Meet 5 Startups
It’s amazing what an appearance on “Good Morning America” can do for a business. Fargo-based company dog IDs has appeared on the show five times since 2011. Each time they were on the show, the company saw 20,000-30,000 unique visitors in a day because of a 15-second promo on the national TV program.
“You have to remind yourself all the time to think uniquely and keep taking chances and making mistakes, otherwise you’re never going to differentiate.”
It took a long time for Clint Howitz, the founder of dog IDs, to work his way up to that success, though. Back in 1999, Howitz started a company called C&C Outfitters, with his brother Clay Howitz, that focused on selling high end sporting dog products to retailers. While doing this, he began making personalized IDs for dogs. He sold C&C Outfitters to Mendota Products in 2005 but kept engraving IDs.
“We started doing engraving because that’s one thing back then (that) was hard to find… I decided to keep the personalization business separate because I was going back to work at the time and my wife could run it out of the house in a corner in the basement while I was traveling for work. I built the website and treated it like a hobby business for a few years.”
In 2010 he moved to Fargo and focused all his attention on dog IDs. The company has grown rapidly and last year shipped more than 30,000 orders and sold over 60,000 items. They now sell a wide variety of products that range from dog IDs to personalized water bowls to collars. Howitz, who is a dog lover, has found a job that allows him to follow his passions.
Originally from Wahpeton, ND, Howitz owns a Great Dane named Syrus and a Golden Lab named River who eagerly greet visitors at their office in south Fargo. These two pets have, for the most part, become the spokesdogs for the company, appearing in numerous ads on their website dogids.com. Howitz recognized that his products served a purpose.
“There’s a safety aspect. That’s making sure people put contact information on dogs. They should always have contact information on their dogs if there are those times when they get away and get lost. We try and keep dogs at home with their families as much as possible.”
Dog IDs has been around for a long time but Howitz and his team of six full-time staff and three interns are trying to innovate the industry. One of their signature products is called the scrufftag collar. This tag is built into the collar so there’s no annoying jingling of the ID against the collar or threat of losing the tag by it getting caught on something.
With more than 1,000 different products in their catalog, Howitz and his team have found a successful recipe for a business. Since forming his company, Howitz has learned many lessons but there’s one that stands out.
“You have to remind yourself all the time to think uniquely and keep taking chances and making mistakes, otherwise you’re never going to differentiate.”
Clint’s Five Tips to a Successful Startup:
1. Avoid naysayers and fearful people: You have enough adversities in front of you and need to surround yourself with people who will support you. These people will also become your best friends as your business evolves.
2. Encourage open minds and take chances every day: When mistakes happen, own them, share them, learn from them and move on with one more team learning experience under your belt.
3. Never be satisfied with the status quo: Leave that to your competitors. Find your unique edge and be proud of being different. Your customers will love you for it while the others will think you are insane, which is good.
4. Hire people that challenge you: Make sure they have strengths that you are missing. This is tough and will be uncomfortable at times. They will also push you outside your comfort zone and force you to grow both personally and as a business.
5. Sales and profit will grow your business: Sales will most likely be the pain reliever to many business conflicts you encounter, especially if you are bootstrapping. If sales are rolling before anything else, things will always seem to flow much easier.
Dog IDs has more than 200 of their own products and over 1,000 total products for sale on their website.
Ryan Raguse & Jake Joraanstad
Jake Joraanstad and Ryan Raguse have become the poster boys for a successful startup in Fargo. The two of them created Myriad Devices, now called Myriad Mobile, in 2011. Today they have over 30 employees and hope to have around 60 employees by the end of the year. They have done all of this by the age of 24. So it begs the question, what’s their secret?
“We’re focused on mobile technology only, so therefore when we come up against a competitor they probably don’t only do mobile … we stand out in that process every time because that’s all we do,” Joraanstad said. “Because we’re niched, focused and aggressive in our sales strategy, that’s why we’re winning.”
Raguse and Joraanstad teamed up while they were both in school at NDSU. However, Joraanstad was quick to point out that he had a 2.7 overall GPA while Raguse noted that he skipped almost every day of his small business and entrepreneurship class because he was starting his own business. He did receive an A in the class though. Despite their young age, the young entrepreneurs have reached an enormous amount of success.
“We were able to leverage some of the success stories we heard early on and when you do that you kind of build your way into credibility,” Raguse said. “Generally, in our industry, when you have a conversation with a customer and they can see how much you know, it (any doubt) all goes away.”
The growth of their business has not come without challenges. They have recently expanded to Minneapolis and Atlanta and hope to branch out to Kansas City, Chicago and Denver in the near future. Raguse and Joraanstad’s roles have changed dramatically in the last couple years as their company has grown. Now that they are branching out across the nation they have to reformat the way things are done at Myriad, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“You have to keep changing who you are to get to the next level,” Raguse said. “A $1 million company thinks differently than a $10 million company and a $10 million company thinks differently than a $100 million company… You have to be able to identify ‘How am I going to do things differently? How am I going to be a better leader?’”
The business partners must have found a process that works as they have worked with Fortune 500 companies like Bobcat, Crystal Sugar and Microsoft. Raguse and Joraanstad aren’t forgetting where they came from, though. They have seen the startup community grow in Fargo and they have helped contribute to it. Maintaining that entrepreneurial spirit is very important to them.
“It’s fun for us because in the startup community, we’re the big dogs in a way…” Joraanstad said. “That just gives us as much opportunity to help as we can… Everybody in the company is involved, in one way or another, helping other startups… That’s fun that we can do all that and contribute and grow the community.”
“Because we’re niched, focused and aggressive in our sales strategy, that’s why we’re winning.” - Jake Joraanstad
Jake’s and Ryan’s Five Tips to a Successful Startup:
1. Know the difference between strategy and tactical work: Spend most of your time doing the tactical work. That’s what will actually start paying the bills. Strategy can only enhance the company; tactical work will actually create it.
2. Keep overhead low: When inexperienced people start a company, they think the first thing they need is a fancy office and great letterhead; do these last. Any money should go straight to product development and/or into direct costs.
3. Blow peoples’ minds: When new, you probably have no marketing budget and nobody knows about you. Focus on doing things that blow peoples’ minds or gets people talking in a big way. Do something big.
4. Invest your life in your business: Working traditional hours is out. If you still want to work traditional hours then you probably still view this as a job and need to find something else that you are passionate enough to take on whole-heartedly.
5. Ideas are useless without execution: Forget about how great your idea is and focus on building a team to execute greatly on that idea.
Office Sign Company
Ryan Fritz just wanted to spend more time with his daughter. He felt he was missing her childhood because he was always working. That’s when he came up with foundability.com. This was set up to help companies with their search engine optimization. He created Office Sign Company as a test client.
“I wanted to promote my marketing company, but what really happened was that I guess I marketed it so well that Office Sign Company became real,” Fritz said.
In 2008, Office Sign Company became a reality. This company, as the name suggests, specializes in any custom made sign for offices. With over 200 products, 24 employees and a new expanded office in downtown Fargo at 310 NP Ave. N, the company has taken off across the country.
This Grafton, ND, native grew up in Fargo and went to Fargo South High School. He worked at a number of different jobs and quickly came to the realization that most entrepreneurs stumble upon: he did not enjoy having a boss. That’s when he set off on his own.
“It may sound cliché, but you can’t go into it for the money,” Fritz said. “It’s true about the whole do what you love type of thing. For me, I really thought that I would wear the same shirt every single day for the rest of my life, but I just wanted to spend more time with my daughter.”
His love for his daughter led him to the creation of Office Sign Company. In fact, he jokes that his daughter Ceely is the Vice-President of the company at the age of 12. While Office Sign Company started because of his daughter, it has grown and become so much more. Fritz and his company have done business with L’Oréal, Yahoo and many other companies. One thing hasn’t changed since the beginning though and that’s their commitment to quality.
“What did we focus on? It’s back to the aesthetics. It’s back to the quality and service,” Fritz said. “Those things are hard to maintain. It shouldn’t be a secret for anybody that quality and good service is what everybody wants.”
Since its beginning, the company has been expanding and has reached a point where there’s not much they can’t produce. Fritz wants his customers to know that if they want something printed, Office Sign Company can make it happen. He also believes that’s one of the things that separates him from the competition.
“We like them to know that they can do anything. I think that’s where we tend to set ourselves aside.”
Despite all the success Fritz and his company have reached, he believes they are at a comfortable spot. However, he’s not sure if he has much control over where they go.
“Part of me doesn’t want to grow anymore. It seems like the more we grow the more challenging it becomes but I can’t slow us down.”
“It may sound cliché, but you can’t go into it for the money… For me, I really thought that I would wear the same shirt every single day for the rest of my life, but I just wanted to spend more time with my daughter.” - Ryan Fritz
Ryan’s Five Tips to a Successful Startup:
1. Don’t go into it for the money: It’s cliché, but you have to do what you love. That’s why I got into this business for my daughter.
2. Look at your former bosses: Eventually you’re going to be in a position where you are in charge of other people. Look at former bosses and decide what you liked and what you didn’t like about them.
3. Define culture: Everything you do at your office will affect culture. It is important to create a vibrant culture that will encourage people to enjoy the work they do.
4. Find people to help you along the way: Many people helped me along the way. Doug Burchill at Bell State Bank and Trust and John Machacek at the Greater FM Economic Development Corporation were a great help for me in the beginning.
5. Surround yourself with good people: It can be hard to find the right talent. Make sure you find people who care about the company. You’ll see some good and some bad, but be sure to keep the good ones.
Fargo 3D Printing
John Schneider & Jake Clark
3D printing is going to change the way things are done. At least that’s what Jake Clark and John Schneider of the Fargo 3D Printing are banking on. Their new company hopes to bring 3D printing to the area.
“Seeing how 3D printing has changed in the last year and a half and seeing where it’s going to be in the next year and a half to five years is pretty incredible,” Schneider said. “3D printing is going to be a game changer in a lot of things.”
The last five years have seen a rapid expansion in the way 3D printing is done. The technology has improved drastically and Schneider believes this will allow for more completely customized products.
“We’re not talking about getting shoes in the color you want,” Schneider said. “We’re talking about getting shoes that are designed specifically for your feet.”
The technology is advancing quickly and Schneider and Clark hope to bring the industry to Fargo. Started in January, Fargo 3D Printing has made it possible to find a local source for 3D printers. Schneider believes that 3D printing makes it feasible for a small business to be able to make some of their dreams come true.
“We want to be able to make 3D printing more accessible to smaller manufacturers or entrepreneurs who might have an idea but they don’t have the money to spend $10,000 on a part prototype. Instead they can spend $2,000 on a 3D printer or pay us a couple hundred dollars to have something custom 3D printed and it’s a lot less expensive.”
Clark and Schneider share a common thread in the fact that they both have an entrepreneurial spirit. Clark’s dad started his own company and that passion for being his own boss was passed down to his son. Schneider’s first foray into business was bee keeping in the eighth grade. He saw that there was money to be made by selling honey. Their paths finally met up last summer at a 3D printing event held in downtown Fargo. The idea for Fargo 3D Printing was born.
Through their website, fargo3dprinting.com, anyone is able to purchase a printer, printer parts or inquire about having something custom printed.
While they are passionate about what they’re doing, in the end it boils down to being able to do what they love and creating something on their own.
“I’ve always been interested in doing my own thing,” Clark said. “Working for some corporate guy was never in my idea as a person. I want to look back on my life when I’m 70- or 80-years old and say ‘I did something’ versus ‘I worked for somebody and made them a bunch of money.’”
“Working for some corporate guy was never in my idea as a person.” - Jake Clark
Jake’s and John’s Five Tips to a Successful Startup:
1. Focus on what you’re specialized in: You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know when you’re not good at something.
2. Focus on what your immediate needs are: We’d love to have three or four printers but we can only afford one so we’ll make that work at maximum capacity. You need to work with what you have.
3. Identify how you’re going to make money: It’s one thing if you’re doing something you love, but you need to be able to support yourself while you’re doing it. We both still have our full-time jobs.
4. Fargo has a lot of good resources: The Small Business Development Center was really good at helping us figure out our financials. The Small Business Administration can help as well.
5. Networking is crucial: We’re part of the Young Professionals Network for the Chamber of Commerce. We also go to Startup Drinks, Startup Weekend and any other events where we can meet people.
Sarah English & Kyle Weik
The idea started 4,000 miles away. Sarah English studied in France while in high school. When she graduated, she started traveling and wanted to be able to communicate with the locals. She began to think that there had to be a better way to learn a language and soon realized that she could help others.
“I’m a big fan of education and learning,” English said. “I have always wanted to revolutionize education but it doesn’t work like that so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll start a company that creates a product and is a solution and maybe it will change something.’”
English then met Kyle Weik, who has a background in design, and explained her vision. He was able to help make her dream attainable. Beach Interactive was born and their first project, The Abettor’s Letters, began.
“We wanted a new, exciting way to learn that wouldn’t rely on a flashcard…” Weik explained. “We wanted it to be an interactive world.”
Slowly their team began to form until there were five members. McCal Johnson, Andrew Ihla and JoJo Seames, along with English and Weik, began to work on the project. The idea is simple. They are creating a game that puts players in the shoes of an American spy, the abettor, in France who has defected and has been hired to investigate different crimes. The player will then learn French, along with the Abettor, as they investigate the crimes.
The team is in the early stages of this massive undertaking. They are currently working with Myriad Mobile in creating a working demo to pitch to investors. Once they find an investor, the team is going all in to finish up the game. They have plans to branch off into other languages.
“Once this game gets made, it’s going to be so obvious that it’s great that we then just need to kick back and make the next one,” Seames said. “… We feel completely confident in this game.”
They are priding themselves on the look of the game. Seames is the character artist while Johnson is the environments artist and Weik handles the user interface. While they all have different backgrounds, they have been able to work together very well.
“What’s nice is that we form this pentagram of experience…” English said. “Everybody has this crossover.”
English pointed out there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Fargo-Moorhead and that there is a community that will back anyone up in their goal of chasing their dream. It doesn’t mean it’s an easy journey though.
“Entrepreneurship is lonely and scary because you’re going against the grain of all the worldly wisdom that your parents and relatives are giving you,” English said. “It is hard, but that’s why you have to be a bit nutter butters to pull it off.” - Sarah English
By Andrew Jason
Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography