A walk through Fargo’s Startup House: Free housing for entrepreneurs

In late summer of 2014, a 4-bed 2-bath house in north Fargo opened its doors to local entrepreneurs with a promise of free housing. Zero rent, zero utilities, high power internet from 702 communications, and an environment of collaboration and innovation.  The House is a project of Miguel Danielson, a Harvard lawyer who grew up in Fargo and returned with a mission to invest in his community.

Nearly two years later, the Fargo Startup House is still active and home to two, soon to be three active entrepreneurs. Residents have changed, but the core mission remains the same, Danielson said — to attract entrepreneurs and give them housing support, so their ideas can become a reality.

Currently, residents are Emily Swedberg, founder of Lucid Bakery and vegan chef extraordinaire, and Matt Sullivan, co-founder of a ride sharing mobile app launching this month called Jumpr.

Fargo Startup House

As Startup House residents, they have one on one mentorship time with Danielson, they receive $5-a-month passes to local coworking space the Prairie Den, and access to resources from larger companies invested in the startup community. In exchange, they are expected to actively work full-time on their startup and report their progress to Danielson, while also engaging in the local community.

The idea is to create collaborative atmosphere, Danielson said, which they do through bouncing ideas off each other, scribbling on the whiteboard walls, and even sharing food. Currently, the residents hav a “Sharing Plate” for all leftover food. Living with a baker has it’s perks, Sullivan said.

Fargo Startup House

Who are they?

“There seem to always be cookies on it,” he said, adding that the most he’s contributed is a Pop-Tart.

The house flaunts a diverse selection of art as well; a painting of a rabbit hangs on the wall, done by a friend of Sullivan’s who paints with his mouth. The piece of art that gets more questions, however, is a family portrait hanging on the wall that Swedberg takes with her wherever she lives. But it’s not her family.

“I have no idea who these people are,” she said. “Sometimes I think about them and I wonder what their lives are like.”

Starting up in the Startup House

Sullivan is approaching his one-year anniversary of moving into the Startup House. In the year he’s been there his life has changed significantly, marked by his recent decision to quit his job and work on Jumpr full-time.

In fact, the concept of Jumpr came from the Startup House, Sullivan said.

“I was encouraged to look at living in the Startup House, and realized I should probably have a real startup,” Sullivan said. “I had the idea for Jumpr and started working on it.”

The app, which Sullivan works on with co-founder Jordan Nelson, will provide a carpooling platform for drivers going to places like Minneapolis, allowing them to take other riders on the trip for a price. The process has involved a lot of legal back-end work, Sullivan said — something they would not have been able to do accomplish without the help of Danielson and his firm.

“We wouldn’t have been able to afford a lawyer otherwise,” Sullivan said. “Having someone nearby who is interested in our success and can help us in that regard made all the difference.”

Since quitting his job, Sullivan said work on Jumpr has accelerated. They expect to launch by the end of this week.

“I’ve gotten more done this week than I did the past year when I was working,” he said.

Fargo Startup House

Swedberg moved into the Startup House in September, while in the early stages of launching her business. By the end of her first month, Lucid Bakery, a bakery she started with the mission to “satisfy the vegan sweet tooths of Fargo-Moorhead”, was an official LLC. Since then, she has seen a lot of growth, selling product at the summer Red River Market, successfully completing the Co-starters program, and shipping orders all over the city.

Being a part of the Startup House was integral to the launch of Lucid Bakery, she said. In addition to the perks — such as paying zero rent — the downtown location has been a big help as well.

“Being downtown is a big part of this community,” Swedberg said. “It’s great being in an area where we can help each other out.”

Swedberg grew up in Moorhead and then flew the coop to live in Buffalo, New York and other bigger cities. But like so many Fargo-Moorhead natives, she found herself drawn again to her hometown.

“That was my regret living in Buffalo,” she said. “I didn’t really do much, I wasn’t really influenced by any people, I was doing my own thing. I was excited to live in this area where we could help each other out and influence each other’s growth.”

It’s part of the reason she is now designated as the official Resident Assistant (RA) of the Startup House. In an efforts to draw the community into the house, Swedberg is now planning to host more events, such as a Cinco de Mayo party which went down yesterday. Future events could include classes as well, Danielson added.

Fargo Startup House

Swedberg hasn’t matched her socks since age 17

Welcoming a new resident

Since its launch in 2014, the Startup House has seen a few different residents. Former residents Sarah English and Trent Cahoon have moved on to new ventures, Danielson said.

Now, the House is attracting residents from out of state. Michael Norton, who spends most of time in Seattle and San Diego, has recently decided to move into the Startup House by the end of the month. He’s spent the last few months touring the U.S. and Canada as a facilitator for Startup Weekend, and says he has been a facilitator almost every weekend.

Norton first came to Fargo to visit a few friends and most recently returned as a facilitator for North Dakota Women’s Startup Weekend. He doesn’t have a startup persay, but works instead on a variety of projects; his expertise is in Kickstarter campaigns, he’s involved in a drone startup, and has a vision to start 12 startups in 12 months, he said.

Danielson and Norton started talking after the most recent Startup Weekend end of April, where Norton agreed to make Fargo a home base. Danielson hopes Norton can use his connections with the startup communities across the nation to strengthen the one in Fargo.

“Michael is very well versed with the startup community around the country,” Danielson said. “He has some great crowdfunding and audio/visual production skills. I think he can be a real asset to the community and the people at the Startup House.”

Fargo Startup House

Letters from around the world on display at the Startup House

Danielson is still looking out for potential new residents, he said. But the more immediate goal is to create a more sustainable model for funding the house. Currently it costs thousands of dollars to maintain the house — all of which he is paying out of pocket. He hopes to get the community more engaged both on a sponsorship level, and on a social level.

“We’re just trying to get better and better at achieving the mission, which is to see great new startups created and built and accelerated in Fargo,” he said.

Learn more here.

Photos by Emerging Prairie.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

, Feature