WisBusiness: Entrepreneurs’ conference: ‘Dramatic’ gains seen in state’s angel investing climate

By David Wise

Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still today said the investment climate in Wisconsin “is getting progressively better” with increased investment by angel investors and venture capitalists.

Speaking during a Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference panel, Still said there has been an expansion of angel investment networks from six about three years ago to 17 today.

Still said the Wisconsin Technology Council will release a report in a few weeks that will show a “significant uptick” in total investment over 2006. Part of the increase Still attributed to a 25 percent tax break angel investors can receive for investing in certain businesses.

“The angel climate here has improved dramatically over the past five years or so,” Still said. He also said venture climate is improving as well.

“We’re seeing more and more traffic by venture capitalists from outside of Wisconsin who are taking a look at deals here,” Still said. “The visits are picking up.”

Business leaders tout importance of family and friends

This morning, attendees heard from Craig Culver, co-founder of the Culver’s hamburger chain, which is famous for its butter burgers and frozen custard. Culver discussed his touch-and-go entry into the restaurant industry that took off when a friend convinced him that the food business was his passion. Culver took an A&W stand once operated by his family and turned it into a 370-plus franchise business that operates in 17 states.

Culver said his strategy was to build the business one franchise at a time, getting to know franchisees before deals were finalized. Despite the company’s growth under his leadership, Culver said it was his father that was the true entrepreneur.

The importance of family and friends was a theme echoed by Anne Zizzo, CEO of Zizzo Group Advertising and Public Relations. Zizzo said she left a marketing job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1995 to assist her father who was diagnosed with lung cancer despite having never smoked. Although she quit, MJS kept her on as a consultant.

Within one year, she had signed on additional clients, ended up hiring seven employees who were working out of her basement and generated $7 million in sales. In 2007, Zizzo Group had grown to $40 million in billing. A big help in her success, Zizzo said, is that she did not burn bridges in her dealing with people throughout the early days in her career.

Those contacts and former employers ended up as clients, she said. Although she has had considerable success, she said she encountered a lot of ups and downs that made her want to “throw in the towel.” She said she got through the rough times by resolving to have a positive attitude every day.

Asked about Milwaukee’s business climate, Zizzo said she has made a choice not to focus on mistakes the region has made in the past and instead focus on the area’s potential. She said she challenges other to realize Milwaukee is “a good place to do business, to celebrate our strengths and just quit complaining and make it happen.”

Winner of Gov’s Business Plan Contest to be announced Monday night

The winner of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest will be announced at an awards dinner this evening at the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference in Milwaukee.

The top finalists in the areas of advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences presented their business plans this afternoon following a day of speeches and panel discussions.

The awards dinner is to include speeches by Lorrie Keating Heinemann, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions and Wisconsin native G. Steve Burrill, CEO and founder of Burrill & Co., a $950-million life sciences merchant bank.

The conference runs through Tuesday and includes a number of prominent speakers and panel discussions geared toward entrepreneurs and investors. The conference ends tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. following the presentation of the Ken Hendricks Memorial Seize the Day Award to Milwaukee business leader and philanthropist Michael Cudahy. About 400 people registered for the conference.