By Tom Still

From time to time, people raise the question of whether startups should “pay to pitch” at events such as the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, which is produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council.

Great question… except entrepreneurs do not “pay to pitch” at the Early Stage Symposium and never have. They pay to attend, at one of several discounted rates, a high-value conference with a lot more going on than brief investor pitches.

The Early Stage Symposium, which will take place Nov. 3-4 at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center, has operated under its current name for 15-plus years and under other titles since the early 1980s. Presenting companies over time rank today among some of the state’s most successful tech-based companies, creating jobs and economic activity.

Long before the Tech Council began managing the conference in the early 2000s, people paid to attend. Why? Because they have come to expect a quality experience that includes hearing from leading industry experts, watching top-flight companies explain their products and services, mingling with credible investors, getting plenty to eat during the breaks and generally walking away with information, insights and inspiration.

Scores of companies apply each fall to pitch in one of two symposium tracks – the five-minute Tech Council Investors Network segment and the 90-second Elevator Pitch Olympics. They can also meet one-on-one with investors during another speed-dating segment, even if they were not selected to pitch. Many young companies wind up having a handful or more such “Investor Intros” meetings.

If companies or individual entrepreneurs aren’t selected to pitch or meet with investors and choose not to attend, we offer refunds. They’re smart entrepreneurs, not neophytes to be coddled or protected. They can and do make their own informed decisions about whether to show up.

By the way, almost all show up. Rarely do companies that apply to present to or meet with investors decide not to attend. Why? They understand the overall value of the conference, the behind-the-scenes work that goes into it and how it stacks up to similar events.

Typically, similar regional conferences cost about $395 to attend for general admission and $195 for startups – if they offer such discounts. Comparable rates for the two-day Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium are $269 for general admission, $179 for emerging companies and startups and $60 for students, who may be starting companies or learning how to do so. If cost is a concern, we can offer some startup “scholarships” courtesy of our sponsors.

Finally, investors themselves want to know that young companies aren’t just showing up to pitch and run without putting any skin into the game.

A five-minute presentation is only the start of a much longer and deeper relationship that may begin with an on-stage introduction, and which evolves over time as investors and entrepreneurs get to know one another and find mutual value in the relationship.

Wisconsin has an ecosystem for entrepreneurs and young companies that is growing stronger by the year, and the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium has been a sustainable part of that process for more than a generation. The market has validated the event and the business model over time, as have the emerging companies themselves.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.