By Joe Kimball
"I've been incredibly fortunate so far as an entrepreneur and as a citizen of our state and now, it's my turn to 'pay it forward.'" Scott Litman
Photo courtesy of Magnet 360, LLC
Scott Litman spends his days on the cutting edge of digital marketing and promotion, creating social media systems and web search optimization and other strategies that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
The 1990 University of Minnesota CLA graduate and his business partner, Dan Mallin, have hit the entrepreneurial jackpot three separate times, building successful digital marketing companies from scratch and then selling them at great profit to bigger businesses. Now they’re back with a fourth company, Magnet 360, which looks like another winner.
He’s rightly proud of his career success, but there’s an extra touch of satisfaction in his voice when Litman speaks about his volunteer efforts with a non-profit venture he helped launch and sustain: the Minnesota Military Appreciation Fund, which raises money for troops returning from overseas combat zones. He and Mallin, who has an M.B.A. from the University’s Carlson School of Management, have provided much time and expertise to the fund as it has mushroomed from its founding in 2005 to its current level, raising $12 million to provide grants to more than 12,000 returning troops and their families.
The grants range from $500 to each service member returning from combat, up to $10,000 to those who’ve been seriously injured during their tour of duty. Families of a Minnesota service member killed in action receive $5,000.
Although Litman didn’t serve in the military, and no one in his family has been sent overseas on combat missions since 2001, he threw himself into the project with his typical entrepreneurial energy after being recruited by MMAF founders Gene Sit and Michael Gorman.
Gorman knew about Litman’s marketing abilities and public service commitment from their work together in the local entrepreneurial community.
“We knew from the beginning that we needed to project a consistent and highly professional face, to build a brand, as well as a technical platform to get the word out about our program and facilitate the grant process,” said Gorman, managing director of Split Rock Partners, a Twin Cities venture capital firm. “I knew Scott has a tremendous energy level and appetite for interesting challenges; he’s an optimistic person who wades right in and rolls up his sleeves to make something happen,” Gorman said.
Litman didn’t hesitate when approached.
So we just go on with our lives?
“We were having a nice lunch and Gene Sit reminded us that there were thousands of Minnesotans in the desert that very day with nothing to eat but MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. And he said that only about .5 percent of Americans were being impacted by the war while the rest of us go on with our lives,” Litman recalled.
“I saw it as a way to make sure that everyone -- whether they were for the conflicts or against them, whether they want to support war or support the troops by bringing them home -- could say thank you and help take care of these people. It’s a thank-you, not just for the injured or those in need, but for everyone who served.”
So Litman and Mallin joined the fund’s steering committee in those beginning stages. They set up the website, conceived and executed the branding, and promoted the program, both to eligible veterans and to the public, for the fundraising efforts that provide the funding.
Their promotion efforts include the MMAF’s annual walk and recognition event for military members, and an annual fundraising dinner which has featured speakers like Sen. John McCain, journalists Tom Friedman and Tom Brokaw, and author Vince Flynn.
The response from veterans receiving the grants has been heartwarming and inspirational, Litman said. He cited thank-you notes from recipients:
“I just wanted to take a moment and let you know how much my family and I have appreciated the MMAF grant we received. The $500 was such an encouragement to us as we were facing reintegration time together. Your work is important! Please let everyone know that MMAF is making a positive difference in so many lives.” -- Staff sergeant, Geneva, Minn.
Thank you kindly for the $500 grant I received in the mail. The funds will be used wisely and couldn’t have come at a better time as I transition back into civilian life. Wishing you all the best and thank you for your generosity.” -- First lieutenant, Saint Paul, Minn .
John Kriesel, state representative from Cottage Grove, Minn. and a sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard who lost both legs in a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq, was another fund recipient. “The Minnesota Military Appreciation Fund is a tremendous asset to the state. It’s always an honor to work with them,” he said.
Litman and Mallin are also the founders of the Minnesota Cup, a statewide business plan competition for entrepreneurs. Since 2005, the competition has played an important role in the state’s efforts to seek out and reward new inventions and ways of doing business.
Litman was a history major at the University and says that was a great foundation for his business success. “The CLA and History Department don’t realize that they’re actually providing a good business background for students,” Litman said. “Many graduates are very successful entrepreneurs; we know about learning from the past and appreciate the guidepost lessons of others who’ve gone before.”
His achievements, and appreciation for the help he’s had along the way, led to the interest in community service, he said. “Everything I’ve received, especially from the U and from my family, has ultimately led me to realize there’s a time to give back,” he said. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate so far as an entrepreneur and as a citizen of our state and now, its my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Both the Minnesota Cup and MMAF are there to help people who are working hard and doing great things and give them a leg up when they need it.”
Joe Kimball, a former columnist and reporter for the Star Tribune, now writes for MinnPost. He is the author of the bestselling Secrets of the Congdon Mansion.