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Monday, June 3, 2013

Tom Still: Learning from others can help all types of entrepreneurs down the path

By Tom Still
At a recent workshop in DeForest, seven entrepreneurs did something many people would find intimidating, if not unnerving: They stood up in front of a crowd and condensed their business idea "pitch" to 90 seconds.

No one became too tongue-tied. No one took on that "deer-in the-headlights" look. Instead, all seven volunteers provided enough information to prompt follow-up questions from investors and other business experts who had offered pointers throughout the afternoon.

Such is the life of an entrepreneur. They're people who must think on their feet, but have a reasonable and often-detailed plan on hand. They often serve as company founder, chief technology officer, head accountant and jack-of-all-trades – but must be willing to step aside if their idea takes off and different leadership is required.

And while some 'treps are talented enough to go it entirely alone, most must be willing to listen to others who have been down the path before.

The challenges and opportunities facing entrepreneurs, who are increasingly a part of Wisconsin's business landscape, are the focus of this week's Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference in Middleton. They are also at the heart of a continuing series, "The Entrepreneurs' Edge," which began in Green Bay, Milwaukee and DeForest and which continues June 17 in Racine.

The 11th annual conference, which begins Tuesday, carries a "back to basics" theme that captures the different stages of entrepreneurism while addressing recent trends. Conference panel discussions, which include investors, entrepreneurs and service experts, will focus on the "launch, grow and succeed" phases of a young company's life. Specific topics spread over 15 workshops will include:

* How to raise money. Attracting angel and venture capital investors, bootstrapping and the lean startup approach are among the options, but the most important goal is making sales.

* How to build the right team. From informal advisors to consultants to employees, startups need a mix of talents to grow. Sometimes, the technology expert behind the idea is best-suited to lead a company's evolution, but sometimes not.

* How to navigate laws and red tape. Entrepreneurs should know how they might be affected by federal rules related to "crowd-funding" and patent reform, both of which are recent changes, as well as state and local regulations.

* How to learn from failure. Entrepreneurs who never fail are a rare breed, but it's possible to improve your chances of success by not making the same mistakes as others who came before you. Learning how to avoid killer mistakes – and how to bounce back if you don't – is vital.

The notion of embracing failure will addressed during a conference discussion featuring four UW-Madison graduates who made a mark for themselves as investors and entrepreneurs in California's Silicon Valley – but not without some stumbles along the way.

Roy Thiele-Sardina of HighBAR Ventures, Sanjeev Chitre of the U-Group, Mark Reinstra of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Norman Koo of Liberty Global will return to Wisconsin talk about building a culture of innovation, as well as the solid foundation they see in Wisconsin.

Much closer to home, Fred Foster, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Electronic Theatre Controls, is the winner of the annual "Seize the Day" award. He will talk about the growth of ETC, from garage to global leader, and what he learned along the way.

And speaking of elevator pitches: The finalists in the 2013 Governor's Business Plan Contest will also present during the conference.

Events such as the Entrepreneurs' Conference and Entrepreneurs' Edge are among the many resources available to 'treps and others in Wisconsin. Whether your business is a mom-and-pop, a lifestyle boutique or a high-growth gazelle that could be tomorrow' Epic Systems or Promega, there is something to be gained by listening to and learning from others.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. To register for or learn more about the Entrepreneurs' Conference, visit http://www.WiTrepsConference.com.

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