Posts Categorized: Entrepreneurs

Everything is Gonna Be OK

Check out The OK Factor this Saturday, November 8, 2014, at Marty’s Cafe in Luther College in Decorah – they’re playing with General B and The Wiz! More info here.

OKFactor

By Ingrid Baudler

Olivia Hahn and Karla Dietmeyer have come a long way since starting cello/violin duo The OK Factor in 2012.

And yet the two Luther alums still have a long way to go.

Literally.

With the night’s gig all wrapped up, they grab their gear and hit the road, this time leaving Georgia in the rearview mirror. They head north, with shows in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Olivia usually does the driving while Karla navigates, but tonight it’s the other way around.

“I kind of like it,” Olivia says about all the traveling, “I feel like we’re paying our dues.”

OKFactor_2For most of this past year, Olivia (O) and Karla (K) have had to operate from different states, but that hasn’t stopped them from making great music together. They meet up to perform at different venues, hold workshops, and have even been recording.

But it was Decorah that made everything OK.

“The OK Factor was really an experiment,” Olivia says. “It was something that we wanted to do but the community was really what spurred us forward. It’s amazing how talented and eclectic one small town can be.”

“No one ever told us no, and that was huge for us,” Karla adds. “I think it takes good people to really make great music and that is what we found in Decorah.”

Both women picked up instruments at an early age – Karla started the violin at five and Olivia was four when she first sat at a cello. They met at Luther College, where they majored in music performance, and formed The OK Factor in 2012 with the goal of  “challenging their formal training.”

The duo has since found their way around the Midwest and the U.S., and from classical to bluegrass, jazz, and pop, finally arriving at a musical style they dub “alternative/progressive folk”.

“You can always hear a classically-trained musician in their tone or the way they play certain melodies,” Olivia says. “We don’t want to undo that. We like that aspect of our playing. We want to throw that into the mix with other genres. There’s a lot to explore there.”

Their first gig was part of the Water Street Music Series at ArtHaus in Decorah. Post-college, each was planning to go to graduate school for music performance and pursue a career as a classical musician, but all that changed after that first show.

“The combination of how extremely satisfied and full we both felt, as well as the overwhelming support and positive feedback we got from the audience – people whose opinions we trusted greatly – made us feel as though this was no longer something we ‘just did for fun,’ but something we could do more permanently,” Olivia says. “We couldn’t really believe we were considering taking a different path than we had envisioned, but we knew it was what we really wanted.”

The two had only written a few songs together before that performance, and they knew they had a lot of work ahead of them if it was going to work.

“I had very little experience in the music industry, but my passion for the DIY, grassroots movement really gave me confidence that The OK Factor had what it takes to go somewhere,” Karla says.

They planned to move to Minneapolis the summer after graduation, and explored regional performance possibilities.

“I found applications to the Iowa State Fair and Stone Arch Bridge Festival,” Karla says. “We were both surprised to discover that by the end of our senior year we had been accepted to play at both events. This boosted our confidence to find other places to play throughout the summer.”

Cold calls and asking around landed them a full performance schedule for the summer of 2013.  They had gigs lined up at jazz clubs, weddings, wineries, and more.

Next came the goal of recording a full-length album – with a writing method that isn’t exactly traditional.

“We just sit down and make it up,” Olivia says, only half joking. “We never write anything down.”

While they were still working on the album, Karla migrated from the Midwest back home to Georgia. Long-distance composition seems like it would be impossible, but, luckily, they worked it out.

“It’s not this way friendship-wise, but musically, we know exactly where the other fits in,” Olivia says, smiling.OKFactorLogo

“Musically, we can finish each other’s sentences,” Karla agrees.

One of them brings up an idea and the other fills in their part.

“We send arrangements back and forth, piece by piece,” Olivia says. “Karla will start with the melody and I will add harmony and a baseline and Karla mixes it all on her computer.”

As a tribute to their beginning, they named their first album, released in February of 2014, after Decorah’s main drag: Water Street. Most of the tracks – such as Switchback and Trout Run ­– are inspired by the area.

“Trout Run evokes the feeling you get when you think about Decorah – Trout Run Trail, switchbacks over the cornfields, and that feeling of grandeur when you’re looking out over the bluffs,” Karla says. “The beauty of the Driftless Region.”

It was this connection to the Driftless Region that kept the two connected.

“Water Street was really the glue that held us together through the summer, and pushed us through the nine-month long distance from Atlanta to Minneapolis this past fall,” Olivia says.

Going forward, the two will continue to be in different cities – Karla’s moving to Colorado and Olivia’s staying in Minneapolis – but don’t worry: The OK Factor will be okay.They’ve already got gigs and plans set for the this fall, including a new EP and a music video.

 “We trust our instincts and try every way possible to spread the word and get our music out there, because we believe in it. We also take risks and get out of our comfort zones, taking what would be ‘long shot ideas’ and going for them,” Olivia says. “Our motto has been, ‘If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.’”

The two, unknowingly, leave the obvious pun – and perfect life lesson – hanging: When you do ask, sometimes the answer is – what else? OK!

To check out The OK Factor and listen to their music, visit theokfactor.com or theokfactor.bandcamp.com. Like and follow them Facebook and Twitter to enjoy the sometimes silly things they post after long hours on the road.

——————-

Ingrid_BioFall14Ingrid is a recent Luther College graduate and has been inspired enough by Decorah to stay. She remembers Luther’s Chips newspaper covering The OK Factor’s first performance at ArtHaus and had a great time catching up on what they have been doing since.

Wisco Pop!

WiscoPopHandle2

Story by Aryn Henning Nichols . Photos by Komifoto

It’s no big surprise that it was a bit of a treasure hunt to find great soda with all-natural ingredients.

“If you think you’re in the wrong place, you’re probably in the right place,” says Hallie Ashley, one of the three founders of Wisco Pop, Wisconsin’s Holy Grail of soda.

WiscoPop kitchen headquarters can be found in a non-descript, former cash register factory on the north side of Viroqua, Wisconsin. From the outside, it appears that there’s very little happening there, but things are really – and literally – cooking inside.

The Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) has turned this 100,000 square foot building – with the help of a $2 million grant – into a Food Enterprise Center. It’s an incubator for businesses that are involved in local food production, processing, marketing, and distribution, and the just-added element: exercise and movement.

Keewaydin Farms, Just Local Foods, LuSa Organics, Fifth Season Cooperative, Sole Expressions Dance Studio Cooperative, Kickapoo Coffee, and – of course – Wisco Pop all currently or will soon utilize the space in one way or another.

The day Inspire(d) made the trip to Viroqua, Wisco Pop’s Austin Ashley (married to Hallie) and Zac Mathes were in the center’s commercial kitchen cooking up a 60-gallon steam kettle of ginger for their popular ginger soda. Bits of ginger peel and spent lemons, juiced one-at-a-time, marked the start of their 125-gallon Monday production. The two self-proclaimed “cosmic brothers” obviously work well together, as conversation easily flows from the Food Enterprise Center to Viroqua to the Driftless Region and even pizza farms. A reporter could easily get off track!

“Let me get out my list of questions so I don’t forget anything,” I say, pulling my notebook out of my bag just as Hallie arrives.

“That’s funny,” Austin says. “We have a list of questions for you too! Is your first one, ‘Why are we so good looking?’ ‘Cause we just can’t explain it.”

wiscopop_funnyface

Jokes aside (even though they are a dapper crew), what they can explain is their quest for really delicious soda.

It all started with Austin. He was making ginger beer and kombucha at home, and wishing there were more options for natural and even organic sodas.

“I was sitting on the idea for a long time,” he says. “Hallie kept saying to me, ‘Just start it. Just do it.’”

And so they did. Wisco Pop launched just over a year ago at the Kickapoo Country Fair in Viroqua. The response has been amazing, and rightly so.

“People at first are all, ‘Craft brewed soda?’,” Austin says. “But then they taste it and are like, ‘Oh! We get it now! Craft brewed soda!’”

“This is what soda is supposed to be. It’s the way it used to be,” Zac continues. “No chemicals, just good ingredients.”

They stand by their motto: “Keepin’ it real. No processed corn, no artificial flavors. Just fresh fruit juice, pure honey, genuine spices and herbs for a real brew.”

Take their Cherry Bomb soda, for example. They whisked me across the kitchen to take a whiff of the kettle brewing for this batch. (Below, much lower-quality photos, by Aryn Henning Nichols

WiscoPop_LemonStrainWiscoPop_Austin

“You really have to get your face in there,” Austin says as I lean in for a sniff. “Can you guess what’s in it?”
“Hmmm…something I cook with,” I muse.
“You’re on the right track,” sings Hallie.
“I can’t quite place it…”
“It’s probably the vanilla.” Zac interjects.
“No, that’s not it…”
“Cinnamon?”
“Yes!”

Each flavor – they currently have three: ginger, cherry bomb, and root beer – is filled with complex flavors that keep you guessing, “What’s in there?”

“Comparing it to craft beer is a good analogy,” Zac says. “We spend a lot of time making sure it’s just right.”

The root beer was recently released and is Austin’s Sistine Chapel, although like an artist, he’s his own biggest critic.

“Ask Austin how long it took him to ‘perfect’ the root beer,” Zac says with a smile.

“A while,” Austin replies. “I don’t know if it will ever be perfect.”

It’s pretty darn delicious though. Not too sweet, with hints of maple syrup – local, of course. That is just one of the ingredients keeping the root beer subtly different with each batch. If the syrup’s different, so’s the soda. Same goes for the local honey in the oh-so-delicious ginger brew. Following that ever-changing notion, in the future Wisco Pop hopes to release special seasonal brews that will highlight special flavors or fruits.

Even though they’re obviously a happy little a Wisco Pop family, they’re business partners as well. Austin is the head crafter and develops those new brews – they’re working on a cola recipe now! – then Zac and Austin head up production together. Zac follows through on details such as ordering supplies and building useful things. “He’s our mathematician,” Austin jokes. And Hallie is the manager, bookkeeper, and customer contact person. All three work together on sales.

On top of that, Hallie works at Kickapoo Coffee and Zac runs Heartbeet Family Farm – along with a brick-oven-on-wheels pizza business called Homegrown Pizza – with his wife, Sara, and four-year-old daughter, Noa. Austin holds down the Wisco Pop and daddy front – he and Hallie have three kids: 11-year-old Alden, two-year-old Fern, and newborn Otis.

It’s this combination of family, business, community and good taste that brings it all together. In a time when soda gets a bad rap – commercial soda is filled with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives – Wisco Pop is out to bring back the charm and integrity what was once a very real craft. As they like to say: “Wisco Pop makes it okay to drink soda again. So welcome back old friend, welcome to…craft brewed soda.”

—————–

Aryn Henning Nichols is amazed she failed to use any bubble puns in the story. Guess she’ll have to save them for the story on carbonation! She wants to be part of the Wisco Pop! family ‘cause they’re so fun, and also because she’d like to have a lifetime supply of ginger soda. Yum.

Luckily, Wisco Pop! is making the great soda search a whole lot easier for the rest of us. You can find it in the Driftless Region here:

Driftless Cafe
Brew Dog
Rooted Spoon
The Root Note (La Crosse)
Viroqua Food Co-op

Plus multiple locations in Madison and Milwaukee. See www.wiscopopsoda.com or Wisco Pop! on Facebook for details.

Update: Wisco Pop held a Kickstarter fundraiser in December of 2013 to move on to bottling their delicious brews for the masses. They’ll be available EVEN MORE locations soon. Hooray!

Brent Grinna, CEO of EverTrue

BrentGrinnaSitting at Pike’s Peak State Park in McGregor, Iowa, Brent Grinna looks outwardly comfortable in his surroundings, despite his business-casual yellow polo, flip-flops, and a tablet complete with EverTrue branding on the back.

There were folks dressed in Harley leather, others in yoga pants, and the requisite high-end hiking gear all strolling by, so to be fair: he isn’t really out of place.

In reality, though, the founder and CEO of EverTrue – a Boston tech start-up that develops mobile apps to help schools connect with alumni – is right at home.

Brent graduated from high school in Postville, Iowa, in 2000. He grew up on a long gravel round just outside of tiny Frankville, Iowa (pop. 486). Summers were often spent at the River, while the rest of the year was filled with studying, sports, and farming. He, like a good Midwesterner, is genuine. He’s smart, but humble.

It’s a background that has created the foundation for the EverTrue business.

“The first slide in my investment presentation is a photo of me with my 4-H pigs,” Brent says with a smile. “People like to know where I come from. They want to know – are you gonna quit? Are you gonna face the challenge? Where I’m from helps – investors realize I know how to work hard, and that I’ve come a long way.”

BrentYoung

Neither of his parents had the privilege of going to college, so they encouraged their three boys – Brent being the oldest – to work hard, be smart, and plan ahead. Brent was a tremendous high school athlete, so, along with his good test scores and grades, he was recruited to play football at Ivy League Brown University.

“Brown football changed my life. And if it weren’t for its financial aid and donor contributions, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he says. “That’s a huge reason why I want to help these non-profits with their fundraising. So that more kids like me can have these opportunities.”

Brown’s football program connects freshman with alumni who act as mentors and guides through their college experience.

“These people were 20 years down the road from us. They looked at resumes, helped navigate career paths,” he says. “It’s so hard to know what you’re going to do. I didn’t even know what options were out there, really.”

Post-graduation, the program helped to land Brent an investment-banking job with William Blair and Company in Chicago.

He didn’t know anyone in the Windy City, though, so he got involved with the Brown alumni chapter there, which led to his second job at private equity fund, Madison Dearborn Partners.

“I learned so much at both of these places. I was surrounded by brilliant people every day. And every day I was pushed beyond my comfort zone,” Brent says.

So why an MBA?

“I mean, this is the stuff we’d talk about at lunch – everyone had an MBA. So I decided to apply. I was fortunate to be accepted at Harvard,” he says. “The application part was really fun for me. I was able to reflect on my past, present, and future. I mean, coming from a farm, going to the East Coast… football… Chicago. I was 25 years old. I thought, ‘Where do I want to go from here’?”

Between his first and second years of business school, Brent worked a summer internship in Mexico exploring a way to get his backgrounds in language, international business, and finance to work together in one career. He came back to the East Coast, uncertain that he wanted to make his home so far away from… well… home.

It was back at Harvard that Brent had the idea that would change the course of his career. He volunteered to help with his alma mater, Brown’s, reunion fundraising campaign. Simple enough. Unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately –much of the data given to him was out-of-date and inaccurate.

“There were so many opportunities for this important process to be more efficient,” he says. “These schools, these non-profit entities, they have two main avenues of income: tuition and endowments. People donate 300 billion dollars to non-profits annually. Brown has 90,000 alumni all over the world. It’s extremely difficult to keep track of them. There had to be a better way.”

Brent knew his idea of streamlining this process had to be mobile. For that, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. It was 2009. Mobile technology was ramping up – Facebook was maturing, along with other related social media – Twitter was relatively new, LinkedIn had become the new alternative to a rolodex.

“People were living their lives on social media, but there was this disconnect. I just felt like if you could connect the dots between what alumni did in school and who and where they are now, you could better segment how to approach them,” he says.

“The fundraising business hasn’t changed. What’s different is the amount of information available to do that kind of work,” he continues. “These people need resources. Say x college has a Facebook page – certainly they do. They share a beautiful photo there. People start liking it, sharing it. But fundraisers aren’t hearing them. They have people raising their hands, saying ‘I love it!’ But not donating yet.”

Thus, EverTrue was born. The mobile application is offered as an alumni-networking platform for colleges and high schools. Customers – those schools – send their data to EverTrue, where it’s put into a system to make it accurate and user-friendly. Alumni can then download the app for free to seek out mentors, reconnect with classmates, and learn more about what their fellow alums are up to. The app utilizes data from LinkedIn and Facebook. For schools, the complementary GivingTree app uses data to help connect fundraisers to donor databases.

Like Brent, EverTrue has come a long way. After just four years, the company has grown exponentially, and garnered millions of dollars in investment capital.

BrentGrinna_2

Things kicked off (football pun intended) through Techstars, the number one – and incredibly selective – startup accelerator in the world. Techstars offers seed funding and also provides three months of top-notch mentorship and perks, with the chance to pitch to investors at the end of the program.

“We had what they liked to call ‘good traction,’” Brent says. “At first we weren’t going to pitch… then we decided to try, with $500,000 in our minds. When we saw there was some interest, we bumped it up to $750,000. Then a million. We finally settled on $1.3.”

This is called seed money. It sets the ball rolling for a start-up.

“We didn’t look at it like, now we’ve got all this money,” Brent says. “We looked at it like, now we can invest in great people.”

In 2011, they went on to win $50,000 at the startup accelerator/competition, MassChallenge. More investors continued to become, well…invested. Angel investor Ty Danco wrote a passionate blog titled “Why I Invested in EverTrue”, making it clear that he not only liked EverTrue, but the people behind it too.

“We’ve got these investors who invest not just because they see an opportunity to make money, but because they’re passionate about fostering new entrepreneurs,” Brent says. “The lines get a little blurry. They’re our friends, they’re our mentors, and they’re also our investors.”

Then, in the spring of 2013, they landed a 5.25 million investment from Bain Capital Ventures. They are now a 40-employee company – stocked with top talents – with an ever-growing roster of customers happy to relate their pleasure in working with the “EverCrew” team.

“It’s amazing,” Brent says of his work. “There are highs and lows every single day. You just don’t know what it’ll hold. There are so many moving pieces…always something new. It’s not for everybody.”

“The emotions of parenthood are similar,” he says with a laugh. He and his wife – high school sweetheart, Katie – had their first son, Gunnar, in October of 2013. His schedule, while shifted, is still EverTrue through and through. There’s a reason it’s cliché to say “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” Although most entrepreneurs will scoff at that, it really can be true. Brent surrounds himself with employees who are talented… and fun.

“Just like there are blurry lines with investors, the same thing applies with team members at the company. We all hang out outside of the office…which is great,” Brent says. “One of the worst things about the business getting bigger is that I don’t get to spend as much time with them. I like every single one of them so much.”

Looking back over the past five years with EverTrue, and the 15 years since Brent was in high school, it’s wild to think about how far everything, really, has come. Postville schools switched from typewriters to computers while Brent was attending. The Internet was born after he was. It would have been nearly impossible for Brent to say “I want to develop an app when I grow up.”

“You just can’t anticipate it,” Brent says, shaking his head.

Coming back to the Midwest to visit family, Brent says he looks around and sees opportunity everywhere. So what’s his advice for folks who want to launch a business, try something new, or pursue a supposedly far-fetched idea?

“For most people, it’s unrealistic to just quit your job and start a new venture, so I would encourage people to try it out first,” he says. “Test things on a small scale. Get feedback. And keep going until you’ve got something that works. The biggest risk is the one not taken… Inertia is a powerful force.”

For Brent, what was most surprising was that others really do want to see you succeed.

“When you put yourself out there, it’s amazing how many people are willing to help,” he says. “It makes me want to help others too.”

It would go right along with the EverTrue mission: “We are building relationships in pursuit of a better world. We are EverTrue.”

Aryn Henning Nichols and Brent were friends growing up. Their moms were close, and they were “neighbors” in the country; his family lived just a few short, gravel miles (!) away. They rode the same school bus for almost an hour, explored the countryside with our siblings, and were all pretty happy to be in 4-H (for the most part).