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Momentum builds as Retirement Wealth Advisors readies to hire 25 operations, financial professionals

Growth mode is in full swing at Jenison-based Retirement Wealth Advisors as the firm readies to bring on 10 to 25 financial planners, sales associates, and administrative professionals in 2014.

The company, an independent registered investment adviser platform, works with wealth and retirement advisors around the U.S., providing them with "back office" support.

And while the notion of wealth and financial planning conjures up images of old, stodgy, and stuffy, President Jason Wenk will be the first to tell you that Retirement Wealth Advisors is anything but.

"The finance industry is so dated and archaic," Wenk says. "There aren't a whole lot of people doing anything new or different or better. We're looking for people who are looking to break a 100-year-old industry and make it better with better technology, better design. We're one of the first firms in the country to have our own mobile app for iPhone and Droid. We want to come up with innovative ideas that change things and make them better."

To that end, Wenk says he has been recruiting through Grand Valley State University because all its finance graduates are already registered investment advisers with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In addition, while all new hires don't need to be recent grads, all must be technologically proficient and able to provide virtual support to clients nationwide.

The company has 20 employees and contract workers, up from just seven in early 2012. Wenk aims to add several sales representatives to grow the client list. As more clients rely on the company, the need for support teams of administrative professionals, bookkeepers, and financial planners grows.

Retirement Wealth Advisors has offices in Jenison (9501 Baldwin St., Suite 203) and Spring Lake (114 W. Savidge St.); Redding and Laguna Beach, CA; Albuquerque, NM; Lafayette LA; and Scottsdale AZ.

To apply for a position, use the contact form found here.

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

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OutPro, new program for LGBT professionals, comes out with support from Grand Rapids Area Chamber

A grassroots networking and social support group for area LGBT professionals has grown into a structured organization called OutPro, which this week announces its affiliation with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
 
OutPro co-founder Jill May, a Rockford native and director of fund development at The Right Place in Grand Rapids, says the group is in the very early stages of a strategic planning process, which will focus its mission and goals. But she says the number one reason the group exists is to promote talent attraction and retention in the area.
 
“One of the main challenges we hear about – and this can be a perception or a reality – is that LGBT professionals aren’t always comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, not always able to talk about their family lives, partners, or significant others,” says May. “Not being able to bring your whole self impacts your productivity, comfort level, and the likelihood that you’ll stay there and that you’ll stay in the community.”
 
The group began when May, LaughFest Development Director David Abbott, and a few others began meeting socially and informally to provide as a welcoming, safe place for LGBT people who were new to the community. But the group has since grown to the point that a loosely organized group of friends can’t manage it adequately, says May, and that’s why they reached out to the Chamber to become part of its programming.
 
“We’re meeting a need that is here for attracting and retaining professionals. That’s why partnering with the Chamber is so great. We want to be part of that recruitment and onboarding process when a LGBT person is new to town, and the Chamber is already in a good position for us to access those folks,” says May. She says the creation of OutPro is also an indication that West Michigan is starting to be more welcoming, and notes that the region is seeing a lot of corporations establish LGBT affinity groups to create an inclusive business environment.
 
OutPro, which will officially roll out its new logo and branding this evening, will continue to provide opportunities for both social and professional networking through monthly gatherings attended by individuals at all career levels and representing a diversity of corporations, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations. And May says the group is truly open to all - including “straight people [and] college students who aren’t quite ‘professionals’ yet.”
 
For more information about OutPro events, see their Facebook page.
 
Writer: Stephanie Doublestein, managing editor

Everidae Sauce continues to spread its pepper goodness throughout the state

After being founded in 2011 and hitting the shelves in July 2012, Everidae Sauce has dramatically expanded its distribution in 2013 and now is planning for product line expansions, more operational support and new marketing initiatives.

Dominic Sorenson explains the expanded distribution. "We have been chosen for inclusion in the Michigan sections at Kroger and Spartan stores which adds to Meijer and the other 20 local specialty stores, taking Everidae to over 210 stores in Michigan."

To keep up with demand, Sorenson is actively seeking operational relief in the guise of identifying a co-packer for his product. "We are still producing at Uptown Kitchen but are looking for a co-packer to help us improve our bottling procedure."  He says he is close to formalizing an agreement with a Michigan firm.

From a marketing angle, Everidae has invested in an advertising campaign with the local food magazine Flavor 616 and has a promo code "GRLOCO" that can be used on his website to print a $2.00 off coupon for use at local retailers. "We are also in the middle of our first photo competition called Everidae Framed Food Competition 2013," says Sorenson. "Fans of the sauce can create a great dish and submit a picture and recipe via Instagram or Facebook to win awesome prizes; details on our Everidae Sauce Facebook page."

To support the growth, Sorenson is busy preparing for the December 19 Start Garden update night, when businesses that were funded at the $25,000 level will have five minutes to present their progress and make an "ask" for additional funding and/or support from local investors.

Looking down the road, Sorenson says he is planning to launch a new product line and is exploring the possibilities of starting a co-packing facility in Grand Rapids to serve the growing number of food entrepreneurs that need a product facility bigger than the existing incubators.

To follow the progress of Everidae, you can visit their website or join their Facebook page.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Innovative biking company readies for 2014 launch of three new models

Alter Cycles of Allendale is a cycle company looking to to create a smoother ride with an innovative suspension that can easily be changed out by the rider to better customize the ride. The goal: create a bike that produces a smoother and more comfortable ride for the customer. 

The new bike venture was founded by Mark Groendal, who has been designing and building bikes for over 30 years, including the Sling Shot bike. He says his new invention looks more conventional than the Sling Shot and should be more marketable.

Groendal says Alter Cycles will be introducing its first three models in either April or May of 2014 and the bikes will be available through local bike stores. "Everything is on track and we plan to have three models of fitness bikes ready then."

Groendal says he has a team of five individuals working on the project. He also has received assistance from Kendall College's industrial design students, including a recently completed class project led by Tom Edwards, KCAD Industrial Design instructor, and his Industrial Design II class.

Students in this class worked on a range of accessories, from apparel to lights to storage, and presented their final concepts and designs last week. "I enjoyed working with Kendall," says Groendal. "The design concepts were for the commuter market and hopefully we can use them in the future."

To learn more about Alter Cycles you can view their site here or their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Software application helps hair salons to better schedule appointments

Persistence is paying off for Jason Swett, founder and developer of Snip, a software application that helps hair salons easily schedule customers.

After almost three years of development, cold calls, product demonstrations and online marketing, Swett, a software developer, says his venture is profitable and poised for growth. "I started working on Snip by building a network of roughly 10 stylists and salon owners and I consulted my 'panel of experts' as I developed ideas and built the product. Due to the surprisingly sophisticated requirements of hair salon scheduling, it took me 10 months to build something complete enough for anyone to use to run her business."

Swett says the inspiration for his application was a response to a problem he discovered when his wife began working in the salon industry. "I started Snip in January 2011 when my wife got a job at a hair salon and I noticed how not-user-friendly their scheduling software was. The competition wasn't too strong, either, and since I was in the market for a new business idea after having gone through five other failed product business attempts, this seemed like an opportunity that would potentially make sense."

Swett says he currently has five salons and over 50 stylists using his application, each paying a monthly fee based on the number of features selected by  the salon. Most recently, Swett says, Sin Chun, who just opened Sin Republic in Grand Rapids will be using his scheduling software.

Looking to the future, Swett is very optimistic about the growth potential for Snip and says if he falls short of hitting his 2014 goal of adding 12 more salons, it will be because of "lack of execution, not opportunity."

To learn more about Snip you can visit their website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Ongoing demand for temp, permanent industrial staffing spurs EmploymentGroup to add sales staff

The ongoing demand in West Michigan for skilled temporary workers for manufacturing positions has spurred Battle Creek-based EmploymentGroup to add sales staff in Grand Rapids and Lansing to keep up with the pace.

Rayeann Lackey joins the Grand Rapids office at 3230 Broadmoor SE as sales account manager for the Grand Rapids region. Bonnie Blair is the new sales account manager for the Lansing market.

"We wanted to hire professionals that were really dedicated to their markets and help our clients with their staffing needs," says President and CEO Mark Lancaster. "Our turnover in our temporary staff is less than half of our competition in the staffing industry. Rayeann and Bonnie will help us with our current customers to make sure we're staying on top of their needs, but at the end of the day, to help us with our growth in such important industrial markets, which continue to be very strong."

Lancaster says that in 2013, EmploymentGroup placed 6,000 workers in temporary industrial jobs, and over 1,000 of them were hired as permanent, full-time employees by their companies. In the past four years, EmploymentGroup has placed over 4,000 workers in permanent jobs.

To help build the skilled trades and advanced manufacturing employee base in Michigan, EmploymentGroup established a 5 In 5 Scholarship Program to celebrate the company's 55 years in business. The fund will award $5,000 for five years to community college students pursuing two-year industrial degrees or certifications. The deadline for the first round of scholarships is Dec. 31, 2013.

"We really want to shine the light on skilled trades and the need to get students trained in skilled trades," Lancaster says. "There's such a shortage in Michigan, and many skilled tradesmen are going to retire soon, which increases that shortage."

For more information on the scholarships, click here.    

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

New website seeks to reinvent charitable giving

Grand Rapids-based Givinci has announced the launch of their website, Givinci.com, a shopping platform that provides an incentive for consumers to shop online by sharing ad revenue with local nonprofits of the customer's choice.

Eric Kovalak, founder and CEO of Givinci.com, describes himself as a "frequent volunteer" for local nonprofits and wanted to create a better to way to support nonprofits and to help organizations become more sustainable. "I wanted to find a method to allow people to make a contribution, besides just writing a check," he says.

Kovalak says the site is a full-time effort, and he has been working on it for two years, along with a team of three others.

Givinci's platform allows customers to raise money for local organizations, national causes and small fundraisers, such as a school event.

Another feature on Givinci.com allows customers to create goals that can be shared with family and friends via social networking and allows others to receive fundraising updates as the donations grow.

To learn more about Givinci.com you can visit their site here or their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Drummer, industrial designer, inventor, entrepreneur launches Kickstarter campaign

Wes Keely wears many hats. He is an industrial design student at Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD), a professional drummer, an inventor and an entrepreneur. 

Keely's first commercial invention, KBrakes, helps prevent kick drums from sliding around while being played. He documented the journey from "idea" to "prototype" on a blog post here.

To continue the journey, Keely has launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign, targeting $25,000 in order to fund the next steps in product development. "We have the Kickstarter launched to get more people involved. The additional funding pays for tooling and a first run of stock of 2500 units." 

Prior to the Kickstarter campaign, Keely received $5,000 funding through Start Garden, and the KBrake prototype has had extremely positive reviews from the music community including Mike Bedard (Jordin Sparks), Adam Silverman (Lauren Alaina), Matt Covey (Suicide Dolls, Young Pandas, ex-Shai Hulud/The Flaming Tsunamis), and Brad Moxey (Evergreen Terrace). The UK-based company Serenity Custom Drums has agreed to put KBrakes on every kit they sell.

Keely says that KBrakes will be just one of many products that he will design to serve the music industry.

To learn more about KBrakes you can view their website here.  To review the Kickstarter campaign, you can visit the site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

'Tis the season for alpaca products, fa la la la la

Beginning in December, Via Verde Farm will be opening their first pop-up store in Ada, displaying a wide variety of alpaca and fiber products for the holidays.

Tamara Miller, owner of Via Verde Farm, says the pop-up store will be based in Scooper's Ice Cream Store at 591 Ada Dr SE in Ada. 

Miller says the inspiration for the pop-up store was really just constant encouragement from her customers and demand for her products: "I had been to a few sales and things went well. There was demand and people were interested. This is the season for alpaca products."

The store will feature alpaca sweaters, coats, hats, mittens, and socks as well as carpets made from fiber from the farm. There will be also be hand-spun yarns and commercial yarns.

Miller says she will also have a unique product with a family twist. "I have several handmade dog leashes constructed out of hand-spun alpaca yarn and then twisted into rope. The handle is woven back into the rope and a clip is twisted into the rope so it is secure. My son makes the rope."

Besides the traditional alpaca products, the pop-up store will serve as a launching pad for a new venture that Miller and two friends are working on. "Two of us make the fabric by nuno felting alpaca fiber into silk or chiffon. Then our friend designs gorgeous pieces of clothing from the fabric," she says. "I will have several of the pieces in the store."

The store will be open until December 21st with operating hours of Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

To learn more about Via Verde Farm, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

30 Forest Hills jobs open up with the opening of Manna Café in new shopping center

As construction wraps up on a small shopping center at the corner of Ada Drive SE and Forest Hill Ave. SE, one of the new commercial tenants has plans to fill 25 job positions in the next week.

Manna Café is "a family-oriented, faith-based breakfast and lunch place," which has created some 30 full- and part-time jobs, says General Manager Mike McKay. Twenty-five of those positions are still open and the new eatery's leaders plan a job fair on Dec. 9 and 10 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the restaurant, 820 Forest Hill Ave. SE.
 
Job openings include chef positions, hosts/hostesses, servers, and dishwashers. Interested individuals should bring a résumé and be prepared for an onsite interview. Anyone interested in a job but unable to attend the job fare should send a résumé and cover letter to info@mannacafes.com.

"Manna Café will be a little more upscale than the general breakfast places in town," McKay says. McKay, a veteran restaurateur, got his experience working at Uccello's, followed by five years in management at Charlie's Crab. "Manna Café will be a fairly classy place, but will be very family friendly."

Local entrepreneurs Craig and Julie Witcher own the restaurant. The name "Manna Café" is biblically based and coincides with their Christian outreach organization, Manna Ministries.

The menu features traditional breakfast fare such as eggs benedict, pancakes, omelets, French toast, fresh-out-of-the-oven English muffins, and bacon and sausage -- but with a twist: Manna Café will smoke its own meats in-house and will make its own sausages. As much as possible, meats, fruits, and vegetables will be sourced from local farms.

Lunch temptations include a variety of fresh salads, pulled pork sandwiches, hamburgers made from house-ground beef, and a selection of soups made fresh daily.
 
McKay has his eye on a Dec. 19 opening date (6 a.m. for early risers), but says that day could shift a bit depending on construction.

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Value-based pricing drives growth and new jobs for CPA firm

Grand Rapids based CPA firm Baker Holtz has announced a new hire and a series of promotions.

Jan Sheffield joins Baker Holtz team as their new paraprofessional. Sheffield will serve as a bookkeeper year-round and seasonal tax preparer. Melissa Seguin and Phil Malnar were promoted to new positions within the firm.

Steve Struck, principal at Baker Holtz, says these hires were needed to keep up with the growth at the firm, which he says is directly related to their innovative approach:   "When people ask what makes us different, I always say 'It is a number of things'." 

Struck cites their firm's mindset and client-centric culture. "We do not pay attention to time. All jobs, all work, is based on fixed prices that [are] agreed upon." Struck says this approach helps to encourage more dialogue and questions from clients who do not have to worry about being billed for phone calls or consultations. "It opens up a whole new line of communication."

The firm currently employs ten CPAs, three administration staff and two interns. Struck says that, based on their planning, they anticipate adding one new CPA every year.

To learn more about Baker Holtz and the services they provide, please visit: bakerholtz.com.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Innovative writing program focuses on K-5th grade

WriteSteps is a common core writing program focused on K-5 students. It was founded in 2007 by Suzanne Klein, a former elementary school teacher who discovered she had a gift for teaching young children how to write -- and a gift for entrepreneurship.

The educational company provides a proven curriculum and training for teachers through its website http://writestepswriting.com/. Services that are available included daily lesson plans, online classroom demonstration videos, and coaching for teachers who want to become better at teaching writing.

Klein says the "game-changer" for WriteSteps came in 2010 when Common Core State Standards where introduced and provided students, teachers and parents with new benchmarks for what students were expected to learn. She says her business helps teachers solve some of the biggest pain points in teaching writing at the elementary level: time, materials and training. "When we ask elementary teachers what are the issues they face, they always say  'time'." Klein says the two other issues are quality materials (curriculum and lesson plans) and adequate training. "There are not any writing courses being taught."

Although the company was founded in Ann Arbor, it recently moved its headquarters to Grandville, MI and employs 20 team members, many of whom are teachers or former teachers. 

Klein says her business is in growth mode. She is working to create programming for students to directly access that would complement the teacher material. She does add that there are no plans, at least for now, to expand the writing instruction beyond K-5th grade, preferring to focus on what they do best, saying, "We are elementary school teachers."

To learn more about WriteSteps, you can visit their site here or follow them on Facebook here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Varsity News Network and Soletics win big at innovation competition

Two ventures that were born and raised in Grand Rapids won the top awards at last week's Accelerate Michigan's Innovation Competition business, with Varsity News Network taking home a check for $500,000.

Ryan Vaughn, founder and CEO of Varsity News Network (VNN), pitched his business -- a web platform that makes it easy for high school Athletic Directors to manage social communication, and automatically creates media coverage for the athletes and sports programs in the process.

With the award, Vaughn is looking to expand his product offering and grow his team by adding 2-3 software developers. "We are thrilled to win the Accelerate Michigan competition. Their investment will allow us to expand our product offering and develop our mobile platform" said Vaughn.

Vaughn says the award goes beyond the monetary too. "It's a huge honor to be recognized at a statewide level in a competition that historically is won by life science companies. It is also a recognition of the I.T. movement in the state."

Soletics, a business developed by a team of students from Grand Valley State University, took first place in the student competition, winning $25,000. "Team Soletics" includes Michael Kurley, Vanessa Gore and Lindsay Noonan. Soletics has designed solar-powered athletic gear, targeting winter sports enthusiasts. It was one of four teams from GVSU competing in the statewide competition. 

Kurley says winning the competition has "provided validation" for their business, which was started last October while at GVSU. Beyond validation, he says the money will go a long way toward creating their minimal viable product and puts them on track to have their product ready for next winter. 

Kurley credits the support system, including StartGarden, GR Current and the GVSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation,  as being key stakeholders in their success.  "They all helped us make an idea into reality."

Jeff Royce Director of GR Current says both victories are strong evidence of the local support in the region for entrepreneurship and highlight how the organizations that Kurley referenced can serve as catalysts for innovation in the region.

The Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition is an international business competition designed to highlight Michigan as a venue for innovation and business opportunity.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Steady growth of managed services means more GR jobs, I3 Business Solutions seeks network engineer

I3 Business Solutions won the small business of the year Epic award in June and just added two support center technicians this fall, and the company isn't done yet. Now I3 seeks an experienced network engineer to fill a senior position on its team that handles technical account management and VCIO (virtual chief information officer) consulting.

I3 has been around for about a decade, and now has 22 employees at its 560 Fifth St. NW office.

"Since 2012, we have grown our managed service programs revenue by 40 percent," says Kathy Labozzetta, a partner in the business with Mike Ritsema. "We offer an IT outsourcing option, and also do staff augmentation for existing staff for small businesses (10 to 250 end users). Bringing on three people for a company our size is a pretty big deal."

She adds that, where a lot of companies focus purely on technology, I3 looks for products that improve the productivity of the end users. "We look for ways to move technology to cloud computing, and provide services from helpdesk to proactive network administration to onsite assistance for troubleshooting and VCIO consulting."

In addition to being good at troubleshooting and network administration with at least five years' experience, a good candidate for this position needs to be comfortable speaking with executives, be comfortable working with end users, and be self-directed and performance-oriented.

"We're having the right conversations with the clients, talking about core competencies of their business, including things like mobile computing that's new and exciting for their business," Labozzetta says. "We're not just adding more employees, but growing the right areas with focus on the professional services segment and using technology to deliver technology."

To find out more about the Support Center Technician Level III (senior networking engineer) position or to apply, click here.

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of I3 Business Solutions

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New creative firm transforms ideas into images

Andrew Montpetit's new venture is aptly named Thoughts You Can See, as Montpetit specializes in helping clients visualize their ideas and notes through images, videos and infographics.

The concept of visual note-taking has been gaining popularity. There are a multitude of books, websites and even conferences that are devoted to promoting this form of communication.

Although there was no "aha" moment for Montpetit, he says the inspiration for him to start his business came from his exposure to entrepreneurship and ongoing encouragement by members while working at The Factory as an office manager.

"I started Thoughts You Can See because I saw people doing and creating amazing things, but having a very hard time explaining what exactly it is that they were doing and creating. I wanted to help these people and others tell their story in ways that were memorable and interesting. I don't necessarily make the next amazing thing, but want to help the people who do share it with the world," says Montpetit.

After starting his LLC, Montpetit soon had his first client and project, creating an "explainer video" for GR Current

Besides videos, Montpetit says another service he provides is a novel approach to providing notes from a meeting. "I sit in a meeting, listen to brainstorming sessions and collect the main ideas with images. I then create a take-away for the organizers to use as a follow-up."  

The benefits? Montpetit says it can be powerful. "'Visuals are very powerful instruments if used correctly. They are fairly universal for the most part, they can say far more than words can and, when done right, they can create a powerful experience that really reaches people."

To learn more about Thoughts You Can See, you can visit his site here or his Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
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