Wisconsin Startup Coalition Co-founder Matt Cordio began the venture, which advocates to policy makers on behalf of entrepreneurs to improve the early-stage ecosystem, when he recognized the need for significant policy changes to improve the business environment, attract talent and capital to the state to invest in technology.
Something Cordio says is also essential to kickstart a business is having someone is feedback very early in a company's lifecycle to help refine its initial product or service offering. That comes through fostering a culture of support.
"I think what's missing is a culture of some larger companies in the state of Wisconsin supporting entrepreneurs, building their products," he says. "It used to be that when Wisconsin was a manufacturing hub — which we still very much are to a lesser extent though — these large manufacturing companies, like A.O. Smith or Allen-Bradley, which is now Rockwell Automation, had this history of having people leave those companies and build new ones to support the company that they left. That just doesn't happen today in Wisconsin. And if we can do more, to incentivize these established companies to help startups find their first customers, I think that's important."
On the capital side, while there's typically access to it for later-stage businesses, he says at the early stage he's found that investors in Wisconsin are somewhat risk-averse when it comes to writing an entrepreneur's first check.
"So, we look at policies that can help de-risk those very early-stage investments, which are critical to a startup success," he says. "And data shows that those first rounds are likely going to be led by friends, family or close business connections of a startup founder within 90 miles of where they live. So, it's critical we incentivize that type of activity, that angel Investing, here in Wisconsin."
Talent is also important; they pay taxes and help make sure that the state's economy is strong. However, Wisconsin's population, he says, has been stagnant or even in decline for the past few decades. So, there's a need to attract people from outside the state, especially those with ideas.
"Part of it is showing that we have an ecosystem that supports that early venture risk-taking and investment, as well as unique programs," he says. "And there's one, for example, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Titletown Tech, which the Packers, Microsoft, and about a dozen companies from the Green Bay area have come together to invest in early-stage tech companies. And that's really a unique model and we need more of that in Wisconsin where these large companies are investing in the very early-stage, innovative companies here in the state."
Wisconsin Startup Coalition Co-founder Peter Welch says a lot of the conversations they've had as they've grown the organization over the last two years have been about understanding Wisconsin's identity within a broader national community of startups.
"A lot of our conversations have been around how Wisconsin is unique compared to other markets," Welch says. "We're never going to be Silicon Valley. We're never going to be Boston. We're never going to be Austin. And we shouldn't try to be."
The second half of that conversation, he says, is learning what it means to be part of a startup ecosystem that is uniquely Wisconsin.
"Once you're at a certain level of success with your company, borders don't really matter as much for an investment," Welch says. "That early stage really does."
Since its launch, Cordio says the Coalition's early success has been focused on educating lawmakers and policymakers, and getting them excited about how to help early-stage entrepreneurs succeed in Wisconsin.
"We realize we need to work together to build policy that's in the best interest of entrepreneurs because everyone realizes (that) more entrepreneurs is more jobs, it's more tax revenue, it's more economic prosperity for the state of Wisconsin."
Cordio and Welch spoke on the Smart Business Dealmakers Podcast about the progress the organization has made since its launch in 2020, and how creating a network of support could lead to putting Wisconsin on investors' maps. Hit play to catch the full interview.