Start Them Up In Northeastern Minnesota

Start Them Up In Northeastern Minnesota

Can entrepreneurship take firm root in the tough soil of northeastern Minnesota?

PureDriven is the kind of company that northeastern Minnesota wants more of.

Cofounded in 2010 by Christopher Swanson and Sheila Leppala, PureDriven is based in Two Harbors, a North Shore town of about 3,700 that’s 20 miles northeast of Duluth. (It’s also where 3M was founded.) The small but fast-growing company, which now employs 14, offers what CEO Swanson describes as a “holistic approach” to online marketing, weaving together not only web design, but also social media, mobile, email marketing, e-commerce, and search engine optimization. Though it has clients in a variety of industries and in several states, PureDriven specializes in working with regionally based manufacturers, including Northshore Manufacturing, which makes material handling equipment for scrap and waste businesses and mining companies, among others, and Rox Speed FX, which produces adjustable risers and other comfort and performance add-ons for powersports vehicles.

Manufacturers, he adds, have traditionally sought customers via listings in the Thomas Register, trade show appearances, or trade magazine advertising. “More and more, buyers don’t use any of those resources—they’re using the Internet,” Swanson says. “We capture those buyers that are looking for their products online.” Using web-based sales techniques, he adds, “you can gather people interested in what you’re selling very quickly.” The reason for Pure- Driven’s success, he adds, “is that manufacturing plays a big role here in northern Minnesota.”

It’s not so much that northeastern Minnesota would like more technology businesses like PureDriven (though it would). It’s more that it would like more people starting their own businesses, period. More entrepreneurs, in short.

It’s not for lack of trying. Ever since the region’s economy was all but wrecked by the collapse of the iron-mining industry in the early 1980s, numerous economic-development groups have arisen to promote the founding and expansion of homegrown businesses. They include the Northspan Group, which provides consulting and other services to businesses; the Arrowhead Growth Alliance, a coalition of public and private organizations; and two other entities based in Duluth, the Northland Foundation and the Entrepreneur Fund. One of the oldest and best-known is the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) in Eveleth, whose efforts are financed by taxes on taconite mining.

What kinds of businesses does the region seek? “I think it would be safe to say that the Northland Foundation would like to see more manufacturing and technology businesses, which generally offer higher-wage jobs with benefits, which are central to building a stronger economy in rural Minnesota,” wrote John Elden, the foundation’s director of business finance, in an email. “These are the types of businesses that we try to assist through our business finance program . . . . We need to be focused on attracting and supporting businesses that create family-sustaining jobs.”

It’s not clear what level of success all these economic development groups have had in planting homegrown startups amid the pines and birches. But the past decade suggests that either through their efforts or indirectly, area entrepreneurs’ efforts are bearing fruit.

Northeastern Minnesota communities “want businesses,” says Elaine Hansen, regional director for the Northeastern Minnesota Small Business Development Center and director of the University of Minnesota Duluth Center for Economic Development. “But they didn’t always appreciate business owners and entrepreneurs.” The area developed largely as a “region of employees.” Working for a big mining or timber-products company, most of which had their headquarters outside of the region, was a more reliable source of income, so “why would you not want that?”

These days, “we’re much more accepting [now] of people who have different ideas,” Hansen says. In the past five to 10 years, “there has been an acceptance of, ‘Oh you want to start a business? Here are resources for you, here is support for you.’ And there’s also acceptance in your family, your friends, and within the community.”

Newcomers to northeastern Minnesota are bringing new ideas and a great love for the region along with their kayaks and cross-country skis. “And now with technology, now they can live and work here,” she adds. “Things have simply become more open.”

Northeastern Minnesota’s beauty and easier pace “certainly attract people to want to make their businesses work here,” says Shawn Wellnitz, CEO of the Entrepreneur Fund, which provides funding and education for newer area businesses. “The more we build an entrepreneurial culture, the more people will look to the Northland for the quality of life and can match those economic opportunities to go with it.”

The cofounders of PureDriven are among those happy to be able to establish their business in the region. Sheila Leppala, the Two Harbors company’s COO, worked as an IT project manager in the Twin Cities, commuting from the North Shore on Monday mornings and coming back home for the weekend.

As her business partner, Christopher Swanson, notes, “We didn’t have access to the same economy as in the Twin Cities area.” Two Harbors now has the bandwidth to support their tech business—something not every town in Northeastern Minnesota can yet claim. “I can live in this beautiful rural area . . . and I can still achieve my income goals,” he adds.

Extractive industries and tourism will remain the cornerstones of northeastern Minnesota’s economy. Still, the area certainly needs the fresh thinking of locally grown companies if it’s going to achieve more control over its economic and cultural destiny.

Related Stories