Every generation develops differently. This is the case in a variety of ways, and economic development is no exception. A new generation of entrepreneurs faces a new set of challenges and a new economic landscape to navigate, and they’re finding new pathways toward achieving new brands of success.
Gener8tor, which has offices in Milwaukee and Madison, is a startup accelerator now in its second year and kicked off its 12-week Summer 2013 Program on May 31. The accelerator received 265 applications from startup companies across the nation for this year’s program; and five were selected.
This is the third program of its kind for Gener8tor. Thirteen companies have gone through their two previous programs, and those companies have gone on to raise a combined total of roughly $5 million in funding and have created about 70 jobs in total.
“What we’re trying to create is really a magnet institution that’s bringing the best startups here to Milwaukee,” said co-founder Troy Vosseller, who is also the founder and owner of the Sconnie Nation apparel brand and Sconnie Beer.
In the program, Gener8tor brings these companies into their community and network, leverages contacts for potential customers and connects the companies to a mentor team to help them mature, said Vosseller. They also provide training and education on the building blocks of starting a company. On the whole, what Gener8tor does is help provide the missing pieces of the puzzle for new business to help them grow to the next level, which can mean something different for each company based on its skillset.
“In our program, we see the life cycle of a startup in four stages: customer discovery, customer validation, customer creation and company creation,” said Gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues, who previously worked as an associate with Quarles & Brady and as a law clerk for the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Wisconsin. “The point of the accelerator is to get you past the first and as deep into the second as we can.”
And the program is gaining steam. The 265 applications submitted this year was a record, and the accelerator was the focus of a recent article on innovation and investment in Forbes magazine.
“Not only do I think the companies that we’ve been able to recruit to Gener8tor have gotten better each time we’ve done it, but I think Joe and myself and the program as a whole has gotten better each time we do it, as well,” said Vosseller. “That’s really a goal of the program – to keep getting better.”
This year’s program brought in applications from all over the country. Of the five companies in the Summer 2013 Program, three are from outside of the state.
“We were looking for the best companies we could find, regardless of where they are from, that have the most complete teams,” said Vosseller. “By that, we mean they have all the buckets filled in terms of technical capability, business capability and passion for what they’re building.”
Those companies are developed with Gener8tor over the course of the 12 weeks, and the program culminates with a Launch Day event, which for the summer program is on Aug. 29 at Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee.
“‘Launch Day’ is the public coming out party for the companies that have worked through the prior 12 weeks,” said Vosseller. “For some of them, it’s announcing their software or announcing their product. For others, it’s more of an update – here’s where we stared, here’s where we are now – in terms of traction and whatnot. For all of them, it’s meant to get attention from investors.”
Refining the pitch to investors is an important part of Gener8tor’s program.
“I think all of the companies will tell you that’s one of the biggest benefits they get from going through a program like ours is constantly refining their pitch and understanding how to convey their value proposition to someone who does not live and breathe what they’re doing on a daily basis,” said Vosseller.
At the event, companies are introduced by their mentors. Establishing and building mentor relationships is another important part of the program. By giving new companies a role model, oftentimes a successful entrepreneur or business leader, the goal is to create more and more success stories.
“We’re always looking to get as mentors or potential investors, entrepreneurs that are local that have been successful that are looking to give back, whether that’s in time, advice or money,” said Vosseller. “At the end of the day, Wisconsin just needs more success stories and I really think success breeds success.”
Another way Gener8tor is looking to breed success is by working to better connect entrepreneurial communities in Milwaukee and Madison. Gener8tor has offices in both cities – at 1 E. Main St. in Madison on the Capitol Square and at 207 N. Milwaukee St. in Milwaukee’s Third Ward – but Vosseller sees the communities as divided.
“We do have a more concerted goal of connecting Milwaukee and Madison,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s some force field around Lake Mills that prevents people from traveling back and forth, but the anecdote that I like to use to show that they’re fairly disconnected is if you took Startup Milwaukee, which is the great entrepreneur network and group here in Milwaukee, and you took Capital Entrepreneurs, which is the equivalent in Madison, and if you were to survey their membership, I would bet real money that 99 percent of each organization’s membership could not name one person in the other organization. To me, that’s an opportunity that we can help solve.”
The accelerator’s mission also extends statewide. When the program isn’t in session, Gener8tor actively recruits companies through in-person meetups, email campaigns, work on college campuses and scheduled meetings.
“Joe and I are kind of like baseball scouts,” Vosseller of the work they do when programs aren’t in session. “When we go recruit, it’s not just Madison and Milwaukee, we hold events and recruit actively out of La Crosse, Eau Claire, Appleton, Oshkosh, Neenah, Green Bay, Sheboygan and Whitewater because we think talent can reside anywhere.”
One of those companies that went through the program is EatStreet, an online ordering platform for restaurants. Before going through the Gener8tor program, the company had different names in different cities (Brew City Bites in Milwaukee, Mad City Bites in Madison, etc.). Gener8tor helped unify its brand into one name and connect them with investors, which led to additional funding, said Vosseller.
“Gener8tor gave us access to an array of resources not normally available to a company at such an early stage,” said Danny Mulligan, EatStreet’s director of marketing. “Through their network, we connected with many energetic and talented individuals. We are quite grateful for the opportunities, insights, and material benefits we received from the whole team at Gener8tor.”
“We’re exceeding our expectations of what we could get out of the program, which just goes to show you how much they’re adding value,” said Brian Curliss, co-founder of DeckPresenter, a web presentation hosting tool for businesses that was launched on May 12.
“We have a finished product and we’re using Gener8tor as a launch pad to get access to some of these potential customers, access the network they have in the Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago area, and access to investors,” said Evan Carothers, co-founder and CEO of Docalytics, a company that builds online tools to help marketers get more from their content marketing activities. “They take somebody who’s never had business experience prior and put you under that whole umbrella of learning and inundate you with everything you need to know right off the bat to do things right.”
Lou Morales, co-founder of Optyn, a “marketing inbox” that lets consumers easily control their connections with business, went to the most recent “Launch Day” and was impressed by the event and was inspired to apply for the next program.
“This is an opportunity where you’re bouncing ideas off of smart guys, people who have had experience and been there and done that, who can advise you,” he said. “To me, that’s just invaluable.”
All three of these startups are working out of the Gener8tor’s Milwaukee co-working office space.
“I think the question is: Is Wisconsin going to host this kind of success or visit this kind of success? Because someone’s going to do it,” said Kirgues. “The question is: are we going to do it here? Or, are we going to send our startups to do it somewhere else? The challenge for our program is proving that a viable, sustainable, profitable, noteworthy program can be done here.”