Posts Categorized: Entrepreneurs

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.”

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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.

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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).

Go Ahead: Have a Cow

By Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the Oct/Nov issue of Inspire(d) Magazine, updated Aug. 2014

Have you spotted the new cow mural on the Oneota Cow-op? (The puns have been udderly ridiculous here in Decorah…) Her name is Irene and she was painted by Waukon artist Valerie Miller. We got to interview her back in 2010, so here’s a little #tbt!

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“How now?” probably wouldn’t be the question artist Valerie Miller asks the Brown Cow, if given the chance. More likely it would be, “Could you please hold still?”

You see, Valerie paints cows – brown and every kind in between. She carefully captures their expressive eyes, subtle body language, and sometimes not-so-subtle attitudes and pairs them with bright, barren backgrounds in a pop-art-meets-the-farm sort of style.

So, of course, it makes perfect sense that she and her husband, artist and furniture designer Josh Miller (J.L.Miller Company), would call Waukon home. For Valerie, home again.

Although it was Josh’s idea to move back to the area to start their gallery,  (Steel Cow), in Northeast Iowa, Valerie was equally excited – and not just for of the abundance of cows.

“It is nice here – it is a beautiful, quaint, small, Midwestern area that has more subjects than I can ever paint – plus it’s home,” she says. “It feels good to be surrounded by friends and family.”

After pondering various locales to plant roots, and a 3-day trial run in Montana, coming back to Waukon was – to quote Goldilocks – just right.

“There isn’t the quantity or variety of the big cultural activities here you find in larger cities such as museums, art galleries, theater, etc. but on the other hand we are in the middle of the country and it is easy to go anywhere from here. People like to talk about others, but at the same time if something important is being spread, it spreads quickly and we are proven time and time again we have an enormous support system here in Northeast Iowa. It is cold, but we get to wear our favorite sweaters and scarves,” she says, going on. “For me, a huge pro is being able to see my family on a daily and weekly basis – oh and there are a lot of cows.”

(Have we mentioned she likes cows?)

Valerie’s history in Northeast Iowa is long – she and Josh even set up their studio and business in the building Valerie’s great-great-grandfather built as a furniture store way back in 1925. Plus, it is where her passions were first fostered.

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“I have always been interested in art and painting,” she says. “Ever since I was a little girl I was enamored with animals and I dreamed of being a painter.”

It’s safe to say Valerie Miller is officially a painter. Through talent, hard work, and business savvy, the little girl’s dream has become a grown-up reality.

“I am very fortunate that I am able to share my artwork with others and I hope it can help them lighten their day and bring smiles to their faces through the images I paint.”

QUEENIEMiniMooCanvasPrintWinArtMany of those images are of Queenie, Valerie’s favorite cow. So what makes her so special?

“First of all, she is beautiful! I have painted her over and over again – so many times in fact that I keep having to give my paintings of her different names of so I don’t have 20 paintings named Queenie,” Valerie says. “I also like what she represents – she is –was –from a small local family farm and was the matriarch of their herd. She kept her head high – for a cow anyway – and did a fantastic job leading all the cows in her herd in their daily activities.”

Despite branching out in animal varieties (dogs and other pets in the past, plus a horse may have been spotted on a wet studio canvas recently), Valerie doesn’t paint people. And no matter what, cows will continue to hold top billing.

“I feel like I still have thousands of cows left in me to paint,” she says.

The upcoming Northeast Iowa Studio Tour running from October 3–5 (2014) is a great chance to check out Valerie and Josh’s work and gallery at 15 Allamakee Street in Downtown Waukon.

“If any of you readers do get a chance to go on the Studio Tour – you should. We would love to see you in Waukon, of course, but all the artists have been working very hard throughout the year and this is an important weekend for the participants,” Valerie says. “A must-see stop is Nate and Hallie Evans from Allamakee Wood-Fired Pottery. They make amazing pottery, Nate is now offering glass pieces – which are brand-new and pretty cool – and their place has a special feeling all it’s own.”

The Millers are grateful to have friends like the Evans right here in the region, and that activities like the Northeast Iowa Studio Tour happen, along with many other arts initiatives.

“When I was a kid, there wasn’t as many art things as there are now and this is great for everyone,” Valerie says. “The more art, the better our lives.”

———–

Aryn Henning Nichols used to be a bit afraid of cows when she was little, but she’s since recovered. I mean…who’s ever heard of a human-eating cow? That’s right: No one.

Did you know? Supporting other artists is important to the Miller duo, as well as supporting the environment. They are part of an alliance of businesses that collectively give 1% of their annual sales to support a fitting natural environment organization, such as Seed Savers Exchange, which received support this year. And YOU can support their endeavors by “Having a Cow.” Learn more at steelcow.com

Kick It Up With Kickapoo Coffee

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By Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the Feb/March 2010 Inspire(d) Magazine

The room is literally abuzz. If caffeine were palpable, you could carve your initials in the air at Kickapoo Coffee headquarters in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Cups line a shelf, half-filled, grounds stuck to the lip after a morning cupping session.

Caleb Nicholes and TJ Semanchin, co-owners of Kickapoo Coffee along with Denise Semanchin, are busy tasting espresso. A basket (or gruppa) of ground espresso beans is thrust under my nose, “Smell like blueberries?” Caleb asks. He moves on like a mad scientist, working quickly and making plenty of noise as he grinds, whirs, and thwacks the various tools it takes to make the perfect cup of coffee. Oh, that elusive perfect cup.

 

“We totally geek out on coffee,” says TJ. “The other day we used the same type of beans, brewed the same way, but with three different kinds of water. And the coffees were all completely different from each other.”

Therein lies the most difficult aspect of the Kickapoo crew’s – and any other coffee roasters’ – trade. The bean is merely an ingredient to be properly prepared, like asparagus or sweet corn. It’s sometimes compared to the nuances of wine grapes: the origin of the bean, growing and cultivation practices, and ways it’s dried, stored, and roasted are all of utmost importance. Every coffee-producing region makes a different tasting bean and every roaster processes it in its own unique way. But the finished product, the cup, is not up to any of this. It’s up to the barista or the mere at-home-coffee-drinker to heat the (right) water correctly, grind the beans to the perfect consistency, and steep it not too long, but not too short. It’s not bottled and corked with an “open on” plan.

“You send the coffee out and trust that the consumer will prepare it properly,” TJ says. “There are so many variables.”

But Kickapoo closely controls the variables on their end to help you start with the very best ingredient. That begins for these roasters with a melding of Fair Trade AND great-tasting beans. And they’re quick to note these things are not always synonymous, although they’re striving to make it more so.

“The Fair Trade price is just the floor – it only covers the cost of farming,” TJ explains. “We want to do better than that, treat the farmers better, and we want to help them learn that if they put a little more work into the quality of their beans it will really pay off.”

They became owner-members of Cooperative Coffees to help further this cause. A fair trade importing business owned by 23 like-minded roasters, Cooperative Coffees sets the bar higher for the fair trade world. According to the Kickapoo website, the Coop’s pricing minimum is 10 cents above fair trade standards at $1.61. (“A price that in practice we routinely exceed,” Kickapoo says.) They also offer farmer-partners pre-harvest financing. Kickapoo imports more than 80 percent of their coffees through this avenue.

As Kickapoo and the other Cooperative Coffee partners grow in popularity, it’s the hope that consumers will realize these beans are not just good politics, but are the best-tasting as well.

“It’s about getting those two things to combine and cross. It’s at the core of what we do,” TJ says. “And we do it for our own sake too – we love to drink a good cup of coffee.”

This commitment has helped get their business buzzing (pun intended). Kickapoo Coffee was named 2010 Micro Roaster of the Year by Portland-based magazine, Roast, and has received favorable nods from Consumer Reports and Coffee Review. In just over four years since their first roast in November of 2005, they’ve grown Kickapoo to produce 1700 pounds of coffee each week – and last year they even saw a profit: no small feat for any new business. It seemed that fate led them all to the tiny Wisconsin town of 4,400 people.

With Organic Valley headquartered in La Farge, Wisconsin, just 15 miles from Viroqua, many locals were knowledgeable about what they put in their bodies and where it came from. TJ, originally from Buffalo, New York, came to know Viroqua through his work with Minneapolis-based roaster Peace Coffee, where he pushed for social change in the industry for years, spurred on by his travels in Latin America that focused on sustainable development. He was convinced that fair trade, organic coffee farming could change the face of rural Latin America. When he and his wife, Denise, were planning on expanding their family, they also planned on a move.

“I didn’t see myself in a city long term. Viroqua was on the radar for a long time,” says TJ. “It’s a hotbed for organic farming. We planned to move here and start our own roastery.”

Unfortunately – or so it seemed – someone had “beaten them to the punch.”

Caleb had begun Kickapoo Coffee with his sister, Haley Ashley, after having roasted coffee at home for the past five years. Originally from the West Coast – Oregon and then Idaho – Caleb has spent most of his life dedicated to food and drink, including three years as a boutique European wine importer. This work took him all over Europe, but it was family that brought him to Southwest Wisconsin.

When TJ decided to introduce himself to the new Kickapoo Coffee roasters, it appeared Caleb’s talented palette was a perfect match for TJ’s years of experience.

“I knew right away we could work well together, so I asked if they wanted to join forces,” TJ says. It turned out there was nothing unfortunate about the combined Kickapoo team. They all bring various talents to the table: Caleb is the head roaster, in charge of roast profiles. Denise, currently taking a leave to be a stay-at-home-mom, maintains marketing and outreach. Hallie is the office manager, doing much of the business-end/paperwork-side of things, and TJ is a self-proclaimed “Jack of All Trades,” being able to pinch hit in any of the positions should it be needed.

“No one’s really sure what exactly I do around here,” he says, joking.

The roastery is housed in Viroqua’s old train depot, a formerly vacant historic building that Kickapoo restored. The restoration process, like their business, was focused on sustainability. They reclaimed studs, salvaged trim and wainscoting, installed efficient heating and recycled insulation, and sourced local carpenters for their custom storage bins and cabinets.

The result is a bright, warm space that has a comforting feel and retro appeal. The vintage 1930s German roaster (that even runs on handmade Amish belts!) and complementary mint-green vintage canner help this aesthetic along, and the sustainable good looks continue with their packaging: reusable, recyclable steel cans containing 80 percent post-consumer recycled steel that bear the artwork of Viroqua-based woodcut artist. And their one and five-pound coffee bags are biodegradable.

(UPDATE: Kickapoo has moved on up! Their new (and gorgeous) headquarters are located at 1201 N. Main St., Suite 10, Viroqua. They host public cupping events regularly, so like them on Facebook to get the next one on your calendar!)

Although they ship coffee all over the county, they’ve also gained local popularity. The bulk of their beans is hand-delivered or shipped within a 200-mile radius.

These smart business practices don’t stop with their roastery; they also strive for a sustainable home life, working just four-day weeks so they can spend time with family.

“It’s kept us really efficient,” TJ says. “I don’t think we’d get any more work done even if we spread it out over five-days.”

Of course, it makes sense. Family values fit right in with the laudable vision that has made Kickapoo Coffee what it is.

“We’ve been very clear about what we set out to do,” says TJ. “Having and staying true to that vision makes it easy to make decisions in our business. We know what the right thing to do is before the question is even asked.”

Find lots of great information about coffee, Fair Trade, Kickapoo and more at www.kickapoocoffee.com

Aryn Henning Nichols spent many mornings attempting to achieve the perfect cup of coffee after this interview. She was successful about half the time. Must be something in the water…

Where to get Kickapoo Coffee in the Driftless Region:
Decorah: Oneota Community Co-op, Magpie Coffeehouse
Winona: Mugby Junction Café, Bluff Country Co-op
La Crosse: Pearl Street, People’s Food Co-op, Root Note, Sip & Surf
Viroqua: Chilito Lindo, Driftless Fair Traders, Harmony Valley Farm CSA, OZone, Viroqua Family Market, Viroqua Food Co-op

Below is a run-down on the best brewing and storing practices, directly from the coffee masters themselves (see more info at www.kickapoocoffee.com).

Brewing is a critical aspect of making great coffee. It is extremely important to follow a few basic guidelines related to water quality, temperature, equipment and grinding. Below is a list of general coffee brewing principles. For more specific brewing recommendations, please click on one of the brewing icons.

WATER
Excellent coffee requires excellent water ­– there’s no way around it. Do not use distilled water; instead use filtered water, spring water, or Artesian well water. Minerals are important for coffee flavor so reverse osmosis water, while filtered, will not yield optimum results.

TEMPERATURE
Coffee tastes best when brewed between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Most drip coffee makers don’t quite hit this temperature. You can achieve this range on your stove by bringing water to a boil and letting it rest for a minute or two. Do not use boiling water – it will cook the nuances out of the beans.

 GRIND
For best results, we recommend a burr grinder because it produces a much more consistent grind (though a blade grinder is still preferable to pre-ground coffee). As a general rule, coffee should be ground finer for quick extractions like espresso, medium for the auto-drip method and coarser for slower extractions like the French press. Measure your coffee first before putting it into the grinder and only grind as much as you need per brew. Once the coffee is ground, its flavor will immediately begin to deteriorate.

 STRENGTH
A general rule of thumb is 2 rounded tablespoons, or 8 to 10 grams, per 6 ounces of water. If you like a weaker or stronger cup, adjust the amount of coffee you use, not the grind of your coffee. A grind that is too fine under a long extraction period will taste bitter and over-extracted, while a grind that is too coarse will taste weak and diluted. Remember that the full expression of the coffee will become most evident as the coffee reaches lukewarm temps, so drink slowly and appreciate your brew as it cools off. If it is too strong, or too weak, this is when you will taste it most.

 STORAGE
Coffee should be stored in a dark, cool, dry place (like a kitchen cupboard). Our coffee cans are ideal storage vessels so feel free to use them throughout the season. The only time storing coffee in a freezer is appropriate is when you have more than a few weeks’ supply. If you do use the freezer make sure to put the coffee in an airtight container.