New startup studio will take different approach to launching ideas

Joe Donovan isn’t taking the traditional route to developing a startup.

That’s because he’s launching a “startup studio,” an increasingly common organization that generally brainstorms multiple startup ideas and tests them out — sticking with the most promising ones. It’s different from, say, an entrepreneur with an idea who finds investors, goes through an accelerator and looks for an “exit” so its investors can make money.

The studio, called Forward Venture Partners, will consist of Donovan, 43, and several of his employees at his copywriting company, ProPRcopy. They will test startup ideas to serve other businesses or educational organizations, two areas that Donovan knows well.

“We use all of our own ideas, all of our testing protocols, our own people, our own money and then we launch them,” Donovan said.

Donovan, who’s been a spokesman for the state’s Department of Public Instruction and staffer for former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, has tried the traditional startup path before. That was when he launched ProPRcopy seven years ago and was looking for investor funding, a process he described as “extremely painful” but enlightening.

Though he said the venture capital approach works great for some, it didn’t work for him, partly because investors often want entrepreneurs to fundamentally change their business idea.

“I thought that [venture capital] was the only way,” Donovan said. “I thought raising money for this was the only way. What I didn’t know is there were other options.”

Donovan got a $25,000 “small but crucial” loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. He then looked for ways to turn a profit right away, instead of putting “a lot of cash and emotional energy for something that may not work.”

ProPRcopy was essentially hatched the same way Forward Venture Partners is planning future startups. Donovan, who runs the educational communications consulting firm Donovan Group, was looking to start a new company. His team tested about a dozen business ideas, and ProPRcopy had the most promising metrics.

Now, ProPRcopy employs about 100 writers and contractors and lists several Fortune 500 companies as customers. The company’s services include press releases, social media, blog posts and updating website content.

Several startup ideas are already in the works, Donovan said, though he’s declining to talk about them publicly until they’re fully launched. He said his team, which will work in Milwaukee and Madison, can test about 20 business ideas at one time, and they’re planning on launching four companies this year and six next year.

“If a business idea doesn’t prove successful, we won’t launch it,” Donovan said.

— By Polo Rocha,