WisBusiness: Downturn could drive interest in this year’s state Entrepreneurs Conference

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

Basic economic history teaches that down economies stimulate innovators.

If that’s true, then this Tuesday and Wednesday’s Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference in Milwaukee should attract a sizable crowd.

“We haven’t scaled back a bit,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which is sponsoring the event.

“Entrepreneurship is as hot or hotter than in years past,” he said. “We believe more people than ever are thinking about starting a company.”

Still said the conference will have around 65 presenters, including several serial entrepreneurs speaking about their experiences. In addition, there will be talks by investors and panel discussions led by start-up experts.

The gathering will take place at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, 333 W. Kilbourn St. To register, go to http://www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com/events/ent_conf/

Still said this year’s conference is built around three themes: Refining the dream, building the team and making the green.

“In other words, it’s about putting flesh on the bones of your idea for a new business, figuring out when and what people to hire or put on your board, and bringing in money with successful sales and marketing,” Still said.

In addition, he said government leaders who have worked to expand Wisconsin’s economy will talk. They include Commerce Secretary Richard Leinenkugel, Financial Institutions Secretary Lorrie Keating Heinemann and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

Still said the finals of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest will also take place at the conference with a dozen giving what he called “make or break” presentations that will determine how they finish.

He said speakers will include Greg Meier, who is part of three Milwaukee-area IT start-ups and Toni Sikes, a Madison entrepreneur-turned-New York-investment banker who is this year’s winner of the “Seize The Day” award.

Meier said he will talk about the keys to making a new company succeed: hard work, perseverance and sacrifice.

“But it is absolutely worth it,” he said. “There is no greater satisfaction.”

Like Still, Meier said he believes the conference will have a significant turnout because of layoffs and the ever-present fear of additional downsizing at companies.

“An economic downturn always seems to spur creativity,” he said. “When people are unemployed or think they are about to become unemployed, many of them become very motivated to start something of their own.

“One thing people don’t like to have is loss of control over their lives,” he said. “They want to control their own destiny.”

Sikes, who built the nation’s largest online arts retailer – Guild.com – from a warehouse on Madison’s near East Side, said she will talk about what attributes an entrepreneur needs during a recession.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what has changed from the early dot-com days and what is going on today with the economy and the maturation of technology and the Internet,” she said.

Sykes, who started her first enterprise in 1985, said she believes many would-be entrepreneurs are “disenchanted” with working for large companies.

“We all used to think that was a safe and secure route to retirement,” she said. “We realize now that is not the case.

“Many people always have had the desire to try something in the back of our minds. Now people are taking that leap in part because of the economic disruptions we are experiencing.”

But to get businesses off the ground – once entrepreneurs have gone through their own savings and borrowed from friends and family – start-up founders need to seek outside funding.

That’s where Joe Kremer, head of the Wisconsin Angel Network, comes in. Kremer, who will lead two panels, said that although overall early-stage investing is down in Wisconsin by 30 percent, angel networks in Wisconsin are growing and the amount they are pumping into start-ups in growing.

He thinks one of the reasons for that increase is because wealthy angels see that there are “good deals to be had. Because of the decline in the stock market, valuations for early-stage deals are down about 60 percent now compared to this time last year.

“So it’s a buyer’s market. I’ve talked to investors who have said they increased their investing because of that.

“And while it’s generally harder for start-ups to attract money, entrepreneurs with good plans and good valuations should be able to attract investors.”