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Northwest Minnesota officials try to help rural businesses use broadband better

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News Grand Forks,North Dakota 58203 http://www.grandforksherald.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/field/image/BroadbandGraphic.jpg?itok=r_7JU5OK
Grand Forks Herald
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Northwest Minnesota officials try to help rural businesses use broadband better
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

Business has been doubling every year at Weave Got Maille, a maker of chainmail jewelry in Ada, Minn., and owner Edie Ramstad gives all the credit to broadband access to the Internet.

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“The Internet is definitely 100 percent responsible for this,” she said without a trace of exaggeration. Even her inventory control system is online, she said.

Ramstad started the company two years ago in the town of 1,700, located in a mostly rural area between Grand Forks and Fargo. From there she’s doing business in 56 countries. Recently, she said, she had spoken to customers in France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and that was not unusual.

But getting to this point has taken an enormous investment in time, according to Ramstad. She had to teach herself how to develop the inventory control system, a system to streamline manufacturing and various social media campaigns — “I don’t sleep much,” she said. What Weave Got Maille does is so different from other businesses, she said, she didn’t know where to turn.

WeaveGotMaille.com and that of others who have successfully harnessed the power of broadband Internet were featured recently in a report by Impact 20/20, a group of northwest Minnesota economic development experts. The goal was to inspire businesses that have not gotten online to do so soon.

The other goal is to provide the kind of training that Ramstad never had.

Global connection

“A Study of Business Broadband Use in Northwest Minnesota” argues that broadband is as important to rural communities today as the railroad was to them a century ago because it connects them to the rest of the world.

But rural businesses tend to be less connected online compared to their urban counterparts, the study said, citing data from Connect Minnesota, a nonprofit group with ties to state economic development officials. Among rural businesses in the state, 58 percent have their own websites and 69 percent say they have employees who use broadband. Among urban businesses, those numbers are 79 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

Access to broadband remains a challenge in some parts of northwest Minnesota. While some counties have some of the state’s highest access rates — Polk County has 85 percent and Pennington County 91 percent — others have some of the lowest — Norman County, where Ada is the county seat, has 20 percent and Mahnomen County to the east has less than 5 percent, according to the 2014 annual report from the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband. The state average is 75 percent.

The state defines broadband Internet as download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 6 mbps.

Michelle Landsverk, a Fosston, Minn., business consultant who wrote the Impact 20/20 report said lack of access to broadband is becoming less of a problem in rural areas, especially inside towns where most businesses are.

The issue now is getting more people to use the broadband that’s available, she said. “There are some people that never will adopt some of these methods, but I think there are a significant number that just needs to see how they could do it, to see there is a good return on investment,” she said.

Luring customers

The 12 businesses profiled in the report said that they have gained from their investment, saying they found more customers online and increased their profits.

Tom’s Tackle in Baudette, Minn., made back the money invested in its online business in about a year, according to David Wiersma, who runs the family-owned business making fishing lures. 

His father, Dean Wiersma, started the business in 1959, but it wasn’t until last month that it got its first overseas order, he said. It was such a surprise, he couldn’t decide at first if it made sense for his company to expand its market to Europe. He ultimately decided it did, he said.

It’s a good problem to have. Before Tom’s Tackle got online three years ago, domestic retail orders were rare, mostly by word of mouth. The company primarily sells wholesale to retailers. Now, customers send in orders from Alaska to Florida, Wiersma said.

He said the company is connecting with customers better than ever on Facebook, YouTube and its website, TomsTackleInc.com. Customers would ask questions, learn about new products and make special requests — a customer recently asked for a fishing lure in a non-standard weight, and Tom’s Tackle made it for him.

On YouTube, the company works with Jean-Paul Tessier, another profiled business owner at LakeoftheWoodsOutdoorsman.com.

Tessier, an outdoors guide in Baudette, provides fishing reports in the region, and he talks about Tom’s Tackle a lot, according to Wiersma. In fact, it was Tessier who gave one of Wiersma’s lures its current name: “the Charmer.”

It charms the walleye right out of the water, Wiersma said.

But getting online wasn’t simple for him either, he said, though he wanted to get his business online. “We knew it for a number of years, we just didn’t really know where to go or who to contact.”

There wasn’t a professional Web designer in a place as remote and rural as Baudette, 100 miles by road from the nearest city of 10,000, and he didn’t know where to start looking for one in any other city, he said. Ultimately, he got help from Tessier, who started his online business in 2011.

A 2013 survey of Minnesota businesses conducted by Connect Minnesota found that 38 percent have trouble finding workers with computer skills.

Experts lacking

That was Ramstad’s problem, too.

“Unfortunately, I had to teach myself,” she said. “I have made every mistake along the way, some of them twice.”

Sometimes she used Google to find a solution to a problem and, if she knows where to ask, she’ll ask. She has taken online classes that she found out about at an Apple Store, she said, and, recently, she called on the University of Minnesota-Crookston’s Center for Rural Entrepreneurial Studies for help.

“It’s really networking, trying to find people,” she said.

But what she’s learned has worked wonders for Weave Got Maille, she said. Her online setup allowed her to help employees in Ada troubleshoot a faulty computer application recently while she was at a trade show in Tucson, Ariz., she said.

Through Facebook, Pinterest and numerous online groups on Yahoo or Google, she and her social media director have connected with customers on an emotional level, she said. “It builds customer loyalty. It builds your brand. It just is huge. Customers become so loyal to you they feel like family. You feel like family.”

According to the Impact 20/20 report, time and money were the biggest investments the profiled businesses had to make to take advantage of broadband Internet. For those building websites and online manufacturing like Weave Got Maille, it can be costly. Some profiled businesses spent as much as $30,000. But for those using social media, the cost was minimal.

If she had to convince a reluctant business owner, Ramstad said, she would tell them: “Just believe in it and do it. It will happen. ... The people are out there, and they’re looking.”

On the Web: The Impact 20/20 report is at bit.ly/1bNEE1Q. The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband report is at bit.ly/1gF4535. Connect Minnesota’s business survey is at bit.ly/1cTfDRa.

If you go:

Impact 20/20 is providing social media training to rural Minnesota businesses this month.

  • What: Social media assessment for businesses.
  • When: 9 to 11 a.m., University of Minnesota-Crookston; 3 to 5 p.m., Northwest Minnesota Foundation, Bemidji.
  • Cost: $10 per person.
  • Info: Register at www.Impact2020.org.
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Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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