8 Must-Have Books for Entrepreneurs in 2015

Over the past 12 months, we’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of Madison’s best and brightest entrepreneurs, investors, start-up gurus, and community problem-solvers. Each was asked for a favorite book recommendation for would-be or experienced entrepreneurs. Here’s a recap of those book recommendations from our 2015 Leaders & Influencers. We hope you enjoy!  

First Break All the Rules

Leaders & Influencers: An Interview with Troy Vosseller

Continuing our series on Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Troy Vosseller, co-founder of gener8tor, a Wisconsin-based accelerator that invests in high-growth startups. He also co-founded Sconnie Nation, an apparel company celebrating the Wisconsin lifestyle.

What was it that made you decide to co-found gener8tor in 2012?

TroyVossellerI got my entrepreneurial start right out of college by founding a cliché student start-up, a t-shirt company called Sconnie Nation. It started in my dorm room, then went online, and we now have a storefront on State Street. So I was fortunate to have a successful entrepreneurial experience early on, which then freed me up to earn an MBA and law degree. When I graduated from law school, because I had this successful business, I didn’t have the pressure most graduates have of finding a job at a high-powered law firm. I instead went to work as a supervising attorney for the UW Law School’s Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, and was working with start-ups and entrepreneurs. Through my work there I met Joe Kirgues, who was working as an attorney at Quarles & Bradley representing the investor side.

Joe and I hit it off, and we both recognized that while there were a lot of high-growth startups in Wisconsin and lots of resources, no one was corralling these resources in a concerted way. Startups instead sort of had to pinball around to access what they needed. Joe and I both admired the accelerator model and felt like more companies needed to receive smaller investments in a shorter amount of time to support their growth. We found investors in Milwaukee who shared that belief and could put up the money for us to launch gener8tor.

gener8tor has just graduated its seventh class through the accelerator program. Any trends or differences you’re noticing between this class and the very first?

Yes, several. For one thing, for each subsequent class, we’ve received a greater number of applications, from a greater geographic area, and many of these companies have significant traction in their markets already. For our seventh class, we received 486 applications, from which 5 companies were selected, so the quality and competition is elevated. The efforts of each class really help establish gener8tor’s brand recognition for subsequent classes. In 2014, gener8tor was ranked the 14th Top Accelerator in the U.S. by the Seed Accelerator Rankings Project.

In addition, we’re seeing fewer Wisconsin companies apply and be accepted to our program. gener8tor is entirely privately funded, so it’s our job to invest in the best companies for our investors, no matter where those companies are from. But we also believe in helping companies in our own backyard, so we were able to secure some pilot sponsorship from American Family Insurance to mentor and invest in Wisconsin-based companies. And just last week we announced a new partnership with Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), to launch gBETA, a pre-seed accelerator for companies with a connection to a Wisconsin college or university. Our goal with gBETA is to help more nascent companies get started on the right foot by providing access to our community, network, and customers. And it’s our hope that some of these gBETA startups will then apply and be accepted to the gener8tor program as well.

What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in our community?

We need more role models of various sorts. The ecosystem in Wisconsin is ripe for another statement exit or series of exits from startups, particularly in the tech realm. Jellyfish is an example of company that had a successful exit, but there haven’t been any lately. Role models of this sort help give other startups confidence that they can go from an idea to raising capital to a successful exit as well. And hopefully those exiting companies will then return talent and money into the ecosystem, by become angel investors, for example.

We also need role models on the corporate side—like American Family—that view entrepreneurship as something they want to foster. And we need role model customers who look to local Wisconsin start-ups when they’re looking for a particular solution or service for their business.

Any books, blogs, or podcasts you recommend to new or established entrepreneurs?

For early-stage entrepreneurs I like Do More Faster by Brad Feld and David Cohen. I also like  Venture Deals by Feld and Jason Mendlson, for both learning venture terminology, as well as understanding the art and science of venture capital. I also recommend The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. For more mature companies, I really like Predictable Revenue for thinking about the sales process. And in terms of blogs, I follow Brad Feld, Fred Wilson, Mark Suster, as well as Mattermark, which has a daily digest.

Last, what’s happening at Sconnie Nation?

The business continues to do well. We’re obviously excited when Wisconsin sports teams have good seasons, so we’ve been fortunate to have that happening over the last few years. I still have a lot of fun coming up with new products, designs, and slogans, and it’s great seeing someone walk down the street in one of our shirts. There’s no better feeling as an entrepreneur than seeing a customer engage with your product. It never gets old. Sconnie Nation was really the springboard experience that started me on my entrepreneurial path. I started low-tech and have gone high-tech thanks to that business, and it’s opened a lot of new doors for me.

 

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

Leaders & Influencers: An Interview with Kelda Roys

Continuing our series on Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Kelda Roys, CEO/Founder at OpenHomes, an online real estate broker. Prior to founding OpenHomes, Roys ran a nonprofit and served as a representative in the Wisconsin state assembly.

Tell us about Open Homes and why you started it.

KeldaRoysOpenHomes is an online real estate brokerage. We making selling a house more convenient, enjoyable, and affordable.

I got my start in real estate during college selling high-end homes in New York, then I left that career to go to law school and do other work. But later, when my husband and I were trying to buy a house for ourselves here in Madison, it just seemed like that every time an agent got involved, the process became more complicated.

I found myself asking why this industry couldn’t be transformed. Middleman services like travel agencies and financial services had been displaced by the internet, but for some reason real estate had been impervious. I started thinking about my vision for buying and selling a house, and how technology could be used to solve the inefficiencies and frustrations.

We’re at a great time now in that people are more inclined to do things themselves online, rather than always hiring an “expert.” Real estate is transforming with things like the public-facing MLS listing and people, in general, are more comfortable with the authenticity of buying online that now makes it possible for OpenHomes to be a transformative, disruptive business model.

How did you use the startup/entrepreneurial community here in Madison to help you get started?

When I got serious about the idea of OpenHomes, I started attending meetings and events like Capital Entrepreneurs and Startup Weekend. My husband has experience working with startups and had co-founded his own startup company before it was acquired, so when I got further along he encouraged me to talk with (Gener8tor co-founder) Joe Kirgues, whom I also knew from my state assembly days. Joe told me I needed to go through the Gener8tor program right away, and so even though I didn’t even have a website yet, I started in the accelerator program. OpenHomes was definitely an anomaly for Gener8tor in terms of how young we were—I literally incorporated the company the day before I started the accelerator program!

How does your experience running a non-profit and being in the state assembly compare to the work you do as CEO of OpenHomes?

Running a non-profit is very much like running a business. At the end of the day, you’re doing your best to build something that matters, with limited budgets and big dreams. You learn a tremendous amount and wear many hats, and there are big highs and lows.

Running a business is very different from being in the assembly. In the political world, taking risks and being innovative is considered an infraction that should be punished. The world is open when you’re an entrepreneur, and especially in technology. As a business owner, I get to wake up and decide what I want to build today, what I want to accomplish. The burden and the opportunity are all on me, but so much of what you do in politics is determined by the agenda of others.

What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in our community?

All of a sudden, being an entrepreneur is the cool thing. It’s taken years, but now there’s this “entrepreneurial chic,” which is great because people are excited and want to participate—and that can only help all of us. With respect to its size, Madison doesn’t have nearly enough early-stage capital. It can also be a challenge to find and keep great talent, especially folks who have technical skills in coding. We have a lot going for us, lots of passionate and committed people who want to see Madison succeed and understand that one startup’s success will benefit everyone. I think this cooperative ecosystem will just continue to develop.

What book do you think every aspiring entrepreneur should read and why?

The Founders Dilemma by Noam Wasserman. It’s a great resource for anyone who is considering founding a startup. It really gets into the nitty-gritty of how a startup fits into the larger goals you have for your life, and considers that there are actually many different ways to define success, and each implicates very different strategies. I also listen to lots of podcasts in the car and at home—StartUp is one I think is particularly great.

 

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

Leaders & Influencers: An Interview with Liz Eversoll

Continuing our series on Leaders & Influencers, we chatted with IT industry veteran Liz Eversoll, CEO at SOLOMO Technology, Inc., a platform as a service that provides location and identity services to brands. She is also currently involved in bringing Austin-based tech accelerator Capital Factory to Madison.

Tell us about Capital Factory, and why you decided to bring it to Madison.

LizEversollI connected with Capital Factory through Patrick Vogt, who is the chairman of the board at SOLOMO and had previously worked with Joshua Baer, the executive director at Capital Factory. I had been having conversations with Madison business owners and investors, and we all felt that there’s a need for place in Madison for tech entrepreneurs to foster relationships, build connections with investors and strategic partners, and be introduced to new technologies. Capital Factory has a nice model as a long-term accelerator for tech startups; they help with initial seed funding, matching funds, bringing in mentors and advisors. We’re still in the planning stages with them, but hope to have it up and running here in Madison in about four months.

What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in our community?

Everyone says capital is the most important thing you need for a startup, but it’s really more about interest from customers. If you have customers and revenue, that validates your product. We have great, established companies here in Wisconsin, but I’d like to see stronger partnerships with them. Startups would benefit from the expertise, guidance, and investment of established companies, while established companies would advance their digital capabilities through the use of startup technologies and services.

What book do you think every aspiring entrepreneur should read and why?

Drucker, Gladwell, Godin, The Speed of Trust (and all Covey books), The Lean Startup. The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen was actually the book that spurred me to leave my career at CDW, which did great things, had great growth, and was a great company. But it was a traditional model, and Christensen’s book really got me thinking about disruptive technology, cloud and mobile, and I wanted to do the next thing with my own business.

What do you find most interesting and rewarding in your position as founder and CEO at SOLOMO? 

We’re located in downtown Madison, so we’re right in the middle of the tech scene here. I love meeting all the startups, investors, companies, and stakeholders that are working to build the Madison/Wisconsin startup ecosystem. People come to us, and we get to stay involved in the many questions of tech entrepreneurship.

 

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

Leaders & Influencers: An Interview with Scott Button

In our series on entrepreneurial Leaders & Influencers, we talk this week with Scott Button, Managing Director at Venture Investors, one of the leading venture capital firms in the Midwest, with over $200M under management. The firm focuses on making seed and early stage healthcare and technology investments.

Tell us a bit about your career before Venture Investors and the areas of expertise you bring to the company.

My path is non-traditional, but I’ve found that most people in our business don’t have a direct path to venture capital. I earned my BA in mechanical engineering from UW-Madison and worked for five years in sales and in the Detroit automotive industry. I decided to get my MBA, which I earned from the University of Chicago, then interned at McDonald’s Corporation. That was a good company, but it wasn’t the right place for me. My then-girlfriend/now-wife was doing her residency in Madison, so I decided I should pursue something here. A friend introduced me to (QTI Group CEO) Jay Loewi as business contact, and he put me in touch with the Venture Investors founders. I did an internship with them in 1996 and have been here ever since.

I think I bring a generalist background to the fund. Much of our business is about people skills and interpersonal relationships, and I also specialize in spinning companies out of universities—it’s something I’ve learned how to do over the years.

What are some recent developments you’ve noticed in venture capital in Madison and the Midwest? And what industries are of greatest interest to you personally?

It’s interesting because there hasn’t been a lot of obvious change, but actually things like the Act 255 tax credit have helped angel groups develop and funds form. And now, with the state’s Badger Fund, this will only help that initiative. Ventures like 4490, HealthX, and Bright Star are forming and are interested in investing in the state. In 2014 there was $228M under management and $86M invested from 28 companies, which indicates that Wisconsin is starting to get on the map. There’s momentum here with funds like Great Oaks and Google Investments, but more could be done in terms of the capital climate of our state. It’s the same for the region—Minnesota has been pretty strong, and Michigan has a strong policy in place with their fund-to-fund program.

As a firm, Venture Investors focuses on the Midwest and funding technology startups out of universities. We invest in academic-based startups, and we’ll continue to do that, but given the presence of Epic, there’s a tremendous eco-system around healthcare IT, and Dean Health and UW Health provide great places to test this new technology.

How do you evaluate a possible portfolio company and its business plan?

That’s a big question, but the short answer is that this is a people business, so first and foremost, it’s about getting to know the team. What are their ambitions? Do they have that “fire in the belly” that drives them to never take no for an answer? Do they have a strong sense of self-awareness and the areas where they do and do not have their greatest strengths? Does their product or service make sense from the perspective of a buyer?

Beyond that, we get into considering the details of market size, barrier to entry, financial strategy, and competitors. At the end of the day, my job is to make money for our investors—we look at several hundred opportunities a year and invest in just two or three.

What book do you think every aspiring entrepreneur should read and why? Any blogs or columns you might also recommend?

In general, any of the work by Steve Blank and his Lean Startup movement, which really speaks to the weaknesses universities had in being so protective of their ideas and their unwillingness to speak with customers. Now, thanks to people like Blank, the idea of getting out there and testing products with the customer is more prevalent.

Also, the work of Brad Feld and David Cohen on startup communities and TechStars, which I think has really impacted entrepreneurs and young entrepreneurs to create that culture and eco-system of the startup.

What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in Wisconsin? 

Well, there’s no silver bullet, but I think there are a number of things we can do to build upon the infrastructure we have:

  1. The University of Wisconsin. The UW is a tremendous economic engine that has to potential to create world-class start-ups. We need to do more things to support that culture and infrastructure. Some things are already happening there, like the WARF Accelerator Program, but now it’s a matter of creating more activity here. We have this Midwestern value of fear of failure, but that’s a badge of honor in Silicon Valley.
  2. Industry. Companies like Cicso embrace the idea of someone walking in the door with an idea. Culturally, we need more corporate willingness to embrace entrepreneurship. And we have lots of great companies like Epic and GE right in our backyard to enable this.
  3. Policy. Act 255 has had a tremendous impact in creating the angel industry we have. What can lawmakers do to help further entrepreneurial growth in our state?
  4. Capital. We need more capital under management in our state—we’re way below the national average. We could support three to five times the capital under management here, especially given the emphasis on healthcare technologies, which are more expensive to fund.
  5. Talent. We have a great core of leaders that have led the start-up companies here for awhile and that’s great, but we need five times as many of these people. We need to find ways of attracting people who went to school here and may have moved to the coast but want to move back. They could be real leaders in our community.

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting for more information about the tools and services we use to help businesses succeed.

 

Leaders & Influencers: An Interview with Amelia Baxter

In our continuing series on Leaders & Influencers, we talk with Amelia Baxter, president and co-founder of WholeTrees Architecture & Structures, a company that re-brands round timber for urban and commercial environments in place of steel. Their work is included in the new Festival Foods grocery store, now under construction on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, Madison.

Tell us about WholeTrees.

Amelia BaxterWholeTrees is an eight-year-old company that brings the power of trees into buildings, opening high-value construction markets for an underutilized natural resource (small trees). We are a proprietary products company with high-margin, competitively priced natural timber structural systems in the fastest growing segment of the structural systems market. Our software and IP enable a sustainable competitive advantage and will allow our acquirer to scale globally the use of small trees in engineered structural building systems.

I co-founded the company with Roald Gundersen, AIA, to encourage more sustainable forest management by carving new markets for forest management waste. I have a passion for nature and our role as humans in nature, and I believe we need economic solutions that work for our buildings, our sense of beauty, and our interconnection to our ecosystems.

What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in our community?

Entrepreneurs need access to capital, but they also need early adopters for their products. I’d like to see Wisconsin commit to purchasing from early-stage companies, driving demand, while assisting in beta development.

What book do you think every aspiring entrepreneur should read and why?

The Responsible Company by Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, and Vincent Stanley, co-editor of its Footprint Chronicles, draw on the their 40 years’ experience at Patagonia–and knowledge of current efforts by other companies–to articulate the elements of responsible business for our time.

What do you find most interesting and rewarding in your position as president at WholeTrees?

I am fascinated by the way little building blocks of daily excellence come together over years to build a new company. I am enjoying that the many, many mistakes we’ve made as we innovate and discover do not necessarily knock down our previous building blocks of growth, but teach us new ways to build upwards. I am rewarded by a growing number of people who are delighted with the feel of our product in buildings, and the way in which everyone—from the media to passers-by on the street—picks up on our message of interdependence with forests and grooves on it.

 

Visit Fine Point Consulting for more information about the great tools and services we use to help organizations like WholeTrees succeed.