There is a persistent discussion in the Milwaukee startup community about what is wrong with entrepreneurship here. The Kauffman Foundation ranked Wisconsin the worst state for startup activity in both 2016 and 2015. Since 2010, Milwaukee has lost a total 627 businesses, the second worst performance in the nation. Depending on who I talk to, I hear three different explanations for this:
- Milwaukee area investors are not active enough, there needs to be more capital invested.
- People in Milwaukee are worse at creating startups: the businesses created are not worth investing in.
- Milwaukeeans are too conservative, both for risky startup investment and for risky startup employment.
I have been on all sides of this argument over the past 5 years of running RokkinCat, which started out as a startup product company and pivoted into contracting as a form of “bootstrapping”. RokkinCat is now a software contracting company which often works with startups to build the first few iterations of their products. From my vantage point in the community, I can see that these three explanations all point to an underlying cause: the people who would build good startup products are leaving.
Our community needs to create a compelling reason for makers to stay in Milwaukee.
I find it hard to blame investors for not investing in Milwaukee tech companies: who will build the products that are being pitched? If Northwestern Mutual and Johnson Controls have so much trouble filling their staffing needs, how could a seed-round mobile app company hope to attract talent? Conversely, why would a solo-founder who has a idea for an app leave a comfortable agency job to start a company that seems highly unlikely to attract investment? Furthermore, if they did build a company and it failed, the result would be to go back to an agency job that does not value or compensate for the skills they built. And so, few businesses get started and everyone interested in working for a startup heads to the coasts.
Thankfully, there are others who have seen this problem and have begun the work of remedying it. Newaukee has been creating engaging professional and social events that are a big reason Milwaukee retains the young people that it does. StartupMKE and The Commons are educating entrepreneurs and connecting them to investors. Inc recently mentioned Milwaukee as an “unexpected place that is actually amazing for startups”, specifically mentioning low cost of living. These are all important factors in making Milwaukee attractive to entrepreneurs, but it misses a critical component for would-be product builders: makers want to be making things.
Many programmers can’t wait for their day full of programming at work to end, so they can go home to program on the thing they wanted to be programming the whole time. Designers are constantly drawing logo sketches in the margins of PowerPoint handouts. They don’t call themselves entrepreneurs and they don’t come to startup events, but they are the missing other half of an entrepreneur ecosystem. At RokkinCat, we see this as an opportunity to build a bridge between the two communities, to create trust and confidence on both sides.
Two years ago, RokkinCat started a hackathon series called Hack & Tell which encouraged makers (programmers, designers, quilters, etc.) to show everyone else what they spend their free time building. No business plans or startups, just excited people sharing what they are excited about. We believe that connecting these makers to each other, and getting them to share their enthusiasm is how good businesses are started. Many investors will tell you that they invest in teams, not products. RokkinCat is trying to build teams.
Our last event attracted 100 enthusiastic makers. Our next event is April 8th, and we hope to see you there. If you think this is important work or that you want to help, email me and let’s work together.