Surgical is an Oconomowoc producer of tools and kits to help surgeons more
accurately define the margins of excised tissue. It sells three
industry-leading operating room products in all 50 states and internationally.

a Madison-based provider of electronic health records software for eye doctors,
employs about 70 people, has grown to $5.5 million in annual revenue and will
continue to expand in Wisconsin even after a San Francisco investor bought a
majority stake in the company.
was founded by hard-core anglers who came up with interactive fishing maps,
social media platforms and more – and it has hooked investments from angel and
venture capitalists in Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond.

do these three companies have in common? They’re all past finalists in the
Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, a multi-stage competition that has
helped hundreds of entrepreneurs since its inception in 2004. The 12th
annual contest is open for entries through 5 p.m. Jan. 31 at

Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here  

contest will again offer more than $100,000 in cash and service prizes,
courtesy of its sponsors, but many past contestants say the real “prize” is the
plan-writing process itself.  Here are reasons to enter:

–  You can walk
before you run. The first phase entry is about 250 words (or 1,400 characters
with spaces) spread among four criteria – product or service description;
customer definition; market description, size and sales strategy; and
competition. There’s no need to submit financials right away.

–  The four contest
categories are deliberately broad – advanced manufacturing, business services,
information technology and life sciences. It’s rare that an entry cannot find a
logical home.

–  Entrepreneurs may
enter multiple ideas, so long as each idea is separate and distinct. It is free
to enter.

–  All entries are
accepted through The second and
third stages of the contest also take place through that website, culminating
in a 15- to 20-page plan. Up to 12 finalists will present live at the Wisconsin
Entrepreneurs’ Conference in early June.

–  Your chances of
winning something are pretty good. If past contests are any indicator, roughly
one in 14 entrants will reach the top 25.

–  Contestants meet
some interesting people. The 50 semi-finalists are invited to attend a
half-day “boot camp” in Waukesha, where they’ll meet mentors, potential
investors, successful entrepreneurs and others with startup experience.

–  The judges and
mentors offer years of valuable experience. More than 80 judges drawn from the
finance, sales, marketing, research and technology sectors across Wisconsin –
and beyond – will score the entries and provide feedback on submissions. The
mentoring corps will include members of SCORE Southeast Wisconsin.

–  Your idea will get
some valuable exposure. Semi-finalists may post their executive summaries on
the Wisconsin Angel Network web site for secured review by accredited
investors. Also, leaders in Wisconsin’s business press may see news
value in your story.

–  Finally, and most
important, many past winners have been successful. About three-quarters of
finalists over the history of the contest report they’re still in business and
attracting investors, partners and clients to their ideas.

“graduates” of past contests include 2014 Milwaukee-area finalists such as
MaxiROi, 65 Incorporated, TAI Diagnostics, Lightweight Composite Castings and
Find My Spot, which won the Business Services category. Collectively over time,
finalists have raised about $160 million in grant awards and private
investments over time.

its inception in 2004, more than 2,900 entries have been received – including
about 330 from the city of Milwaukee and another 610 from southeast Wisconsin’s
M-7 region. About $1.8 million in cash and services (such as legal, accounting,
office space and marketing) have been awarded. The Wisconsin Economic
Development Corp. is among the major prize sponsors.

about those entrepreneurs who believe they don’t really need a business plan to
get started? After all, they argue, building a “Minimum Viable Product” may
test the market as well as anything. True enough, but even experts who like
lean startups find merit in writing a plan.

recent New York Times story on the evolution of business plans noted that such
documents help startups and even older businesses make their mistakes on paper
rather than real life. They help to set goals and serve as a platform for
action, even if the plan changes even before the ink is dry.

small businesses need a business plan to get a bank loan, and the U.S. Small
Business Administration considers them critical. Private investors usually
require business plans, too, because they want to know how ‘treps arrive at
their numbers and assumptions.

a growing list of emerging companies in Wisconsin, it all started with an idea
and a plan. Take your idea from cocktail napkin notes to reality. Resolve to
start your new year by entering the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.