Profiting from Politics
Calvin Coolidge once said, "The business of America is business." Cal was also known to take a long afternoon nap, so he didn't exactly reflect the industry and tenacity of the typical American entrepreneur. But the sentiment stands: If there's money to made, business owners will find a way to make it, and in two of America's big cities, there is money to be made right now off the political convention business. Later this month, Democrats will gather in Denver to nominate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois; a few days later, Republicans will convene in Minneapolis-St.Paul to nominate Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Naturally, there will be local entrepreneurs in both cities who will attempt to use the conventions as an opportunity to increase sales and visibility. Here's a sampling of some of the people who are finding ways to enjoy this political seasons regardless of their own political affiliations:
Democratic National Convention, Denver, Aug. 25-28
Convention Insider: MAKS
Security measures prevent Kristi King from saying a whole lot about the graphic design work she's done for the DNC. The local artist was hired to create the official convention credentials that some 55,000 delegates, journalists, and attendees will use to enter the Pepsi Center, the site of most of the nominating convention. King's three-person company, MAKS, produced four different (but similar) looks, one for each day of the event. In keeping with the Democrats' environmental policies, they will be printed on 100 percent recycled material.
Local Hero: Jared Polis
Why would a highly successful young entrepreneur want to enter politics? Just ask Jared Polis, the 33-year-old CEO and Inc. 500 alum who is running for Congress in Colorado's Second District, which includes Boulder, Vail, and Beaver Creek. "Congress lacks creativity and innovation and entrepreneurs excel at introducing new ideas," he says. On this score, Polis has bona fides: He successfully took his family's greeting card company, Blue Mountain Arts, to the Web and then launched another company, Proflowers (No. 7 on the 2003 Inc. 500), which he took public and later sold to Liberty Media for $477 million. His latest business endeavor is TechStars.org, a program that brings 10 business owners to Boulder for a summer-long boot camp. The entrepreneurs are given a $5,000 stipend, office space, legal council, mentorship, and networking opportunities in exchange for giving TechStars a small equity stake in their company. During the convention, Polis will be out-and-about, co-hosting receptions, and meeting with movers-and-shakers as well as grassroots organizations. So what's Jared's prediction for November? "Barack Obama will win Colorado and be the next president of the United States."
A Place to Meet the Locals: The Corner Office
The greater Denver metro area has a well-earned reputation as a tech hot-spot, and The Corner Office has been labeled "bloggers row" for the Democratic convention. The restaurant signed a deal with MySpace to be its official headquarters during the event, which means that it will be opening its "Oval Office" dining area to the laptop brigade. Peter Karpinksi, a senior vice president at parent company the Sage Restaurant Group, says The Corner Office serves "global comfort food" that will encourage bloggers to get a buzz from martinis like the "Buzz Aldrin."
Awesome Souvenir Shop: The Tattered Cover
Denver's beloved independent bookstore will host a series of events and book signings throughout the convention, including an appearance by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Owner Joyce Meskis opened her first store in 1974 (during Watergate) and now has three stores, including a large one on Colfax Avenue that carries more than 150,000 titles. Marketing director Heather Duncan says the Tattered Cover will be stocking up on political books of all stripes in the run up to the convention. She expects an even bigger sales bump will come from sales of Colorado travel books, such as a Denver walking tour guide by local historian Tom Noel.
Friendly Watering Hole: Wynkoop Brewing Company
Denver's Democratic Mayor John Hickenlooper founded this craft brewery in 1988, before its neighborhood became known by the fashionable tag "LoDo." Housed in the J.S. Brown Mercantile building, the business keeps 12 brews on tap at all times and hosts the annual contest to find America's "Beer Drinker of the Year." In 2007, Hickenlooper sold his stake to a trust that represents his chefs, managers, brewers, and other longtime employees.
Local Outfitter: Rockmount Ranch Wear
Former CEO Jack Weil, who passed away on Aug. 13 at the age of 107, was at one time one of the leaders of the Colorado GOP. But his grandson Steve, who now runs the company day to day, is happy to welcome the Democrats to town. The apparel company is planning to stay open throughout the convention, and it has already taken an order to make custom western shirts for local Congresswoman Diana DeGette and her staff.
Headquarters for the Radical Extreme: Mercury Cafe
Marilyn Megenity has been thinking about sustainability almost since she opened her business back in 1975. The Mercury Cafe was the first Denver business to generate power from private wind turbines. Megenity also recycles water and coffee to irrigate the elaborate gardens on her property, and she has designs on going off the grid and becoming completely self-powered. Nearly all of the items on her menu are organic and local vendors supply 75 percent of her produce. In addition, Megenity is a pacifist (the "No More War" burrito with green chili, spicy tempeh, and avocado has been on the menu for 10 years). Throughout the convention, the Mercury Café will serve as home base for card-carrying members of the left-wing fringe.
Republican National Convention, The Twin Cities, Sept. 1-4
Convention Insider: Ustream.TV
Co-founder Brad Hunstable describes Ustream as "similar to YouTube, except we're live." The year-old website runs on a completely open platform, so anyone can join and let the world see what they're up to. The 22-person business has raised $14 million in venture capital and currently has 10 million unique visitors a month checking out the eclectic programming that's recently included graduations, weddings, funerals, music lessons, 50 Cent, the Dalai Lama, and all of the major presidential hopefuls. The RNC hired Ustream to handle all of the live-streaming at the convention, which was a thrill for Hunstable. "I'm a Texan who went to West Point, so it's not hard to figure out my politics," he says. "But we've had great success with people on both sides of the aisle." The company is also live-streaming for the progressive website Daily Kos at the Democratic convention in Denver.
Local Hero: FLSConnect
This $25 million communications company works with Republican candidates and conservative advocacy groups. The business did extensive work on the 2004 Bush re-election campaign. CEO Jeff Larson is currently moonlighting as CEO of the convention host committee. In that capacity, he oversees a $58 million budget, 250 employees, and more than 8,000 volunteers. Larson says he's excited to see old friends (and meet new ones who need tickets for the convention), but he would have been equally happy, he says, to host the Democratic convention.
Place to Meet the Locals: Q Kindness Café
"Minnesota Nice" is a phrase locals use to describe Gopher State charm. Nowhere is that expression more appropriate than the Q Kindness Café, which first opened in 1961. Located two blocks from the convention center, they will be open for dinner during the event and serving "hot dishes" like Tater Tot surprise and tuna casserole. Husband and wife co-owners Lisa Cotter Metwaly and Jimmy Metwaly also started a pay-it-forward "kindness campaign" and hope to have seven businesses and 7,000 people smiling on their brother by September. The Metwalys walk the walk. Instead of wallowing after a $250 February burglary (it included $50 in waitress' tips), the couple bought $100 worth of hand warmers and handed them out to customers waiting in the cold at the bus stop.
Awesome Souvenir Shop: Urban Junket
The two former marketing executives who left Best Buy to start a fancy laptop handbag company in 2005 want your vote. Tracy Arnold and Tracy Dyer will be holding a sample sale during the convention and every purchase includes a free luggage tag with a red elephant or a blue donkey to match your party affiliation. When starting out, the women got financial tips and contacts from WomenVenture, a 30-year-old St. Paul non-profit that's helped some 90,000 clients. Last year, Urban Junket had sales of $550,000 through boutique stores and online retailers. Dyer says both entrepreneurs, "lean a little bit left, like most of the state."
Friendly Watering Hole: Nye's Polonaise Room
If the approval ratings of the GOP get you down, put some Oompah-pah into your step at this legendary bar, which first opened its doors in 1949. On Friday and Saturday nights, tuba aficionados can dance to local Polka bands while eating traditional dishes like spare ribs and sauerkraut. After dinner, guests can take their Zywiec beer to the side room to sing along to "Sweet" Lou Snider's piano ditties. The septuagenarian has been tickling the ivories here every day for the past 41 years. Alternatively, country club Republicans should check out the Grill at the St. Paul Hotel. Located steps from the Xcel Energy Center, it acquired four bottles of Macallan 55 for the convention, and boasts that it will be the only place whiskey drinkers will find it in Minnesota. Make sure a lobbyist is paying; each one-ounce shot costs $525.
Local Outfitter: Zubaz
The infamous zebra-striped pants of the late 1980s have returned just in time for 2,000 red, white, and blue pairs to be given away in the official convention gift bag. The creators of Zubaz, Dan Stock and Bob Truax, sold the fast-growing-but-cash-poor business in 1995. When it eventually failed, Stock and Truax decided to buy back the rights to the brand, which they relaunched last year. They've spent about $100,000 so far. The company is being run out of Press Gym, a 16,000 square-foot work facility owned by Stock that includes a mixed-martial arts studio and a tattoo shop. Muscleheads always dug Zubaz, and now, for $29.99, they have six colors to choose from. More hues and prints including snakeskin will be available soon. "Zubaz are tried-and-true and we have enough customers to last 100 years," Stock says, "it's been a blast coming back."
Headquarters for the Radical Extreme: Koscielski's Guns & Ammo
The last gun shop left in Minneapolis opened in 1995; it's the birthplace of the "Creditcard Shotgun" -- a weapon small enough to carry in your wallet. Owner Mark Koscielski says it took more than two years and seven prototypes to get the design right, and government approval on the weapon is still pending. But assuming the ATF gives the product its blessing, Koscielski plans to sell the four-barrel guns for between $150 and $195. The guns, which take special .25 ACP ammo only available to the licensed gun owners at the store, probably won't be available for the convention. But Koscielski still hopes that the convention will have an impact on his bottom line. "A lot of people have contacted me about buying mace," he says.
Updated version: The original version of this story was published just before Jack Weil, the CEO of Rockmount Ranch Wear, passed away.
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