Wisconsin’s business support systems are helping young companies survive

The nation’s leading foundation for the study of entrepreneurism recently called a timeout on its annual series of reports on small business activity, citing a “new direction in research strategy” that will lead to retooling over the next year.

That means for 2018, at least, Wisconsin will be spared another curiously abysmal ranking in the Kauffman Index of Startup Activity.

Unfortunately, it also means Kauffman won’t update its 2017 Index of Main Street Entrepreneurship, which in recent years has cast Wisconsin in a different and positive light.

The Main Street report in 2017 ranked Wisconsin second among the 25 largest states (behind only Minnesota) in a vital category that combined three factors: the five-year small business survival rate; the percentage of adults who owned a business as a primary job; and the number of small businesses per 1,000 companies of all sizes.

That’s testament to many factors that help define Wisconsin, from an old-fashioned work ethic to bootstrapping tactics that stretch dollars longer to stubbornness when it comes to accepting failure.

It’s also evidence that startups and scale-ups in Wisconsin can usually find help when they look for it.

In the 2017 Main Street report, Kauffman calculated that 50.77 percent of Wisconsin startups stayed in business for the first five years of existence. That was good for sixth among the 25 largest states and second in the Midwest behind Ohio.

Kauffman also reported that 6.46 percent of Wisconsin’s adult population owns a business as a main job, fifth in the top 25 and second in the Midwest.

For every 1,000 companies of all sizes in Wisconsin, Kauffman calculated, about 704 are small businesses. That was good for third among the top 25 states and second in the Midwest behind Ohio.

Taken together, the picture emerges of a state with a significant number of small businesses and entrepreneurs that have passed the test of time.

One reason for that healthy mix is the business ecosystem for young companies in Wisconsin, which has grown sharply in the past decade or so.

A few weeks ago, for a presentation to an advisory board for the WiSys Technology Foundation, I used a slide that charted some of the players in Wisconsin’s infrastructure for young businesses. It included about 30 organizations and events — an off-the-cuff number that might easily have been doubled or tripled with a bit more research.

Most of those organizations, events, and support systems didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago, and some are younger still. It shows Wisconsin has been steadily building public and private capacity to help entrepreneurs and young companies make it through their individual “valleys of death” and closer to the promised land of business success.

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A prime example of that deeper support system are the series of activities taking place in early November, when Startup Wisconsin Week takes place around the state in venues large and small.

The biggest single event will be the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium in Madison, which will cover parts of three days and involve speakers, panel discussions, workshops, and about 40 young companies pitching to potential investors.

The lineup extends to Appleton, Beloit, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee, among other cities, with more than 40 Milwaukee events alone spread over the Nov. 5–11 week. 

“There are many more ways for entrepreneurs to connect today than in the past, and to learn from themselves and others,” said Matt Cordio, founder and president of Startup Milwaukee, a convener for the Milwaukee events. “Those opportunities can help businesses get on their feet and to stay up.”

Wisconsin isn’t California, Massachusetts, or even Colorado when it comes to sheer startup numbers, but it stands out as a place where young businesses stand a better chance to survive.

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