08 Jun Conference focuses on experience, challenges of being an entrepreneur
Milwaukee — Old experiences were passed down to new businesses at the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference, held June 7 and 8 in Milwaukee at the Hyatt Regency.
New and developing Wisconsin business owners, investors and professional service providers converged at the conference to learn techniques and to network. Seminar members and keynote speakers were chosen for their ability to meet challenges and come away stronger.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said that the conference was designed to provide attendees with three things: innovation, inspiration and real-world experiences. About 380 people signed up for a banquet on Tuesday evening to hear the results of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, still said, and about 450 people registered for at least one of the conference sessions.
“Being an entrepreneur can be a very lonely experience,” Still said. “It’s reassuring to hear the stories of those who came before and survived and even prospered.”
The conference opened on Tuesday with a speech by Grace Bulger, author of the “The Enlightened Entrepreneur” and a former vice president at GE Capital. Bulger talked about the harder times she had had as an entrepreneur, from losing her primary consulting clients to having her freelance screenplays rejected.
Bulger said that the main skill she was able to develop in response to this rejection was an acceptance of it, especially through networking with friends and collaborators. In the long run difficulties can actually help the business grow, since it forces entrepreneurs to take a closer look at why they started the company and their original vision.
“I think it’s important to celebrate rejection and failure as part of the process,” Bulger said. “You can’t understand success without experiencing failure.”
Tuesday morning also included the entrepreneurial boot camp, a program walking entrepreneurs through techniques to start and market a new company. Panelists drew from years of building and selling companies to find the best advice for startups.
Richard Kerndt, president of the Richmark Group consulting firm and a panel moderator, said the most important skill a young business can learn is dealing with change. When a company is trying to penetrate the market nothing is constant, and “any decision you make for your company is probably not going to be good next week.”
The best way an entrepreneur can adjust to this environment, according to Kerndt, is to not get carried away with a feeling that you can do everything. Entrepreneurs have to build a talented staff of “finders, minders and grinders” who can take on multiple tasks, because when an entrepreneur tries to manage the company alone they are left without growth.
Kerndt said that once a company organizes itself in this fashion, the trick is to be able to take action and find a niche market that is both profitable and undominated by bigger competitors. “Large companies move very slowly, and as an entrepreneur you can run circles around them,” Kerndt said, “but you have to pick the circles.”
Lunch at the conference was accompanied by a speech from Kay Koplovitz, the founder of USA Network and Springboard Ventures. Kay talked about her experiences working as a female entrepreneur beginning telecommunications work in 1996, moving to bring satellite broadcasting to thousands of homes
Kay also described how she spearheaded the founding of Springboard in Silicon Valley, a firm that specifically focused on getting start-ups held by women venture capital funding. Since its founding in 2000 she has helped 317 companies present to investors, leading to a total of $3 billion raised from various sources.
“There has never been anything like it before or since in the venture capital presentation marketplace,” Kay said. “We can show women how the venture capital game is played, how to talk to investors and what you can offer them.”
Still said that he felt the conference was successful in attracting entrepreneurs, partly due to the Governor’s Business Plan Contest. He said that the economy of Milwaukee is growing to revolve around startup companies, and it was easier to get local attendees. “There were a lot of new names signed up, which says entrepreneurs to us,” he said.
Entrepreneurs who attended the conference did so for a variety of reasons. Ilya Basin, director of technology for the loan pricing search engine LendingArsenal.com, said that his company is not ready for networking “without an introduction”, and they need to learn how to attract angel investors and build up a marketing fund.
“I think the best way to come out is to learn more about how to package a company and learn what are the expectations from investors,” Basin said.
Anil Gupte, president and CEO of Keen Inc., said he came to the event to look for help in building his staff and learning how to raise funds. While he thought the conference was aimed more towards telling entrepreneurs what they want as opposed to asking what they need, he felt the sessions did have information that would help down the road.
“I’ve been to several similar things, but every time I go to one I learn 2 percent more,” Gupte said.
Other companies came to learn from example. Mitch Nick, one of the founders of the firefighting technology company FireSite, said they wanted to take advantage of being a Business Plan Contest finalist to sample the first-hand knowledge provided by the conference. Both he and partner Nick O’Brien were surprised and impressed by the depth each speaker had to offer.
“Successful speakers make you want to be more successful … it wears off on you over time,” O’Brien said.