(Don’t) Go West, Young Entrepreneur: Entrepreneurship in Wisconsin
After launching my career in and around the high impact entrepreneurship space and venture capital in Silicon Valley in 1985, I moved on to North Carolina in 1990. After an .. exhilarating? … run as a venture capital investor (fund class of 1999 which, if you know the history of the business, is more than enough said) I proved to myself, at least, that sometimes you can just go home. In my case, home was Neenah, Wisconsin.
My career is still all about high impact entrepreneurship and investing: my experiences over the last 10 years demonstrate that high impact entrepreneurship is doable in Wisconsin. More than that, it has, I think, a bright future. But … and this is where I tend to get into trouble … let’s not kid ourselves. Wisconsin’s high impact entrepreneurs, circa 2014 and for some indeterminate time to come, as a rule (there are exceptions, but mostly of a kind that prove the rule) face more and more daunting challenges than their peers in Silicon Valley. Or even New York or Austin, for that matter; but let’s be straight about it. Silicon Valley is the gold standard for high impact entrepreneur environments.
This week, at the 2014 Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, I was on a panel talking about common mistakes entrepreneurs make. And I said something, publicly, that I have said privately before. To wit that if a high impact entrepreneur’s only objective is to raise the most venture capital, as fast as possible, at the highest price, that entrepreneur should move to Silicon Valley.
Being that the setting was, as mentioned, the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference (and kudos to the Wisconsin Technology Council for another great event), my declaration was not particularly embraced by the crowd. But it is what it is. Silicon Valley is to the high risk entrepreneurship and investing world what Rome was to the Roman Empire. It is where pretty much all of the significant roads lead. It is where about one half of all the venture capital in the country is invested (that would be two orders of magnitude more venture capital than has historically been invested in Wisconsin). The Silicon Valley entrepreneur/venture capital eco-system is by far the broadest and deepest in the world. That is not a boast, that is just a fact.
But if Silicon Valley is the center of the technology-driven entrepreneurship and investing universe it is no more the only place in that universe than Rome was the only place that mattered in the days of the Empire. Entrepreneurs can and do build great companies in places like Wisconsin. They do it because raising the most money at the best price as fast as possible is not their only objective. They do it because while it might be easier to build a startup bigger, better and faster in Silicon Valley, they want to do it somewhere else – like Wisconsin. And, frankly, I applaud them for it. Selfishly, if there were not entrepreneurs and risk capital investors who wanted to do their thing in Wisconsin even if it might be harder to do here than there, well, I would not have anything, career-wise, to do here. And I like it here, too.
So if you are one of “us,” that is one of those folks in the high impact entrepreneurship and investing space that calls Wisconsin home, three cheers. But do it with your eyes open. You can get financed in Wisconsin. You can build winning high growth/risk teams in Wisconsin. You can find savvy startup lawyers, accountants, advisers, mentors and partners in Wisconsin. But it will likely take a little more time and effort than it would in Silicon Valley. And you will most likely have to compromise a bit more on your financing, growth and exit expectations. Good for you. You gotta love our winters.