In our continuing series on Madison Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Taralinda Willis, co-founder of Curate, a web scraping platform that combines artificial intelligence and automation technologies to deliver comprehensive answers to business intelligence questions.
Tell us a little bit about Curate and what made you decide to found it.
Curate was founded when my co-founder, Dale, and I were part of the gener8tor accelerator program and realized that the company we had been working on, unfortunately, wasn’t gaining any traction. gener8tor asked us to think about what other knowledge and skills we had to start something new. Dale, who was working on his PhD in Computer Science at the time, has experience in web scraping technology, and we looked around the marketplace and realized no one was using artificial intelligence in web scraping. We decided to pursue that path, and that’s how Curate was born.
The artificial intelligence piece allows us to provide more contextualized and relevant results to our clients, and also allows us to report changes in data over time. We’re also working on developing natural language processing to better query and search for data, which will be another advantage we have over competitors.
What’s been your biggest surprise in launching a start-up?
This isn’t a very exciting answer, but I was surprised by how challenging it can be to find regulatory laws and follow them. Everyone talks about fostering small business and innovation, and that’s great, but there’s this really practical piece with following the regulations that’s surprisingly difficult. Also, finding the right product for the right fit with the market is a challenge. Mark McGuire [serial entrepreneur and Managing Director of gener8tor Minnesota] references that quote about how being an entrepreneur is like jumping off of a cliff and building the airplane on the way down, and it really is like that.
How has launching in Madison contributed to Curate’s development, and what changes would you like to see here to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship?
Dale and I both went to college in Madison, and we fell in love with the city. We’ve continued to stay here because Madison is getting better and better every day for entrepreneurs. We feel really good about the connections we made after going through the gener8tor program. I don’t think that most people realize what an asset gener8tor is to our community and its entrepreneurial growth.
I do think Madison has some work to do in building its network and support of entrepreneurs. There are lots of people here beyond gener8tor doing really incredible things, including Madworks and Starting Block. The entire community should support these endeavors and help launch more businesses. Attracting and retaining top talent is what makes Madison so incredible.
Visit Fine Point Consulting for more information about the great tools and services we use to help startups and nonprofits succeed.
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?
I 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.
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.
OpenHomes 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.
For those of you have not heard of gener8tor before, this organization is a key part of our state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. With offices in both Madison and Milwaukee, gener8tor invests its community, capital, expertise, mentorship and network in capable, early-stage entrepreneurs with innovative business models.
Fine Point works with several current and past graduates of the gener8tor program, including Stock Mfg Co., Docalytics, and Abodo, and we are thrilled to be a sponsor of the event.
Tomorrow night five young companies, two of which are out of Madison, will have a chance to showcase their product to an audience of about 400. Luella and Leah will be representing the Fine Point Consulting Team during this premier night celebration. The five companies – Modern Movement, Beekeeper Data, Project Foundry, HITLIST and our very own Stock Mfg Co – were chosen from over 450 applicants.
In addition to the 12 week mentoring sessions held all summer long, each of these companies will receive at least $70,000 in investment funds, and the three Madison startups (Modern Movement, Project Foundry, and Beekeeper Data) will each receive an additional $50,000 from the BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation. The gener8tor program also provides continued support in the use of their space, resources and mentors to help provide an opportunity to all companies to reach that next level.
For more information visit their website here!
The stigma of startup growth being geographically contained to the east and west coasts has given the Midwest a somewhat stagnant business vibe over the past few years. PricewaterhouseCoopers Moneytree’s recent survey data seems to validate these attitudes to some degree––showing California attracting 53% of all venture capital dollars in 2012 alone. But is it all doom and gloom for Midwesterners looking to get their ideas off the ground here in the country’s heartland?
A group of accelerator programs aimed at relocating some of that growth doesn’t think so. gener8tor is one such program, which has dropped its roots right here in Madison, Wisconsin. With 13 companies already finding success under their wing such as EatStreet––a brilliant online delivery and takeout aggregator for Madison restaurants––it’s clear that this sort of support can have a big impact on the business environment in cities such as ours.
Gener8tor is currently in the midst of launching its next batch of businesses to the area drawing on organizations from all over the country. Speaking to the connection he seeks to forge between the academic and business communities here, co-founder Jon Eckhardt added, “gener8tor is tightly integrated into the entrepreneurship communities in the mid-west and the coasts, especially as a result of our work with nearby academic institutions. This, combined with our innovative training platform, lets us link the capabilities of the mid-west with resources nationally.”
The future of local entrepreneurship
Looking towards what lies ahead for the program, the news only gets better. With the current 13 companies already pulling in over $5 million in capital, they are currently sifting through over 250 applications from companies around the nation looking to throw their hat in the ring here in the Midwest as well.
Gener8tor’s strategy seems to be paying off just as they hoped. John Philosophos of Great Oaks Venture Capital reiterated the benefits of academic and business interconnection saying, “Critical resources, including top flight developers from the UW Computer Science program and College of Engineering, mentorship from the State’s broad based economy and forward thinking corporations are all being mobilized to support innovation in the State. Accordingly, we have made Wisconsin one of our national areas of focus.”
Success means more than just a good idea
With all of this good news in tow, it’s important to remember what goes on behind the scenes to make these headlines happen in the first place. Having a good idea comes first, but without the means to craft an effective financial plan; you’ve already stacked the odds against yourself.
Outsourcing financial work to a third party is often times the most beneficial solution to startups facing a whole host of challenges financial or otherwise. Without employees to dedicate toward those tasks, it can be easy to make unguided and potentially devastating decisions with your money, which can leave your books in a dismal state.
Whether you’re involved with a local accelerator program or not, entrepreneurs planning to develop their ideas within the Madison area have the resources available to them to make the right financial decisions.
We offer a wide range of financial assistance and guidance to entrepreneurs trying to get a foothold in our local economy, if you think you could benefit from our services, don’t hesitate to contact us.
Photo credit: Richard Hurd