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Friday, April 4, 2014

Jennifer Sereno: Startup Weekend, Wisconsin Technology Summit, NeXXpo events put good ideas in motion

By Jennifer Sereno
Startup Weekend kicks off series of entrepreneurial events

Ever had a great business idea over a cup of coffee or dinner with friends?

Maybe you've even discussed it -- and everyone has agreed it's terrific -- but after heading back home, your busy routine takes over. It becomes another case of "woulda, coulda, shoulda."

Startup Weekend offers the perfect antidote. Hosted in the MGE Innovation Center at University Research Park by a collaborative group including UW–Madison's Office of Corporate Relations, Startup Weekend brings participants together to quickly identify, develop and validate entrepreneurial ideas. The event starts this Friday evening and is open to community participants.

It's one of three high-profile gatherings in coming days that celebrate the region's growing entrepreneurial base.

Allen Dines, assistant director for new ventures with the Office of Corporate Relations, has been involved with Startup Weekend since the inaugural event. Now in its third year, the three-day program format emphasizes the "lean" approach to business formation.

Instead of focusing on a detailed business plan, Startup Weekend encourages people to concentrate on good ideas for needed products or services that can be tested with consumer feedback. Dines notes that some would-be entrepreneurs find themselves spending so much time pulling together business plans and pro forma projections that they miss out on early opportunities to test their concepts with actual customers.

"Startup weekend is really about execution," he says. "It's a 54-hour session that really provides a compressed experience of what starting a business is like."

It's also part of a larger, international phenomenon. More than 100,000 entrepreneurs – including developers, designers, marketers, product managers and the like -- have attended similar events in cities around the globe in recent years.

Participants gather on Friday evening with an initial session on business ideas. Everyone is welcome to pitch their startup ideas and receive feedback from peers. After a vote on the top ideas, teams organize to pursue those with the greatest potential.

From there, Dines says, the event switches into high gear as teams work to establish a business concept, a value proposition and in some cases, an actual prototype. Participants often find themselves heading to one of the nearby malls to do a quick consumer survey or reaching out to family and friends for feedback.

"They do research right here from the site," Dines says. "Then we bring in mentors Saturday afternoon. So, it's really an execution exercise in developing an idea and fleshing it out to the point where you have (at least) a minimally viable product that you can focus on."

The event's structure tends to favor information technology startups, phone or Web applications and software-related businesses. In past years, some scientific concepts have gained traction, as well.

On Sunday evening, each team gets a five-minute window to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. Prizes include a year's worth of Web hosting from Drifty, a Web application development firm, and for the best women's team, a one-year membership in Doyenne Group, a women's entrepreneurial support organization.

Dines says the prizes aren't really meant to spur a sense of competition – that happens anyway thanks to the high-energy personalities of the participants involved. In fact, some of the participants are actually serial entrepreneurs, folks who have successfully started other businesses and can't help but attend in case an amazing new idea pops up. Their experience adds to the creative mix and helps fuel the aspirations of others.

"We have members of Capital Entrepreneurs (and others) who often come to these things because they just enjoy the thrill of the race," Dines says. "Some of these people have five or six ideas they're going to pitch. But really the crux of it is people we've never heard of -- the people who just come out of the woodwork because they are intrigued."

Other organizers of the event include leaders from UW–Madison, Edgewood College, Capital Entrepreneurs, Sector67 and Madworks Coworking.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, says the success of Startup Weekend highlights the fact that the region holds more entrepreneurial energy and talent than ever before. Following Startup Weekend, the Tech Council hosts the daylong Wisconsin Technology Summit on Monday, April 7 at GE Healthcare in Waukesha.

The event brings together major companies and emerging firms in a setting that allows them to meet and explore potential relationships ranging from vendor agreements to business combinations, Still says. Even though some of the businesses may operate in similar industries, large and small companies often travel in different orbits, rarely coming into contact with one another.

In addition to Startup Weekend and the Wisconsin Technology Summit, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce hosts the NeXXpo event on Tuesday, April 8 at the Alliant Energy Center's Exhibition Hall.

"Together, these events really speak to the vitality of the tech-based economy,'' Still says. The events also represent another important step forward in bringing visibility to the ideas and talent powering the New Economy.


Startup Weekend
Time: Event runs from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, all day Saturday and all day Sunday.
Location: MGE Innovation Center, University Research Park, 505 S. Rosa Road, Madison
Registration information: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/startup-weekend-madison-042014- tickets-10598080143

Wisconsin Technology Summit
Time: Monday, April 7, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Location: GE Healthcare Institute, N16W22419 Watertown Road, Waukesha
Registration information: Joy Sawatzki, , (608) 442- 7557 or visit http://wisconsintechnologycouncil.com/events/community/?ID=2129

Time: Tuesday, April 8, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Location: Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall
Registration information: Kennedy Cullen, kcullen@greatermadisonchamber.com, (608) 443-1954 or visit http://greatermadisonchamber.com/programs-events/nexxpo/

-- Sereno is a former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal who has written about new economy trends for various publications. Send email to sereno.jennifer@gmail.com.

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