Digital Fertilizer Meetup & The NE Wisconsin Startup Community

July 11 Meetup — Digital Fertilizer Startup Community

digital fertilizer meetupA Digital Fertilizer (DF) mostly-monthly meetup for the NE Wisconsin tech startup community is happening tonight, July 11, 2016, from 6 to 8 PM, EST, at The Green Room Lounge in De Pere, Wisconsin, USA. Tonight’s meeting topic is:

DF Presents: Ben Johnson, The Designer of Tales, Wrestler of Whales — Through storytelling and visual experimentation, Ben Johnson and his team at Elegant Seagulls have helped companies like Forbes, ESPN, and Peak Designs connect, convert, and conquer. Ben will be talking about the Green Roomimportance of design storytelling, having empathy for your users, and not being afraid to go for it!

The DF meetup group was founded April 4, 2013 by Chris Schmitz and five other NE Wisconsin tech startup enthusiasts. Meetup.com currently indicates this group has 422 members.

The Organization — Digital Fertilizer

Digital Fertilizer’s mission is to strengthen the high-growth startup community of Northeast Wisconsin by connecting, educating, and empowering a network of entrepreneurs.

digital fertilizerDF was launched a couple years ago (2013?) and appears to have had three cofounders. In a DF launch post, Chris Schmitz said:

“…there seems to be a competitive relationship between many cities in NEW [northeast Wisconsin], but I believe we can only sustain a startup community if we turn that into a collaborative relationship. It’s great for each city to have events and resources for people and businesses only in their area, but they have to tie into something bigger. One of the goals of Digital Fertilizer is to provide an accelerator program for fledgling startups, but there’s no way we can do that sustainably without the infrastructure to support it, and that needs to built up by everyone interested in startups in NEW.

Another big challenge is going to be getting the local education system and startup communities brad feldgovernment agencies to help in cultivating entrepreneurship and providing people the skills necessary to build high-tech, high-growth businesses. Most of the business in the area is focused around manufacturing and lifestyle businesses…if we want to become a community that produces startups we need to devote resources to creating the necessary components to sustain them.

…The local government and investors are ready to supply resources to cultivate these types of businesses, but the movement must be entrepreneur led, and right now there is too large of a disconnect between the entrepreneurs and innovators to build anything substantial. Digital Fertilizer aims to change that…”

Chris was interviewed about Digital Fertilizer and the NE Wisconsin startup community xconomyby Xconomy in 2014. Below are some of his comments.

“…There’s definitely momentum, but it’s still relatively small…Events like Startup Weekend help a ton. So many connections are made over that weekend, and it pulls some people out of the woodwork. We’ve got a lot of students involved in the tech scene…we have to get young people excited about it; otherwise if they want to do anything with a startup, they’re going to go to Milwaukee or Madison.

Why is it important to form tech startups in this area?

I think it’s really the only way to battle the brain drain that goes on here. All the good developers I know, ask any of them why they stick around this area, it’s because they’ve got family here. They work remotely for a startup. In order to…improve the economy and get some startups to stay here, you need more resources. You need to give them a space…to connect with each other and with investors. That being said, it’s going to take a commitment from someone, probably a successful entrepreneur who is willing to put some money and time into the community…

…There’s not a lot of deal flow, not a lot of stuff going on up here. I do think there’s a lot more money up here. There probably could be a lot more angel investors up here, if they could be educated about early-stage investing.

I don’t see a lot of entrepreneurs coming out of any of the colleges around here. Also the curriculum that they teach for computer science degrees is dated. If they updated their curriculum to focus more on more up-to-date Web technology [like Ruby on Rails], I think that would help a lot…”

Insights About NE Wisconsin Startup Community

Chris had a number of insightful comments in the items above about the startup community in NE Wisconsin.

  • wisconsin red NE“…there seems to be a competitive relationship between many cities in NEW…we can only sustain a startup community if we turn that into a collaborative relationship…”
    • Chris was correct, and as of mid-2016 I’m not aware of any significant improvement in collaboration between cities to support and expand the region’s startup community.
  • “…big challenge is going to be getting the local education system and government agencies to help in cultivating entrepreneurship and providing people the skills necessary to build high-tech, high-growth businesses…”
    • I don’t know if Chris had specific programs or assistance in mind regarding education and government, but I don’t think there has been significant improvement on this topic since 2013. There are likely education or government activities happening to support the startup community that I don’t know about — but isn’t that sort of the point? People need to hear about these activities if they’re going to be effective. The only education / government startup community activity I can think of that sounded at least slightly successful is the entrepreneur program for UW Oshkosh students led by Colleen Merrill.
  • “…if we want to become a community that produces startups we need to devote resources to creating the necessary components to sustain them…”
    • It seems like the lack of effective, visible, and significant support for the region’s startup community is because NE Wisconsin communities, organizations, and influential individuals:
      • Don’t want to or aren’t able to work together to build and support a strong regional startup community.
      • Don’t want to or aren’t able to effectively publicize available activities supporting the startup community.
      • Don’t view the region’s startup community as a priority area for investing significant resources.
      • Haven’t been pitched comprehensive and compelling proposals for supporting the startup community.

As far as I know, the two main accomplishments of Digital Fertilizer from 2013 to 2016 are:

  • Regular meetings (most months)
  • Startup Weekend Green Bay (2014, 2015, 2016)

OpenCoffee weekly entrepreneur meetups were happening for a while in Green Bay and Appleton, but participation in those declined, and I think OpenCoffee is pretty much gone or in hibernation.

Future Possibilities — Digital Fertilizer & NE Wisconsin Startups

So the question at this point seems to be, “Is it possible for Digital Fertilizer to build a connected and supported startup community in NE Wisconsin?”

startup communitiesThe past three years says the region’s startup community isn’t at the tipping point. A lot of energy and time has been put into Digital Fertilizer and related startup community activities, but it doesn’t seemed to have reached critical mass. As of July 2016, I still don’t think NE Wisconsin has the reputation or the startup support resources needed to create a Schumpeterian swarm of hundreds of startups which would lead to disruptive innovation, a boost to the regional economy, and a highly-visible startup community.

Here are a few ideas related to DF that might be worth considering to help the NE Wisconsin startup community get to the next level.

  • Maximize member value (422 registered members)
    • Ping members annually
    • Find out what members would value from DF
    • Spinoff events for specific member niches
    • Member directory / gallery like Portland, ME
    • Viable implementation of OpenCoffee
  • Startup launch platform
    • Community entrepreneurial and tech organization partnerships and support
    • Pre-seed grants and investments
    • Facilitate monthly or quarterly startup launches
    • Up-to-date directory of NE Wisc startups
  • High level of visible college involvement (20+ colleges in region)
  • Archived videos of speakers / presentations, like TC New Tech
  • Revive Web920 (webdevs, designers, entrepreneurs)
  • Regular website content, news and posts (only 11 posts in 2 ½ years)
  • Startup community calendar
  • Regional presence outside Green Bay and De Pere
    • Appleton Makerspace (had two very successful DF meetups)
    • Oshkosh / UWO
    • Other cities in NE Wisc

Whew!

Didn’t mean to do a long post. Covered a lot more than tonight’s DF meetup… The above suggestions are meant to spark discussion and increased activities that support the NE Wisconsin startup community. If you want to meet for coffee and conversation about anything above, let me know! 🙂

I’m working on developing an initiative to connect disruptive innovators throughout NE Wisconsin. If that venture launches and is successful, I’m sure we’ll be collaborating with and supporting DF as much as possible!

Tomorrow’s post will likely be a short overview of tonight’s DF meetup.

*****

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