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Business partnerships are made at Forward Fest

The annual eight-day technology and entrepreneurship event has been a springboard for business relationships that have launched startups and careers.

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You never quite know where or when a new business relationship might begin, but Madison’s annual Forward Festival is a great place to start.

The eight-day festival, which kicks off Aug. 16 and runs through Aug. 23, is billed as “by entrepreneurs and for entrepreneurs,” and it has proven effective at creating collision and collaboration between entrepreneurs and at fostering unexpected business partnerships for a number of local startup founders.

Travis Batiza, co-founder and CEO of AssuredLeads, a Madison company formed in 2017 that partners with insurance agencies to improve their business insurance production and provide leads, met Jason Weaver, former CEO of Shoutlet, at last year’s Forward Festival and the two immediately connected.

“Jason has been a part of many successful organizations and has shown how to help grow their business,” says Batiza. “Our goal of optimizing commercial insurance production for insurance agents and carriers resonated with him and we immediately started building AssuredLeads’ platform.”

Batiza says he was drawn to Weaver’s unique combination of visionary product design with a sales background. “Having similar philosophies, his experience building successful products and companies made him an invaluable asset and we were thrilled to have such a seasoned entrepreneur be eager to join AssuredLeads. Jason has been building our proprietary software platform and is an advisor in many other aspects of the company.”

Joe Scanlin (right), co-founder and CEO of Scanlytics, met Atari founder Nolan Bushnell at Forward Festival in 2014. Today, Bushnell is an advisor to the startup.

In 2014, Joe Scanlin, co-founder and CEO of Milwaukee-based Scanlytics, which measures human behavioral insights through intelligent floor sensors, ran into Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s, at Forward Festival.

“To be honest, I'm not one to get hot and bothered over meeting a celebrity, but Nolan represented a lot more than a recognizable name or face to me,” admits Scanlin. “He has spent his career democratizing the best parts of what it’s like to be a kid, and is constantly showing us how important play is. The commercial successes that he has experienced as a result are more of a byproduct of that mission, less the core focus. I’ve always had that impression of him. I think that’s what he brings most to me personally and professionally — that I can have this healthy disregard for the impossible.”

Scanlin says he and Bushnell, who now serves as an advisor to Scanlytics, connected partly because Bushnell heard how Scanlin built the first prototype of what would become the SoleSensor, a smart floor sensor that measures 100% of foot traffic in physical spaces, by re-engineering a gaming controller.

“I think there was obvious evidence of a kindred spirit given his gaming and engineering background,” notes Scanlin. “We also discussed where he saw applicability of the core technology as part of the new revolution he was spearheading — mixing electronic gaming with the physical world so that players didn’t have to sacrifice real-world interaction or virtual-world collision. There was also conversation around the particular challenges involved with bringing a hardware/sensor to mass market.”

For Joe Barneson, Forward Festival was his introduction to the world of startups and led to his first startup job.

Now the head of product for San Francisco-based Bunker, an insurance technology company that opened a Madison office in 2016, Barneson attended Forward Festival in 2011 and met Liz Eversoll, the former CEO of the now-shuttered SOLOMO Technology.

“Liz was on a panel for women entrepreneurs,” notes Barneson. “At the time, I was entertaining the idea of startups more seriously and was looking for interesting opportunities with substance. Liz was organized, calm, and confident — and her messaging on mobile technology, which was new at the time, and the need for managing your personal data struck a chord with me. We had a brief meet and greet following the panel discussion and set up a follow-up meeting a couple weeks later.

“At that follow-up, Liz offered me a job,” Barneson continues. “Nothing was posted, nor was I actively seeking anything, but my experiences were directly applicable to SOLOMO’s current challenges and I shared a passion for the long-term vision. Liz just made it happen and I took the leap.”

While SOLOMO ultimately closed its doors, Barneson says he’s taken much away from his time there.

“Being at a startup is experiencing corporate life in fast-forward,” explains Barneson. “Being my first startup, the experience with fundraising was encouraging. Prior to that, the process was somewhat mysterious and daunting, but my time at SOLOMO showed me it was essentially a sales process, though you’re selling the vision, not a product. 

“Team management, both up and down from my position, has always been the biggest challenge in any role I’ve held,” Barneson adds. “At SOLOMO, I learned that at a startup, the team and the company are better off with quick decisions and results with regard to personnel issues. On several occasions, I spent considerable effort and time investing in retraining and rehabilitating, but in hindsight this slowed down the team in a substantially unacceptable way.”


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