09 Jun Lowering the fear factor for entrepreneurs, ‘intra-preneurs’
MILWAUKEE,WI.-Beware calling the next strange idea you hear strange: the person touting it just might be the next millionaire next door.
A panel of experienced entrepreneurs speaking to attendees at the first Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee last Wednesday have dealt with looks and whispers their entire working lives, and they encouraged their brethren in the audience to accept the whispers as a way of life and help each other fulfill those heretical notions nagging them at night.
“Each of us has been noted in the past for having a weird idea,” said retired Johnson Controls veteran Steve Bomba of himself and his fellow panelists. “Entrepreneurs are fundamentally strange and different people.”
Bomba noted that Wisconsinites are steeped in a fear of failure that isolates the risk-takers – exactly the situation they should not find themselves in.
“Nobody wants to be associated with a failure,” he said. “And Web sites don’t help. What entrepreneurs need [is] access to supportive friendships to aid them in … what they want to make happen.”
Panelists made a point of comparing the typical Wisconsin mindset to that of other areas of the country where entrepreneurs seem to embrace failure as a matter of course instead of something to be avoided. In Texas, they’re used to drilling 10 holes and finding oil in one, Bomba said. In San Jose, Calif., one of the hotbeds of Silicon Valley, companies are far less apt to fear the competition, noted Paul Sheldon, holder of 17 patents and one-time finalist for Discover magazine’s “Technological Innovation of the Year” award.
“They were running forward as fast as they could,” recalled Sheldon. “Every runner knows that if you turn around, you slow down.”
“In Wisconsin, we’re far too concerned about having a big piece of the pie, and we really don’t give a damn if the pie is growing or not,” he chided. “I’d much rather have a small piece of a growing pie.”
Scott Kroeger, a long-time innovator at the former Marquette Electronics and co-founder of Telaric Alliance, stressed that companies need to inspire and encourage what he called intra-preneurship , or innovation sitting within the four walls of an existing company – much like the attitude that prevailed in his 18 years at Marquette.
“It kept us at the leading edge of what we were doing for 20 years,” Kroeger said.
Unfortunately, that support from large companies is sorely lacking, according to conference attendee Paul Hildebrandt, a self-employed information systems consultant who has experience working in the Seattle area.
“That’s something that companies are not fostering today,” Hildebrandt said. “The intra-preneur is part of this process, but how do you spin that off into a real new company?”
Hildebrandt observed that Midwest entrepreneurs are looking for a measure of stability that their West Coast counterparts seem better able to do without.
“It’s a general thing, but it’s more here in Wisconsin; we’re very stable and very family-oriented. From what I’ve seen, it’s easier for [West Coast entrepreneurs] to manage the risk.
“The risk is there, but there’s always a fallback position, there’s always something else that is there that will support them during that time frame,” he said. “And there’s something else they can move on to if it doesn’t work, because they’re comfortable with the idea of moving back and forth and going after the next thing.”
Rather than fear drilling 10 holes to find the good one, Wisconsin’s go-getters must embrace failure as a part of success, Kroeger said. Don’t go looking for it so much as understand that you can learn from it.
“You’re not going to succeed unless you fail and fail frequently,” Kroeger said. “By and large, irrational exuberance in an innovator is a good thing.”
Sheldon said that in his worldwide business travels, Wisconsin is the only place he’s ever encountered the term “career risk.”
“That’s a deep cultural thread we have in Wisconsin that’s not particularly productive for entrepreneurs,” Sheldon said. But it’s not as if career-minded people don’t have a good reason for their fear.
“When you’re innovating, you’re breaking rules both real and implied,” he said. “Being creative is being a professional malcontent. When you’re breaking rules, it is threatening to someone’s way of life. When you’re threatening a way of life for somebody, they ain’t gonna be for you. Let innovators be aware they’re going to run into this. Not everyone is going to be for you when you change their way of life.”
Nevertheless, he encouraged entrepreneurs to “be willing to be a real pain to a lot of people” all the same.
“We’re on our way,” Kroeger said of spurring innovation in the state. “In my mind, a lot of it has to do with lowering the fear factor. Innovators might be quirky, but we’re also valuable.”
Lincoln Brunner is a Stevens Point, Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Wisconsin Technology Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.