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Viewpoint: Community's let's-do-this attitude prevails

Steve Jobs once said, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower." Immigrants, inventors and innovators spurred Red Wing's early growth. Whether it was manufacturing, agriculture, or the arts, our founders shared a combined sense of risk-taking, resourcefulness, unbridled will, and community. They worked together.

My great-grandfather Johannes Johnson was a Swedish immigrant and builder who settled in Red Wing in the late 1800s. His son Enoch "Nicky" Johnson was an inventor (of bus engines and the first eight-wheel car), a locksmith and local bandleader. And his daughter Rachel Callender was an accomplished milliner and a seamstress, custom-making dresses for the Theater Guild of Red Wing and for famous personalities, including actress Lynn Fontanne. I'm proud of my family's Red Wing roots, raw creativity and community engagement.

Last month, I was reminded how easy it is to take for granted the unique blessing and immense honor that it is to be an entrepreneur launching a technology startup out of this how-can-we-help, let's-do-this community.

We can agree that life is all about relationships — whatever you do and wherever you go. When I look back on the connective tissue of support, this is what I see:

Kirsten Mikkelson Ford of Focus Design sparked everything off by recommending I meet Neela Mollgaard of Red Wing Ignite. That spark lit a flame of opportunities that continue today. Neela first invited me to apply to Red Wing Ignite's accelerator program, followed by an introduction to Mark Thein of Small Business Development Center, who helped me develop my business financials, and then Shari Chorney of Red Wing Port Authority, who suggested I apply for a loan from agency's newly created entrepreneurial fund.

I joined Ignite's coworking office space and received a Port Authority loan to conduct marketing and develop a prototype. Kirsten, Neela, Mark and Shari participated in a "Design Thinking" session at The Nerdery (a large software development firm in Bloomington, Minn.,) to help inform and shape our prototype design. The prototype was completed in December 2015 and used to help solicit funding from prospective early-stage investors (aka, family and friends). I was introduced to the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation where I also applied for funding.

My company — Live.Give.Save. — became a formal corporate entity in February 2016 and I started raising capital, over-subscribing our seed round that summer. I hired a chief technology officer, Tim Dokken (who serendipitously grew up and graduated from Red Wing High School), to lead our technology development.

Now here's the best part: While sitting around a table during one of our coworking updates at Ignite, I shared that we needed to establish a beta test for our product. I received a list of individuals to contact in the community and the concept of our community-led, controlled beta test was formed.

I met with Laurel Achen (Red Wing Shoe Co.), Aaron DeJong (Red Wing Credit Union) and Mike Melstad (Red Wing YMCA) last January to introduce the idea of a controlled beta test — and they enthusiastically agreed to participate. Laurel agreed to identify about 100 testers from Red Wing Shoes' employee base, viewing it as a complementary tool within their employee engagement strategy. Aaron agreed to allow RWCU to serve as the supporting back-office to facilitate micro-transactions to respective savings and giving accounts. And Mike agreed to have the YMCA, as the sole charity recipient, featuring its Summer Camp Campaign for kids. To top it off, the Red Wing Shoe Foundation agreed to match funds raised for the YMCA during the beta test.

This vision of a community-led beta was wonderfully affirmed when I asked Laurel, Aaron, and Mike what success looked like for them and their respective organizations at the end of the test. Their collective response was indicative of what this community was built on in the mid-1800s: To support an effort that would build something new and good for society out of Red Wing ... and help make it big.

We were recently invited to participate in the Ignite Cup — and won! — earning us a semifinalist position in the Minnesota Cup, the nation's largest statewide startup competition.

Today, we have a new working prototype, we have kicked off our beta development team, and we are raising our next round of capital to get us through beta (September), to what investors call a "minimum viable product" by year-end and a national rollout in the first quarter 2018.

So, from the bottom of my heart, I say: Thank you, Red Wing! I could not have gotten this far without you.

Live.Give.Save. is a mobile app that makes saving and giving as easy as spending. We're aiming it particularly at millennials. We call the concept "Spaving." Every time you spend on yourself, you save for your future and give to someone in need without changing a thing. Together, we're making the world better ... one community, one person, one transaction at a time.

Susan Sorensen Langer, founder of Live.Give.Save., won the annual Ignite Cup business competition in early 2017. Live.Give. Save. is located in Red Wing and is a member of Red Wing Ignite.