Two startups in the most recent Milwaukee gener8tor cohort have decided to base themselves out of Milwaukee.
One, called Lumanu, is an innovative digital marketing platform that connects companies with brand ambassadors. The other, Exit 7C, is a mobile app that allows consumers and corporate fleet managers to compare prices and purchase gas through their smartphones to prevent credit card skimming. The app also aims to give businesses more control of their driver’s spending habits.
[caption id="attachment_154714" align="alignright" width="450"] Lumanu founders Tony Tran, left, and Paul Johnson.[/caption]
Both companies originated outside of Wisconsin — Lumanu started in San Francisco and Exit 7C was started by a man named Blessing Egbon who has founded and worked for multiple companies based out of San Diego, California; Dallas, Texas and Greenville, South Carolina, over the past several years.
Milwaukee isn’t known for having a burgeoning tech or startup scene, but over the past four years, gener8tor has been able to convince a handful of graduates from its accelerators in Wisconsin to either stay or move here, including Scanalytics, Project Foundry, The Good Jobs and Bright Cellars.
Lumanu’s founder, Tony Tran, is the latest of a small group of four entrepreneurs who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to trickle through Wisconsin. The other three are Matthew Udomphol, Joe Laurendi, Richard Yau.
MIT to MKE
Udomphol, the co-founder of a company called Replenish that makes a type of self-cleaning blender, came first. He was part of gener8tor’s 2014 Madison class, during which he received an undisclosed amount of seed funding through three rounds from seven different investors.
Although he ultimately decided not to stay in Wisconsin after completing the program and moved to San Francisco, he recommended that his friend and classmate, Laurendi, apply for gener8tor’s accelerator.
Laurendi and his classmate Yau had been building Bright Cellars, a subscription monthly wine service targeted at millennials.
They followed Udomphol’s advice and were accepted into gener8tor’s 2015 Madison class. During the program, they raised more than $2 million in funding through three rounds.
After the program, they decided to stay in Wisconsin, abandoning the budding startup community of Madison, and their initial goal to set up shop on the west coast, for Milwaukee’s low cost of living. In the past 18 months, their membership has increased 10-fold and now includes more than 15,000 people in 46 states. Yau recently told BizTimes they plan to open up another funding round sometime in 2017.
Now Tran, founder of a digital marketing startup called Lumanu, has followed suit.
Laurendi was, at one point, a teaching assistant in a class Tran was taking on algorithms at MIT, and the two kept in touch.
He told Tran, a former associate product manager at Google and business analyst at McKinsey & Company, about gener8tor. Tran was accepted into the accelerator’s 2016 Milwaukee class with his vision for Lumanu -- a marketing platform he came up with based off his experience conducting marketing case studies at McKinsey.
"There was a really big problem," he said. "You can be very fancy, and clever with targeted emails, but at the end of the day, 20 to 50 percent of every single purchasing decision relies on world of mouth marketing. Unless you have people telling other people about your brand or service, you’re out of luck. No one actively tries to do it, we wanted to make a product that helps people leverage that. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, if you can convince people this brand is unique and it resonates with them and you can get them to promote your product, that’s the best way to build a stable marketing channel."
Basically, the platform he developed with co-founder Paul Johnson, a Northwestern University grad, uses an algorithm to connect businesses and brands with influential social media users and bloggers who can help market their product.
For more than a month after he moved to Milwaukee for the program, he slept on an air mattress in his former teaching assistant’s apartment while both of them built their respective businesses. But Tran has his own place now, along with a few full- and part-time employees he and Johnson have recently hired.
They also have a growing roster of clients from around the country. Two of their initial clients were Harley-Davidson Inc. and Madison-based CUNA Mutual Group.
"We had a great time at gener8tor and met a lot of great investors," Tran said. "So I think being here and having that network made sense for us. Being here made sense just to be close to our customers.
"The way startups work, it’s about (getting) in front of people. I’m from San Francisco, and the reason they cost so much money there is you have to pour a ton of money into sales people just to get meetings. At least within the first 24 months of a startup, it’s all about how low you can keep your expenses. Milwaukee makes sense that way. All costs are so low (here)."