Tips from successful Minnesota startups

S co-founder Justin Kaufenberg worked for several years before taking a salary at the Minneapolis company, a provider of data services to athletic clubs and leagues.

“At particularly dire times, we’d get a new credit card to pay wages to our first employees,” he remembers.

Along the way, he learned about working with banks, finding angel investors and setting up legal infrastructure. Patience, he said, became a requirement.

In 2016, more than a dozen years after its start, NBC bought SportsEngine and Kaufenberg became a venture capitalist helping other companies get off the ground.

We asked him and some other founders of startup companies in the Twin Cities for practical ways to get a business started. Here’s some of their advice:

Find mentors and tools

Whether you are trying to find mentors, build a website or learn about angel investing, the Internet is a place to start.

Startup veterans advise turning to LinkedIn and Twitter to find new connections in your industry. “A fairly simple Google search will help you find angel investors,” Kaufenberg said.

Morning Consult co-founder Michael Ramlet turned to mentors from his undergraduate days at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota as he built what’s now a global decision-intelligence company.

“It was helpful to ask these mentors, ‘How do you start a bank account? How do you get a tax ID number?”’ Ramlet said.

For those without such contacts, look for successful entrepreneurs in your space. Some respond to direct inquiries. “I still do a call a week with someone starting a business,” Ramlet said.

A to Z Creamery founder Zach Vraa started his custom ice cream business as a hobby on Instagram during the pandemic. When he grew serious, he created a limited liability corporation, learned about food-industry regulations and created a website using free tools at

“The first thing you need to do when you start a business is to make a website,” he said.

Organizations such as Women Venture in St. Paul offers classes as well as advise clients to make a business plan before applying for his loans.

“It’s important they understand the assumptions they’re making behind projections,” said David Louiselle, director of lending at Women Venture. “Especially behind the revenue component, they need to have a solid understanding of how they’re going from point A to point B, from $0 to $50,000. That has to make sense for us and for them.”

Keep personal expenses low

Kaufenberg said he received advice early on to keep his expenses low so he lived on the bare minimum after graduating from college. He had no car and sometimes he would paint a house to earn money for food.

Both Dori Graff and Mary Fallon, co-founders of online children’s goods consignment shop Kidizen, were newer moms who quit their jobs 15 years ago at digital agencies to launch their business. They did part-time contract work to pay the bills and relied on spouses early on. “We were not taking a salary and it was tough,” Graff said.

Even today, she said she would make more in the agency world but values ​​owning a stake in a business with a sustainability mission.

Hire an attorney or accountant

Kaufenberg recalls making costly mistakes by setting up multiple LLCs as SportsEngine grew. That turned out not to be the best structure to raise money. Later, an attorney was hired to convert it to a C corporation.

“We believed we didn’t have the money to hire a good attorney. We used a lot of online tools to do our legal. That was a mistake,” he said. “There are terrific attorneys who specialize in working with startups. For a small amount of money they will do the critical element of starting your company correctly.”

The same goes for finding an accountant, Kaufenberg said. “We were really immature in that area,” he said.

Setbacks are routine

When the Kidizen co-founders launched the first iteration of the business in 2010, it failed. That was a platform for attaching digital content to physical things so that the story goes with it as it moves from one person to the next.

“We kind of had to go back to the drawing board,” Graff said. “We did a pretty big pivot at this point and talked to our user base.”

They turned to a focus on goods for kids because that’s “a constant need” for parents, she said. In 2014, Kidizen was born.

Prepare to work a lot

Jazz Hampton was a corporate lawyer before he and two co-founders last year launched TurnSignl, an on-demand, real-time app that gives drivers access to live legal representation during traffic stops and accidents.

He now works even more hours but feels fortunate that TurnSignl has attracted enough investment for him to collect a salary, although it is lower than before.

“I’m building something with people that I truly care about,” Hampton said. “It’s the most fun I’ve had working.”

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