Saving Innovation

Can a DIY culture of meet-ups, competitions, and “unconferences” spark more start-ups in the state?
Saving Innovation

It was a warm Saturday in late May, and instead of rolling out the dock up at the cabin or going for a jog around the chain of lakes, more than 600 people chose to spend their day inside Best Buy’s Richfield headquarters, attending an all-day series of workshops and discussions.

Welcome to Minnebar, a geeky gathering that’s become a twice-a-year tradition for many in the Twin Cities tech and design communities. The free—and freewheeling—event featured sessions on everything from open-source coding and app development to brewing beer and bettering the state’s start-up economy.

If that agenda seems haphazard, it might help to understand how the event comes together. Organizers Ben Edwards and Luke Francl pick the time and venue, but they leave it up to attendees to choose the speakers and session topics.

Scratch that. At Minnebar’s “unconferences,” there are no attendees or speakers, only participants. An unconference is to a conference what Wikipedia is to an encyclopedia. Instead of flying in authors or executives, Minnebar taps the knowledge of the crowd. Anyone can volunteer his or her expertise, and everyone collaborates ahead of time on line and votes to decide what makes the agenda. Sessions flow like conversations rather than lectures.

It may sound messy, but over the past four years, Minnebar has shown that it works. The event is now the largest of its kind in the country, with attendance eclipsing even the Silicon Valley sessions that inspired it. It’s the highest-profile example of how new entrepreneurs are building not only businesses but new institutions to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.

Over the past few years, the Twin Cities have seen a proliferation of these new DIY efforts—Minnebar, TechdotMN, Cold Start, Bootstrappers Breakfast—along with others that have come out of the professional services realm of finance, law, accounting, and public relations. Newest and notable in the latter group are the Cleantech Open, Mojo Minnesota, and 4Front.

“It’s as if there’s something in the water,” says Don Ball, who hosts some of these new-style events at CoCo, a co-working and collaboration center that he cofounded this year in St. Paul.

The availability of social media and other online tools is an enabling factor, bringing the cost of organizing and promoting events down to almost nothing. But these groups and programs still take time and energy to pull together. Edwards says coordinating Minnebar is “like planning a big wedding every half year.”

So why not just pay chamber and association dues and go to the full slate of business conferences and networking events that already are established in the metro?


Something’s Missing

Minnebar and other groups come out of the same do-it-yourself Web culture that gave us blogs, podcasts, and open-source software. Digital natives who have grown up or started their careers surrounded by this culture draw satisfaction from sharing and creating. They aren’t looking to be lectured on something they can just as easily glean from a source on line.

Edwards, cofounder and chief designer at Minneapolis software development firm Refactr, says that as a creative, young Web professional, he used to have to travel to the South By Southwest music and technology festival in Austin, Texas, in order to feel a sense of community. He was aware of tech and innovation clubs in town, but none that matched his sensibilities. He came across the unconference concept while attending an event in Silicon Valley and found a following when he imported it to the Twin Cities.

“I want to feel like my expertise and my thoughts and opinions on a subject are actually valuable,” says Garrick Van Buren, a Web developer who has blogged about his disdain for conferences, with the exception of Minnebar’s events. Van Buren says more professionals are looking around at existing organizations and events and concluding, “I’m not able to participate in a way that I feel fulfilled. I’m going to create my own.”

Whether it’s Minnebar letting the audience lead sessions or TechdotMN soliciting a blog post from a local entrepreneur, the ethic in many of these groups is based on participants learning from each other, often in an informal setting. You’re more likely to find these gatherings in a neighborhood pub than a hotel conference room. All they need is a good Wi-Fi signal and a nice beer selection. Van Buren picks a different bar every couple months for his Cold Start Happy Hours, where tech entrepreneurs and hobbyists can come to talk about their ideas over drinks.

No Barrier to Entry

Low-budget events are another signature of this recent wave of business groups. Participants say that’s an important distinction from the legacy institutions in town. Established trade associations and networking organizations often charge hundreds of dollars a year for membership dues and events. That’s no problem for someone whose employer is paying the way. But for a young entrepreneur or anyone working for a tiny start-up, there’s no money to cover those costs.

“I would love to join a lot of these organizations, but membership dues alone would sink my company,” says Parag Shah, a recent University of Minnesota graduate whose Minneapolis company Prodality developed a platform called LunchBox for placing restaurant to-go orders from an iPhone or other mobile device.

Instead of shelling out, Shah has found a community in a series of free or inexpensive meet-ups, including Minnebar, Bootstrappers Breakfast, a networking group called Biz-Lounge, and Mobile Twin Cities, a group that focuses on trends in mobile software. Usually, the only expense is picking up his own tab for brunch or drinks.

Mobile developer Dan Grigsby says the people who show up for these events are looking for comradery with others whose professional situation and problem-solving challenges resemble their own. A growing number of professionals in the Twin Cities, by choice or not, are now working for themselves or working for small companies.

“So you had folks who were changing the way they were making a living, and they didn’t have any group of guys to get together and have a beer with,” Grigsby says. They’re creating their own informal “water cooler” associations with people they share something in common with.

“There’s no paying to get your name on a placard and get a gold sponsorship or anything,” Grigsby adds. “It’s you and five folks getting together and you swap ideas.”

Ball says, “The ‘long tail’ that happened on line is happening in person,” and the process of finding people with similar interests and experiences has been shortened by the Internet. It’s easier now for groups to organize around more specialized topics. So instead of a meet-up for start-ups in general, you might, for example, see a meet-up for start-ups that are dealing with online payments.

Seeking Mojo

But when does “specialized” become “insular”? Ball sees a lot of gatherings drawing the same Web and mobile crowd.

“While we have a lot of enthusiastic people who are getting together and talking, and I think there’s a lot of good energy coming out of that, I think there’s a next level that we’ve got to kick it up to,” Ball says. He suggests that might mean bringing in people with entrepreneurial instincts who work at larger companies.

“You can network all you want, but what really happens at the end of the day?” asks Marti Nyman, start-up consultant with Altavail Partners in Chanhassen. “I think where we’re lacking still is that at many of these venues, you’ve got a lot of the same people. It’s all good networking, but it’s peer to peer and not peer to ecosystem.”

Nyman is one of 11 founding members of Mojo Minnesota, an “innovation advocacy force” that publicly launched last May. They believe Minnesota has lost some of its entrepreneurial energy and needs to work at getting it back. Nyman points out that new-company starts and venture capital investment were on track this summer to match the lowest annual totals the state has seen in 15 years. Mojo’s mission includes pulling more constituents into the conversation about how to change that climate. The group’s launch event included investors, entrepreneurs, and state policymakers.

Kevin Spreng, a corporate finance attorney at Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, started a local chapter of the national group Bootstrappers Breakfast out of similar concerns about entrepreneurial vitality in the state. The monthly meetings are for entrepreneurs who are trying to forgo the traditional path of seeking angel and venture capital investors. That’s a skill Spreng passionately believes entrepreneurs need to learn.

“I personally believe, despite my desires, that the venture capital industry is declining,” he says, “which means that venture capital is going to be less available to early-stage companies, and as that happens, either we’re going to start losing new businesses, or we’re going to need to find another way to help people build them.”

Meanwhile, Minnebar is branching out to improve the start-up economy. The group has expanded the “Minne” brand by adding Minnespark, a small-prize contest to inspire people to take their ideas to the next level, whether that’s finally putting them on paper or using them to start a business.

That’s some of what Ball means when he says, “What we’re talking about is DIY culture. We don’t have to wait for some authority group or figure to tell us that we’re going to have a conference or a meeting or support group. We all have the tools to decide we’re going to do it ourselves.”

Bootstrappers Breakfast


What It Is: Monthly meet-up for entrepreneurs seeking alternatives to angel and venture funding

Founded: 2010

Founder: Kevin Spreng, partner, Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi

Motivation: Spreng says, “My personal mission in this space is to help create a new ecosystem that supports and encourages the growth and financing of companies in a new way.”

How It’s Supporting Innovation: Entrepreneurs compare experiences, find partners, and help each other brainstorm and work through strategies for growing a company, often without the benefit of significant angel or venture capital. The discussions have typically attracted between 5 and 20 people, mostly Web and software entrepreneurs. “There’s a core group that shows up, and then every month we have three or four new people,” Spreng says. “I’m very happy with the participation.”

Web Site:


Cold Start


What It Is: An every-other-month happy-hour meet-up and podcast series

Founded: 2009

Founders: Todd Emmel, founder, Slantwise Design, and Garrick Van Buren, president, Working Pathways

Motivation: Emmel and Van Buren are fans of “unconferences” like Minnebar, but they felt there was room for a more frequent and even less formal meet-up for technology entrepreneurs and hobbyists to get together over drinks and talk about their projects.

How It’s Supporting Innovation: The meet-up format is loose, but it always revolves around one question: So what are you working on? The goal is to help people get better at talking about their work and succinctly describing it—not formal elevator-pitch training, exactly, but building a good foundation for a pitch. The events average about 20 attendees. Podcasts featuring interviews with local entrepreneurs are a supplement to the happy-hour conversations.

Web Site:


Cleantech Open, North Central Region


What It Is: A business-plan competition that awards winners with training, mentoring, investments, and professional services

Founded: 2010

Founders: Justin Kaster, investment banker, Cherry Tree Companies; Peter Ekberg and Andy Ritten, attorneys, Faegre & Benson; Dick Franklin, CEO, Envirobrand

Motivation: Especially in an emerging industry like clean tech, “there is a need for support for early-stage companies, to get that exposure and support beyond what already exists,” Kaster says.

How It’s Supporting Innovation: Cleantech Open is a national program whose participants between 2006 and 2008 have raised more than $280 million in external capital. The North Central regional competition covers Minnesota and six other states. Because regional winners compete nationally, the competition is a chance to tap into a broader network of potential partners and investors. The national organization’s goal is to help create 100,000 clean and green jobs by 2015.

Web Site:; local contact,




Founder: Justin Bacon, software consultant

Motivation: Laid off from his corporate IT job in late 2008, Bacon started taking business classes, picked up some contract work, and is forming a company to work on new-product development following the lean start-up methodology developed by Stephen Blank and Eric Ries. He knows others who are in the same situation he is, and he wanted to create a forum where they could talk through the methodology.

How It’s Supporting Innovation: Guest speakers and monthly group discussions center on applying the lean start-up approach to product and customer development. Bacon has ambitions of developing a larger community, perhaps following a more formal co-op model, that would improve Minnnesota’s start-up culture by supporting lean start-ups.

Web Site:

Mojo Minnesota


What It Is: An “innovation advocacy force” that lobbies for favorable start-up conditions in the state

Founded: 2009

Founders: A group of 11 business professionals, including attorneys, advisors, investors, and entrepreneurs

Motivation: Mojo is the result of long-simmering frustration about lack of support for early-stage start-up companies in Minnesota. Attorneys Ernest Grumbles and Brad Lehrman say the final straw was the market crash in the fall of 2008, which caused the flow of capital to emerging companies to grind to a halt. With some clients in common, they began talking about things they could do to help the state rediscover its entrepreneurial “mojo.”

How It’s Supporting Innovation: Mojo’s members were among several groups lobbying the Minnesota Legislature last winter for an angel-investor tax credit. They say they’ll go to bat for other policies and programs that will help early-stage companies as well. Another project has been working to translate state policies and programs into “plain English” guides for entrepreneurs, which Mojo is posting on its Web site. The group plans a series of “Mojo Talks” this fall.

Web Site:



What It Is: A digital media company and blog

Founded: 2010

Founders: Jeff Pesek, TechdotMN, and Mike Bollinger, owner, Livefront, a custom software development firm

Motivation: “We want to help create more connections among and more awareness for Minnesota technology start-ups,” Bollinger says.

How It’s Supporting Innovation: Since starting their blog last winter, Pesek and Bollinger have written profiles of dozens of entrepreneurs, investors, and other players on the local tech start-up scene. They do the bulk of the writing, though they’ve featured posts from about a dozen other contributors. The site averages around 4,000 visitors a month, but Pesek and Bollinger say they’re more concerned with who’s visiting than how many. Bollinger says he’s encouraged by the support they’ve seen from the community. Over the summer, several companies (ipHouse, Gray Plant Mooty, the Nerdery, WellAdvised) signed on as advertisers to support the site financially.

Web Site:






What It Is: A twice-yearly “unconference”

Founded: 2006

Founders: Ben Edwards, chief designer and cofounder, Refactr, and Luke Francl, owner, Fundamental Constant

Motivation: Edwards was frustrated that most groups for Web developers were segregated by programming language, and that big industry networking groups charged substantial membership fees. He and Francl decided to bring a Silicon Valley “unconference” concept to Minnesota and bring together scattered tech groups in an informal, no-cost setting.

How It’s Supporting Innovation: Minnebar’s events have become the highlight of the year for many in the tech and design community. Edwards and Francl have expanded the brand to include Minnedemo, an informal, quarterly showcase for hobbyists and entrepreneurs to show off new projects—“basically geek show and tell,” Edwards says. The idea is simply to get a bunch of smart, interesting people in the same room and hope that good things happen, he adds. More recently, Edwards and Francl have launched Minnespark, a small-prize innovation competition. They’re also organizing another, higher-stakes competition called Minnestart that would award seed funding to winners.

Web Site:

What It Is: A monthly meet-up

Founded: 2009



What It Is: A twice-yearly unconference

Founded: 2008

Founder: Don Ball, partner, Polymer Studios, a Web usability consultancy

Motivation: Ball staged the first Unsummit in October 2008 as an alternative to the same day’s sold-out Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association Summit.

How It’s Supporting Innovation: The Unsummit is for people interested in business, technology, and community in the Twin Cities. Like Minnebar, Unsummit does away with the traditional presenter-attendee divide. Everybody is a “participant” and has a chance to help shape the agenda. Session topics cover everything from design to economics and the event is free.

Web Site: