StartingBlock signals Madison’s entrepreneurial maturity

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By Kirsten Adshead/motherbility

Madison’s entrepreneurial community is coalescing.

Several pieces  — business accelerators, nonprofit support, entrepreneurial festivals — have been forming for years.

But in May 2018, many of them will come together in StartingBlock, a 40,000-square-foot “entrepreneurial hub” that puts entrepreneurs, investors, advisers and others in one place.

Chandra Miller Fienen led a tour of StartingBlock site as part of Wisconsin Startup Week last month.

A key component: StartingBlock will be the new home of the Doyenne Group, gener8tor, Bunker Labs, and Capital Entrepreneurs.

“I think one thing that we don’t talk a lot about is that being an entrepreneur can be really lonely,” said Chandra Miller Fienen, StartingBlock’s director of operations and programs. “You’re off doing your own thing. You don’t have a clear path forward.”

“And yet,” she said, “You’re always looking for help and guidance …. whether it’s on how do you get to an MVP — minimal viable product — where is your mentor, how do you get connected to capital or an investor, how do you get advice, whether it’s legal (questions) or HR? Entrepreneurs are often wearing many hats and doing it on their own for the first time.”

“And so, having a connected community allows entrepreneurs to find people who have been (building ventures) before them or who are part of the part the ecosystem that can provide those resources for them. And the closer our community is, I think we can increase the success of our entrepreneurs.””

The idea for StartingBlock was first conceived in 2012, part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that has sprouted in Madison over the past decade:

— The Forward Festival, dubbed “Madison’s flagship technology and entrepreneurship festival,” began in 2010 and now brings in 5,000 attendees to celebrate innovation and entrepreneurship.

— In 2012 Heather Wentler and Amy Gannon founded Doyenne Group, a nonprofit aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurs. It now boasts more than 180 members and launched an “Evergreen Fund” this year to provide capital for women- and minority-led ventures.

— That same year gener8tor started up in Milwaukee and Madison, and now consistently ranks among the top business accelerator companies in the country.

— This year brought the arrival of Wisconsin Startup Week and Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Wisconsin.

For years, the pieces of Madison’s entrepreneurial community have been building. Finding them, though, scattered about Madison, has been a greater challenge.

StartingBlock will occupy three floors in a building now being built on the 800 block of East Washington.

Organizers hope that being located in one building will encourage collaboration and make helping entrepreneurs that much easier.

“I’ll have gener8tor right down the hall from me,” said Wentler, Doyenne’s co-founder and executive director. “I can go down and talk to their leaders and say, ‘ Hey, I have this great entrepreneur that I think you guys should consider,’ or ‘What do I do next to help them get more plugged in with you guys?’ And they can also do the same thing for us.”

StartingBlock will offer flexible work spaces entrepreneurs can rent, host its own programs and work collaboratively with others who are offering programs as well, Miller Fienen said.

DreamBank, from American Family Insurance, will occupy the bottom floor of the building and will continue to offer programs that bring entrepreneurs and other members of the public to the site.

“It makes more sense to say, ‘Right here in this building, here are all the resources that you can also go and visit and seek support as you grow your venture,” Wentler said.

Miller Fienen said StartingBlock has three objectives: Launch great companies, help entrepreneurs accelerate their growth and drive innovation in Madison.

And all of that is part of an effort to grow Madison’s national reputation as a leading entrepreneurial community.

“We can’t build an ecosystem over night, and we’re at a tipping point,” Miller Fienen said. “There’s been a lot of hard work done by a lot of people for many, many years, and I think it’s breaking the surface in a much more sustainable, visual way now.”

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