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GrandPad

With one swipe, GrandPad allows seniors to stay connected with family and friends / Photo courtesy GrandPad

The GrandPad tablet delivers telehealth for homebound, and creates an innovative spark for rural entrepreneurs.

By Maggie Sonnek

When Scott Lien and his family traded in one adventure for another, leaving behind their beloved sky blue Victorian house in Wabasha, Minnesota, they silently promised they’d be back.

And 25 years later, they were. In March 2020, the Liens shuttled back to the Midwest from Silicon Valley, where Scott had taken the leadership helm at a handful of corporations. Returning with a newfound perspective gained from travel and experience, he was surprised to find storefronts along the town’s main corridor empty and boarded up. That’s when he decided to combine his love of rural America with his knowledge and innovation for entrepreneurship.

Scott and Isaac Lien (far left and far right) with two of GrandPad’s oldest employees,
another father-son team, Elmer and Richard Thill / Photos courtesy GrandPad

In 2013, Scott and his then-college-aged son Isaac wanted to stay connected to Marlys Lien, the duo’s mother and grandmother. While Scott and Isaac were in Silicon Valley, Marlys lived 2,000 miles away in Decorah, Scott’s hometown. GrandPad, a tablet sans complicated features, was born. Designed specifically for seniors, the tablet has fun games, customized music, and apps, plus large buttons paired with an intuitive interface to make chatting with friends and family a breeze. But, Scott, who now splits his time between Silicon Valley and Wabasha, learned that in the Midwest, attracting funding from investors is anything but a breeze.

“The Midwest is quite risk adverse,” he says. “And, because nearly 90 percent of startups fail in the first three years, local investors don’t jump on board right away. The majority of capital comes from the coasts.”

The data backs this up. According to the Center of Rural Development, less than one percent of all venture capital goes to rural startups. And, in 2017, five metro areas (San Francisco, New York City, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles) accounted for nearly 80 percent of all venture capital investment nationwide. While innovation has concentrated in major urban hubs, rural economies have lacked the entrepreneurship to spark economic growth.

But, with remote work on the rise – this trend has grown by 173 percent since 2005, according to the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a national non-profit that aims to foster sustainable economic success in rural America – more families are swapping crowds and congestion for chickens and country roads.

Families like the Olsons. Two hundred miles straight north of Wabasha, Jon and Hallie and their three kids spend time playing in their rugged, homemade treehouse and feeding their cluster of chickens. In 2019, Jon, an engineer, began working remotely. That allowed the Olsons to trade in their Minneapolis bungalow for a custom-built home in northern Minnesota that sits on five acres of wooded beauty.

“We feel so lucky to be where we are. The kids can spend hours outside,” 38-year-old Hallie says. “And, with COVID-19, we don’t feel as restricted in what we can and can’t do.”

Mark Rembert, Head of the Rural Innovation Network at the CORI, says while it could be months before we know the pandemic’s impact on urban and rural areas, COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the appeal, necessity, and feasibility of living in a big city.

“We don’t know yet if an increase in remote work will result in people leaving big cities,” Mark says. “But, surveys have shown that many people who live in metro areas would actually prefer to live in rural spaces. Remote working could create opportunities for more people to make that move.”

Obviously, it’s much easier to bring a job with you – like Jon did – than to hang out a shingle. But entrepreneur and business leader Scott says now is the time for innovators to open up shop small towns.

“This is an opportunity for rural America to shine. We need to ask what we’re doing to make our small towns attractive,” says Lien, who, during his career has held leadership roles at Best Buy, Bank of America, and Intuit. “In Minnesota, we can’t change the weather, so instead, we celebrate it. Let’s soar with our strengths and try to turn the downfalls into positive attributes.”

Taking risks and forging ahead with entrepreneurship and innovation, especially in rural areas, is key to creating dynamic, progressive small towns.

“There is a fantastic labor force in rural areas,” Scott says, noting that even though GrandPad was founded in California, he specifically engages employees from Midwest towns. “Lots of the employees we’ve hired have been out of the workforce for a while and aren’t necessarily looking for a job; think empty nesters and stay-at-home-parents. They’ve made the assumption that fulfilling, well-paying jobs are only available in large cities. And, because they don’t want to commit to a long commute or relocate, they assume their choices are limited.”

That’s where GrandPad really shines. Employees are hired – by referrals from current team members only – to work a flexible schedule from home.

Member experience agent Lori Lechtenberg, who lives outside of Decorah says, “I can be in my home chatting with people across the globe. It’s the best of both worlds.”

“We’re creating long-term, durable, high-paying jobs,” Scott explains. “And, most importantly, these positions are family-oriented.”

Indeed, family is the main reason why Anna Arens applied to GrandPad after receiving a referral. Anna worked in healthcare at Mayo Clinic for 12 years when her husband, a Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army, learned he’d be deployed overseas to Syria for one year. With three young kids at home, Anna knew her current schedule wouldn’t adhere well to her husband’s absence.

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anna Arens works from her home office / Photo courtesy Anna Arens

“I needed to find a job that offered flexible hours without a commute,” Anna says, noting that the options are limited in a small town. Since accepting her role as member experience agent at GrandPad three years ago, she’s been encouraged to put her family first.

“Scott expresses to us that when we’re able to take care of our homes and families first, we do our jobs better. Because of that mentality, I’m able to be more present in my life.”

Anne Meurer, also an agent at GrandPad, accepted her job just before the global pandemic surged across the country in the spring of 2020.

“I was able to be home with our kids and help them with online learning,” she recalls. “I would sit at my desk and they’d sit on the floor next to me.”

After working in government administration for several years, Anne craved a job that better aligned with her life. More than just a steady paycheck and paid holidays, she wanted meaning and mission from her employer.

“I wanted something more rewarding. When I learned about GrandPad, I was all-in,” says Anne. “I was born into a family of five living generations and was fortunate enough to grow close to my Great Grandma Jean. I truly learned the importance of our elders and grandparents.”

GrandPad Member Experience Agent Anne Meuer works from her home office / Photo courtesy of Anne Meuer

Member experience agents like Lori, Anna, and Anne develop deep and substantial relationships with GrandPad users. Like, calling seniors on their birthdays type of exchange.

“Our clients rely on us when they need help with a specific app on the tablet or when they’re lonely,” Anne says. “And, there’s always someone there…always a friendly voice on the other line.”

Throughout the global pandemic, several home health agencies and healthcare companies have turned to GrandPad to facilitate video visits. The company began offering expanded capabilities, like GrandPad Daily Connect. This remote care solution delivers data – like blood pressure and heart rate – to remote caregivers who can detect abnormalities and coordinate further care.

GrandPad Daily Connect, a remote care solution, delivers data to remote caregivers / Photo courtesy GrandPad

Meanwhile, GrandPad users – and their families – continue to express their gratitude to agents for this tool that not only keeps them connected during COVID, but staves off loneliness too.

One family member notes, “Mom could no longer use her computer with passwords. The GrandPad allows her to stay in touch with her contacts. It has been a lifesaver for our family!”

We asked Scott how other entrepreneurs and innovators can take hold of this pivotal moment for small towns.

“Keep investing in your communities,” he encourages. “Read the local paper. Talk to your neighbors. Be kind.”

Investing in his own community, Scott leased a space, bought some paint and fresh carpet, and hung a bright, shiny GrandPad sign in the window. Used for demos, videos, training sessions, and as an optional shared workspace for employees, this is Scott’s way of shining a light on rural America. In the small town of Wabasha, in the Midwest, in the U.S., GrandPad is open for business.


Maggie, her husband Eric and their three kids love living in their small town of Wabasha. When she’s not writing, Maggie is packing lunches, helping kids with homework, or (after bedtime) binge-watching shows on Netflix.

Red Piglet

Photo by Nancy Lukes Photography

 

Introduction by Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2020 Inspire(d) 

Words, at their base, are simple. Just a series of letters placed in a certain order. Yet, in the right order, they can hold immense power. They can lift you up or tear you down; bring you hope or bring you to tears; inspire you to love yourself, and others. Words can motivate you to get up, every day, and keep. showing. up.

Mike Nelson with his wife, Jodi. Photo by Red Piglet

In 2013, when Mike Nelson founded Red Piglet, the mission from the start was to wield words for the good of the world. With messages like “Shift Status Quo,” “Radiate Love,” or “Observe Without Judgment,” the Calmar, Iowa-based business – specializing in apparel, cards, prints, stickers, mugs, and more – encourages people to see their own uniqueness and worth. This kind of mission is vital in times like these – and, frankly, all other times too. And for Mike, it all started with the simplest of tools: pencil and paper

“I’m one of those humans that have a note pad and pencil at my bedside for the sole purpose of documenting those ‘bright’ ideas that pop into my head at 2 am,” he says. “A night in 2010, I woke to the name ‘RED PIGLET.’  My mind started racing to the possibility of creating a Red Piglet brand. After 10 minutes, I popped out of bed, fired up the computer, and went straight to GoDaddy.com. RedPiglet.com was available. I couldn’t believe it. I purchased that URL on the spot.”

While Mike spent more than three years dreaming of the possibilities for Red Piglet, fear of failing kept him stuck. It was this very struggle of being “stuck” that inspired him to finally take the leap and launch Red Piglet in 2013. He wanted to help others get unstuck and pursue their passions and purpose.

Photo by Red Piglet

Mike, his wife, and three kids live in Northeast Iowa, where they, like many other people and businesses across the world, have pivoted to make things work during COVID-19. Originally booked for shows and markets each Saturday through summer and fall, the Red Piglet schedule is now much more open. The plus side for folks local to or traveling through Calmar, is that you can now find the Red Piglet Shop open more frequently (see sidebar for Open Shop Weekends).

Name: Mike Nelson
Age: 47
Business: Red Piglet
Years in Business: 7
Business address: 101 S. Charles St., Calmar, IA (across from the Fire Station)
Website: redpiglet.com

Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

I remember sitting in my car after a job interview and thinking, “My worth is not linked to others’ opinions, a career advancement or paycheck.” The chase was coming to an end.

I decided to shift my perspective and pursue a more purposeful life – to help people get unstuck by taking action with their lives. I proceeded to lead by example and got myself unstuck – I launched the Red Piglet brand.

Why “Encourage Uniqueness” as the foundation message for the Red Piglet brand?

I have a theory: People get stuck because they judge themselves. Why do they judge themselves?Because they compare their life in some fashion to other people’s lives. What happens when comparison takes place? Fear sets in and prevents us from pursuing our passions and gifts. You know, those things that make us happy. The truth is, we are all unique. No one can do what you do, in precisely the way that you do it. How miraculous is that? Be you, your authentic self. Everyone else is taken.

Photo by Nancy Lukes Photography

What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

I don’t have to wait for others to validate my decisions. I have 100 percent creative freedom, and I guide Red Piglet based on my life experiences, beliefs, and unique style. Who knows, I might reinvent the Red Piglet brand in a few years. Stay tuned.

How about the worst?

I love the ideation and execution process so much that sometimes I get carried away and find it difficult to cut designs for a launch. In the end, it might not be the best business decision because customers can get overwhelmed from too many options. I’m getting better at reigning myself in and learning from my business mistakes.

What/Who inspires you?

My wife, who is a talented maker and wonderful mother to our children, kind photographers that have a unique eye and aren’t afraid to take creative risks, woodworkers, clay sculptors, A-frame cabins, garden studios, birds, birdhouses, barns, Black Angus cattle, Old School Country music (Waylon, Merle and George), typography, roached-out metal signs

How do you manage your life/work balance?

I’m just really grateful that my wife, Jodi (pictured with Mike on page 19), is patient and she handles the bookkeeping. Red Piglet is definitely a team gig. Most of my designing and order fulfillment starts at night after we tuck the kids in.

Any quotes that keep you going?

Many years ago, I read a book called Choose Yourself by James Altucher. He talked about his 1/3 Rule: “1/3 of the people in your life will like you (or like the products you are selling). 1/3 of the people in your life will dislike you (or dislike the products you are selling). And 1/3 of the people in your life will not care about you (or not care about the products you are selling).” That message was an a-ha moment and really stuck in my skull. Those words were a breath of fresh country air. I inhaled, exhaled like I meant it, and topped it off with a relaxed, ear-to-ear smile. IT’S TRUE, you can’t be all things to all people, no matter how hard to try. It taught me that I am not for everyone, and my Red Piglet products are not for everyone. I’m content with that. Just continue to be you. The people who are meant to cross paths with you will and they will definitely dig what you are cookin’. Be patient.

The cover on this magazine features a Red Piglet design: Keep Showing Up. What does this message mean to you?

You plug in your phone. Your eyes see the lightning bolt appear. All is right with the world when that connection is made with the electrical outlet. If you choose not to plug in your phone daily, the phone loses its purpose.

Well, think of yourself as a real-life, breathing smart phone. You store a ton of data. You multi-task every day. You are an intelligent, multi-purpose being. Think about how valuable you are to every person that you’re connected to.

Give yourself the same care and attention you give your phone, by recharging your battery every single day and showing up for yourself and the rest of us. We value you.

Photo by Nancy Lukes Photography

Any inspiration happening during the COVID-19 crisis?
All three of my NEW 2020 First Edition shirts were inspired by this pandemic crisis:

Pause and Appreciate: We get up early. We work out. We commute. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. We work all day. We rush to pick up the kids. Noise is knocking at your eardrums from all angles. Guilt creeps in and exhaustion sets in… And then, the pandemic and quarantine happens. The world pauses. We are forced to become present and appreciate what surrounds us. We open our eyes, look left, right, up and down. We watch the sun set. We gather for meals. We hear the giggles and see the smiles. The guilt fades away. Our bodies heal. We become our better selves in the midst of uncertain times.

HA, Laughter is the Best Medicine: We need it now more than ever. It decreases stress. It increases infection-fighting antibodies. It improves your resistance to disease. It releases endorphins. It promotes wellbeing and relieves pain. Surround yourself with the joke-tellers, the full-o-pep peeps, the funny-facer makers and the stand-up wannabes. Their wit will nurture your health and you will nurture theirs.

IOWA: Where Impossible is just an opinion: As a wild whipper snapper, my answer to grandpa was often “That’s Impossible!” when he assigned me a task beyond my pay-grade. His reply to my answer was always “Impossible is YOUR opinion, young man!” Grandpa never liked it when someone told him that something couldn’t be done. He didn’t care if you were young, old, or somewhere in-between. You see, that ol’ farmer blazed through the Great Depression, a few wars and several natural disasters, without a plan B in the back pocket of those weathered OshKosh B’goshes. He was a self-made doer that just made it happen without the gums flappin’. Grandpa was Pure Moxie! I know, I know “Moxie” is an old school word. Sorry, I can’t help myself. I’m an old soul with wit and it shows up on many of my designs.

“MOXIE” means: The ability to face difficulty with spirit, courage, and skill. If you have moxie, you won’t let a minor setback stop you from trying again, because you’re a determined person who doesn’t give up easily.

Since Red Piglet was born in 2013, I’ve traveled this fine state of Iowa and have had so many conversations with hard-working people that forge forward with a whole lot of moxie. To all the Iowans that do what others don’t think is possible, this shirt is for you.

Advice to help folks get “unstuck” now?

Life is a challenge right now. Our health, self-esteem, and bank accounts are taking a hit. Don’t judge yourself. This is a great time to reflect and possibly reevaluate your direction. Last year, I designed the T-shirt “Clarity is in the climb”. I think the Red Piglet meaning to this message fits nicely under this question.

Clarity is in the climb: Ahhh, good ol’ clarity. For me, clarity never shows up when I’m taking a stroll down easy street or when I’m coasting downhill. Hell no. Clarity happens when I’m pushing uphill. When I’m pulling myself out of hole. The harder I work towards something or the more I struggle… that’s when things become clear. The climb reminds me what’s important. The climb tells me what things to shed and what things are worth the hard-ass work.

What’s one positive outcome you see coming from this pandemic (for you or for the world)?

I believe all humans will be more grateful for their loved ones and more present in their daily connections. We have the freedom to inspire others with action. Let’s get moving and make the world a better place. Peace and love from Red Piglet.

Photo by Red Piglet

 

Check out the positive messages in person at Red Piglet open shop weekends in Calmar, Iowa. The remaining 2020 dates are below, and hours are Saturdays (9 am – 3 pm) and Sunday (10 am – Noon). Please follow Red Piglet on social media to double-check that open shop dates are still happening due to COVID-19. And remember, you can always shop online at redpiglet.com

September 26-27
October 10-11
October 24-25
November 7-8
November 28-29
December 12-13
December 19-20

Services for Seniors + Mail Cheer

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2020 Inspire(d)

Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging connects Driftless residents during time of COVID

For many during this pandemic, our Internet connections have turned into our social connections, giving us a view into a world we can’t visit in person.

At times, it’s helped keep sanity. We moved our buying habits online, dialed up friends, family, and co-workers on Zoom or Facetime, or scrolled the Insta posts of our friends who got pandemic puppies.

But for some seniors, shut-in residents, and individuals with disabilities in the Driftless – because they’re not connected to the Internet – COVID-19 meant an end to social interaction altogether.

“As it became clear that older people were most vulnerable, hundreds of people disappeared from daily life, because they were likely safer at home,” says Kristie Wiltgen, regional coordinator of Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging (or NEI3A). Funded both by the state and the federal government, Agency of Aging serves Iowans age 60 and older – and younger folks with disabilities – from four centers statewide, with Decorah’s office reaching 18 counties. “The hardest blow, I think, was that we had to close our congregate meal centers – the highlight of many clients’ days,” Kristie explains. “It’s where people get the news of the day and check up on each other – it’s a camaraderie you can’t get over the phone.” 

To compound the issue, in-home support services for seniors in the Driftless run on a steady stream of retiree volunteer support, Kristie says, including members of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), who are naturally more cautious of personal health and safety. “Many of this generation have life lines to the influenza epidemic of 1918. They take the risks very seriously.”

EARL drivers load meals & supplies, deliver door-to-door, & report back on individuals they visit. At top: A note of thanks sent to the Agency on Aging. Photos courtesy NE Iowa Area Agency on Aging

But at times, digital solutions just don’t cut it. There are certain things you have to have in hand to appreciate…or, obviously, on the table to consume. Agency on Aging pivoted their meals program, for example, to delivery of a week’s worth of frozen entrees, instead of hot meals multiple days per week. “You feel a little like a trick-or-treater,” Kristie explains with a chuckle, herself communicating via Zoom conference call. “Ring the bell with a bag. Talk awkwardly through a mask.” This brief contact still plays a vital role, she says, so meal-bringers can ask in person how residents are doing. “You get as much from what people don’t say as from what they do, and it’s sometimes the help that’s offered even when it’s not requested that is really needed.” 

When local senior centers closed to observe COVID safety recommendations in Lansing, Iowa, along the Mississippi in rural Allamakee County, Shep’s Riverside Bar & Grill partnered with local grocers to serve free take-out meals. With Agency on Aging support, their daily output grew to more than 300 meals a day, serving more than 150 clients. “It’s the same with grocery stores, boxing up multi-meal kits and instructions for preparing meals at home – and avoiding unnecessary public exposure,” Kristie says. 

“And I just have to shout out to the EARL Public Transit drivers,” she continues. EARL serves Allamakee, Clayton, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties. “They do it all – they load meals and supplies and deliver door-to-door and report back on individuals they visit.”

Another low-tech solution arrived in the form of old-fashioned letter-writing. Mail Cheer, an anonymous delivery service for handwritten notes, was launched in June through the Decorah & Winneshiek Mutual Aid Network, a collaboration between DecorahNow community listserv and Winneshiek County Development. Residents can register online (see sidebar) or by calling (563) 293-5075 to receive Mail Cheer notes, or get instructions for writing them. 

2019-2020 AmeriCorps volunteer Jessica Hegdahl shows Mail Cheer examples. Photo courtesy Jessica Hegdahl

“There is something important about having something physical you can hold in your hand and know that someone was thinking of you as they wrote it, that you’re not alone,” says Mail Cheer coordinator Jessica Hegdahl, a 2019-20 AmeriCorps volunteer based in Decorah. When she set up the program, incorporating art supplies donated by Decorah’s Cardboard Robot and stored in the Little Free Craft Closet at ArtHaus, she had her own school-age kids in mind, too. “We made cards for seniors doing Mail Cheer,” she explains, “but it’s no shocker that kids who’ve been isolated from school and summer activities might love to get Mail Cheer, too!”   

The favor pays itself forward, says Kristie, adding that Agency on Aging receives notes and phone messages from residents and caregivers about how important a single act of compassion might be.

The real-time social needs created by COVID-19 have also inspired folks to learn something new, online, for the first time.

“I’m excited to see how fast communities that didn’t use a lot of computer-based communication are adapting technology,” Kristie says. Online classes such as ‘How to Make Nutritious Meals from Things Already in Your Pantry,’ and weekly tai chi, have a strong following. In summer and fall 2020, NEI3A will partner with GrandPad, makers of a super simple digital tablet with built-in cellular data, to give tech-challenged residents a new way to contact family and friends. 

Whether it’s a delivered bag of groceries, a kind note, or tech assistance, Kristie concludes, such strong partnerships are flourishing because our communities are seeded with care and compassion. Neighbors are showing up for neighbors. “Even when we can’t ‘see’ each other, we have a chance to be ‘helpers,’ to rise up to take care of our own.”  


Kristine Jepsen learned the art of letter writing from her grandmother, whose address book for weekly correspondence numbered in the hundreds of friends and family. Today, Kristine is also a business mentor for America’s Small Business Development Centers and Winneshiek County, as well as a freelance writer/editor (kristinejepsen.com). Checking the mail is still by far one of her favorite things.


Learn more:

Know a senior who could benefit from Agency on Aging support?
Get connected at (800) 779-8707 or nei3a.org.

Support public transit!

Visit www.neicac.org/transit or call toll-free (866) 382-4259 for a ride or delivery services.

Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP)

Seniors 55+ perform engaging and meaningful service throughout Northeast Iowa. More at www.decorah.lib.ia.us/rsvp.

Decorah & Winneshiek Co. Mutual Aid Network

Check out this unique network that coordinates the giving and receiving of aid in the community: decorahnow.com/mutual-aid-network/

Winneshiek County Development & Tourism

Businesses and residents alike will find resources to navigate COVID-safe commerce at winneshiekdevelopment.org

Sign up for Mail Cheer!

Visit Decorah Mutual Aid Network at decorahnow.com/mutual-aid-network/ for info on sending or receiving handwritten happy-grams.

Let’s get the ball rolling:

Send some Mail Cheer today – either through the Mail Cheer program, or simply send a note in the mail to friends and family! We can almost guarantee it will brighten their day!

Here’s a fill-in-the-blank letter template to get you started! Just click to download the template!