rounded up a rock-star group of business and community leaders to complete it and bring it to life.

The question of our brand as a business community is especially pertinent right now, and came up at a gubernatorial candidates’ forum this fall. All three candidates were asked to describe Minnesota’s “brand.” Thoughtful question. Lame answers.

Tom Emmer intoned that it’s our “10,000 lakes.” Great, if you’re a fish. (In fairness, he did come closest to formulating a brand statement: “Open for business.”) Mark Dayton rambled about high-quality education, health care, and a “nice place to live.” Tom Horner riffed about Minnesota as a knowledge state and innovation. All wonderfully vague concepts.

But they don’t constitute a brand. A brand is instantly recognizable: “Oh yeah, that’s the state that means (fill in the blank).” In business, it’s often expressed in the proverbial elevator speech: Here’s my business in eight to 10 words; here’s the value we provide; here’s how we do it better than everybody else.

Foley and friends’ endeavor is called 4Front, a nonprofit trying to advance four of the state’s areas of excellence: food, health care, the arts, and design. The goal is to produce an annual event focused on what’s next in each of these areas, complete with a competition and prize money for the top ideas from emerging companies. In a best-case scenario, the most promising ideas in food and health care would garner additional funding from some of the big companies whose executives are involved in 4Front, or from venture capitalists who might attend.

“We are trying to build a community . . . where people will say, ‘This looks like the place I want to do my work,’” Foley says. “If we are not able to attract and retain new businesses, we are in trouble. And a way to accomplish that is to gain global recognition of the work being done in this market in health care, food, the arts, and design.”

mong those on the group’s board are Mark Addicks, chief marketing officer of General Mills; Mike Hess, vice president of innovative excellence at Medtronic; Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design; Alex Cirillo of the 3M Foundation; Philip Brunelle, artistic director of VocalEssence; and Jay Coogan, president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. That’s just a few of the heavy hitters. Cargill, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Walker are represented; there’s Steve Sanger from Optimus Holdings. It’s a very, very impressive group.

I’m not a big fan of confabs and symposia—unless we can find a way to harness all the hot air they generate to power a wind turbine or heat a small stadium. But this idea seems to have enough heft to actually turn into something.

The Twin Cities are great theater towns because they have the Guthrie, and what I call the Guthrie Effect shows up in business, too. It was once said that we had two U of M’s in the state: the University of Minnesota and the University of Medtronic. Beyond spinning out talent, to date Medtronic has invested more than $320 million in more than 60 start-ups.

“Historically, we’ve invested about 10 percent to 15 percent of our total minority investment portfolio in Minnesota companies, making it one of the top states where we invest,” says Medtronic’s Brian Henry.

Norris’s bum call on Plato aside, he was, in his day, the undisputed champion of public, nonprofit, and private partnerships. Since 2001, the Norris Institute has invested $3.24 million in 36 companies. The portfolio has generated five positive returns on investment and five negative-ROI exits so far, and in the current portfolio of 26 companies, seven are demonstrating near-term exit potential with ROI of 300-plus percent.

I lived for a year in St. Louis, a community dominated at the time by Anheuser-Busch. The Bud people set the tone for the St. Louis business community. Their mantra: Crush the competition. As a result, St. Louis’s business climate was moribund.

In the Twin Cities, we have the opportunity to more consciously establish our brand. But that means everyone has to get the elevator speech down, and it’s about building not crushing.