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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tom Still: Launch of The Art Commission offers right mix of experience in new setting


By Tom Still
Toni Sikes is hardly your wet-behind-the-ears entrepreneur. Her startup credentials include several online businesses tied to the arts, she’s a co-founder of Calumet Venture Fund and she’s raised tens of millions in private equity capital for her endeavors over time.

So, what’s Sikes up to these days? She’s starting another company, of course.

Along with partner Terry Maxwell, an angel investor, former investment banker and UW-Madison finance instructor, Sikes is launching The Art Commission this fall. It’s a website designed to connect architects, designers and art consultants with a worldwide offering of artists who are available for commissioned works.

Much like two of her past companies, The Guild Sourcebooks and Artful Home, The Art Commission is a connector that takes distance out of the equation for buyers and sellers. It will provide listings and photo packages for selected artists. Buyers in the design trades could use that database to search for artists, submit requests for proposals and take other steps toward commissioning specific arts projects.

The Art Commission already has a staff of eight, its beta website launches in September, and some 200-plus artists are already signed up. The business model is subscription-based, with a mix of rates available to artists who want to get their work in front of designers and others who commission public and private art.

Think LinkedIn for the creative world, and you’re imagining what Sikes and Maxwell would like to build over time.

“Artists have much to offer our public and private spaces, whether it is a sculpture for a corporate lobby, a wall hanging for a healthcare facility, or a stained-glass window for a church,” Sikes said. “We want to serve as a matchmaker that helps make this happen.”

While it’s not a shock that Sikes and friends would start yet another company – some entrepreneurs are incurable – the location for The Art Commission may come as a surprise.

Sikes and Maxwell had the resources to open just about anywhere, but they chose to set up shop in the Gener8tor accelerator space on Madison’s Capitol Square – amidst a group of much younger entrepreneurs. Gener8tor is a business accelerator with space in Milwaukee and Madison, and which is steaming toward its own Aug. 23 launch party at Milwaukee’s Discovery World.

“I wanted to be in a place where there are lots of other entrepreneurs,” said Sikes, who is already helping out by listening to company pitches from young startups.

Like similar accelerators in Wisconsin and nationwide, Gener8tor is modeled after Y Combinator and TechStars, both of which have yielded successful startups across the country.

The best accelerators carefully review what companies they accept, which greatly increases their chances of survival after they “graduate” from the intensive startup phase. In some accelerators, less than 1 percent of startup applicants are accepted.

However, the proliferation of accelerators nationwide has raised questions about survival rates for accelerators that are less picky, or which feel compelled to accept marginal companies because of public financing models or geography. Some observers worry that an “all-comers” approach does entrepreneurs no favors.

“Most incubators are cultivating a garden of startups that are dead on arrival,” said Kendall Wouters, CEO of Reach Ventures, Cleveland, Ohio. “(They are) puppy mills gambling with people’s dreams.”

A recent study conducted by the Kauffman Fellow Program, the Kellogg School of Management and DFJ Mercury, a venture capital firm with interest in Wisconsin, found “a vast majority of accelerators have neither funding nor liquidity events, bringing their efficacy into question.”

Those concerns seem less threatening for Gener8tor because of its experienced leadership and its basic acceleration model. The for-profit accelerator will provide seed capital investments of nearly $20,000 and tens of thousands more in services and resources to each startup. Gener8tor will work with the startups over 12 weeks to help them identify customers and grow their businesses.

“Many accelerators don’t know what they are doing,” Sikes said, “but I think the Gener8tor team is doing a great job.”

Startups come from all kinds of places – from experienced entrepreneurs who want another challenge, and from young people with little more than an idea and a dream. The presence of The Art Commission inside Gener8tor offers the best of both approaches for Wisconsin’s startup economy.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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