Local entrepreneurial ecosystem blooms with GFMEDC support
The word “ecosystem” brings many images to mind. A tallgrass prairie dotted with wildflowers. A lake swimming with walleye and trout.
Looking out a fifth-floor office window in downtown Fargo, John Machacek described the ecosystem he sees, one that covers the Greater Fargo Moorhead area and includes a community of entrepreneurs, creatives, startups and really anyone who wants to help.
This is the entrepreneurial ecosystem he’s been tending for more than a decade.
“What makes this area special is we have a high density of entrepreneurs,” said Machacek, chief innovation officer at the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation. “But it’s small enough that everyone knows each other.”
That’s in part thanks to Machacek, who joined the GFMEDC in 2012, the year the nonprofit added an entrepreneurial focus. Before then, the organization functioned like most other EDCs, attracting and retaining businesses while building the workforce to sustain them.
With the entrepreneurial initiative, the GFMEDC sought to foster the growth of primary sector companies in the community—businesses that export goods and services outside the area and attract spending from other markets. Think PRx Performance or Bobcat. Headquartered in West Fargo, Bobcat also has a global reach.
In the past decade, the GFMEDC has supported scores of entrepreneurs as they set up primary sector businesses locally, including Bushel, Drekker Brewing, Elinor Coatings and Uncle Charlie’s Gourmet Snacks. Based in the Greater Fargo Moorhead area, these companies serve customers throughout the region, the country and, in some cases, the world.
“It’s hard to put into words the genuine support that John and the GFMEDC have extended to us,” said Clayton E. Cottman president and founder of Uncle Charlie’s Gourmet Snacks. “Watching, rooting, encouraging and connecting dots behind the scenes, from day one.”
Well known as a connector in the entrepreneurial community, Machacek estimates that he has worked with approximately 150 companies over his past 11 years at the GFMEDC and currently has about 75 on his active list.
There are plenty of programs available to help businesses in North Dakota and Minnesota, Machacek said, but there isn’t necessarily marketing built around them, so it’s part of an economic developer’s job to serve that role. So he keeps tabs on opportunities and people, and connects them.
“Once I know what their needs are, my radar can be up,” he said.
That can mean connecting companies with loans, grants and angel investors, or with social support and information from groups like Emerging Prairie, SCORE and Small Business Development Center (SBDC). It can mean assisting entrepreneurs with qualifying for primary sector certification through the state Department of Commerce or helping assess relevant resources.
“John rattles off 20 programs that could be perfect,” said Mark Bjornstad, president and co-founder of Drekker Brewing. “Then later you get an email with 10 more-focused ideas, and then a few days later, he’ll say, ‘These are the two that would work best.’”
Holly Anderson, CEO and co-founder of Elinor Coatings, shared a long list of programs, grants, training, networking and media opportunities she learned about from the GFMEDC.
“It may seem like a simple thing,” she said, “but the most valuable service the EDC staff provides to us, especially John and Ryan (Aasheim, chief business development officer), is to reach out personally to me on a regular basis with targeted opportunities. When I get an email or a phone call from them, I know it’s worth my time.”
Building connections has become a way of life for Machacek. Even on weekends, he finds himself attending events like the Red River Market, meeting people and learning of their successes, dreams and needs.
But as a staff member of the GFMEDC, his efforts are made possible by support of organizations across the Greater Fargo Moorhead area. As a nonprofit, the GFMEDC’s work is funded through a combination of public sector “investors,” such as local governing bodies, and private sector companies — all supporting growth and prosperity in the Greater Fargo Moorhead area, as they understand the ROI of investing in economic development.
The work is paying off in many ways, and what’s happening in this area is attracting notice elsewhere.
“Entrepreneurs around the country see Fargo as a positive place to build a company,” said Jake Joraanstad, CEO and co-founder of Bushel. “If someone’s trying to accomplish something as a business in North Dakota, particularly in Fargo, John and the EDC crew are clearly the best resource to start with.”