By Tom Still
MADISON – Despite some rankings that place Wisconsin at the bottom of the 50-state barrel for business startups, there are places in the Badger State where entrepreneurs are busily making their own jobs, companies and futures.
Madison is one such hub, with a mix that includes emerging companies in health care, software, medical devices, health information technology, gaming, biotechnology, engineered products and more. Parts of Milwaukee are coming on strong in fields such as advanced manufacturing, power and controls and water technology. There are smaller but vibrant startup pockets in the Fox Valley and the Chippewa Valley.
For many people in Wisconsin, however, the art of starting a business still seems out of reach and all-too-risky. They’re wary of trading a steady job for the uncertain “high” of being an entrepreneur. They’re often unsure how to create the right legal structure for their enterprise, how to finance their young business beyond their own pockets and where to go for advice from experienced mentors.
Fifteen years ago in Wisconsin, those concerns were much more valid than they are today. Support systems for entrepreneurs ranged from sketchy to non-existent. Today, help can come from statewide, regional and local networks; “how-to” events, contests and programs; mentors; colleges and universities; co-working spaces; accelerators; early stage investors and more.
The latest addition to Wisconsin’s startup infrastructure is a state program that should appeal to rural Wisconsin, inner-city neighborhoods and smaller communities – places that are often overlooked as potential pools of entrepreneurs.
Dubbed the Entrepreneurship Support program, this $500,000 initiative by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is accepting applications through Oct. 31 from nonprofit groups and communities for activities and projects that promote entrepreneurship and deliver key services and resources.
The program will make competitive grants ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 for activities such as entrepreneurial promotion and education, mentorship and training, and business development and financial services. Grants must be matched by the applicant and the work must take place in 2017. Application details and criteria can be found at InWisconsin.com/espilot.
The WEDC already has programs and partners that focus on technology-based and growth-oriented startup and early stage businesses, including a tax credit program that remains a national model.
The latest initiative aims to meet a need that holds back some rural and mid-sized communities, where a recurring fear is losing mature companies and young talent.
“The program is intended to bring new services to regions where there are still gaps, and to increase the impact of services where they are available,” said Aaron Hagar, who heads WEDC’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Division.
“One common theme across research on this topic is that the strongest entrepreneurial communities are the ones that maximize connectivity among both entrepreneurs and service providers. We’re looking for projects that reflect that spirit of collaboration,” Hagar said.
Of course, some critics of WEDC will write off the initiative as “too little, too late.” Wisconsin spent years fixated on chasing smokestacks beyond its borders to the detriment of encouraging more startups at home. The latter strategy costs less and yields more over time, based on experiences in other states and national statistics about job creation by young companies.
A better response would be to give the Entrepreneurship Support program a chance to work.
If Wisconsin is truly 50th among the states in terms of business startups, as the Kauffman Foundation recently reported, it’s because startup rates in smaller communities, inner-city neighborhoods and rural Wisconsin are especially low. Larger cities such as Madison are holding their own or better; smaller communities run the risk of being startup deserts.
It’s a small trial program in a big state that still lacks a startup culture from border-to-border, so don’t expect miracles. However, it’s also the latest addition to a foundation that gets stronger by the year.