Capturing an Online Market: A Small Business Success Story from Winona

I am happy to share this story from Project FINE. They have received funding from the Blandin Foundation to support their ecommerce training…

Ten years ago, a Hmong gentleman moved from the St. Paul area to Winona, MN. For years, he and his family had dreamed of owning their own business. They had worked hard and saved money to be able to fulfill their dream of entrepreneurship. When they learned that a gas station in our area was for sale, they used their savings for a down payment on a business loan.

Moving to a new community can be difficult, but they quickly got connected with Project FINE and were active participants in many of our programs. Through their participation, they were able to network with others and grow their customer base. Over the years, their business grew, as their customers appreciated their friendly service. They also continued to learn and grow, looking for ways to improve their business and increase sales. They added a deli counter and liquor store to bring in more customers.

Despite this success, their business did not have an online presence. Because he did not have any technical or business training, he was unable to develop his own website. While he wanted to reach more people, he just didn’t know how. When Project FINE started the .COM project, we reached out to him to participate. He was very excited and said “I have been waiting for a chance like this for a long time. I will make sure to attend.”

Through the project, he attended training sessions and received one-on-one assistance. He also worked with a Winona State University student to develop a website. The student met with him at the gas station to discuss plans and create a vision for the website. They also took pictures of the man and his wife and the store. The student worked to discover what specific information would be included on the website and after several meetings, the website went live.

The man and his family have been extremely happy with their website. They thanked us for helping them and have since commented that many of his customers had seen the site and given positive feedback.

He is also very excited at the prospect of reaching out to town visitors, especially hunters and
fishermen in the area. He said, “this has been so wonderful and will continue to help my business move to another level. Thank you for your support.”

Nobles County Broadband 2014 Update: 60 percent broadband coverage

noblesI’m working on a County-by-County look at the State of Broadband in MN. My hope is to feature a county a day (in alphabetical order). In November, Connect Minnesota released their final report on broadband availability. Here is how Nobles County stacked up:

  • Household Density: 11
  • Number of Households: 7,946
  • Percentage serviced (without mobile): 59.15%
  • Percentage serviced (with mobile): 59.15

Nobles County was recently named a Blandin Broadband Community, which shodul help them promote and build a business case for better broadband. They are interested in improved economic development…

Leading the Blandin Broadband Community work is the Nobles Economic Opportunity Network (NEON). Together, with educational, nonprofit and business partners throughout the county, NEON will rally local leaders to develop a sustainable model for broadband access and use in Nobles County.

“We are excited to bring together ideas and options to open up faster, stable broadband to encourage economic growth over the whole county and give rural residents better connectivity,” said Cheryl Janssen, NEON committee member.

There has been movement for better broadband. In 2013, CenturyLink opted for Connect American Funds (CAF) to serve Nobles County. And Mediacom announced upgrades in Worthington about the same time. You can see from the map that there are more options around Worthington than the surrounding areas. (Worthington was an original MIRC – Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities – participant.

My hope is that these county-specific posts will help policy makers and county residents understand where they stand in terms of broadband access. Assuming it might get forwarded to folks who don’t eat and sleep broadband I wanted to provide a little background on broadband to help set the stage… Continue reading

PCs for People provides low cost Internet access in the Twin Cities

I’ve written about PCs for People before. They refurbish computers and distribute them to folks who need computers. They were partners in the Blandin Foundation MIRC program. They do good work.

Recently they were featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The article highlights their partnership with Mobile Citizen, which allows them to provide low cost wireless Internet access to recipients of their computers. The service is only available in the Twin Cities because Mobile Citizen does not have coverage in rural areas – but it’s working well in the metro area. For the coldest day of the year, I thought I’d share some of the heartwarming stories as told by PCs for People patrons…

“I struggled with trying to help my kids with their homework, and that was very depressing to me,” wrote a 37-year-old mother of three. “They now can get the homework help they need online.”

Another client waited regularly for a computer at her local library, feeling pressured to hurry as she hunted for work and filled out job applications. Using the home computer gifted to her by PCs for People, she learned about and enrolled in a program to get a commercial driver’s license.

A 41-year-old with disabilities wrote that not having a computer with Internet access “held me back from making friends or working. It kept me separate from the world.”

Arrowhead Electrical Cooperative becomes Ad Hoc Community Center for Broadband Hungry

Build it and they will come. I think that’s half true with broadband today. Build it and the interested and motivated will come. That’s what they’re seeing in Cook County. Dave Peters reports for MPR’s Ground Level

Arrowhead [Electrical Cooperative] is running optical fiber throughout the county to provide high-speed access to anyone who wants it. Most of the construction is done. Now they need to do “a lot, a lot, a lot” of cable splicing to connect the fiber to people’s homes. First service is set for January or February, he [Joe Buttweiler] said.

But until that splicing happens, it sounds as if people are setting up shop in and around Arrowhead Electric to get the bandwidth they need…

Since then it’s not uncommon to see people sitting in the parking lot at odd hours just to use the high-speed service on their laptops or tablets, he added.

One musician Buttweiler knows had been using a coffee shop in Grand Marais to do a weekly upload of large files, typically taking an hour and a half to accomplish what he needed. Now he comes to the Arrowhead building and does the same thing in five or 10 minutes.

So there is demand! Some of that has always been there – but a huge piece of the equation has been building demand even before the fiber was deployed through Cook County’s MIRC effort and other initiatives that I know go back at least 15 years – because I remember doing Internet introductions North of Duluth more than 15 years ago.



Minnesota Local Government Innovation Awards that Highlight Technology

Last week, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs announced the winners of its seventh annual Local Government Innovation Awards. The awards—organized in partnership with the Bush Foundation and co-sponsored by the League of Minnesota Cities, the Association of Minnesota Counties, and the Minnesota School Board Association—recognize government entities for their creativity and effectiveness in redesigning how they do business.

I was pleased a see a couple of technology-centered projects get mentioned…

County Category: Carlton County: TXT4Life Suicide Prevention
The TXT4LIFE program reaches youth in ways they communicate most: Through text messaging, the Minnesota affiliate of the National Suicide Prevention Network Lifeline has experienced a tremendous increase in clients. The TXT4LIFE program covers northeast Minnesota including seven counties and four tribal nations—a geographic area that represents six percent of the state’s population but consistently reports the highest suicide rates. Marketing and outreach are key components; prior to the text program, the suicide line received 25 calls each month from youth and it now receives more than 300.

Also a MIRC community project was in the line up: City of Morris: Morris Rental Housing Commission. I wrote about their project in April 2012…

The folks at the University of Minnesota Morris have found a solution to student housing issues – that is an open and informed market for students and landlords. The Morris Rental Housing Commission received funds through the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) initiative to develop a website that helps keep everyone informed – of their rights, the responsibilities and the local rental market. They maintain a database of licensed and available rental properties.

Executive Director of the Commission was kind enough to tell me a little bit about how the website has been received. It sounds as if both the students and landlords have appreciated the site. It sounds as if the site is helping both parties make better informed decisions. She had one story that helps put into perspective what a difference a little knowledge can make…

The one story that I think epitomizes the success of the site concerned a parent and their college student child. They were looking at several different rental properties. Most parents are a bit nervous about the fact that college students in Morris sign leases for the Fall of 2012 in January or February. They had looked at some of the properties and then found the web site which provided the inspection reports on the properties. After reviewing the inspection reports, the parent called my office and wanted to talk about them. We discussed the things that are covered in an inspection and those that are not. One of the properties had failed the inspection and had not made the corrections for many months. It was a property the college student wanted to rent but the information from the website provided the information needed to avoid a problem rental.

The fact remains that most college students (as well as other new renters) are unaware of the pitfalls that can make their lives very stressful. If we can play a small role in helping them avoid just one struggle we have accomplished something worthwhile.

Blandin Foundation named a FTTH Top 100

Bernadine_InCommonsWe are honored to be named one of Broadband Communities Magazine’s Fiber to the Home Top 100. We are so pleased to be listed with many esteemed colleagues who also strive for “Building a Fiber-Connected World.”

Here is what they said about the Blandin Foundation…

Blandin Foundation 877-882-2257

Key Products: Grant making, community leadership development and public policy programs

Summary: A private foundation based in Grand Rapids, Minn., the Blandin Foundation has been dedicated since 1941 to strengthening rural Minnesota communities. Its Broadband Initiative, launched in 2003, helps communities educate citizens about the need for ultra-high-speed broadband and plan and execute broadband projects. The foundation has published informational guides, sponsored conferences and educational events and supported many feasibility studies for the development of robust, high-speed broadband networks. It has supported implementation of broadband applications in schools, health care facilities and other institutions and for home-based users and has promoted broadband adoption in rural communities. In 2012, the foundation selected nine rural Minnesota communities for intensive, two-year partnerships to advance local broadband initiatives. It also led the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) coalition – a group of educational, job training and economic development organizations – in a BTOP-funded program to enhance broadband adoption and use by small businesses, unemployed residents and local governments. Completed in 2012, the MIRC program introduced more than 250,000 rural Minnesotans to online resources to find jobs, continue their educations and strengthen their businesses.

I’ll take this opportunity to add some of the most significant outcomes of the work that we’ve been able to track so far:

  • Data examining broadband subscription levels during the three years of MIRC’s implementation suggest that broadband adoption growth in participating communities grew close to 15% faster than in the rest of rural Minnesota.
  • Those communities that reported the highest rates of participation [in MIRC activities] also experienced the highest rates of broadband subscription growth.
  • Such evidence allows us to conclude that community-based broadband literacy and market development efforts can and do make a difference.
  • According to the University of Minnesota/Crookston’s MIRC project evaluator, “it is not hard to connect the MIRC project as a major contributor to Minnesota’s leading position [nationally] in rural broadband adoption.”
  • And, in the words of a MIRC partner in Thief River Falls, “MIRC is a life changing project for many individuals in the nine communities.”