Region’s entrepreneurs gain more resources to succeed

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Higher education, private businesses collaborate to grow start-up culture

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

Along with supporting and retaining established companies across northeast Wisconsin, adding new businesses is vital for the region’s economic growth. Fostering an entrepreneurial culture is one way to accomplish this, experts say.

“The push started in the 1980s in Littleton, Colo., with its economic gardening program that was a successful effort to create a culture for entrepreneurship,” said Steve Jenkins, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp. “Because the potential of growing businesses from within an area should be a component of any economic development strategy, a focus on such for northeast Wisconsin is critical to a growing and stable economic base for the region.”

Jo Ann Giese-Kent, director of entrepreneurship and business intelligence for FCEDC, said Wisconsin historically has lagged behind other states in entrepreneurial activity.  She said Wisconsin, along with Iowa, Rhode Island, Indiana and Minnesota, had the lowest entrepreneurial activity rates, according to the 2013 Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity.

“Entrepreneurs spur innovative thought,” Giese-Kent said. “This is an important element for a community’s competitiveness and job creation.”

She said to increase entrepreneurial activity in the state and northeast Wisconsin, communities must create a supportive environment to stimulate and ignite innovative ideas and ultimately increase the number of business start-ups, company spin-offs, and new jobs over time.

“This requires a system approach with not just one or two support organizations leading the charge, but a whole team of organizations with the same vision,” Giese-Kent said.

While entrepreneurial endeavors and programs to help people go into business for themselves are not new, a number of fresh initiatives have been launched to help start-ups and fledgling companies get the guidance they need for a strong start.

Colleen Merrill with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Small Business Development Center believes the region is rich with “amazing people and ideas” with the potential for a big economic impact.

“Sometimes all it takes to move an idea to the validation stage is the collision with other people,” said Merrill.

Besides creating a business or product, being entrepreneurial can also refer to an attitude or approach that result in an ideal business owner, or even an employee whose innovative drive leads to new growth.

“The entrepreneurial spirit is a key attribute that extends beyond starting a new business or creating a new product,” said Kim Peterson, chief marketing and strategy officer at Neenah-based Alta Resources, which has a long-standing partnership with UW Oshkosh to develop an entrepreneurial culture in the region. “In addition to looking at the concept of business from a complete, 360-degree view, from development to marketing, entrepreneurs are hungry to learn, they embrace change, they like opportunity, they work hard. Our organization seeks those qualities when recruiting and hiring because they create ideal contributors within a larger organization.”

Growing emerging technologies

Emergent Labs, a technology accelerator in Milwaukee, is working with northeast Wisconsin leaders to create the Emergent Technology Center. The Milwaukee managing director, Emil Harmsen, saw the entrepreneurial talent in the region and envisioned a “self-sustaining mentor/apprentice-model seed accelerator, training academy and co-working/meetup space,” said Scott Blamey, a business systems architect at wisnet.com in Fond du Lac and founding coordinator of Emergent.

“Two Fond du Lac community strengths are the willing collaboration of its local government and community organizations, and a common goal to attract, develop and retain regional talent,” Blamey said. “The (Emergent) organizational committee is diverse and well-represented by members of the city, county, education, legal, economic development, technology, engineering and manufacturing institutions. And of similar significant value, the organization includes active entrepreneurial, angel investment and (Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.) representation.”

Emergent Technology Center will fill a gap in non-traditional services for technology entrepreneurs by providing launch methods such as lean startup and Business Model Canvas, a tool for documenting and developing business models.

“Three features will make the ETC unique when it is established,” Blamey said.

He said the Emergent will use a mentor/apprentice training model where developing talent works closely with experts in each of the organization’s three components: the educational and certifying tech academy, the business startup seed accelerator, and the collaborative working space.

Blamey said Emergent eventually will be self-supporting and won’t require annual fundraising. Students of the tech academy will work with startup teams in the seed accelerator to gain practical experience and offer valuable technical support to the new ventures.

Those students may continue with the startup companies or enter the local workforce with practical technical experience, Blamey said. Revenue from the tech academy along with current grant programs will help fund the seed accelerator.

He said the initiative will bring together emerging technologies and regional needs, particularly in manufacturing.

“There’s probably a huge opportunity to support our agricultural industry as well.” Blamey said.

Emergent is networking across the region, reaching out to entrepreneurs and local industries as well as watching developing technologies including 2D and 3D design, 3D printing, drones, web programming, gaming and augmented reality.

“We’d like to open the facility and offer the first academy and accelerator programs before the end of 2015,” Blamey said. “We are working with the Milwaukee program to demonstrate a seed accelerator program this fall in Fond du Lac to introduce the concept to the area and gather feedback that will help guide the official establishment.”

Growing an entrepreneurial system

FCEDC supports the Emergent initiative, but also has launched Ignite Business Success, a program to aid entrepreneurs.

In 2011, the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship assessed FCEDC’s economic gardening program and noted that while the county has a good support network for new businesses, it needed an Entrepreneurial Development System particularly for those businesses with between two to nine employees as well as between 10 to 99 workers.

Giese-Kent of the FCEDC said the assessment also revealed entrepreneurs aren’t sure where to get help even though there are several resources available within the local, regional and state network.

“It’s like a crazy quilt of programs and entrepreneurs may not know what’s the difference between, say, a small business development center and Advocap or the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp,” she said.

Ignite’s goal is to improve collaboration, consistency and increase entrepreneurial support.

The group’s partners have met for more than a year, discussing goals to move the effort forward.

“As Ignite evolves, other resource providers and partners may join this system to increase its effectiveness and depth of services,” Giese-Kent said.  “An example of a future partner, once fully established, would be the Emergent Technology Center initiative.”

Entrepreneurial training, market research services, capital resources, peer networks and more are provided through Ignite, Giese-Kent said. The range of targeted clients is diverse – those who have an invention idea but don’t know how to proceed; those who are developing a business plan; and small businesses seeking to enter new markets.

Official applications are done through one of Ignite’s portals. Additionally, Ignite will follow a standard and consistent business and personal assessment process and keep track of participating entrepreneurs.

“Although the formal referral system of Ignite Business Success will be launched and fully operational by mid-September, entrepreneurs can still obtain assistance from any of the providers who are part of Ignite,” Giese-Kent said.

Growing student entrepreneurs

The UW Oshkosh Small Business Development Center has ramped up its entrepreneurial offerings with Neenah’s Alta Resources as a major partner and contributor. Its newly named Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation provides services for student entrepreneurs.

“By partnering with UW Oshkosh, we have an opportunity to support entrepreneurship in this area, our state and, potentially, beyond as the program expands,” said Peterson of Alta Resources.

The Neenah-based provider of contract customer support services has maintained a long relationship with the university and in doing so, has successfully recruited, hired and trained many of its students and graduates. It was Dave Quandt, an executive at Alta Resources, UW Oshkosh alumnus, and member of the UW Oshkosh College of Business Advisory Council, who presented the concept that Alta explore ways to enhance its role with the entrepreneurial program.

“What is especially appealing about the program is that it is available to students of all majors and disciplines. It’s not just for business and marketing students,” Peterson said.

Merrill, who also oversees the Alta Resources Center at UW Oshkosh and created the AnyTime Business coworking space for entrepreneurs, said students seeking assistance are mentored by UW Oshkosh College of Business and SBDC staff, as well as by regional business professionals, including several members of the Alta Resources team.

“The Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is able to help students understand if their business idea is viable,” Merrill said. “Our doors are open to every student, in every discipline with the intent of having students collide, create new ideas, and support one another now and in the future.”

Growing entrepreneurial networks

In March, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay acquired a license to launch PeerSpectives and Press roundtables, both developed by the Edward Lowe Foundation to bring together small business owners.

PeerSpectives is for second-stage businesses, those established but requiring help to take the next step, while the roundtables are organized by company size and revenue. Press roundtables are for those approaching or new to second-stage status, with minimum annual revenues of $500,000.

“When issues come up that are outside an entrepreneur’s realm of expertise, they often can’t talk to their employees and they certainly don’t want to drive their spouse or family crazy,” said Karen Widmar, an entrepreneurship educator and licensed roundtable facilitator for the college.

Widmar said by committing to working on the business rather than in the business early on, entrepreneurs and small business owners can take better control.

“The roundtable is comprised of like-minded individuals who have more than likely faced similar issues and truly understand what it is like to be in each others’ shoes,” she said. “There is also a very strong sense of trust and accountability that isn’t found with a group of strangers. It’s about sharing experiences rather than giving advice.”

Widmar said through the open dialogue process, members are empowered to see things differently that often results in discovering more than one right answer.

“Some participants find that they are able to make better decisions, improve their confidence, develop stronger relationships with their teams, have better time-management skills, achieve a better life-work balance, are able to focus on moving the company forward rather than putting out fires, and even find reassurance that their past decisions were correct,” she said.

The roundtables are in the demonstration stage. A mock session was conducted in early June, Widmar said. More demonstrations are scheduled in August, with applications being taken at that time.

Widmar anticipates having one actual PeerSpectives and one Press roundtable set up by October.

Widmar said with the assorted initiatives available for entrepreneurs, plus the availability of modern technologies, the region is setting the stage for entrepreneurial growth and success.

“With the advances in technology, people can live and work almost anywhere. They no longer need to move to a metropolitan or urban area to have a career or start a company,” she said. “We already have a great quality of life in this region, so when our local communities embrace entrepreneurship and ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place, people can launch and grow their businesses right here.”

Robin Bruecker (robinbrueck@yahoo.com) has been writing for magazines and marketing departments since 1995.