At 86, Ramona Reis felt increasingly left out as her children and grandson lived more of their lives online. She could watch, but not join in, as they shared digital photographs and stayed in touch through texting and video calls.

“I was never involved with the computer,” said Reis, a widow who lives in senior housing in St Louis Park. “My husband was on it, but not me.”

Now Ries is in the loop. The retired Sears sales clerk is a proud user of a GrandPad, a tablet developed specifically for seniors who have no experience using technology.

The lightweight mobile device arrived charged and programmed with her favorite games and big band music. Using 4G LTE connectivity and a secure network connection, the GrandPad requires no Wi-Fi, home phone lines or pesky passwords.

By pushing oversized buttons, seniors can call or video chat with family members who link in via their own GrandPad companion apps.

While GrandPad is headquartered in California, the five-year-old company has deep Minnesota roots.

It got its start in the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator, and the bulk of its business operations are based in Minnetonka.

Now GrandPad is staking its future on a growing cadre of friendly customer service agents in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. Forget offshore call centers or help desks: GrandPad’s mostly female support teams are located in the farm belt along the border of the two states.

The tech startup is using a unique employment approach that it hopes will help invigorate small town economies in the region.

“We are high-tech and high-touch,” said Kerry Burnight, GrandPad’s chief gerontologist.

“Every one of our users has their own member experience agent that they reach out to and have a relationship with. They’re our secret sauce. Minnesota Nice is real, and we are big fans.”

GrandPad employs about 60 customer service agents, clustered in the Minnesota towns of Wabasha, Byron and Blooming Prairie, plus several rural communities in Iowa. Most of them are former health care workers, teachers or customer service professionals who work from their homes, logging on to connect with what the company calls “super seniors,” those over age 75, who make up their customer base.

“We’ve found deep, caring, family-oriented people who don’t just enjoy seniors but value them as the wisest people among us,” said GrandPad founder Scott Lien. “They’re not just helping our users with a tool that performs a task; they’re helping them make rich, deep connections that can improve their lives.”

Skyping with mom

Raised on a farm near Decorah, Iowa, Lien was in junior high when he started fiddling with an early model Radio Shack computer to help his dad manage the family dairy herd. He went on to build a career developing user software for Target, Best Buy and Accenture. He later led mobile technology initiatives for Bank of America and Intuit.

After he settled on the West Coast, Lien was eager to Skype with his widowed mother, then 80, but a series of tech hiccups made the experience more frustrating than fun for her.

“She was embarrassed that she couldn’t make it work. When I went out to buy something for her, I saw nothing tailored for a senior’s needs. My son, who’s a product designer, said, ‘Let’s go to work and build something from scratch.’ ”

The Liens put together a technical team, which cycled through more than a thousand iterations of the device and software, aided by a focus group of “grand advisers” whose ages ranged from 80 to 104. One of the features they suggested was a touch screen for fingers that are less dexterous or gnarled by arthritis.

“Older people have dry fingers. Other touch screens are meant for the moisture content of a 30-year-old,” said gerontologist Burnight. “No wonder so many seniors don’t want to approach computers. When they say, ‘I’m dumb about technology,’ we say ‘No, it’s the tech is dumb. It was designed badly and not for you.’ ”

(GrandPad is available on the Consumer Cellular website and at Target stores and select Best Buys. The $200 price tag includes the device, wireless charging dock and accessories. Customers get unlimited data for $40 a month.)

There’s an untapped market for products to help seniors forge the digital divide, said Lori Bitter, president of the Business of Aging.

“We’re seeing more user design specifically for this older, frailer cohort with their mixed bag of technical expertise,” she said. “There’s a huge opportunity to bring a fairly substantial population online with devices that are made to be simple.”

Bitter, who researches mature consumers and advises companies creating products for them, didn’t consult with GrandPad. But she’s familiar with the startup’s strategy.

“Their service model and training for their staff is pretty astounding,” she said. “They’ve done their research and invested in this massive population now entering their elder years.”

Humanity as ‘the killer app’

As families seek new ways to stay in touch with their most senior members, Lien is preparing for steep growth for his niche platform — and its Midwestern workforce.

The Central Time Zone location is an advantage for agents assigned to users across the nation. And, despite a dialect that’s sometimes exaggerated for fun (think “Fargo”), Lien said the “neutral accent” of the Upper Midwest is a plus.

“We hire people who have a heart for this work, and that can’t be faked,” Burnight said.

“No amount of artificial intelligence will ever make the connections and offer the empathy of a human. No robot can come up with compassionate solutions. We say, humanity is the killer app.”

GrandPad has opened a customer care office in Byron, near Rochester, and it has identified 200 small towns within 90 miles of Byron that could be a good fit for future satellite operations.

“We’re looking for vibrant communities where we can put down roots,” said Lien, who said the company likes to hire 20 to 30 workers in one area to create “a nice critical mass.”

There’s such a critical mass in Wabasha, where Anna Arens has worked in customer service for GrandPad for the past year. Her husband is an Army Reserve member deployed in Syria, so the mother of three appreciates working at home, picking up calls from seniors who see her picture on their help button.

“I helped one grandma make her first video call with her daughter who lived far away. They talked on the phone, but they hadn’t seen each other in a long time,” said Arens, 35, a former medical assistant.

“The daughter lives in the mountains, and her mother was able to see a beautiful sunset. It was a magical moment when we got them connected. They were both in tears, and I was, too.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.