Golden Shovel Agency exists to empower economic developers to improve the lives of everyone in their community. Our company was designed to be the tool you need to reach a wider audience, make connections and attract the businesses, investment and workers your community needs to grow. We have continued to invest in new technologies and solutions so our clients can compete against big-budget destinations. We are driven by our belief that every community is unique and deserves the chance to thrive. Our passionate team can help you to do so.
How It All Began
Golden Shovel was founded in 2009 when Ron Kresha, Aaron Brossoit, and Jeffrey Epple met in Little Falls, MN. After selling his previous company, Ron was looking for a fresh business opportunity. Jeff and Aaron were partners in an earlier venture focused on website development and marketing. Brian Westerberg, a board member with Ron's previous company, joined Golden Shovel's new board. All four agreed they wanted to build a company that would benefit communities and citizens. Through experience working with economic development organizations (EDOs), they recognized that rural organizations were understaffed and underserved and that online tools could allow them to compete for attention that larger metros were enjoying. They set up shop in Little Falls, MN, and began doing business as Golden Shovel Agency.
Economic Gateway Websites
The team spent the first year researching, attending conferences, and meeting with EDOs. It was clear that the traditional approach to website contracts was not in the service of rural groups. They were expensive, there was little support after the launch, and the sites would immediately begin to go out of date without regular updates and maintenance. Another issue was that rural EDOs couldn't afford all the tools they needed for their websites to be effective and had to pick and choose between essential functions. Hence, the Economic Gateway was born.
By using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, Golden Shovel could provide multiple benefits:
- A monthly subscription model lowered the upfront investment to an EDO and spread out the risk;
- The SaaS model allowed clients to receive all the website tools (called modules) that they needed without picking and choosing. Plus, it offered the added benefit of being able to share content between sites to help keep them current;
- Golden Shovel could create a recurring revenue stream to support ongoing development and improvements of the system to benefit all clients.
The Economic Gateway was built over the next eight months and launched in the spring of 2011. Six years later, in 2017, the Economic Gateway was rebuilt from the ground up, refining everything the company had learned through the first hundred clients and keeping its commitment to stay current. A 3.0 version of the Economic Gateway will be deployed in 2022, supporting over 175 sites.
An Expanding Team
At the end of 2010, while the Economic Gateway was in development, Golden Shovel recruited John Marshall from a career as a financial planner to join the partnership and lead the sales for the company. John and Aaron became regular fixtures at economic development conferences. They engaged the committees and boards of the Mid-America Economic Development Council and the National Rural Economic Developers Association, along with multiple state associations. The conference networking quickly became the main focus, and Golden Shovel hosted hospitality suites, participated in awards programs, and began speaking regularly.
As sales grew and the team launched new websites, a challenge presented. Golden Shovel's rural clients rarely found time with their limited staff to update the sites despite the easy-to-use CMS. The result was that websites were out of date and ineffective. As a result, the GateKeeper Service was born. It began as a service with four hours of support to assist clients in posting press releases, updating pages, and providing general support. GateKeepers established monthly meetings with each client to review analytics and see how they would like us to serve them. Over time, this service has been dramatically expanded to assist clients with various digital marketing needs beyond website support, including the curation and creation of content, social media support, and monthly visitor analysis with an assigned GateKeeper representative. Additionally, GateKeeper clients receive a redesign every three years to keep their website current. The GateKeeper service is largely responsible for our 93% client retention rate.
Going Virtual: Remote Working
From our founding, we determined that we would operate as a virtual agency; over the years, that has had a significant impact on how we work and on our business culture. Critical values in a successful remote team are freedom, communication, and accountability. Team members can choose where and how they want to work; this builds capacity for self-respect and mutual accountability.
Ours is a handshake culture built on trust, where individual choices are always respected. This approach results in less' group think' and more innovation and engagement. Not everyone thrives in a virtual environment, but those who do, love it and would not trade it for anything.
Expansion to a Full-Service Agency
By 2016, Golden Shovel had over one hundred websites running on the Economic Gateway. The company has built a strong reputation with the rural and mid-sized EDOs across the United States. Still, it recognized it needed to raise the sophistication of its brand to better communicate with urban regions. Golden Shovel felt a strong calling into branding and marketing services to support their clients better and empower their websites. Golden Shovel reinvented its brand as a full-service economic development communications firm, with technology as its competitive edge. Strategic business partnerships rounded out the full-service offering with complementary products and services. Golden Shovel launched a new website and brand in 2017 and began growing its team to meet the requirements of the expanded vision. It began development on the Economic Gateway 2.0, rewriting the software on a more efficient framework and eventually moving all of the clients to the much-improved system.
PlaceVR - Virtual Reality Becomes a Reality
With a commitment to technology, Golden Shovel was looking ahead to what was coming next. The team had their first 'wow' experience with virtual reality when team leaders gave out some Google cardboard headsets at a company retreat. The tipping point for committing to PlaceVR and virtual reality came in the summer of 2017 when three things combined:
- The PlaceVR team professionalized the 360-degree video production workflow;
- Viewers could play the videos through smartphones that most EDO professionals had; and
- Golden Shovel found a veteran video producer looking for a new opportunity and loved the vision.
Three clients agreed to produce the first 360-degree video tours for the industry. The PlaceVR team built the familiarization and site tours with advisory from leading site consultants. Three months later, Golden Shovel Agency unveiled the videos a the International Economic Development Council's Annual Conference in Toronto, Canada. Over the next few years, Golden Shovel has evangelized the use of virtual reality in the industry and has since completed over 80 projects in the US and internationally.
Content is King
The main ingredient of marketing is a story. As Golden Shovel expanded its marketing offering, it expanded its team of storytellers. This team worked closely with clients to write success stories about the companies and talent thriving in their communities.
These stories became the focus of the company's digital marketing strategies. They also lead EDOs to find their 'brand voice' and bring a consistent feel to the website content and marketing messaging. The talented writers applied their skills to the other needs of EDOs, including marketing strategies, annual reports, and search engine optimization.
A great story is only as good as the people it inspires. Getting the stories to the right audiences became the focus. With a history in technology development, Golden Shovel approached its marketing services with the same mindset. Initially, the focus was on converting the websites into lead generators. That started by implementing tracking tools to lift the veil on what companies were visiting the websites to validate the marketing efforts. Soon, this expanded into a full-blown inbound marketing methodology for capturing the leads and nurturing them by offering related content and expertise.
PlaceVR Virtual Meetings
With the release of the first wireless virtual reality headsets came the ability to host virtual meetings entirely in VR and have live meetings within PlaceVR's 360-degree video footage. Golden Shovel immediately saw the potential of this and began the development of their app, PlaceVR Meetings. Over the next two years, amidst rapidly changing hardware, the development team built an app where economic developers could meet live with site consultants and business prospects and bring them through their 360-degree familiarization and site tours. While the pandemic restricted travel, the interest in this technology increased four-fold. With the PlaceVR Meetings app released in the Fall of 2021, Golden Shovel has pioneered and led a new way for economic developers and investment promotion agencies to communicate from afar. This technology reduces the time and investment of communicating while reducing the impact on the environment.
The success of Golden Shovel has inspired our global vision, giving communities across the globe the ability to promote their investment opportunities effectively. Initial international activity began in Canada by proximity, but with the support of strategic partners, Golden Shovel has brought the company's services to the Caribbean, Africa, and beyond. As Golden Shovel's global experience grows, so do the benefits provided to all of its clients.
The Future Looks Bright
As Golden Shovel looks into the future, there are many opportunities on the horizon. The expanded market focus introduces new clients to the existing products and services and increases Golden Shovel's brand value. Meanwhile, Golden Shovel has established itself as the industry leader in developing and curating new technologies for the economic development industry. In that spirit, 2022 will see Golden Shovel expanding its sales team, updating its brand, unveiling new marketing and video services, and developing the Economic Gateway 3.0.
The Metaverse and Beyond
Golden Shovel is well-positioned to lead the industry into the metaverse as the leaders and pioneers of virtual reality for economic development. As this exciting new communication medium grows, Golden Shovel will bring its experience with virtual reality content and software development to create and define the future of economic development communications.