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.

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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Moving business relationships forward

The entrepreneurs IB spoke with agree that Forward Festival offers a unique opportunity to grow and diversify Greater Madison’s startup community.

“The combination of events brings tremendous perspective and wisdom, while removing many of the barriers that exist between investors and entrepreneurs,” says Batiza. “Just like we want to bring value to the insurance industry by connecting business owners with commercial insurance experts, Forward Fest facilitates the flow of quality information in a collaborative forum.”

“I feel that just the way that it’s organized with the diversity of events certainly enables the sort of collision and collaboration that creates value,” Scanlin explains. “It helps to hear that doing something as brave as inventing a new technology or attempting to build something to ‘make the world a better place’ is in good company. Hopefully events like these encourage the level of transparency and dialogue that have impact far beyond just the dates of the gathering.”

“Forward Fest, unlike a meetup, is a once-a-year conference where you can count on people coming out and being present,” Barneson adds. “The events, specifically the conference day, have a good turn out from several different networks in Madison. Outside of the conference day where you find the largest audience, the smaller events offer an opportunity to narrow the specialties and find professionals with like interests.”

Batiza says Forward Fest is an essential part of the startup community in Madison as it allows for collaboration between an array of talented groups and individuals who share similar goals. “Events like this further legitimize Madison as an entrepreneurial hub and it is fundamental to attracting the talent and capital necessary for innovation.”

“It provides the platform for folks in the community to materially support startups, as well as simply learn more about what people are building locally,” says Scanlin. “I think it’s similar to how shopping at local farmers markets have legitimate health benefits with respect to eating foods grown in local soil profiles. Supporting local startups has a greater impact than we might be measuring today.”

Every year Forward Fest is refining and tuning its messaging and model, notes Barneson. “It’s an event I look forward to because I know I can count on seeing the startup community in force there. There are certainly ways the event can get better and I’ve seen the organizers make consistent adjustments, but the best way to support the startup community is for anyone actively in startups or thinking about startups to be present at this purpose-driven event.”

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