Some of the Milwaukee area’s most successful entrepreneurs and innovators gathered at the Italian Community Center Thursday for BizTimes Media’s 2022 Innovation + Entrepreneurship Forum.Wayne Oldenburg, CEO of Oldenburg Group Inc., was recognized as this year’s Lifetime Achievement award winner while Theresa Nemetz, founder and CEO of Milwaukee Food & City Tours,was named this year’s Regional Spirit award winner.
There were also three winners each in the categories of innovation and entrepreneurship. Representing the innovation category were Chad Mason, founder and CEO of Advanced Ionics; Paige Peters, founder and CTO of Rapid Radicals; and Deepak Arora, founder, president and CEO of Wearable Technologies.
This year’s entrepreneurship winners included Jeremy Fojut, co-founder and CEO of Like|Minded; Justin Nicols, founder and CEO of Sift Healthcare; and Glenn Reid, founder of Marathon Laundry Machines.
Each award recipient shared some of the toughest challenges they faced as they’ve continued to grow their businesses, as well as some best practices. Here are some the business lessons learned from the event:
How to identify leaders within your company
To help weed out leadership material, Oldenburg has implemented a 360-degree review process for all employees, including himself. His team will often take a retreat and then the group will be asked a series of questions about one another. Customers are also brought into the review process. Reviews are done about every six months.
“They’re brutal at times,” Oldenburg said. “It’s something I think has helped a great deal because people know what they think of one another. You can’t get upset about what people are saying. It’s for our own good and for that person’s own good to see how they can improve going forward.”
When expanding, always consider international markets
Oldenburg said when a growing company is exploring markets, it’s key to not only look within the U.S. but overseas as well. As his business grew, Oldenburg Group ended up business in places like England, South Africa and Australia. This was because the company was “going where the market was.”
“I regret not having done that (expanded internationally) sooner with some of my earlier companies,” said Oldenburg. “Finding new geographic markets is way easier than trying to design a totally new product line.”
Sustaining an innovative culture
Mason considers himself a bit of a rebel in both how he goes about running his business and how he cultivates new ideas. He said it’s important to challenge groupthink, which can still be pervasive in a startup environment, and to encourage critical feedback while breaking down hierarchies and rigid reporting structures.
“If you don’t have innovators in leadership roles, you’re not an innovative company,” he said. “No matter how innovative the rest of your employees are, they have to have a mandate.”
Let the market tell you what it needs
Peters said her team has learned the importance of never making assumptions when it comes to developing a product.
“At Rapid Radicals, the phrase ‘drop and give me 30’ has everything to do with customer discovery interviews,” said Peters. “That approach has led us to exploring markets in Europe and the U.K., which is really exciting for us.”
Take advantage of mentors
Nemetz said in one of her very first jobs, she had her sights set on a promotion. The one caveat was she needed to have a mentor. This began what Nemetz described as a “25-year, game-changing relationship.” Since then, she has purposely surrounded herself with other knowledgeable businesspeople in the community.
“We all need to be able to take the time to take that eager person to lunch or coffee every single month and just listen to them and encourage them,” said Nemetz. “We all need to find a way to connect with the next ‘you’ in this room.”
Dedication is everything
Arora said the key to becoming a successful innovator is working on what truly keeps you up at night. If you aren’t 100% dedicated to your cause and business, entrepreneurship likely isn’t for you.
“If you don’t have the conviction to do it, then don’t,” said Arora. “Just don’t even start. The passion and conviction behind my story is what kept me going and it will keep me going for the rest of my life.”
Fojut said his venture into the world of entrepreneurship was simply due to his natural curiosity, and that’s something company founders should never lose.
“The advice I would give my 14-year-old self would be to stay curious and always keep pushing the boundaries and focus on building the best team you can. Nothing of value is ever built alone,” said Fojut.
Take care in crafting your team
Nicols echoed a similar sentiment amongst other honorees in saying hiring the right people to surround you is invaluable. He said the region has a strong pool of talent that’s allowed him to build the right team. Sift Healthcare is focused on bolstering its team locally.
“Any great team that continues to solve a really complex issue needs to do a good job in hiring people that are smarter than them and more creative than them,” said Nichols.
Don’t give up
Reid said while it might be a bit cliché, the old saying ‘don’t give up’ is really what defines successful entrepreneurship. It’s not how you handle a successful business moment, but a failure.
“We’ve been almost dead so many times in this business, but you just figure it out,” he said. “Things are over when you quit, not when you’re defeated. There’s always a way out.”
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