Just the fact that the second annual Startup Week Milwaukee will begin on Monday, Nov. 6, along with the first Startup Week Wisconsin (with programs in nine cities, plus Milwaukee), says that there is increasing energy and importance attached to launching businesses and encouraging entrepreneurs here.
At least business start-ups are creating more buzz around Wisconsin these days than they did for many years.
But there is a lot to be done to make the entrepreneurial climate comparable to that of some other places. In recent years, both Milwaukee and Wisconsin have been near the bottom of rankings for business startups.
Thoughts on both the increased momentum for startups and what needs to be done to move things farther were offered Thursday in an “On the Issue with Mike Gousha” program at the Lubar Center in Eckstein Hall. Three entrepreneurs involved in startups in the Milwaukee area described evidence that the landscape is improving. They said they expect that by several years from now, the rankings for Milwaukee and Wisconsin will be more encouraging.
Taking part in the program with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, were Matt Cordio, of Startup Milwaukee and Skills Pipeline (he describes himself as a “technology talent scout”); Amanda Baltz, CEO of Spaulding Medical, which makes electrocardiogram equipment that can be used easily outside of hospitals; and Richard Yau, co-founder and CEO of Bright Cellars, a monthly subscription service for wine, based in Milwaukee.
Cardio said that last year’s debut of Startup Week Milwaukee was a success and there was interest in other cities. That led to this year’s bigger undertaking in Milwaukee and the statewide effort. “It’s all about building momentum in Wisconsin’s startup community,” he told Gousha.
“The truth is somewhere in between” the gloomiest and the most enthusiastic portrayals of the climate for launching businesses in the Milwaukee area, Cardio said. There is a lot going on, but this isn’t Boston and there are steps still needed to make things better. Such as?
Dealing with the “non-compete” issue, Baltz said. Places such as California, the nation’s leading startup setting, have state laws that allow people with entrepreneurial ideas to leave jobs with established businesses and start their own ventures. Places, including Wisconsin, where employers are allowed to have contracts with employees that bar them from starting businesses for a period of time after they leave a job. Many startup advocates say such rules slow down the environment for new business ideas.
Baltz said the venture she leads, which is a spinoff of her father’s business, is offering lightweight electrocardiogram equipment that can be used in nursing homes and other locations by customers around the world. She said the benevolence of her father’s employer allowed her father to start his ventures when non-compete clauses might have been a barrier.
Yau said a climate that is not as risk averse as the Milwaukee area would help. He said bolder thinking needs to be encouraged. While a willing financial backer meant Yau brought his business idea to Milwaukee after living on the east coast, the area is still regarded as more risk-averse than some other places, he said.
Yau’s business uses data to match people with wines that are likely to appeal to them and sends them wines each month. It has about 18,000 subscribers and 37 employees, he said, and he envisions substantial growth.
Cardio also said it would be good to see more eagerness “to embrace culture change” around startups and business ideas tapping into the high-tech world. He said announcements in recent days by Northwestern Mutual and the Aurora medical system that they were going to invest in high tech startups were encouraging.
Government could do more, such as improved tax incentives for investing in startups, the three said. But, as Cardio put it, “a startup community needs to be built by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs,” so the role of government is not as central as some might suggest.
One effort that drew praise from Cardio: The Marquette Law School’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic, which pairs people from startup ventures with law students who can help with legal matters.
All three speakers said they are bullish on the prospects for new businesses and the business climate the Milwaukee area in the next several years. The right players are at the table, Cardio said. “It’s a pretty exciting time here in southeastern Wisconsin,” he said. Yau said, “I think Milwaukee is going to become a tech hub.”