After 10 years, High Tech Happy Hour is still connecting Madison’s best brains

If it’s possible for an event that revolves around both technology and free beer to reach icon status, Madison’s High Tech Happy Hour has done it. The burgeoning monthly gathering has become so renowned among local professionals that it now regularly draws between 300 and 400 attendees – a far cry from the 30 or so who showed up for the inaugural event 10 years ago.

The event was started in 2001 by Allen Dines from the UW-Madison, as well as Craig Parson and Al Hawkins, who had recently graduated from the UW School of Business. At the time, it was viewed simply as a way to fill a need and allow people in high-tech industries to enjoy the company of fellow travelers.

“The three of them really decided that they wanted to come up with a way to promote Madison as a high-tech community, and it really started out where they would go out and solicit a sponsor to throw in 250 bucks to get a bunch of people together to have a beer and talk about technology,” said Bob Vanden Burgt, principal and co-owner of Yahara Software, one of the corporate stewards of the event. “And really the principles were very simple. They were to promote Madison as a high-tech community – no real agenda, no fees, no formalized program. It was really just a way to get people together and give back to the community.”

On Aug. 18, the High Tech Happy Hour will mark its 10th anniversary with a series of events, including the High Tech Happy Hour 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, which will take place from 5-7 p.m. at the Memorial Union Terrace in Madison.

In those 10 years, the High Tech Happy Hour has achieved its goal – and then some. While Vanden Burgt says the HTHH is not a business card exchange where you’re going to find the “big Glengarry lead,” it has been highly effective in connecting professionals in the Madison community.

“Our goals are quite simple,” said Bryan Chan, CEO of SupraNet Communications, which has co-hosted the event with Yahara since 2005. “We have joked that we were [originally] trying to get attorneys and accountants to pay for free beer … but it’s sort of mushroomed into more of a professional networking event. But as far as the mission of creating a place where people could meet without an agenda, without anyone trying to sell anything, we continue to steward that. As far as the mission of creating new business? Possibly. A lot of connections are made at these things. The companies that attend, like SupraNet and Yahara, have benefited from making those one-on-one connections with people.”

Of course, while the goal of the event isn’t necessarily to create leads or drum up business, the nature of Madison’s business community makes the connections that are created particularly valuable, says Vanden Burgt:

“Madison is a referral community. As I look at how business gets done around Madison, it’s highly referral-based, and people want to do business with people they know, people they like, people that they trust, and I think this venue caters to that type of environment.”

As for who is welcome to participate, Chan says you must be of legal drinking age, but beyond that, the organizers promote it to professionals within the Madison community. (Though visitors also show up from Milwaukee, Green Bay, and other cities.)

The topics of discussion are also diverse.

“It’s all over the map,” said Chan. “Invariably, there will be very typical conversations at times – conversations about the Packers or the Badgers, and yeah, there are always people who want to talk shop.”

A full slate of events

Prior to the HTHH anniversary celebration on Aug. 18, the organizers will host a Pecha Kucha Happy Hour from 3-4:30 p.m. at the union. Started in Toyko, Pecha Kucha is a style of event featuring a format in which a presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds each.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Chan. “We don’t really care what the message is or what the presentations are. We’ve had everything from a guy who does neon signs to a personal trainer in town who was the healthiest man in America, according to Men’s Health magazine.”

The High Tech Happy Hour anniversary event will also serve as the kickoff for the Forward Technology Festival, a 10-day event in Madison that “provides the rare opportunity to interact with professionals across a wide range of disciplines.” It will feature events such as the Madison Ruby Conference, Capital Saving and Raising, Madison Meta Meetup, Capital Entrepreneurs Event, 94labs Launch Event, the Forward Technology Conference, and the Madison Barcamp.

“The goal of the Forward Technology Festival is to sort of group all of these events into a week- to two-week-long festival,” said Chan. “And the inspiration of that came from the La Fete de Marquette, which is a group of events all tied together under one umbrella. And as a part of that, the lead event is the High Tech Happy Hour, and then the anchoring event on the other end is the Forward Technology Conference, which is also at the Memorial Union. And that is an event that draws together entrepreneurs and presentations. And what we’re really trying to do is promote Madison as a creative entrepreneurial culture.”

As for the next 10 years and beyond, Vanden Burgt and Chan both say that they would like to build on the event’s momentum and preserve its vitality.

“There’s certainly a lot of momentum, and we continue to gain momentum,” said Chan. “I would love the High Tech Happy Hour to be a draw for people outside of the Madison area or for people in the Madison area who are thinking about leaving. You know, we talk about brain drain or creativity drain here in Madison, and the High Tech Happy Hour, I think, is unique to Madison. Certainly you have other people in other communities interested in having an event like this … but I think it’s very important to promote Madison as an entrepreneurial, creative culture, and personally I believe that we can create more diversity in Madison when we present these opportunities for people to stay in Madison and to build business and to join start-up companies. And if we can do that over the next 10 years, continue to make Madison a great city at a grassroots level, then I think we’ll have accomplished something great.”

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