New UW resource clinic helps entrepreneurs navigate the choppy seas of business – without drowning

When Charles Van Hise first articulated The Wisconsin Idea back in 1904, he couldn’t possibly have had in mind an iPhone app that allows consumers to shrink their carbon footprint. But luckily, the spirit of the legendary UW president’s seminal idea – which says that education should improve people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom – lives on in the work of the newly formed Entrepreneurs’ Resource Clinic (ERC) and the people its resident advisors have helped.

Indeed, among the entrepreneurs the UW’s team of business mentors has advised is Claus Moberg, the young, ambitious CEO of SnowShoeFood, a company whose smart phone app aims to change the way people shop for groceries by allowing them to select the most environmentally friendly products on the market.

Moberg, whose company was profiled in a February feature, says the help he’s received from the university’s Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, one of several partners in the new venture, has been integral to the progress SnowShoeFood has made – and that sense of gratitude is written all over his face.

“They were a huge asset to us,” says Moberg, who recently stopped by the ERC’s sleek space in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building to consult with Anne Smith and Eric Englund, co-directors of the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic. “We have paid zero dollars for any legal services that we’ve had rendered thus far, and everything that we’ve done has required significant amounts of legal prep work. … Quite honestly, our company would not have been able to afford any of that from a private contractor at this stage, and so the idea that those resources are available to use through the university is just amazing, and it’s been a huge catalyst to our business.”

Established by the university’s Office of Corporate Relations, the ERC is touted as “a ‘one-stop shop’ where entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs can find assistance in a single space.”

Among the ERC’s partners are the Office of Corporate Relations, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the Wisconsin School of Business (including the Small Business Development Center, INSITE, and the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship), the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, the University of Wisconsin Extension (including the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Network and the Wisconsin Youth Entrepreneurs Network), and the Physical Sciences Laboratory.

The primary services offered by the clinic are legal advice, technology licensing, business development ideas, financial and budgeting advice, and leadership mentoring.

But while most of these services existed before the ERC was launched in February (indeed, Moberg did much of his work with the Law & Entrepreneur Clinic last year) having a central location where people can access them has allowed the university to better serve the business community.

“Many of these resources have been around for a number of years, but we’ve seen ourselves and have heard from people that we’ve worked with that, as much as we try to work together, there’s always a disconnect,” said Charles Hoslet, managing director of the Office of Corporate Relations. “You tell someone, ‘start here, then go over to Grainger Hall,’ and they’re going to refer them back to someplace else. So both from our own experience and things that we’ve heard from others, we realized that it would make a lot of sense to try to get us together in one place and create that synergy.”

Sorting through the chaos

Of course, any start up needs to slowly build its customer base while it gets the word out about its products or services, and the ERC is no different.

According to Smith, the ERC is building momentum and has become increasingly active in the past few months.

Perhaps that’s not surprising given the advantages that the ERC’s “one-stop” model holds for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

“The nature of the start-up business is one that sort of redefines the word chaos, and there’s so many balls that they’re juggling so fast trying to do so many things,” said Englund. “It’s easy to drop a ball, forget about one, and not know where to go for help, and so they do consistently find it helpful to try to have a one-stop shop. We’re not perfect in doing that because of the diverse needs that they have, but we do get a positive response from that.”

“And I would say it’s not so much that they say this is great that I can come [to one place],” added Smith, “but you see them, and they let out a big sigh and are much more relaxed when they realize that they’re getting a broad spectrum of help.”

"The nature of the start-up business is one that sort of redefines the word chaos, and there’s so many balls that they’re juggling so fast trying to do so many things. It’s easy to drop a ball, forget about one, and not know where to go for help, and so they do consistently find it helpful to try to have a one-stop shop." – Eric Englund, co-director of the UW Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic

Indeed, it’s that broad-based approach that makes the ERC so special and so valuable. In short, it allows businesspeople to cover all their bases and prevent neglected issues from coming back to haunt them.

“What we’re trying to do is look at [their businesses] holistically so that what we’re doing is coordinated and it makes sense and it’s taking them in the same direction,” said Smith.

“The challenge for the nascent entrepreneur is to understand the full range of traps that are out there,” added Englund. “You can literally pick up the paper every day or read the literature and find that someone fell into a different trap. Someone fell into the trap of improper accounting, someone fell into the trap of not having appropriate financing, someone fell into the trap of not being properly incorporated, someone fell into the trap of not having the right contract documents, someone fell into the trap of not having the appropriate businesspeople helping them to run their company. There are different traps that are out there, and what the ERC attempts to do is at least vet all those arenas and, as Anne indicated, have the entrepreneur consider them holistically and call these issues to his or her attention.”

Ideally, the ERC will help spur more economic activity by creating more outcomes like SnowShoeFood’s, wherein an eager team with an innovative idea but little business experience received the boost it needed to get to the next level.

“We want to keep them from getting paralyzed, because I think sometimes they can get overwhelmed by everything and not know where to turn and then they can just be stuck for a while,” said Smith. “So if we can help them get some focus and move on, they have a better chance.”

“And if you step back and look at this globally, we’re living in a time where there’s universal recognition that as a society, we need to grow more businesses,” said Englund. “If you stop and look at the lessons learned from the past, you see that they include lessons of gridlock or running into walls and not being able to move forward, and in essence what we’re trying to do here is create an atmosphere that at least identifies where those walls are and helps break down that gridlock so the entrepreneur has a better chance of being successful, because without that success, we’re not going to be able to grow Wisconsin, grow businesses, grow entrepreneurs, and create wealth.”

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