Madison equipped to become a startup city

By Brennan Nardi, Madison Magazine


Left to Right: Eric Oakland, TruScribe; Gregory St. Fort, 100state; Heather Wentler, Doyenne Group; Matt Younkle, Murfie

In case you haven’t noticed, a startup scene is surging all across Madison. Ideas are taking shape at coffee shops and on campuses, in coworking spaces and accelerators. Emerging new companies and academic spinoffs are launching products and services. They’re attracting consumers and clients and finding and growing resources to give their dreams a go. If local entrepreneurs and civic and business leaders capitalize on the city’s size, location and unique culture—and make inclusivity a priority—Madison has all the makings of becoming a startup city.

If you’re looking for evidence that your mother’s or father’s Madison, Wisconsin (think hippie college town, good local food, great protests), has become a bonafide startup city, you have to talk to a lot of people experimenting in this emerging space. There weren’t many startups a mere five years ago, or even three, but that’s not the case anymore. That’s a very good turnabout because startup density is a leading indicator of what’s known as an “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

The evidence gathered is now crystal clear: Communities that notice and nurture emerging businesses will be the best places to live, work and play well into the future. What that means is whether you are in Wisconsin or California, Madison or Manhattan, such an ecosystem can be fertile ground for a variety of entrepreneurs, from software developers and brewpub owners to insurance agents and cancer drug researchers. Despite the perception of Madison as a domain of the public sector, the reality is quite the opposite. Between eighty and ninety percent of the job growth here is happening in the private sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It’s an important phenomenon,” says Dan Kennelly, economic development specialist for the city of Madison. “We are almost carrying the state on our shoulders.” And those companies that start small could one day be the next Oscar Mayer, American Girl or Epic but will sport new-age names like Murfie, ConfPlus and—just three local brands in the local startup marketplace.

But there’s a catch. Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon says that “we, as a community” must support and sustain these emerging businesses, and must “create a culture that’s not afraid to fail and is open to creative ideas and fosters and celebrates innovation.”

A former entrepreneur, city alderman and deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, Brandon talks about smart public policy that “smooths the glide path to make it easier to do business here.” He talks about growing Madison’s appetite for “buying local” by embracing locally owned businesses that are both virtual and bricks and mortar, both local and global, both cheeseburger and medical device. He’s also bullish on educating people to think about the current and next economies as an integrated whole, and about how to accept the reality that some businesses will succeed while others will fail. That’s how it’s always been. If it’s a good idea with real potential, Brandon says to get behind it. Root for the home team.

“How do we get that same emotion, that visceral reaction to these startups and emerging companies that we get to Ale Asylum?” asks Brandon, referring to the successful north-side business that opened as a small microbrewery in 2006 and is now one of the top craft breweries in the state. “That was done not because investors from Silicon Valley came in or because people in Vegas discovered their beer. It was because our community wrapped itself around a great product and was proud of it and supported it.”

Brandon’s worldview echoes that of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Brad Feld, author of Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. Feld developed what’s known as the “Boulder Thesis”—Boulder, Colorado, being the breeding ground and birthplace of his ideas. The entrepreneur, Feld posits, must lead startup communities. That’s the first of four arguments in his thesis. As you might expect in Madison, the entrepreneurial growth has in large part taken root organically. Read more …

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