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.



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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.



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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.



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Leaders & Influencers: Bill Neill

We’re kicking off 2017 with our interview with Bill Neill, Chief Strategy Officer for the recently launched Carex Consulting Group. Carex provides enterprise staffing solutions for startups to large-size companies specializing in health tech, project management, and information technology.


Tell us a little bit about Carex Consulting Group, what made you decide to launch it, and how it’s different from other staffing firms.

Bill NeillCarex was launched just recently, in December 2016, by myself, Mike Heller, and Rachel Neill. Rachel and I both worked most recently as an executive and consultant, respectively, at Nordic Consulting, and Mike was most recently the VP of Information Technology at Data Dimensions in Janesville.

We founded Carex because we saw a gap in staffing in the healthcare market around health tech, project management, and IT. There are other staffing firms in town that can find you an adequate implementation manager, for example, but as an employer, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time explaining the various intricacies around health tech and healthcare, as well as industry-specific standards and regulations around things like HL7, HIPAA, and cloud-based interfaces. We understand this industry and the talent side of the equation very well and have worked in it as employers and consultants for many years, so we can pull in talent specific to your business model and help shorten that ramp-up period of getting a new employee or consultant on board.

We also offer a more transparent business model than most staffing firms, which tend to have this very opaque system where they get the customer to pay as much as possible and pay the employee or consultant as little as possible. For consulting, Carex takes 1/3 of the bill rate and for full-time placement we take 20% of first year salary. That’s less expensive than the standard for this industry, but it’s something we can offer thanks to our specific backgrounds, expertise, and lean management strategy. Combined with finding talent that is tailored to their needs, our lower pricing structure helps us create a better partnership with our clients.

Why is Madison the ideal home for Carex, and what has the response been like to your business so far?

Madison has an incredible talent pool when it comes to health tech, project management, and IT. There’s a wealth of people here with those skill sets, and we thought there was an opportunity to build a diverse and talented ecosystem for healthcare here. And there are many great healthcare companies here looking for talent.

Our plan was to concentrate on servicing Madison and working with the talent here, and then phase two was going to be to find other skill hubs around the country and start doing something similar there. But in addition to working with clients in Madison, we already have clients in Milwaukee and Chicago, and we just signed a client on the east coast. I think that speaks to the need for us to own the talent side of health tech—it’s clearly a niche that’s underserved. We also anticipated we’d have more demand for consultants, but we’ve been surprised by the need for full-time talent. It’s all grown very organically, almost entirely by referral.

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

I’d like for Madison to tie into the talent base here more by providing more opportunities for things like joint ventures, joint tech councils, and community forums. I’m originally from the San Francisco area and witnessed the tech boom of Silicon Valley right outside my back door. Part of that boom was the free flow of ideas—sharing those ideas and morphing them. There are so many bright people here with great ideas, but not all of them are extroverts who are going to share these ideas without the help of some mechanism or forum to do it. There’s great potential for expansion here in Madison, but we also need more of the big players to develop innovation and venture arms to foster this more open ecosystem.

Specific to the healthcare industry, there’s this very “vogue” notion of non-competes, so I also think we need less restrictive non-competes to help make this flow and sharing of ideas possible. When you look at a company like Salesforce, which is very ecosystem-driven and wants everyone to buy their platform and know how it works, it’s a 180 from what some of the vendors are doing, where they want you to purchase their tightly controlled platform and use it in a very specific manner. I think talent flow is a factor of that business model. The good news is that the healthcare industry is still booming and the talent of people is growing along with it. It’s an employee-friendly market and we’re seeing more healthcare companies courting talent. That’s been a big “aha” for me, and I think it can only help create an environment of more sharing and openness.


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Leaders & Influencers: Jeff Glazer

In our final Leaders & Influencers post of the year, we chat with Jeff Glazer, clinical assistant professor with the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, which provides free legal services to nascent entrepreneurs and early stage companies through the work of law students, faculty, and private sector attorneys. 

Talk a little bit about what brought you to the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic in 2011 and the work that you do there.

Jeff GlazerI started at the Clinic in a part-time capacity as a supervising attorney for the law students who were working with entrepreneurs. I had my own law office at the time, but the work they were doing at the Clinic was similar to what I was doing in my own practice, and it just seemed like a new and interesting overlap. As I continued my work there, I really started buying in to what [L&E Clinic cofounders] Eric Englund and Anne Smith were trying to do, which was to fill a market need for legal service where the only other options were self-service or no service.

As lawyers, we want people to be proactive in obtaining legal services, but we often price ourselves out of that opportunity. People tend to delay seeking legal services because they can’t afford them, even though they know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. At the L&E Clinic, we provide good legal services in a way that entrepreneurs can be legally proactive.

My own background is in the food and beverage industry, which is a big industry for Wisconsin and provides a good opportunity for entrepreneurship. So I’ve been concentrating on this area and thinking about how the many pieces of the food and beverage industry can work together in a more holistic way. I’m taking more of a leadership role in bringing these disparate food and beverage companies together, beyond just providing legal services. There are real opportunities in this sector, but there are also real monetary challenges to getting these types of businesses started.

What kind of entrepreneurs does the L&E Clinic work with? Do you specialize in any particular industry?

To be eligible to work with the clinic, you only have to be in the first couple of years of your business. If you meet that definition, it doesn’t matter to us if you’re a food cart or a high-tech spin-off company from the university—or anything in between. There are varying levels of service we provide depending on what it is the business needs. For those companies who are most interested into growing into something bigger, we can get them connected with a range of providers, services, and individuals that can help them do that. And we can play the role of quarterback to help those same companies survey the field and think about the things they need to do to move the ball. We don’t do this in every instance, but for companies that want it, we do provide that handheld, integrated type of service.

Any new or continued initiatives the L&E Clinic has been working on over the past year?

We’re working on an ongoing basis with tightening our relationship with [coworking space and seed accelerator] Madworks. It’s an interesting work in progress. As Madworks is starting to take more of a governance-related direction, we’re finding more opportunities for students to get involved with clients while they’re going through the accelerator.

We also moved into the @1403 startup hub about a year ago, and it’s been exciting being in that space. The organizations that have found a home here—Discovery to Product (D2P), Madworks, gBETA, the L&E Clinic—weren’t necessarily planned for this space but have gravitated and grown here organically, which really has made @1403 more effective for entrepreneurs. It’s cool to be part of the space and activity that goes on there.

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

I think we need to have a broader discussion about what is and isn’t entrepreneurship. When people think of entrepreneurship, they tend to think about the big high-tech companies that want to grow like crazy. I think we need to bring it down and understand that entrepreneurship doesn’t only mean big and high-tech. You can be a graphic designer or a VP of Marketing who provides independent services and you’re an entrepreneur too. I think there need to be more discussions and services around supporting entrepreneurship in all its forms. These smaller businesses may not have a huge opportunity for growth, but there’s also not a huge opportunity for risk. I want to support the woodshop or food cart owner and help them make connections so they can solve whatever challenge or problem in the world that they’re trying to solve. At its heart, that’s what entrepreneurship is all about.


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


Leaders & Influencers: Maddy Niebauer

In our continuing series on Madison Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Maddy Niebauer, Founder and CEO of vChief, a virtual chief of staff service supporting executives from all industries.

Tell us a little bit about your background and what made you decide to start vChief?

Maddy NiebauerI was a chief of staff with Teach for America for about five years, and I really loved that role. As a chief of staff, your role is very much strategic, but it’s also action-oriented. It goes beyond strategic planning to execution, thought partnership, and acting as a surrogate for the leader you support.

I also had a wonderful relationship with the leader I was supporting at Teach for America. When she left that organization to start a new nonprofit, she asked me to moonlight for 5-10 hours a week as a virtual chief of staff. As I thought about my own next steps, career-wise, I realized there was a demand for this type of part-time chief of staff work and decided to launch vChief. Though I continue to support this leader, I now spend most of my time running the business and matching executives with a chief of staff who can meet their unique needs.

How does vChief work and what services do you provide?

We contract with executives and leaders to work for a set number of hours per month—typically between 20-80 hours—and will pair up one of our chiefs of staff to work with that person virtually. Since our chiefs of staff are located all over the country, we can also work with some leaders in person if needed. Right now we have nine chief of staff, each of whom has his or her own accomplished background and areas of expertise—everything from talent acquisition and human resources to strategic planning, sales, leadership, and risk management, among others.

Our services vary drastically based on what the client needs, but generally we serve as a soft partner to leaders and help take tasks off of their plates so that they can concentrate on the things that matter most to their organization. Our consultants are generalists and offer a wide array of support: strategic time management & prioritization, project management, strategic planning, operations, communications, team management, finance, HR, and almost anything else a leader could need.

Generally speaking, our services fall into two primary buckets:

  • Interim role replacement, where we fill in for a key team member who is on leave or who has left and a replacement hasn’t yet been hired – sometimes a chief of staff role, other times a COO or another key strategic role. This type of work tends to be short-term and intensive—we can jump in pretty quickly and provide support right away.
  • Chief of staff, where we provide ongoing virtual support to executives on any number of tasks, including operations, project management, communications, team management, finance, and human resources. We typically work in this role from 5-20 hours a week, as needed.
Do all of your clients work for large organizations? Or do you also work with startups and small businesses?

Since I launched vChief six months ago, we’ve served clients in industries ranging from nonprofits and education to e-commerce and pharmaceuticals. The organizations have ranged in size from 1 staff member to several hundred, and have been located around the United States.

We’ve worked with four startups to date, and I think we provide a very helpful and economical service. Often startup founders don’t have many other staff and are overwhelmed by everything that needs to happen to launch their business. They need to be lean, nimble, and able to pivot—and they don’t want to bear the risk of bringing on staff if they’re not sure they can afford them. We can come in for just a few hours a week and provide a very high level of support to help move the needle on their business.

Why was Madison the right place to launch vChief and what kind of support have you received from the community?

I lived in Madison while I was working for Teach for America, so I was already based here, but I have found the entrepreneurial community here to be fantastic. I work out of 100 State and have met so many great people there. I’ve also attended a number of Doyenne Group trainings, 1 Million Cups presentations, Forward Fest, Capital Entrepreneurs happy hours, and other startup events. There’s a real entrepreneurial community here doing really interesting things, and they’re all so eager to help connect you to other people here who might be able to help you with your own business. It’s really pretty amazing.


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