By Tom Still
MADISON – You know entrepreneurism is going upscale when the Wall Street Journal and The Economist are covering it.
The Wall Street Journal may have gone decades without writing about a company that wasn’t publically owned, and The Economist has long prided itself on being above the fray of mundane endeavors such as the mechanics of company formation. Yet both publications have produced some excellent journalism of late on the promises and perils of entrepreneurism.
Crisis had made entrepreneurism counter-cyclical cool. At a time when most of the economic news is bad, occasional rays of light break through the gloom when a start-up company launches a successful product, lands a big investment or grows seemingly overnight. That is happening in Wisconsin, even as the jobless rate has climbed to 8.8 percent and some people wonder if the recession will ever end.
One of the enduring myths about Wisconsin is that you can’t find entrepreneurs here. It’s a Joe Lunchbucket state, or so the image goes, where most people would rather work for anyone else but themselves.
For a long time in Wisconsin, that perception was true. The average Joe and Jane were perfectly content to punch a clock at the local factory, especially when the pay and benefits were good and the job itself seemed quasi-permanent. But times changed. The local factory isn’t always there anymore. If it is, it has retooled and gotten a lot leaner and smarter to compete.
Necessity has been the mother of many entrepreneurial moments in Wisconsin, especially since manufacturing employment peaked in 1999-2000 and a state dependent on that sector began to diversify. Long near the bottom of the 50-state list for business start-ups, Wisconsin has laid a foundation for a new future – one that includes a healthier mix of early stage companies to augment its older and larger firms.
A recent example of Wisconsin’s renewed standing came when the U.S. Small Business Administration’s six-state Midwest region announced 11 awards to small business owners, advocates and entrepreneurs. Four of the 11 were from Wisconsin.
They were Michael Phillips, vice president of National City Bank in Milwaukee (Financial Services Champion); LaToya Robbins, owner of LaPre Enterprises Inc. in Racine (Young Entrepreneur); Laurie Benson, CEO and founder of Inacom Information Systems in Madison (Women in Business Champion); and Mike Klein, publisher and editorial director of WTN Media in Madison (Small Business Journalist).
Benson and Klein are well known in Wisconsin’s technology community, where many entrepreneurs have found a niche. As CEO of Inacom for 24 years, Benson has helped the company grow into one of Wisconsin’s largest information technology providers. She has done so while mentoring others. Klein is a UW-Madison graduate who returned from the Silicon Valley about eight years ago to launch the Wisconsin Technology Network, a well-read, online news service that focuses on the tech sector.
Entrepreneurism is by no means limited to the tech sector, of course, and today’s entrepreneurs come in all varieties. They are not all young, nor are they necessarily social loners. Only a small number have their ideas funded by venture capitalists. Many entrepreneurs haven’t invented the latest, whiz-bang product. Sometimes, they succeed by marketing old products in new and more appealing ways. In other words, they reinvent the process.
What’s most surprising is that during a time of renewed government activism and even intervention in the economy, entrepreneurism appears to be happily charting different channels. And at a time when the economy is causing pain for so many, entrepreneurs often see opportunity in dysfunction.
Wisconsin has its fair share of entrepreneurs and is creating more every day. It is also creating room for those entrepreneurs in cyberspace, in targeted conferences, in mentoring programs and in public policies that recognize the importance of providing incentives.
Entrepreneurism isn’t for everyone, but a healthy economy depends on the fact that it’s great for some.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which will host the seventh Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference June 9-10 in Milwaukee.