10 Jun Entrepreneurial Spirit Infectious in Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE, WI.- Whatever was goin’ down at the first-ever Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee last week, it felt good. It felt good to see people smiling about what they were doing and what they planned to do.
Back in college, a couple roommates of mine hatched a plan to rid Lake Erie of the dreaded zebra mussel, a tiny creature whose sheer powers of multiplication were quickly making it the scourge of the entire Great Lakes region.
Having both worked many summers at a Toledo-area marina, my buddies had heard the complaints about the mussels, read about a way to eradicate them, and then decided to launch a business to fill the market void. They had a name, something resembling a business plan, a ready clientele and what they saw as a can’t-miss product. I don’t remember much about the business plan, and to my knowledge, they never made a go of it. But man, do I remember their enthusiasm. They were gonna rid every boater and marina operator on Lake Erie of zebra mussels forever and retire rich. They just knew it.
That’s the thing about entrepreneurs. They just believe. Call ’em nuts, overly suggestible, out to lunch, whatever; they could be trying to sell junk bonds to Michael Milken, and they believe they can make it work.
Life is exciting when you’re around that kind of person. But put 300 of them in the same space for a couple of days, and you get a genuine buzz going, even without the free beer. In fact, what you get are ideas—ideas about what could be for them and for the state and for your own future.
Me, I hole myself up in a basement office in downtown Stevens Point and try to imagine what life is like for writers in New York or Chicago or Madison. But I don’t have to go far to see entrepreneurs risking their hides in what Kipling called “one turn of pitch and toss.” Two restaurants just opened up right across the street. My wife’s selling children’s books out of our spare bedroom. The Cubs just took a series from the Yankees. Stuff’s goin’ down.
And whatever was goin’ down at the first-ever Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee last week, it felt good. It felt good to see people smiling about what they were doing and what they planned to do.
I covered the metal fabrication industry for a few years, and let me tell you—the last few haven’t found too many people smiling. How refreshing to get the same vibe I got back in 1999, when the founders of now-defunct metal trading Web sites e-STEEL and Metalsite got up in front of industry peers in Chicago and announced they had a new way, a better way, so watch out.
I was wondering if I’d see just a little of that swagger ever again. I saw it in Milwaukee—people talking about niche software services and cool hardware and teeming clusters of bioinformatics businesses and new wave media. And the people talking about this stuff weren’t just salespeople; they were believers, high-tech disciples on a mission.
Shoot, you didn’t even have to know what the heck bioinformatics meant (people in the business couldn’t even agree on that) to know something hot was cooking. How else could you get the mayor of Milwaukee and the governor of the state to speak at the same gathering in a nonelection year?
The ostensible goal of the conference was to link the people with the ideas with the money to fire the rocket. And organizers of the event did their part. I mean, panels of venture capitalists up on stage almost handing business plans to people? Where does that happen? For a minute I felt like closing up shop and going back to school just to get in on the action. Then I remembered my joy at testing out of math in college (can you say, “Bachelor of Arts”?).
How deep the ideas people will get into pockets of the money men is anyone’s guess. Depends on their business plans. But for about 36 hours, there was a buzz in downtown Milwaukee, and it had everything to do with people believing there is a bright future for high-tech ideas in Wisconsin and giving it the ol’ college try.
Maybe next year (preliminary plans do call for a next year, by the way), organizers will work in even more time for people just to sit down and connect, maybe at tables designated by interest area. Advice is good, but meeting people excited about your avocation is better. Panelist Steve Bomba, himself a veteran innovator, said it best when he observed, “What entrepreneurs need is access to supportive friendships.”
Bingo. It’s not just about the money, although making serious money is what everyone is trying to do in the entrepreneur game. It’s about using your creation as the vehicle to the money and finding the people who will help you build it.
Gee, if my old buddies had had such a conference to attend back then. They just might be the zebra mussel kings of the world today. And wouldn’t that be something?
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.