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Celebrating Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial spirit

MILWAUKEE - Entrepreneurs who came to the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference, held at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, came for a variety of reasons: to gain information on starting a company, learn how to improve revenue levels, and establish connections with fellow entrepreneurs in the state.

However, at the conference luncheon on Tuesday, something else was provided to the assembled entrepreneurs and industry representatives by the guest speakers: inspiration. During the lunch, author Teresa Esser and ‘Carpe Diem’ award-winner Don Weber shared their instruction and advice with the crowd, drawing from a wealth of first-hand experience.

Esser, author of the book The Venture Café, said that she compiled this collection of over 150 colorful entrepreneurial stories and tips due to her desire to share the “entrepreneurial mindset” with others. In addition to her first-hand experience in the technology business world – her husband Pehr dropped out of MIT to co-found the Ethernet phone company NBX – she said that in writing this book she was an entrepreneur herself, turning the stories she had collected and converting that idea into a marketable item.

“An entrepreneur’s job is to figure out what they have and sell it,” Esser explained. “I am a storyteller, and I turn my stories into product.”

As well as the stories of herself and her husband, Esser spoke about a friend of hers named Frank, whom she had known when she attended school in Waukesha and who had been well known as a class clown, doing impressions and cracking jokes on a regular basis. Today, Frank is a comedian who has released a CD and done several appearances on Comedy Central, which Esser said was the core of being an entrepreneur – taking a talent, realizing there was a market for it, and parlaying that into a career.
“It’s a disservice to beat over the head with the idea of needing venture capital,” Esser said on being an entrepreneur. “It’s very sexy to talk about raising it…but it’s really about making a product and selling it.”

Esser also shared the story of Mike Chambers, a friend of her husband’s who was inspired by NBX and wanted to start his own company. However, the product he developed received little interest from people he showed it to, and Chambers spent the majority of his time purifying DNA at the lab he worked at. In time, he realized that this was the goal he should be focusing his efforts towards, and that his DNA skills this could be parlayed into a product. Despite his somewhat isolated location in Fargo, North Dakota, he made the effort to take his business to the Internet and created a profitable market for his skills.

“He saw a problem and turned it into a service, and that’s how he makes his money,” Esser said of Chambers’ efforts. “The lesson there is that entrepreneurs have a hard time realizing what their product should be.”

Following Esser’s speech, the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network chose to present the first ever Carpe Diem award – given to a person or group who epitomized the saying ‘seize the day’. The recipient of the award was a person who possessed great accomplishments of leadership and determination, with the strength to hold on to what they had.

Don Weber was the choice to receive this award, an entrepreneur who was described by presenter Scott Kroeger as a man who “embodies the resourcefulness and adaptability of the award.” In his acceptance speech, Weber credited for his success both the influence of his stubborn farm upbringing and his own trial-and-error methods, including working for companies that went under and losing his home and belongings.

“I knew, right then, that I was going to work for myself,” Weber said of the experience of defeat. “I learned more from my failures than I did from my successes.”

Weber has succeeded in learning from his failures, and managed to parlay that success into his company Logisitics Health Incorporated. He credited the idea of always looking for opportunity as crucial to his accomplishments – for example, when the U.S. Government was prepared to go into emergency status over the anthrax outbreak, Weber called the Center for Disease Control and contributed his resources against bioterrorism, helping to save 50 live which would have been lost otherwise.

Weber also gave a great deal of credit to the people he had surrounded himself with and worked with over the years, pointing out that when strong and talented people are brought in a business gets larger and stronger. Employee loyalty and happiness is very important to him – when he realized that a woman he hired had rationed her paycheck to pay for daycare, he made sure that the company would pay for it themselves.

“I decided to give pieces of the pie away…the first people to get a share of the profit are the employees,” Weber said. “You can’t put a price on loyalty.”

Attendees who heard the speeches praised both Esser and Weber for their experiences and work, as well as the way they chose to share it with the audience.

“This is a book that hones in on experience,” Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and Wisconsin Innovation Network Foundation, commented on Esser’s book. “The story is all about what it takes to succeed.”

“The award speech was excellent…he told a story that was heartwarming to everyone.” said Tom Burse, president of Buveck Consultants, a construction development company, of Weber’s acceptance speech. “He told the life experience of the typical entrepreneur, and gave hope to entrepreneurs everywhere.”

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