A startup city reboot
New writer follows her predecessor's lead
Last month was Brennan Nardi’s final go-round with this column. It was her column, created after she left her position as editor of this magazine in 2015. Nardi, my friend and former boss, tried to hand me the key and slip out unnoticed. But I couldn’t let that happen. What she’s done here is no small thing.
I feel like I can say that with authority because I’ve just reread everything she wrote on Madison as an entrepreneurial city, including the 45 Startup City columns she has written since January 2016. But I also looked back at the four related feature stories she wrote between 2013 and 2015. For one of them she flew to Austin, Texas – that Weird™ entrepreneurial leftie hipster “island” landlocked by a notoriously red state. (Remind you of anywhere?) She examined why Austin had become a startup hotspot after Silicon Valley’s bubble burst and asked experts if the same thing could happen in Madison.
“Maybe,” she wrote.
So much changed in the two years after her Austin trip that she penned the feature story “StartUp City: Madison’s Entrepreneurial Explosion,” which spawned the name of this column. She wrote about a small group of “young, mostly white guys” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who “started businesses in their dorm rooms; your typical Mark Zuckerberg stuff.” Some of those endeavors became thriving companies, and their founders created a partnership with more established tech businesses that was transforming the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
That group included guys like Forrest Woolworth of the independent Madison-based mobile games studio PerBlue (he would go on to co-found Capital Entrepreneurs with fellow alum Scott Resnick, now entrepreneur-in-residence at the entrepreneurial hub StartingBlock) and Troy Vosseller, a co-founder of the Wisconsin apparel retailer Sconnie Nation and co-founder of the startup accelerator gener8tor. Their alma mater remained a huge player in innovative research and development, but there hadn’t been much of a social or cultural off-ramp for entrepreneurs outside of biotechnology.
“Frankly, without them we’d still be pumping out entrepreneurs but losing them to more established startup cities,” says Nardi. Suddenly she saw coworking spaces and accelerators, networking events and conferences – and finally, American Family Insurance’s Spark building on East Washington Avenue, now home to StartingBlock, Capital Entrepreneurs, The Doyenne Group and others, all working together.
“The support system is like nothing I’ve ever seen in any other business or nonprofit sector I’ve covered as a journalist,” Nardi says. “Even the businesses that have taken off, you still see the founders everywhere. Now they’re the ones sponsoring events and mentoring the next generation. There’s really so much to be proud of here in Madison.”
And so much work to do. Nardi recalls how embarrassed she was when she’d planned to put hackerspace Sector67’s Chris Meyer, another one of those early Badgers founders, on the cover of the 2013 M List issue featuring 53 local entrepreneurs – without realizing his future wife, Doyenne Group co-founder Heather Wentler, was an entrepreneurial powerhouse in her own right. (Nardi wised up in time, and both ultimately graced the cover.)
That was a tough lesson, but one Nardi learned as she found women and founders of color consistently being overlooked. Later she was struck by something Jim Remsik, founder of the custom software developer Adorable IO, said: If Madison was strategic and deliberate, it didn’t have to become like notoriously white, male-dominated Austin or Silicon Valley; there’s still time to get it right when it comes to race and gender.
“That was always what I focused on in my column,” Nardi says. “I wanted to be part of that conversation around ‘Can Madison do this? Can it be different?’ It’s certainly not there yet, but I do see momentum building.”
In her final five columns, Nardi told stories of participants in UpStart, a free entrepreneurship program for women and people of color supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. She was going through the program herself, exploring a startup idea of her own.
For now, she’ll be serving food and drinks at the Harmony Bar & Grill, the small business she already owns.
I’ll be here, continuing the conversation she started.
Maggie Ginsberg is now a monthly columnist and a senior contributing writer to Madison Magazine.
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