Please join us for an exciting evening to learn more about Deep Learning with TensorFlow through a real-world IoT predictive maintenance scenario from Justin Brandenburg (https://www.linkedin.com/in/justin-brandenburg-86422b2/), Data Scientist at MapR Technologies (https://mapr.com).  Register here.

Parking:

• RBC Plaza offers $6 valet after 4pm at the main entrance.

• Street parking available on Marquette Ave.

• Gavidae Commons lot, directly across 6th St. from the RBC Plaza main entrance, also offers $6 self-park after 4pm.

Schedule:

5:30 pm – 6:00 pm: Networking, pizza and drinks

6:00 pm – 6:05 pm: Welcome by the organizers: Sam & Slim

6:05 pm – 7:00 pm: Talk by Justin Brandenburg from MapR

Join us February 2nd for MinneAnalytics Sportcon, Minnesota’s premiere sports analytics conference. Explore the many ways in which data-driven decision making continues to play a major role in sports, with a stellar lineup of speakers from academia, professional teams and the tech industry. This free event is perfect for sports fans, as well as analytics enthusiasts from any field.  Learn more here.

Join us June 10th at the Normandale Partnership Center for MinneAnalytics Big Data Tech Conference, Minnesota’s premiere conference on the technology powering analytics. Join your peers in the analytics community as we explore breakthrough research and innovative case studies on the latest tech, including AI, deep learning and more.  Learn more here.

For this issue of Grow & Co. I had the pleasure of speaking with founder and Chair of Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota (DDMN) and Foundation Director at I Am Dyslexia, Rachel Berger. After realizing how little resources are available to dyslexic students and their parents as well as the overall lack in basic understanding of Dyslexia that is evident in our current legislation and educational system, Rachel saw a need for an organization to address these issues.

Rachel started in early 2012 by founding Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota, a grassroots movement to impact policy regarding dyslexia and empower dyslexic students and parents in Minnesota. About two years later, after speaking with dyslexia advocates across the nation she saw another need, for these grassroots state-wide organizations to have a legal and effective means of fundraising. Many of these advocates in other states didn’t have an established entity though which to raise funds, thus greatly limiting their ability to impact change. To address this Rachel started a SuperPAC called I Am Dyslexia as a means for grassroots Dyslexia groups across the nation to more effectively raise money.

She now runs both Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota at the state level and I Am Dyslexia on a national level. I was able to sit down with Rachel and ask her some questions about her journey with these organizations.

What inspired you to start these organizations?

Need was the driver. When I found out my son was Dyslexic I thought I had the key to ensuring he would get everything he needed to realize his full educational potential, and I felt a great sense of relief with that knowledge. What I actually discovered was that not only were there very limited resources for me as a parent but there was also a lack of specific interventions for remediation of dyslexia within the public school setting.  While I’m fortunate enough to be educated and have access to specific resources to privately assist my child, I was deeply saddened to realize that many others simply wouldn’t have access to what they need to help their child reach their full potential. DDMN was born out of a need to serve the public with EQUAL access to an EQUITABLE education.

Being that you are a grassroots group, how do you measure success?

First, in our world success isn’t measured by revenue or profit; it’s measured by impacting human lives. We measure that by the degree to which we can empower parents to advocate for their student’s rights, as well as our ability to effectively advocate on behalf of students educational rights in MN classrooms.

Second, we’ve taken great pride in the legislative success we’ve had. To date, we’ve had 3 legislative wins for the dyslexia community in Minnesota.

What has been the biggest challenge in organizing a grassroots movement?

We rely upon volunteer effort 100% of the time. Many of our volunteers are parents who also have children with dyslexia. That in itself is a tremendous job. While parents navigating through our current educational landscape are often the most passionate and care deeply about our cause, their extra time is limited. The biggest challenge has been turnover. When life gets difficult for individuals who serve, the first thing they remove from their plate is “volunteering”. While it’s difficult to lose good people, I believe change is something we can’t control and I’m reminded often that change has brought forth talented individuals that I’m proud to have as part of our organization.

What accomplishment are you the most proud of?

I’m proud of all the work we do in advocacy and legislatively, but there’s nothing that evokes more emotion than our annual “Dyslexia Day on the Hill”. Being part of a couple hundred parents and their children from across the state gathering at our capital is a moving experience. Seeing children of all ages owning their dyslexia and speaking out about how their education and lives are directly impacted fills me with more pride – in them and the community we have built – than anything else. It’s why I give.

What is the biggest thing that you think our culture needs to change regarding dyslexia?

We need to change our knowledge deficit on dyslexia and its implications both educationally and within the workplace. Too often individuals with dyslexia are labeled as “lazy, dumb, not working to potential” by teachers, employers or peers. When dyslexia goes unidentified in the educational setting (as it often does) beyond the appropriate window of remediation, the only option students have is to attend special education classes, which don’t offer specific interventions to help the student close the literacy gap between them and their peers, much less ever catch up.

Dyslexia is classified as a disability, but it has nothing to do with low IQ. In fact, one of its characteristics is actually average to above average intelligence. We need to be investing in tools for early identification and appropriate remediation. We can’t afford to sideline individuals with dyslexia, their potential is too great and the impacts to society are too significant to continue to bear.

What was one mistake you made early on?

We had an individual who wasn’t a fit for the role and lacked ability to integrate with the team. It caused discord among the other members and effected our momentum because many of us were carrying the additional workload. I ignored the issue for far too long. Because I was worried how letting a volunteer go might negatively impact us. Once I made the necessary changes there was a renewed synergy and spirit among our board. Learning to navigate difficult conversations was tough at first but it’s a skill that’s critical to leading an organization. I’m glad I had this experience to help me develop and grow.

Who do you admire most as a leader?

Richard Branson. He is a fellow Dyslexic and didn’t let his disability limit his entrepreneurial spirit or drive. Like many entrepreneurs and many dyslexics, he had a difficult educational experience; due to his unidentified dyslexia he struggled deeply in school. Tired of consistently feeling a failure he dropped out of traditional schooling in 8th grade. From there he started putting a plan in motion to realize his ideas. I admire his grit, drive and determination not to let a roadblock obstruct his path.

What’s was the best business decision you ever made?

Not waiting and hoping for someone else to change what I observed as unjust, but rather to navigating the ship and charting a path toward the change I was/am seeking.

What has been the number one challenge to achieving your goals?

Looking at our legislative goals, the number one challenge would have to be special interest groups within the education arena. When these groups feel threated by what we are trying to accomplish, they start putting up road blocks. But that doesn’t mean defeat in my book; it means we re-angle our approach.

For example: Knowing it would be difficult without the support of the union and other interest groups for our 2016 legislation we invited them to the planning table early, educated them on the issue, and shared statistics and stories showing how dyslexia impacts students daily lives as well as the teachers who serve them. We asked them be part of the solution and walked away with support and collaboration.

What’s one thing that you learned about yourself through growing these organizations?

I have learned how integral collaboration is to success. No matter how divisive an issue is between two parties, it is important to find common ground. Having such allow us a foundation in which to collaborate effectively and begin to row the boat in the same direction for a common goal.

In what ways would you like to see this grow over the next 5 years?

With DDMN, I’ve realized we can never go back to a time in MN when the voice of these children isn’t represented in committees, at the table, and within our educational system. Over the next 5 years I would love to see Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota become more sustainable and build a plan for succession.

With I Am Dyslexia, we would like to realize different ways for groups to utilize its services as well as to increase the capacity of those using it.

Join us January 10th at the University of St. Thomas Minneapolis campus for MinneAnalytics Sport Analytics Conference. We will explore the many ways in which data-driven decision making continues to play a major role in sports, with a stellar lineup of speakers from academia, professional teams and the tech industry. This event is perfect for sports fans, as well as analytics enthusiasts from any field.  Learn more here.

For this issue of Grow & Co. I had the pleasure of speaking with President and CEO at EnergyPrint, Priscilla Koeckeritz. EnergyPrint is in the business of utility bill aggregation and energy analytics for commercial buildings. They work in collaboration with mechanical and automation companies who want to operate and maintain better performing buildings for their customers by using utility cost, consumption and carbon insight.

Priscilla started out her career as an instructor of Journalism, Public Relations and Advertising at Oral Roberts University. After deciding she wanted to get out of the classroom and build her professional experience she initially went to work for an advertising agency and then moved into marketing. She spent a number of years in the medical industry working as a marketing manager and project manager and then found her first opportunity to be part of the executive team for a creative consulting startup. During her years there, she helped take the company from a million in revenue to 8 million in revenue. Continuing in the entrepreneurial space, Priscilla had an opportunity to develop Attune, a consulting firm that worked with businesses who had various growth obstacles, with a new business partner, and eventually bought the company. During her consulting years, she met her business partner for EnergyPrint. They teamed up to start EnergyPrint in 2008, and entered the market during the worst recession of our lifetimes and in the most chaotic financial situation that could possibly exist for a startup company. Fast forward nearly ten years and they have now achieved sustained profitability and are working on their next stage of growth.

How do you hire the right people?

I’ve had successes and failures in this along the way. Overall, the biggest lesson I’ve learned about hiring is that culture is extremely important. If you hire first for culture and second for skills, very seldom do you hire someone who doesn’t find a place in your organization, whether you hired them for the exact right job or not. If you hire for culture, they tend to have a great impact on the company; then you can work on skills. Even if you hire somebody with the best skills in the world, if they’re not a good culture fit they won’t be successful, the company won’t be successful, and it will create a lot of conflict.

How do you measure success?

You can’t be a CEO, with corporate fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, and not say that success is measured by the financial bottom line. If you’re in business and you’re not running business in a for-profit way, then you’ve got a really weird idea of what business is about.

If you go beyond the fiduciary, I personally measure success based on people. As an 8 year old company. I have one person who’s been with me since the beginning, one who’s been with me for 6 years, two more that have been here for 5 years.

People continue to stay because there is a great opportunity but also because this is a great place to work. When my employees are satisfied and they are continually striving to become greater, our clients can sense that, and I feel that’s a really great measure of success.

What was one mistake you made early on?

Not having a well-founded capital plan. Entrepreneurs by our nature are overly optimistic and hopeful, I don’t think we’d start businesses if we weren’t. To some degree we have to be wired that way, but that can also be a little bit of an Achilles heel.

In our case, because we were so optimistic and hopeful, we had one idea of how the business was going to go and we were prepared to go down that track. But things didn’t go as planned and we caused a lot of pain for ourselves by not having a plan A, B and C to start.

What’s was the best decision you ever made?

Realizing that my skills translate industry and deciding to push myself out of my comfort-zone and jump into a totally new industry.

When we were starting EnergyPrint, I had spent 20 years in the creative/marketing sector. I had worked in retail, finance and medical, but it was always on the creative and marketing side of the business; I didn’t know how well all of that translated.

Now I work in a relatively technical world of energy management and utility bill analytics for commercial buildings in the construction sector. I had never touched any of these industries before this startup. It took me a couple years to realize that I had business acumen, and could apply it to a lot of different things – this ended up being one of my greatest assets. And, the fact that I didn’t know all the nuts and bolts of the industry actually made me more valuable because my perspective was open.

What inspired you to start your business?

I like to build things. People believe that all entrepreneurs are idea people, but I’m not an idea person…in that I come up with the big idea; but when I see somebody who has a great big idea and doesn’t know what to do with it, I love to play with that idea. I love to build the concept, build the strategy, and I LOVE to bring the people and build the team around taking that idea to market. That’s what inspired me most here at EnergyPrint and during my previous startups.

What motivates you?

We had a few years where what motivated me day to day was survival. Because I’d worked too hard for too long to let go of the concept.

Now that were profitable, finally, I want to build a great management team, unleash them on our industry, and look for opportunities to dynamically grow in more significant ways.

What is the number one thing you struggle with?

This is going to sound cliché because entrepreneurs say it all the time, but the number one thing I struggle with is working “on the business” as opposed to working “in the business.” It’s a daily struggle to stay focused on what we’re going to do next and the big picture things and not getting pulled into the weeds.

How would you sum up your sales philosophy?

Don’t believe that we sell anything, I believe that people buy things that they need and that they want. My approach to sales has always been asking questions: What are your problems? What keeps you up at night? What stops your business from growing? And if my company has something that helps someone overcome their business problems, then I don’t have to sell anything. When you take the approach of simply helping clients to overcome business problems, and you have a good solution, sales are easy.

What’s one business book that you would you recommend?

I love Patrick Lencioni, all of his books, but the one I recommend to anyone I hire or mentor is called “Getting Naked.” The concept of the book is all about vulnerability in business. Selling from a position of ego or capability – “we’re the biggest brand” or “we’re the best at this” – is never as good as sitting down with a blank sheet of paper, asking some good questions and being vulnerable about what you know and what you don’t know.

The book is really about this guy’s journey from being a hot-shot ad executive to reinventing himself and understanding that through being vulnerable in the business development process he was able to gain more trust. To build trust, sometimes you have to be the first one to say, “I know nothing.”

Side note: It’s a little funny when I hand a new employee a book called “Getting Naked”; I always assure them they won’t have to talk to HR after reading.

What’s one thing that you learned about yourself through growing your business?

That I get distracted easily, by both good things and bad things. In this role I am the President and CEO, so the bus stops here. In my past experiences I’ve either been a key executive working for the owner, or I’ve been one of the owners in more of a partnership situation.

In this role there’s nobody to give me guidance or tell me what to do. I really have to struggle through structuring my own time, setting my own path, guiding the important actions and getting results. I need to own that process and set an example for the rest of the company. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how to manage my distractions through this experience.

What’s more important than business in your life?

That’s easy, my faith and my family; they trump business every day of the week.

I’m married, I’ve got three boys and that’s my life. I spent the early part of my career working 80 hours a week, climbing the ladder and all the things we were taught in the late 80’s early 90’s. I found success in that, but I was also pretty unhappy at times. By the time I had my second and third children, I really had to do some soul searching about what my priorities were and put my family first. I don’t believe in pure life balance, but managing through organized chaos seems to help me balance my family with a career that I love.

What are the best and worst things about being an entrepreneur?

Being your own boss. I enjoy leading, defining company direction and having the responsibility; I love it. But if I’m really being honest, sometimes the thing that you love most is also the thing that you hate the most. Being the CEO is a lot of responsibility and it can be lonely at the top.

I’m constantly striving to be a better leader; I know when I am and I know when I’m not. I can see the shadow that I cast onto my organization and when I am doing it well, everybody is performing better all the way down. We’re only 16 people, we’re not huge, so my shadow casts very loudly.

It really is two sides of the same coin; it’s great to be the leader for the same reasons that it’s tough to be the leader.

How many times a month (week/day/hour…gulp!) do you have the feeling that the rock you just pushed to the summit is getting ready to role down the other side? Elon Musk infamously opined that “entrepreneurship is like eating glass and staring into the abyss” and I’ll readily agree that this metaphor is spot-on despite the fact I’m not trying to build a rocket ship, electric car, or battery manufacturing conglomerate (phew). The flip side of this are the opportunities entrepreneurship provides, to build something from scratch, to provide meaningful employment, to create a great culture and to help clients grow their business. Seth Godin’s book, Purple Cow talks about companies that milk the cow too long without reinventing themselves, and as a result, face an inevitable decline. The questions is: how do you keep this from happening to your business? The answer: wake up every morning and start pushing that rock!  Read the latest edition of Grow & Co

Josh Berger | Bright Hat

Lauren Boyer is the CEO of Underscore Marketing. Underscore is based in New York City and specialized in media strategy, planning and execution for health and wellness brands.

Before starting her career in advertising Lauren graduated with a degree in industrial design, gaining an understanding and appreciation of the design process. She then went into advertising where she could leverage that appreciation. Initially she worked for some small boutique advertising agencies and then went on to work for some larger holding company agencies, followed by 7 years of independent consulting work. All of this led to a partnership at Underscore Marketing where she joined as Chief Global Strategist, within two years assumed the role of CEO and is now 51% owner of the company.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lauren and asking her some questions about her entrepreneurial journey and business philosophy.

 

How do you hire the right people?

When I began with Underscore we were about 9 people and now we’re 62 people. Because we are a smaller company we try to hire versatile people who don’t mind wearing many hats when needed, but specialize in one or two areas that we have high demand for. A good example is someone who is a subject matter expert in broadcast, but also helps on the new business committee and is being cross-trained in digital media.

As we grow, we think about how we want the organization to evolve and how to craft clear job descriptions to make sure the expectations are managed for the new hire as well as the team. When somebody new starts they’re successful because everybody on the team knows why we hired them and understands how they fit into the work-stream. When we consider a new role we think about what that person will be doing over the next several years and consider if we really a full-time hire or if the needs are short-term and can be filled by a consultant.

When we interview people we use a cross functional team because we’re a highly collaborative company and want to be sure we hire people who can work well across teams. For cultural fit purposes and to be sure we are aligned on core values we have people that are at least 3 years with the company, who understand the organizational dynamics, interview candidates. When we interview we’re not trying to sell anybody, we’re presenting who we are, what we do, and what the job is and then comparing the candidates qualifications and interests to see how well the fit is. The interview process is about finding the people who are expert and like-minded, and providing them with the work that they can be successful in. Our goal is to have long term relationships with our employees by providing them with the right balance of challenge, learning, and environment.

 

How do you measure success?

This might sound shocking, but we measure revenue and profit last. Our first priority is client retention and loyalty, meaning low client turnover. To keep turnover low we give focus on giving our clients a great experience and favorable results, so they will stick with us. Our second key measure is employee retention, meaning low employee turnover. We focus on providing a great culture, having the right opportunities, and training for our team. And last but not least is steady increase in revenue year over year that meets our profitability goals (this is a result of client loyalty and employee retention measures being successful).

 

What was one mistake you made early on?

Underscore is a privately held company and we’ve never taken any outside money so understandably when I started, we didn’t have many additional resources to turn to. Rather than leveraging the professional network that I had created over the years I tried to do it all myself. I used to think about what and how, as my core questions when faced with a challenge (what do I need to do and how do I need to do this); now I think, who is knowledgeable about this, who has seen success here, and who can help me navigate this challenge.

 

Who do you admire most as a business leader?

Because Underscore is health and wellness focused, somebody who has come into the health and wellness landscape recently and is doing something that is near and dear to our hearts – which is digital – is James Park, the CEO of Fitbit. He introduced Fitbit in 2008 and really kick-started the revolution of wearable devices.

The brands he is rivaling in this space are big names like Apple and Nike, but Fitbit is a name and a brand that has developed more recently. He came in as a challenger who was nonexistent in the space and quickly created a master fitness brand, and is making money despite heavy competition with deeper pockets. That’s good leadership and innovation by my standards.

 

What’s was the best decision you ever made?

The best decision that I ever made was when I stopped playing it safe at an unfulfilling job and went into consulting with no safety net whatsoever, and really thinking about how to build a company. I think confronting my biggest fear, which was failure as an entrepreneur, enabled me to make decisions that I wouldn’t have made when I was an employee working for another organization.

 

What inspired you to start a business?

I didn’t start Underscore, but I had the unique experience having started my career on the agency side of advertising and then taking a client side position a few years later. On the client side I saw the complete opposite side of what the agencies were delivering and I gained perspective on some unmet needs.

When I decided that it was time for me to start my own agency, which was my intention, I wanted to create an agency that delivered on what I wanted as a client, so taking everything that I had learned from my early days working at other agencies and applying that to something new. It just so happened that the folks at Underscore caught wind of what I was about to do and asked if I would be interested in infusing that vision into Underscore.

The idea of starting something brand new on my own, with no infrastructure and no team, verses joining a very small company that could really be molded and shaped was highly appealing.

 

What motivates you?

New challenges, I constantly seek out new challenges. I think to the extent that I’m not challenged I’m losing my edge. Finding something that we haven’t figured out yet and attacking a new problem every day is what drives me. It could be a micro problem or it could be a macro problem but it’s really looking at new solutions to things and reinventing things that have been stagnant for a while.

 

How would you sum up your sales philosophy?

Our sales philosophy is to find and attract like-minded clients we can deliver high value to. As we’ve grown we’re competing with a slightly different tier in the market and have had to pivot from largely referral based business to looking at growing our existing client base and doing prospecting through direct mail, phone calls to set up meetings and actual consultative meetings

We analyze what prospective clients are challenged with and decide if we can help them or not. It’s not a hard sell it’s more, let’s see if there is a fit here and let’s see if there is something we can do here that is unique, something that might yield a better result for the client. If we feel strongly that we can do it, then we are aggressive about it.

It’s a long sales cycle so the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be where our prospects are, to drive awareness that we’re here as a solution and to be thought leaders. We do a lot of writing, speaking engagements and stay pretty active with industry events where we can meet new people.

 

What’s one business book that you would you recommend?

I really enjoyed Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. It’s one that I refer to continuously because it’s so true and it’s helped me shape my organization. It’s a great starting place for someone to think a little differently and make a mind-shift.

 

What’s one thing that you learned about yourself through growing your business?

I learned that gaining insights from other people helps me avoid mistakes and grow faster. I’m an introvert, but I’ve learned to put myself out there in order to meet new people and compare experiences. I also learned that it’s incredibly rewarding to mentor others.

 

What’s more important than business in your life?

My family and my personal health are number one. I make sure that I’m at my best so that I can be my best for others and provide everything that my kids and family need.

 

What the best thing about being an entrepreneur?

The best thing is that there are no limits, no boundaries, and there’s not a set of rules that you have to adhere to. Even if you wrote a company policy, you wrote it with your own rules in mind and not somebody else’s. It’s that freedom to have the ultimate decision making power.

 

What’s the toughest thing about being an entrepreneur?

It’s lonely at the top unless you find a way to create your own peer group outside of your company.

When I worked for somebody else and I had friends at work and we’d go and get lunch or get together outside of the office. I see our employees doing that and it’s wonderful but I know why I’m not invited. Back in the day I didn’t invite the owner or head of the company, either.

I’ve joined an organization called EO (entrepreneur’s organization) and it’s been transformational for me because what I’ve found is that all the things I worry about – that are issues in my business and even personally – are pretty much universal across entrepreneurs.

 

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is just starting a business?

It’s important to think about how you want to grow and what your exit strategy is early on. How do you scale without taking money and at what point do take investment money? Thinking about how you’re sourcing your funds and how you want to grow early on is better than being in a place where you need to grow quickly and you’re not sure that you want to or have the means to.

Join us June 7th at the Normandale Partnership Center for MinneAnalytics Big Data Tech Conference. The one day event features dozens of leaders in the field, from around the region and around the country. Vendors will display bleeding-edge versions of their products with onsite tutorials. And, most importantly, you’ll be able to learn from your peers in the Twin Cities about the tools they find valuable and what they’re planning for the future.  To learn more and register, visit here