Leaders & Influencers: Brad James

In our continuing series on Wisconsin Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Brad James, President & CEO of Beepods, which promotes and implements sustainable beekeeping practices by providing education and resources to individuals, businesses, and organizations.

Tell us a little bit about what made you decide to join Beepods as President & CEO.

Brad JamesBeepods was founded in 2009 and has gone through a huge amount of change since then. I was brought on a few years ago; the company had a great concept and great products, but it wasn’t moving forward. At the time, I was working for a company that specialized in taking startups to the next level and Beepods was one of our clients. My goal since joining the company has been to build it the right way, not just in terms of making money, but to make a social and environmental impact from top to bottom. We source as many of our products and materials as possible from U.S. manufacturers (specifically, those from Wisconsin), and work with locally minded and eco-minded companies. We have employed local artisans and individuals with visual impairments. This is part of our strategy to build economic equity across all layers of the company and to promote sustainability in more than just the “green” sense of the word.

What successes have you seen? Any recent initiatives?

As a company, we’re cash positive, which is always fun. We’ve solidified some distributors in different niches, which is big. We have new inspection processes and have rounded out and added to our product offering. When I came on, Beepods was more or less a concept. Now it’s a feasible product with services and tools people are using.

Lately we’re going through an entire update of our software and back end systems. We’ll have a new look to our website soon, and we’re launching more digital products so people can dip their toes into beekeeping, in a way that’s easy and affordable to access. And we’re ramping up to open a round of fundraising, so lots going on.

What are some common misconceptions people have about beekeeping?

When most people think about beekeeping, they think of white boxes. That is one way of beekeeping, but it’s not the only way. We try to focus on that with our messaging. The usual way of beekeeping isn’t bad, but there are certainly other ways to do it, so Beepods is about educating and awareness as much as it is about selling products.

Talk about your clients and your work with schools.

Anywhere you can think of that you might be able to put a beehive, we’ve probably done it.  With schools, we’re particularly interested in educating the next generation. We can provide beekeeping curriculum for teachers ranging in subjects from math and science to art and engineering. We work with FabLabs and MakerSpaces on tech and computing and in outdoor classrooms to enable and empower teachers to use those spaces as a type of living lab. (Science experiments don’t always need to happen at a desk.) We have tools for kids at every level, and we support educators with tools, techniques, and bee viewers. We really want to make it possible for all people—even those who may be afraid—to interact with bees.

What is the overall health of bees and beekeeping, and where do you see opportunities to help?

Wisconsin is one of the top 10 honey-producing states, yet we sustain the highest colony collapses and die-offs. It’s a complicated problem—no one thing is causing these collapses and die-offs. Part of the problem is that due to the long tradition of “white box beekeeping,” there’s no central pool of data for us to use to measure the success of various beekeeping techniques. (As opposed to an agricultural industry like dairy farming, where we’ve been collecting data from dairy cows for decades.) We’ve only been collecting this type of data for honey bees in the last 10-15 years, so we’re relatively far behind in research for the most important domesticated animal. We’re working with beekeepers to collect and aggregate data around global geolocations so we can get a better picture of what’s happening. Beekeepers use the same training, techniques, and tools, but they’re not taking variables into consideration when collecting data.

 Why is Wisconsin important to beekeeping (and vice versa)?

Wisconsin was built on farming and manufacturing, and we try to capitalize on those industries, along with technology. Everything we need to run a meaningful company, we can do here in Wisconsin. People in Wisconsin understand agriculture, where food comes from, and the role of bees in that process. There are still manufacturers in Wisconsin; they have survived outsourcing. Understanding things like how batch manufacturing is important to smaller businesses has helped me see how important the local economy can be.

Other industries and ideals here are also important to our business, in their own way. Tech, slow food, slow money, general Wisconsin friendliness. We’re not a one-trick pony so ours is a difficult business to build. I think we can be the Nike of beekeeping in the U.S., but it’s going to take time.

 

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting to learn more about how our outsourced accounting and CFO services can help your business succeed.

Farm Work: The Adventures of FPC’s Bailey Green

Green Journey Farm

Green Journey Farm

If you read our previous Meet & Greet post about Fine Point Staff Accountant Bailey Green (of tiny house fame), you might not be surprised to learn that our resident adventurer has left for greener pastures (literally!). But don’t worry, she’s still working for Fine Point Consulting. Read all about it our Q&A with Bailey.

 

Tell us about where you’re living now and what made you decide to make the move?

Bailey and Grant

My husband and I moved with our tiny house and our dog to Curlew, Washington, in late July of this year. We started Green Journey Farm on 40 acres here with the goal of becoming a completely sustainable farm.

When I was in college, I took a summer course on environmental leadership and sustainability. I met some activists who were big names in the sustainability field—they were very knowledgeable and inspiring! It made a big impression on me, and that was the start of me realizing I wanted to take the next steps in the journey to sustainable living.

We settled on Curlew because it met everything on our list of criteria: It’s close to a national forest, close to a town of less than 10,000 residents, there’s acreage, and a nearby forest service. The town of Curlew is well under 10,000 residents, and we’re less than 20 miles away from the Canadian border.

 

 

What does it mean to be a sustainable farm, and how is it going so far?

Solar setup

Solar setup

Well, our goal is to be totally self-sufficient on our 40 acres so that we never need to go to the grocery store again. We want to be a zero-waste operation. There’s no one right way to live, but we also want to share, via our website and blog, what the sustainable farm possibility can look like, and provide tips and lessons from our experience to possibly inspire others.

Right now, our farm consists of our tiny house, an all-purpose shed, a sheep shed (made from rocks and fallen timbers), a chicken coop, and our solar-power set-up. There’s a large ravine with a creek that runs through the middle of our property, and we have many hiking trails and just a stunning view. In addition to our dog, we have cats, rabbits, chickens, and sheep, and we’re working on getting fish set up both indoors and out.

 

You’re still working full-time for Fine Point. What has that transition been like and do you use any special tools to make it work?

Tulip the Sheep

Tulip, the East Friesien dairy sheep (does not use Slack)

Yep, when I told Luella about my plan to move to this farm in Washington, I think she thought I was a little nuts, but she was also completely supportive. She has always encouraged her staff to follow their dreams. Likewise, the team at Fine Point was also supportive. My work with clients isn’t really that different. I was working mostly from home when I was in Madison, but would go into the office a couple days a week. I do think it was important that I worked in the office in Madison for a couple of years before we moved. That helped me really get in the groove of the culture and communication, and just the way we worked with clients.

Fine Point uses several online tools to connect both internally and with clients, which is great as I obviously can’t just pop by a coworker’s desk or a client’s office. We use Slack internally and with some clients, Asana for project/task management, and Office 365 to create and share documents. And we use Skype for screen sharing and training.

 

Any surprises on the farm?

Temporary roommates

Temporary roommates

Well, I ordered day-old chicks to arrive soon after we arrived here. We didn’t have a coop or anything yet, so we warmed them with heat packs and kept them in our tiny house for awhile. I would hear them cheeping while I was on calls for work, which was pretty cute.

 

What do you love most about your new life? Is there anything you miss?

I love being able to look up when I’m in the middle of a difficult project and see the valley and realize how small we are. It helps put everything in perspective. And it’s so tranquil here. Things I miss? Seeing my coworkers in the office—[laughs] and going to Noodles & Company.

Leaders & Influencers: Matt Storms

This month in our Leaders & Influencers series, we talk with Matt Storms, President & Attorney of AlphaTech Counsel, S.C., a Madison-based law firm that represents emerging companies, primarily in technology-enabled industries.

Tell us a bit about your background and what made you decide to start AlphaTech.

Matt StormsI was a partner in a large corporate law firm where I worked for 13 years. While I was there, I got an offer out of the blue to be CEO for a medical technology client, which initiated a midlife crisis of what I wanted to be when I grew up! I ultimately turned down the offer and decided that I wanted to continue practice law. But, I wanted to do it differently. I wanted to be more focused on what I liked doing—working exclusively with emerging tech companies. I also wanted to rely more on technology, which is why I spent the first six months after I left the corporate law firm doing some amateur coding and building automated tools to facilitate working with emerging technology companies. After I emerged from my programming cave, I started hiring for AlphaTech. That was seven years ago.

Why don’t law firms use technology like document automation more often?

Many professional service firms, such as accounting and law firms, have traditionally relied on an hourly payment model for services, which doesn’t give those professions a lot of incentive for developing technology, such as document automation. Under a time and materials model, the more efficient an accountant or lawyer is, the lower his or her revenue. Conversely, the more money spent to improve technology, the lower the margins become. What often happens is that professional service firms are not eager to adopt these systems unless they feel as if they need to do so to keep with market. So, many professional service firms have been slow to adopt new technologies, such as document automation in the legal field.

Why did you choose to invest in technology?

First, it is overdue in the legal industry. I want to be a part of the forces that cause law firms to evolve and use technology to become more efficient. While our use of technology is not the centerpiece of what we offer, it is symbolic of the common sense way we approach working with companies.

Second, use of automation can be a great knowledge management tool. For example, we built our system so that when producing routine documents, it provides prompts and information to enable the person creating the document to make informed decisions around common variables. If a company is setting up a stock option plan, for example, one variable or question is, “How many shares are available under the option plan?” The system will provide the range for what is most common and the instances of when to deviate from what is typical. In doing so, it takes information from those who are experienced on a matter to enable others the benefit of that information when preparing the documents.

And third, after developing and now using the technology, it actually frees up time for our team so that we can spend more time on things like assisting with strategy, negotiating, and structuring complex transactions rather than on routine matters. As a result, our attorneys and paralegals spend most of our time on matters that have higher value, which clients appreciate.

What trends have you seen in tech companies over the years, and what is the biggest barrier for Madison tech companies right now?

When I started working with tech companies in the mid-‘90s in Madison, there were some medical device, therapeutic, and scientific tool companies and some software and Internet companies. Not many of them made it far past the initial start gate. Most medical device and therapeutic companies relied primarily on SBIR funding.  Gradually, more investment capital started coming in, and we started to see more software companies popping up. Fast forward to 2010-2012 (post-recession), we had more people launching their second startup company.  These people originally came out of Epic, TomoTherapy, Third Wave, GE Medical, Promega, and the UW.  Some were successful with their first startup; some weren’t. What was good to see is that even though people may not have been successful with their first startup, they were sticking around and trying it again.

In the last 4 years, investment capital has not been the issue it was 10 or 20 years ago, at least not for early-stage startup companies. You find more folks here who are now on their third or fourth startup, and former CTOs, CFOs, and heads of sales who are now starting their own companies. We’re also seeing a lot more talent flow between Chicago and Madison and even a number of people commuting between the cities.

Currently, we have several companies that we are working with who are struggling to raise between $3-$10M in investment capital—that’s both here in Madison and in the upper Midwest generally. These companies frequently have experienced management and a validated product generating revenue, and are now trying to scale nationally or internationally. In many cases, they need both more capital and talent. There are limited sources of investment in the Midwest that can deploy several millions of dollars in capital in these types of companies.  Plus, we have a finite pool of people who have scaled a technology-enabled company to more than 100 people. So, raising $3-$10M will likely be a continuing challenge for Midwest companies in coming years.

What’s interesting to you about the legal sphere right now?

I’m curious about how law firms are changing. There’s been more consolidation in the last 8-10 years than ever. Law firms that have between 50 and 500 attorneys are facing a lot of pressure in terms of pricing, demographics, increasing client law department sizes, outside counsel policies, and outsourcing. With increasing specialization and use of technology, it will be very difficult in coming years for a general practice firm, such as one with 50 to 500 attorneys, to stay on top of the various legal practice areas while investing and paying for the infrastructure that will be required to keep with market.

In coming years, I’m anticipating a combination of more consolidation and breakups of these firms. So, we’ll end up seeing more huge firms with thousands of attorneys on one end of the size spectrum and then niche firms like ours that are specializing in a particular area that can compete with the megafirms in that area. The megafirms will have both depth and breadth of experience and knowledge, but will likely be very expensive because of high overhead and less competition. The niche firms, on the other hand, will focus on a particular industry or area of law—intellectual property, estate planning, insurance, healthcare, employment law, emerging tech companies—which enables them to deliver the depth in that area with a better product and service at a lower price. I look forward to seeing how this unfolds.

 

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting to learn more about how our outsourced accounting and CFO services can help your business succeed.

 

Case Study: Software Conversion Saves Company $15K Annually

TitanTV“Fine Point Consulting was very helpful in assessing the needs of our business after we separated from our parent company. They identified opportunities for us to improve efficiency in our accounting systems, a transition that also resulted in cost savings for our business.”

Christopher Kelly, CEO, TitanTV, Inc.

 

It’s not uncommon when a company is acquired, merged, or sold, that it continues to use the same software programs it’s always used. It’s a decision that often helps smooth the transition from one owner to the next and keep staff moving forward with business as usual. Such was the case for broadcast provider TitanTV, Inc. when they separated from parent company Broadcast Interactive Media (BIM) in 2016. BIM was using accounting software Intacct, a powerful program that’s particularly convenient for its integration with Salesforce. But Intacct was a more robust system than the newly independent TitanTV needed—and it came at an annual cost of more than $15,000.

Enter Fine Point Consulting, which quickly determined that converting to QuickBooks accounting software would not only save TitanTV a bundle, but would also provide the right-size software for their business. Fine Point staff also researched and tested a tool for syncing Salesforce with QuickBooks, an important feature of Intacct the company wanted to maintain. Accountants at Fine Point then managed the software conversion from start to finish. TitanTV’s new accounting system not only saves the business big money, but it does exactly what company leaders need in a way that’s more intuitive and transparent than before. And that’s a success worth broadcasting.

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting for more information about the great tools and services we use to help businesses like TitanTV, Inc. succeed.

Leaders & Influencers: Buckley Brinkman

In our continuing series on Madison Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Buckley Brinkman, Executive Director & CEO of The Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity (WCMP), which collaborates with the UW Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center (MOC) and the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) to help Wisconsin manufacturers grow their businesses and become more profitable.

 

Tell us how The Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity (WCMP) was formed and what it does today.

Buckley BrinkmanThe WCMP was formed in 1996, operating as the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP). At the time, Wisconsin was one of the states with multiple Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) centers: the WMEP covered the southeast portion of the state and the UW-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center (MOC) covered the northwest half. In 2015, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce, put our contract back up for bid. One of the conditions of the new contract was that there be one MEP center for the state.

The WCMP became the holder of the new NIST MEP cooperative agreement for Wisconsin, and we now facilitate collaboration between the MOC and the WMEP. It’s our job to align their services, programs, and activities to create and attract more opportunities for the state’s manufacturers. The WCMP handles all the contracting with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Commerce. We administer grant funding, coordinate advocacy and education efforts, and connect resources throughout the state.

One thing that’s a little unique to us is that we focus our efforts across five manufacturing industry clusters in Wisconsin: water; power generation and control; food and beverage; biotechnology; and aerospace. In cooperation with the state, we did a study to identify these strategic clusters, which were defined based on what was here and where Wisconsin has a competitive advantage. We support these clusters, help small and medium manufacturers grow and become more competitive, and expand Wisconsin’s influence in national manufacturing.

What’s one misconception people often have about manufacturing in Wisconsin?

One of the most widely held misconceptions is that most manufacturers are large. In fact, 99% of manufacturers in Wisconsin are small- to mid-size—and 80% employ 20 people or less. Fewer than 200 manufacturers in Wisconsin are what we consider large, defined as companies with 500 or more employees. The WCMP spends a good deal of time interfacing with those smaller manufacturers to help them locate and develop the resources they need to grow.

How do you describe the overall health of manufacturing in Wisconsin, and how is it changing?

It’s in a really strong position. There are a number of people in key roles around the state who understand how important manufacturing is to our economy. It’s very easy—especially in Madison—to talk about being an innovation center. But innovation is not limited to Madison—the numbers have never supported that. Manufacturing funds two-thirds of R&D in the country. Most scientists and engineers work in manufacturing.

Manufacturing today is not the same as the manufacturing environment of 20 years ago.  A strong back and a good alarm clock no longer ensure success in manufacturing.  The requirements for manufacturing in today’s environment are greater than just showing up and being able to read, write, and add. Most of those types of manufacturing jobs have been exported, and U.S. manufacturers can’t compete with these countries in products with higher labor content with lower skills.

Manufacturing in the U.S. today requires more training than a high school diploma. It doesn’t necessarily require a four-year degree, and manufacturing can be an exciting option for people entering the workforce as it allows you to keep your options open. Starting off in manufacturing is a great way to start a career: it requires minimal training but can take your career in many directions. Skills like marketing, sales, and technology can be developed within manufacturing but also translate to careers outside of manufacturing. The strong technical college system in Wisconsin—and now four-year programs—are starting to think about ways they can engage with manufacturing and help students get the skills they need in other ways than just a traditional classroom setting.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for Wisconsin manufacturers going forward?

One ongoing challenge is that it appears a large percentage of manufacturers are asleep at the switch in terms of observing the changes that are coming their way. The big change is the body gap that’s coming. We simply aren’t going to have enough people to fill all the positions necessary to continue to grow the industry. And if manufacturers try to use skills gap solutions to solve the body gap problem, they’ll be putting their companies in jeopardy. More manufacturers need to start informing themselves of key trends and how these trends will affect their businesses—because they will.

It’s a great time to be a manufacturer in Wisconsin, and to be a business in Wisconsin. People are thinking about new ways to do things. Working in the public sector, I see a lot more cooperation between organizations in the state, which makes me very hopeful.

 

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting to learn more about how our outsourced accounting and CFO services can help your business succeed.