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Friday, April 6, 2012

Tom Still: Online toolkit for entrepreneurs provides one-stop resource guide

You've been thinking about starting your own company for quite a while. In fact, the ideas you jotted down on your laptop are haunting you each night as you wonder, "What if someone else does this first?"

The Entrepreneurs' Toolkit may be your first step toward carrying out your idea – and sleeping a bit more soundly knowing you're not missing your own opportunity.

The Toolkit (http://www.WItoolkit.com) is a soup-to-nuts guide for Wisconsin entrepreneurs, especially those with tech-based ideas, as they undertake the hard but exciting work of turning their dreams into reality.

Produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council in partnership with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the Toolkit is designed to give innovators a pathway to resources available in the state and beyond. Some highlighted resources have been available for years, if not decades; some are relatively recent additions to the toolbox and reflect Wisconsin's commitment to building a more entrepreneurial culture and economy.

The existence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Wisconsin isn't necessarily well known, even inside our borders, but its growth over the past decade is a major reason why the state is steadily gaining a reputation for being friendly to startups.

The Toolkit itself speaks to that emerging culture. It walks entrepreneurs through a range of resources – starting with online quizzes that helps people answer the core question of whether they're actually suited for starting, financing, running and, quite often, selling a startup venture.

The Toolkit invites entrepreneurs to learn more about Wisconsin – including its history of innovation. It offers first steps that include suggestions from the WEDC, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the U.S. Small Business Administration and more. The state of Wisconsin "Business Wizard," available through WEDC, is a one-stop way to identify necessary permits, licenses and registration requirements that usually come with starting a business.

Entrepreneurs can also learn about a variety of business assistance programs, how to write a business plan, how to choose a business structure, where to find help with marketing and feasibility studies, and how to find a mentor.

The Toolkit's "Finding money" section outlines the basics of qualifying for credit, of selecting a financial institution that can help, and the basics of pursuing private equity investments such as angel or venture capital. It also outlines some of the grant, loan and tax credit possibilities available through state, federal and local sources, such as "revolving loan funds" that operate in many Wisconsin communities.

The redesigned grant and loan programs operated by WEDC are included in this section, as well as a complete list of angel and venture resources available through the Tech Council's Wisconsin Angel Network and national sources.

Because Wisconsin's economy has distinct regional differences, the "Locating your business" tab provides specific information on sites, local business incubators and accelerators and the basics of running a business out of your home. The "Education and technology transfer" section gives tips on how to work with colleges and universities, how to get more training and specific advice, and how to go about patenting and licensing your idea.

The Toolkit also contains information on networking organizations, resources for women and minority business owners, tips on selling to the government, resources for selling overseas and more. The website is also where you can go to learn about selected events and news of interest to entrepreneurs. It's also open for suggestions about new or updated resources.

Wisconsin has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship. Think of the marquee companies, headquartered in Wisconsin, that are our economic "calling cards" – Oshkosh Crop., S.C. Johnson, Johnson Controls, Manitowoc Company, Harley-Davidson, Briggs & Stratton, Johnsonville, Kohler, Kohl's and Quad Graphics. These companies all have one thing in common: They were named after the Wisconsin community of their founding or the last names of their founders.

Today, a new generation of entrepreneurs and their partners are helping to build Wisconsin's 21st century "knowledge economy" on a solid foundation that has long included expertise in manufacturing, agriculture, medicine and more. With the help of the Entrepreneurs' Toolkit, perhaps the next iconic Wisconsin startup will be your own.

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