A few days before he willingly stepped down as president and chief executive officer of the alternative energy company he helped to launch, Eric Apfelbach told a crowd of entrepreneurs they were probably a little bit crazy.
Coming from someone who confesses to being more than a bit crazy, that’s a compliment.
"Early stage entrepreneurship and start-ups are incredibly difficult to do. If you stand back and analyze it, you would probably have to be crazy to start a high-tech company because there’s probably 90 ways to get killed doing it," Apfelbach said during a speech to this month’s Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium. "But entrepreneurs do very important work, for this nation and for Wisconsin. So, we can all be glad they are a little crazy."
Celebrating the engrained insanity of entrepreneurship has finally come into vogue. There was a time when people who called themselves "entrepreneurs" were assumed to be (a) unemployed or (b) working on a cold fusion reactor in their garage. This week, however, entrepreneurs will get a measure of respect the world over.
It’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, in case you missed it on your calendar, a time to shine a light on how the Eric Apfelbachs among us create value, jobs and wealth from ideas, hard work and calculated risk.
In Wisconsin, Global Entrepreneurship Week is being marked by a governor’s proclamation, high-school competitions, academic lectures and more. Mostly, however, the week is being marked by thousands of entrepreneurs trying to make the next sale or attract the next investor. Those who succeed often create fast-growing companies – and a whole new generation of jobs for others.
Entrepreneur, translated from its French roots, means "one who undertakes." The term refers to anyone who undertakes the organization and management of an enterprise involving independence and risk, as well as the opportunity for profit.
Entrepreneurs tend to share common traits. They’re usually driven by a vision of what can be, and that vision may rest on an interlocking set of facts and ideas not yet known or accepted by the marketplace. Entrepreneurs take prudent, not rash, risks. They assess costs, market needs and other factors; they often write business plans to guide them. But they also recognize the plan may be thrown out the window if changing market conditions or other circumstances dictate a new direction. They are decision-makers, but usually make the best decisions when they consult others along the way.
How does society benefit from having entrepreneurs? Simply put, they re-energize the economy. They develop new markets, bring new resources to bear, mobilize capital and introduce new technologies, industries and products. Most important in today’s slumping economy: They create jobs. Small businesses in the United States provide the vast majority of new jobs, and often grow into tomorrow’s major companies.
Janesville native Apfelbach is a ready example. He stepped down as CEO and president of Virent Energy Systems Inc. – not because the company was failing – but because it was succeeding. Some analysts believe Madison-based Virent can become a billion-dollar company by supplying renewable "green" gasoline and jet fuel – fuel created through a chemical conversion process using the inedible sugars contained in plants such as sugarcane and sorghum.
Apfelbach helped bring the company to where it is today because he’s skilled at running startups, a talent that includes persuading others to finance his ideas. Throughout his career, Apfelbach has raised about $80 million in venture capital for Wisconsin-based start-up companies, and tens of millions more in other funding, such as grants, loans and conventional bank financing. That money has already been put to work in the Wisconsin economy, and it will pay even larger dividends if Virent hits it big.
But Apfelbach understood that in order for Virent to grow, it needed a CEO with hands-on experience in global energy markets. That’s why the company hired Lee Edwards, most recently president and CEO of BP Solar, a global solar technology provider with 2,200 employees and $1 billion in sales. (So much for the myth that Wisconsin startups cannot attract first-class managers.)
What happens to Apfelbach? Don’t worry: He won’t be standing in a soup line. Apfelbach might become an investor himself, or he might join another start-up company. Either way, he’ll be back in the start-up game, doing what entrepreneurs like him do best.
Wisconsin needs more Eric Apfelbachs (in addition to the one it already has). The state economy’s best chance to grow rests with hundreds of emerging small companies replacing those larger firms culled by a brutally efficient marketplace.
That may sound crazy to some people, but not to entrepreneurs and those who stand by them.
To learn more about Global Entreprenership Week, visit http://unleashingideas.org or http://www.ocr.wisc.edu.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.