If you hear anything at all about the software scene in Milwaukee, it’s probably related to one of the region’s huge employers. There are thousands of software engineers working for the region’s large technology companies, including Fiserv, Metavante, and GE Healthcare.
The software that is created by engineers inside these large organizations is often used internally, or sold along with the company’s other products. End users may not even know that it exists, let alone that someone was paid to write it.
But there’s a dynamic software community in the small Milwaukee companies formed by people who set out on their own.
“Things don’t happen accidentally,” observed Guy Mascari, director of the Technology Innovation Center (TIC) at the Milwaukee County Research Park. The TIC has thirty-five entrepreneurial tenants, two-thirds of whom are focused on writing software.
Mascari sees parallels between the engineers who left large aerospace and defense companies in Silicon Valley and the embedded software developers who leave companies like Rockwell Automation and Johnson Controls in Milwaukee.
“When the entrepreneurial spirit started forming out there, it developed on the core competencies,” Mascari said.
High-tech entrepreneurs in the Milwaukee area have taken advantage of the core competencies built by the region’s large employers.
Rebuilding from the ground up
Andy Matter has been in the auto I.D. and bar code industry for twenty years. During the 90s he was employed by Milwaukee’s W.H. Brady corporation, where he built up a $12 million software business inside the large corporation. “Two days before September 11th, 2001, I got canned,” Matter recalled.
Getting “canned” from his job at W.H. Brady seemed like a setback, but it turned out to be an opportunity. Having traveled extensively for Brady, Matter had business connections around the world. Shortly after becoming a free agent, Matter received a telephone call from a man in Kranj, Slovenia, who had developed labeling software called NiceLabel. He was able to sell his product in Europe, but was struggling to find a way to bring it into the United States. “We had a lot of experience developing a distribution channel, and no product,” Matter recalled.
In April 2002 Matter and his business partner, Lee Patty, launched their business, Niceware International, in 800 square feet of space at the Innovation Center. “We had already built a company like this working for Brady,” Matter said. “We’ve built a company successfully before, and now we’re doing it all over again. This time we’re doing it for ourselves, so we can keep the money.”
Niceware International helps its customers meet standards that are imposed on them by customers, suppliers, or the federal government. Niceware can be found at McDonald Douglas, helping the company put bar codes on parts of an airplane as they roll off the assembly line. Labor-and-delivery rooms at hospitals require mothers and babies to wear I.D. bracelets, and the company provides hospitals with the technology they need to make these bracelets.
The huge boom in RFID use at the retail level has created new opportunities. If a large retailer needs its products to be labeled with bar codes, Niceware will provide suppliers with the technology to create labels with bar codes. If the retailer needs RFID tags, Niceware will provide RFID. “We are moving from selling software to selling solutions,” Matter said.
As a player in a worldwide business market, Matter could have located his business anywhere. He and his partners were born and raised in Milwaukee, and they believe that people in this region have an incredible work ethic. Milwaukee’s software programmers show up for work on time, and they have a great deal of drive to succeed. The stereotypical Milwaukee native is pleasant to work with and cares about maintaining customer relationships.
Matter tells me that Niceware International’s Milwaukee office now occupies 2500 square feet in the Technology Innovation Center and business is growing at about 60 percent each year. With the opportunities he has in front of him, Matter believes that his business could easily double in 2006.
Meat and potatoes programming
Mike Lilek is founder and president of Shining Brow Software, a “meat and potatoes” software startup that provides services to small- and medium-sized landscape contractors, medical equipment developers, and others who need to fix things in the field.
Because Lilek’s company distributes its products through a partnership with Microsoft, he has the freedom to build his business wherever he wants. “It doesn’t matter where we are in the world,” Lilek said. “We just need a pool of developers. The sales come through this distribution channel.”
A lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Lilek says he values the large pool of talented software developers who work at the regions’ giant employers. He also values stability. At a time when the software industry as a whole was experiencing annual job turnover of 18 percent, Shining Brow Software’s turnover rate was just 6 percent. “We consistently find stability in Milwaukee,” Lilek said.
Lilek is interested in employees who are not going to disappear as soon as they find another job that pays slightly more. He believes that it takes six months or more for new hires to develop a full understanding of how his company operates, and he values his ability to retain his key hires. “There is no greener grass in other cities,” Lilek said. “If you are trying to build a quality development company, you can do it right here.”
Keeping your costs down
Guild Software publishes an online video game with space combat, mining, trading, and piracy. John Bergman, the company’s president, said that a big advantage to starting his company in Wisconsin, rather than in Boston or San Francisco, is the lower cost of living.
The Technology Innovation Center has provided Bergman with low rent and a good office environment. Additionally, Bergman said that during his company’s earliest days, he was able to get free bandwidth from another company there, the Internet service provider Internet Connect
But given that Bergman’s massively multiplayer online video game exists entirely in the universe that Bergman and his teammates have built themselves, their physical location in the real world was largely irrelevant.
“The cost of living and the expected salaries in San Francisco would negate our ability to start a company there,” Bergman said. He estimates that although it might be easier to access video game publishers in places like Texas or Santa Monica, California, “our physical location really didn’t matter that much.”