MIOsoft at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference

This week, the Wisconsin Tech Council held the 13th annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, Nurturing Entrepreneurial Roots, at the Alliant Energy Center.

MIOsoft was present not just as a sponsor, but via the participation of our very own Josh Herritz, who was a conference co-chair, a member of the steering committee, and moderator of the panel Using social media to market your startup.

Josh moderating "Using social media to market your startup"
Josh moderating “Using social media to market your startup”

The conference got started early: sponsors were supposed to set up between 7 and 7:30 am Tuesday morning. By the time I got there, Josh had already set up our table.

The MIOsoft table
At the MIOsoft table

This left us with an hour of free time for breakfast and networking before the opening plenary.

After a welcome from Tom Still, the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, we heard from Christal Sheppard, the director of the USPTO’s Midwest Satellite Office, who started the conference off with informative and practical information. She pointed out that entrepreneurs have more intellectual property protection options than just patents and copyright, and that the USPTO offers multiple services for small businesses and startups.

The opening plenary, Driving quality up and costs down: Health IT in the age of accountability, was a moderated discussion between panelists involved in healthcare IT.

"Driving quality up and costs down: Health IT in the age of accountability" panelists
“Driving quality up and costs down: Health IT in the age of accountability” panelists

This topic felt especially appropriate for Madison because we have a strong culture of healthcare-focused startups and entrepreneurship, partially driven by Epic’s proximity.

The plenary started with a video about empathy from the Cleveland Clinic.

This video brought home an important aspect of healthcare that it’s easy to overlook when you’re excited about a new technology or platform: very few things have the potential to impact someone’s quality of life–physical, mental, emotional, and financial–more completely than their medical care.

The panelists emphasized that freeing providers to spend more time with patients should be the goal of healthcare IT solutions. Solutions that lose sight of that goal aren’t really solutions at all: Frank Byrne gave the example of a system with a 90-second logon time that was meant to be used at the patient’s bedside. This system, used as intended, would make a nurse spend 45 minutes per shift just waiting to log on.

The healthcare theme returned at lunchtime in a different form, when Jim Berbee, the recipient of the 2015 Ken Hendricks Memorial Seize the Day award, spoke. Berbee (as in Berbee Derby) founded, then sold, Berbee Information Networks Corporation: an entrepreneurial success story by any standards.

Instead of founding another company or living a life of leisure, Berbee went to medical school to practice emergency medicine.

His moving speech reminded us that entrepreneurship has many risks, including financial risk, and the risks of stressing your personal relationships

But once you’ve become successful, Berbee said, your humanity can be at risk, if you allow your wealth to isolate you and you lose empathy for people in less fortunate circumstances.

Here are a few more themes that I noticed in the sessions that I attended:

Pay attention to industry stresses

The target customer for many entrepreneurs is a large, established organization. Entrepreneurs have to take into account the stress factors for these companies.

In Are you the ‘it’ in IoT: Fitting your company into the Internet of things, Ben Buss pointed out that infrastructure is a major barrier to IoT adoption in manufacturing: some of his company’s manufacturing plants have limited wifi, and the upgrade needed to use wifi sensors would make the entire undertaking cost-prohibitive. For organizations like his, this makes cellular sensor technology which wouldn’t require the customer to build a strong infrastructure especially interesting.

In Driving quality up and costs down: Health IT in the age of accountability, Frank Byrne described how many healthcare organizations are under enormous financial stress, which tends to drive down the motivation to innovate. Entrepreneurs looking to provide healthcare solutions will have to be prepared to fight these headwinds. Mark Bakken emphasized the importance of making sure that customers see a quick ROI.

In the same plenary, Sanaz Cordes discussed how healthcare IT investors also face challenges: there are “so many shiny objects” in a space that’s both relatively new and rapidly changing. These are extra complications to an investor’s efforts to identify which solutions solve real healthcare problems and which don’t. Ben Robbins pointed out that on top of all that, a solution also has to appear at the right time.

In Scaling your business: How to foster a culture of growth and spur rapid scaling, Ugo Nwagbaraocha described how, when he took over Diamond Discs International, they focused on customers from an industry that had historically done well: homebuilding. But when the housing market flatlined, good customers went bankrupt, and Diamond Discs needed to start looking for customers elsewhere. To learn what industries to target, Nwagbaraocha studied who was still buying from rock suppliers.

Entrepreneurial culture and (giving up) founder control

By definition, an entrepreneur is a single person. But as a startup grows, it’s not only vital for a founder to engage their team deeply in the mission, but for the founder to let go—which can be hard for the type of hands-on driven person who’s motivated to be an entrepreneur in the first place.

Jerry Jendusa, Wednesday’s keynote speaker, described the core of entrepreneurial culture as “a purpose, a vision, an engaged staff.” An entrepreneur, Jendusa said, should hire people who are smarter and more experienced than they are. Then they have to get out of the way, lest the founder become the business’s limiting factor.

In Scaling your business: How to foster a culture of growth and spur rapid scaling, the importance of employee engagement was at the forefront. Hathaway Dilba said that her worst fear was an employee saying, “They don’t tell me anything around here, I just do my job.”

Ugo Nwagbaraocha emphasized that it’s the founder’s job to provide the leadership and direction to make that employee engagement happen. But a founder replicates their influence using procedures, not by personally doing everything: “If you’re micromanaging, you’re not going anywhere.”

Culture beyond the company

An entrepreneur doesn’t exist in a vacuum; they need to be situated in an environment that allows them to grow.

In Scaling your business: How to foster a culture of growth and spur rapid scaling, Brian Schupper emphasized that the culture around a company is just as significant as the culture within it. The idea of entrepreneurship has been almost taken over by the focus on technology, he said, but entrepreneurship needs a community focused on growth.

In Water, power, food and data: the latest from The Water Council, M-WERC, FaB Wisconsin and The Milwaukee Institute, the focus was on how entrepreneurship relates to clusters, rather than individual companies. The Milwaukee Institute, Jay Bayne pointed out, provides services that entrepreneurs don’t have the capital or expertise to access on their own. One challenge for cluster member recruitment, said Jeff Anthony, is that there’s so much value in face-to-face meetings that without better virtual meeting options, distance can be a limitation.

In Capitol round-up: How state legislation is affecting Wisconsin’s tech economy, all panelists agreed that bipartisan support is key to passing legislation that supports entrepreneurs. Steve Lyons recommended that entrepreneurs looking to gather support from lawmakers emphasize how their legislation could benefit communities beyond Madison and Milwaukee.

And some other quick thoughts:

  • All the panels those of us from MIOsoft attended were interesting, and all addressed issues beyond the themes I talked about above. Thanks to all the speakers and moderators who shared their expertise and perspectives.
  • The presentations by the 13 finalists in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest were for the most part fascinating. It was great to hear from some of the local up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Congratulations to the contest winner, Katie Brenner and bluDiagnostics Fertility Finder!
  • The physical award that Jim Berbee accepted was custom-made by Rivers Edge Foundry, and it’s pretty cool:
2015 Ken Hendricks Memorial "Seize the Day" Award
2015 Ken Hendricks Memorial “Seize the Day” Award
  • There were a number of investors at the conference, along with the service providers and vendors featured in the expo area and entrepreneurs who attended. It would be great to see expo booths that showcase entrepreneurial success stories from Wisconsin added into the mix.
  • In addition to the informative talks and sessions, there were opportunities for networking during meals and designated breaks:
Networking  during a break
Networking during a break

Thanks to the Wisconsin Tech Council for putting on this great event!