Early Stage Symposium assembles the startup community

Over 600 people came together to share ideas, make connections and plan for the future of the Wisconsin startup economy at the 2016 Early Stage Symposium on Nov. 16 and 17.

This Madison event provides opportunities for entrepreneurs to tap into the Wisconsin startup and investor community, and for the members of that community to share the knowledge gained from their experiences.

A group of communications experts did just that at a Thursday panel on storytelling in the startup space, giving advice to on how to leverage focused communication early on to support long-term growth.

Jennifer Savino of KW2 advertising agency said that while the product itself is important, the narrative that goes along with it often attracts customers.

“It’s not just the product that people are buying; it’s the story behind it,” said Savino. “And the first audience that you have to convince with that story is the folks that you’re trying to get funding from. Bringing marketing people in early is going to help you do that.”

It’s not enough to simply tell a compelling story, according to Savino. Timing is important.

“The one difference between the West coast and here that I’ve witnessed is that lots of times marketing professionals are not brought in until much later in the process when they’re about ready to go to market,” said Savino.

Another factor is geography.

“Northeast Wisconsin has a lot of strengths. We hope to find ourselves in a position Madison was in five to seven years ago in terms of the environment for high-tech startups,” said Paul Jones of the Forum for Innovation Network.

He added that Northeast Wisconsin has been continually overlooked in favor of Madison and Milwaukee.

“Most people in Madison I know worry about Milwaukee. Most people in Milwaukee worry about Madison,” said Jones. “Meanwhile, Northeast Wisconsin has the second largest economic footprint in the state.”

This is important, said Jones, because although Madison and Milwaukee have been receiving a lot of attention in this arena, the state overall is only cashing in on a tiny fraction of the money that’s out there.

“We’re still stuck around one-half percent every year for venture capital,” said Jones. “That needs to change, and if it’s going to change, we’re going to have to connect the dots between Milwaukee, Madison and Northeast Wisconsin to create some critical mass.”

Jacquin Davidson, of BizStarts Milwaukee, supported the idea of cross-discipline collaboration as a complement to cross-regional collaboration.

“There are a lot of silos here, and people aren’t that interested in working together,” said Davidson. “We have worked really hard in the past couple years to bring those silos down.”

This focus on connection through communication is a common theme in many conversations about the startup space. According to Mike Flaherty of Flaherty & Associates, businesses can improve the ways they communicate with their target markets by placing that burden on a single, highly qualified individual.

“Without that core person in charge of it, it’s not strategic,” said Flaherty. “It’s building a personality, it’s building an image, it’s building a relationship between the market and your product right from the beginning.”

It can be difficult, said Steve Lyons of Husch Blackwell, for entrepreneurs to put “their baby” into another person’s arms and trust that person to handle the public image of the company.

To startups hesitant to do so, Savino says “it’s not about you, it’s about your target audience.”

“I think it’s really important to define who you’re for, and you’re telling that story based on what they want to hear, not what you want them to know,” said Savino.

Startups are already making the right connections in the Southeast corner of the state, according to Davidson.

“We’re still seeing over 200 active companies right now that are starting businesses, and 85 percent of them have some profit after the first year,” said Davidson. “Those statistics are incredible.”

Davidson also said that while she sees great success on the West coast, she thinks Wisconsin can grow in the same fashion.

Her confidence was echoed by Paul Jadin, the MadREP president, who said about Madison that “our ecosystem is at the point where it rivals anywhere in in the country.”

While he stopped short of equating the Madison area with Silicon Valley, he did say that “we are certainly in that next tier.” He pointed to transportation as a crucial hurdle for business growth, in particular the small size of the Madison airport.

Other obstacles standing in the way of startup growth are environmental factors that keep entrepreneurship numbers down in disadvantaged Milwaukee neighborhoods.

According to Davidson, these obstacles can be overcome by different organizations coming together through various entrepreneurship events in community centers and churches.

“We are working hard to get to the disadvantaged neighborhoods and let them know that starting your own business is an option,” said Davidson. “We want them to recognize that this is a possibility for them.”

–By Alex Moe,