Startup Accelerator brings “un-conference” concept to Madison

Say the words “business conference” and you’ll likely evoke images of stiff-backed chairs, neatly pressed suits, and cavernous rooms where titans of industry hold court. Say “un-conference” and you might be met with blank stares – but you’ll certainly get people’s attention.

Of course, that’s exactly what the organizers of Startup Accelerator 6, a self-described un-conference scheduled for July 23 at Sector 67 in Madison, are counting on.

“Casual” is the watchword for Startup Accelerator 6. Above all, the conference is an opportunity for anyone interested in business to network, learn, and look for inspiration, and is formatted in such a way that all participants can feel welcome – whether they’re business-savvy veterans or beginners with a mere spark of a business idea.

“You don’t have to have a certain degree or status to attend; it’s open to everybody,” said Susan Carlson, vice president and treasurer at Accede CPA and a co-organizer of the event. “It’s very, very casual. There will not be a suit in sight, unless one of our guests wears one. We’ll probably be in shorts and tank tops or something.”

That casual attitude extends to the conference’s agenda, which isn’t set until the morning of the conference.

“An un-conference means that the people who show up for the day actually set the agenda for the day,” said Carlson. “We have people come prepared to teach, to learn, and to network, so some people will propose sessions on the website and others will vote on them.”

This is the sixth Startup Accelerator event organized by Milwaukee’s The School Factory (the last one, held at Eiger Lab in Rockford, Ill., attracted about 60 people), so the organization has had some time to get a sense of what works and what’s popular.

Among the most popular topics for discussion during past Startup Accelerator conferences have been social media, how to make an elevator pitch, sales and marketing, and failure – as in, how to avoid it.

“The failure session is really popular because those who tried and failed and tried again say what they learned from the first round,” said Carlson. “And it makes it not so scary for people who are thinking about getting into business. They know that it’s okay to make an attempt at something, and if it doesn’t work, you can adjust and do something else.

“Another really popular one is the elevator pitch, the pitch process. So we have people who will come in and, if they want to work on their pitch, they’ll give it to the group and the group will give feedback, and they usually walk out with a lot of good feedback. It’s a very nonthreatening environment.”

Freedom without the chaos

But wherever attendees choose to devote their attention, they’ll be happy to know that they won’t get stuck listening to a presentation that isn’t relevant to them.

According to Carlson, at this event “the law of two feet is dominant,” meaning that “if you’re not getting or giving value to the session you’re in, you can just get up and leave.”

Of course, such a loose structure may seem off-putting to people who are used to a more rigid agenda, but Carlson speaks from experience when she says that new attendees will be pleasantly surprised.

“The people who come in thinking it’s going to be chaos are definitely surprised because it does work out,” said Carlson. “People go to the sessions they’re interested in. Otherwise they can walk around and talk and meet people. All small businesses face a lot of the same questions and challenges, and when we get together as a group, we can solve the problems better than if we’re trying to do it all individually.”

Indeed, much of the value of the conference lies in the connections people make. On the event’s website, the organizers call it “real interactive learning without the sales pitch.”

“Just learning how to network, learning how to introduce yourself to someone and say, ‘This is what I’m doing,’ and just talk about it,” said Carlson. “Or if you need someone to help you develop a marketing plan, or you need someone to help you with your product development or whatever it might be, or you want some ideas on just how to begin.”

According to Carlson, the feedback people give is overwhelmingly positive, partly because of the hands-on nature and openness of the event.

“Almost everyone who attends walks out feeling really energized and excited and ready to take the next step,” said Carlson.

The event is free, but organizers do ask that attendees bring a donation for the Goodman Community Center food pantry. There’s a list of items on the Startup Accelerator website that the pantry can always use.

But aside from goodwill, the main things that the event’s organizers want participants to bring are a relaxed attitude and an eagerness to interact on a face-to-face level.

“We want it to be a conversation between the presenters and the people in the room as much as possible,” said Carlson.

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