InsideWis: What, me worry? Learning optimism ‘zen’ from entrepreneurs

InsideWis: What, me worry? Learning optimism ‘zen’ from entrepreneurs

By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. — The average American might be excused for believing the economy is headed off a steep cliff. For starters, economists keep telling them so.

Many practitioners of the “the dismal science” — how my favorite economist refers to economics — have been predicting a recession for months, with the over-under bet on the apocalypse starting this fall. Oft-cited reasons include inflation, the debt crisis, bank failures, manufacturing slowdowns and consumer jitters. Oh, yes … and the laws of gravity dictate it’s time for a good, old-fashioned crash.

The problem is much of the economy refuses to cooperate with the predictions. The United States is still adding jobs, unemployment is lower than it has been in decades, inflation is beginning to subside (unless you’re buying a house or renting an apartment), and failed banks appear to be victims of self-inflicted wounds versus other troubles.

If you’re looking for an oasis of optimism to balance what you’re hearing from most economists, talk to an entrepreneur.

One survey after another has shown entrepreneurs to be relentlessly optimistic, even Pollyannish, about their chances of success. That’s despite the fact their chances of landing startup financing are slim and their competition from the marketplace can be daunting. For many entrepreneurs, their long-term vision for success often transcends where markets are today.

If you need a dose of optimism, the upcoming Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee may be the place to go.

The annual conference will be held May 31 and June 1 at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee, starting with the final round of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. Held every year since 2004, the 20th annual competition will feature live pitches from 13 startups from across Wisconsin. They are the finalists in a process that began in late January, aided by mentors, a workshop and judges whose input helped to make good ideas better.

It’s a diverse group. That starts with the broad sectors in which their plans focus: Advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences are the four categories. It is also true based on geography and other characteristics. Eight of the 13 hail from outside the state’s two largest cities, five of the 13 are women and at least three of the 13 would identify as minority.

Other conference highlights will include the annual “Seize the Day” award, which has gone to some of Wisconsin’s most successful entrepreneurs over time. This year’s recipient is Deb Carey, who launched New Glarus Brewery along with her brewer husband and has grown it into one of the nation’s largest microbreweries and one of the top two-dozen overall. That’s all without selling a single bottle outside Wisconsin.

Bringing home lessons from afar will be Charles Ross, a Milwaukee native and Marquette University graduate who leads the International Business Innovation Association.

Panel discussions are organized around major stages of a startup process – launch, grow and succeed – with experts providing advice on funding paths; legal, accounting and team compensation strategies; the rise of women entrepreneurs; how to find promising sales and supply-chain partners; and Wisconsin’s recent success in landing two National Science Foundation awards out of only 44 nationwide.

A plenary panel will feature four early stage investors with experience in Wisconsin and elsewhere on how to pitch to people like them in today’s investment climate.

A spot-on definition of “entrepreneur” comes from John Byrnes, who founded the Milwaukee-based Mason Wells investment fund about 25 years ago. “Entrepreneurs don’t fear failure because they don’t see it as an option. They enjoy solving problems as an outlet for their imagination and creativity. They like living on the edge, where stress is high. They know business is a rapidly moving river of change, and they love it,” Byrnes said.

In other words, pessimists need not apply.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at