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How cooperation is changing the Twin Cities entrepreneurial scene

Many urban centers have public and private economic development programs and resources, but in the Twin Cities, it appears that we have a higher-than-average likelihood of collaboration among seemingly competing organizations.
Photo by Bill Kelley
Many urban centers have public and private economic development programs and resources, but in the Twin Cities, it appears that we have a higher-than-average likelihood of collaboration among seemingly competing organizations.

Last February, Cem Erdem took a look at the entrepreneurial environment in the Twin Cities, and didn’t like what he saw.

Ads in local publications touted the benefits of relocating a startup to Boston, he recalls, and many companies found such a lure compelling enough to consider moving. “There have been so many bright young minds leaving this place,” Erdem says. “They went to other places where they could find other resources to build their companies. I felt like we weren’t fueling our future.”

Rather than waiting for change — or moving himself — Erdem started Project Skyway, one of several high-profile initiatives that have cropped up for entrepreneurs in just the last year. He says, “We can energize this business community. We can work together to make this a great place to do business.”

He’s not alone in reaching toward that vision. Numerous groups like MOJO Minnesota, the University of Minnesota, CoCo, and the Economic Gardening Network are developing business-boosting strategies, and already implementing them. Next February is likely to look very different to Erdem and others in the corporate community.

What’s behind all this entrepreneurial drive? Hint: it’s the same principle most of us learned in kindergarten.

We know how to share.

Calls for Collaboration

Many urban centers have public and private economic development programs and resources, but in the Twin Cities, it appears that we have a higher-than-average likelihood of collaboration among seemingly competing organizations.

Companies and associations here realize that helping others doesn’t mean getting pushed to the back of the line. Instead, by working together on a collaborative business environment, and encouraging all companies toward growth, we create a climate in which it feels like everyone wins.

Case in point: MOJO Minnesota, an entrepreneurial advocacy group that is so hierarchy-free that it decided to formalize its structure as a co-op rather than as a non-profit.

That status is unusual for an organization, but co-founder Ernest Grumbles notes that Minnesota has always been a “big booster” for co-ops. In addition to urban food co-ops like Mississippi Market and The Wedge, the state has farmer cooperatives and utility cooperatives, where members can pool resources and increase buying power. Extending that structure to a business-related group didn’t seem like much of a stretch, Grumbles believes.

“We latched onto the co-op structure because that’s how we’ve been functioning up until now,” he says. “It just felt natural.”

Another example of collaborative business initiative comes out of the University of Minnesota, which recently developed Small Biz, a nine-month program designed for small, established businesses. The program, due to kick off the first week of September, gives a first round of companies access to university resources like research, faculty, and grad student help.

A similar program from a public source is the Economic Gardening Network, a project out of Hennepin and Carver counties which will involve the selection of 15 companies in the next few months. Those businesses will receive strategic assistance, education, and management help, notes Ron White, Hennepin County’s senior planning analyst.

Both Smart Biz and Economic Garden are targeted toward helping businesses in their second stage of growth, just past the entrepreneurial stage. So, as Project Skyway lifts companies up to a viable level, these programs continue the resource-rich support.

In the Same Sandbox

Just as organizations are being put in place to support entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities, those fresh business leaders are expected to work together as well. At an effort like Project Skyway or Small Biz, the entrepreneurs receive business support in areas like marketing and project management, but they’re encouraged to lean on each other as well.

In the incubator-type environment of those programs, the business owners become a cohesive team in order to give each other encouragement and advice. They are the boats, all being lifted by the same tide of support. To belabor the analogy somewhat: they’re also all tied to each other, in order to stay afloat.

At Small Biz, companies will be brought together by a professional facilitator, who will develop ways that they can work together, notes Jeffrey Seltz, Manager of Business Development Services in the university’s Office for Business & Community Economic Development.

“This is the foundation of the program, to have these companies working collectively,” he says. “We’ll be able to tap into the collective power of the group, so they can grow together.”

In some instances, the business leaders are working in close proximity to each other in a literal way. At Project Skyway, for example, the companies chosen for the incubator program work at CoCo in Minneapolis, a co-working space in the Grain Exchange building.

Beyond the Incubator

Even when entrepreneurs venture into the seemingly cold, competitive marketplace, they don’t need to come unmoored from their fellow business leaders. The type of robust support system that entrepreneurs are receiving at an early level is now extending to more established companies as well.

For example, two business owners, Pam Kearney and Karin Khuhro, recently started BOUNCE (Business Owners Unite: Networking, Coaching & Education), a service that brings together other business owners to create online advisory boards.

Using tools like Skype and Twitter, the members act as cheerleaders and coaches for each other, investing their own time into an effort that benefits them all.

“Business owners and entrepreneurs sometimes need a team approach,” says Kearney. “That helps them stay motivated, and it gives them accountability.”

Sometimes, entrepreneurs work in an environment where their achievements aren’t recognized, she adds. Simply having someone give hearty congratulations can be enough motivation for entrepreneurs to do even more to grow the company and increase their skills.

Together We Stand

In many ways, the increasingly collaborative atmosphere for startups and businesses in the Twin Cities isn’t surprising, given the co-op nature of the state itself.

Some people may gently mock the “Minnesota nice” tendencies of many of our state’s citizens, but let’s face it: in a climate — meteorological and economic — that can be challenging, a sense of cohesion and cooperation goes a long way.

That togetherness shows up not just in everyday interactions — leaving highway driving out of the equation, perhaps — but also in the way people have worked together here to create neighborhood organizations, develop community gardens, encourage volunteerism and nonprofits, and foster food co-ops and restaurants that support local farmers.

Seeing that cooperative spirit extend more fully into the startup business community is heartening. More and more, those ads that touted Boston’s benefits aren’t looking so attractive anymore.

“We’re friendly here,” says Erdem. “Friendly to each other, and business friendly. That’s going to help us build an entrepreneurial area that’s really distinctive.”

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/04/2011 - 11:34 am.

    Other than the obvious caveat of crony capitalism (government deciding winners and losers in the marketplace by selecting who is to receive assistance), nowhere in the article are the words “wealth” or even “profit” mentioned as the goal of private enterprise.

    And why are all the entrepreneurs in the photograph men?

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