How the BizStarts Institute helps a distinct breed of Wisconsin entrepreneur
Innovation. Disorder. Venture capital. These could be the terms that come to mind when you think about entrepreneurship. Wisconsin’s high-profile startups and entrepreneurs excel in industries such as advanced manufacturing, information technology, and life sciences. But this model of entrepreneurship, which requires a lot of education, capital and resources, is only part of the startup story.
Equally important to Wisconsin’s economic well-being are the emerging small business owners, whose aim is not to disrupt an entire industry or develop a revolutionary new technology, but rather to make a living and create opportunity in a neighborhood where opportunity are limited. It is these entrepreneurs that BizStarts in Milwaukee has focused on for the past several years.
When BizStarts started more than a decade ago, Wisconsin universities didn’t have entrepreneurship programs. There was no generator, no TitletownTech, no VentureHome. There was, according to Patrick Snyder, Executive Director of BizStarts, “a real need for coaching and mentoring as students leave college and people should seek advice on how to scale their business.”
Today, with the spread of university entrepreneurship training, startup accelerators and business incubators, BizStarts is developing and focusing its focus on entrepreneurship as a means of self-employment in underserved areas – and this development led to the establishment of the BizStarts Institute.
In considering other programs that the BizStarts Institute could be modeled upon, the organization was determined to find a program with a proven track record.
For advice, they turned to Michael Morris, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who is a world-renowned expert on entrepreneurship in adversity. He has developed successful entrepreneurship programs for people in poverty around the world and has helped BizStarts do the same. He remains involved in the program and is also vice president of learning and research for the organization.
At first glance, the BizStarts Institute looks like any other pre-revenue startup accelerator. It’s a six-week program that gives participants hands-on guidance on business fundamentals, from developing a viable business concept to identifying target audiences, to marketing and profit models.
But unlike programs that end with a pitch day, where success is measured against the agreements made and participants are left alone, the six-week program is just the beginning of the support that BizStarts offers participants. What the program works is the year-long mentoring and support that follows.
Nearly 70% of BizStarts customers live in low-income neighborhoods and few can rely on families for bootstrap funding or connections to the wider business community for professional services; BizStarts provides these resources free of charge.
“These people have no resources. Unlike tech startups, outside of business life, they would be engaged in creating a website, or a simple flyer, or getting their numbers in QuickBooks, ”says Snyder.
Basic promotion or website design assistance is provided by Marquette University students. Marquettes Legal Clinic and Ernst & Young volunteers provide legal advice and financial services. Support also comes from the group, with participants often trading or buying services from one another.
Unlike many virtual programs, the BizStarts Institute’s spring and fall sessions were held in person (but socially distant) at a community center in one of Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods. In fact, the organization is separating from its downtown Milwaukee offices and moving to the communities where it operates.
“You don’t get trust if you ask people who don’t have good transportation to come into town so you can help and support them. Our goal is to be in the neighborhood, ”says Snyder.
The statistics from the BizStarts Institute are impressive. In 2020 – a challenging year for any business – 37% of the entrepreneurs BizStarts has worked with were able to quit their full-time jobs and get funding from their new business. They have also created jobs in the economy, with 23% of them submitting at least some of the work to contractors during the year.
Of the 25 young entrepreneurs who participated in the 2020 cohort, 15 are now cash flow positive and 10 are already fully self-employed. Just as importantly, says Snyder, the connections they make with one another help them build strong companies.
“The first 25 people who have gone through the core program meet every two weeks. We call it a ceremony – they have to tell us what they have done in the last two weeks to keep their business moving, so there is responsibility, ”says Snyder. “We’re starting a family.”
For more information about the program, how to apply, and information about the other services BizStarts offers budding entrepreneurs, please visit the BizStarts website.