Usually it’s the job candidates who have to fight to stand out in discussions with potential employers at a job fair, not the other way around.
But for tech startups operating with a lean staff and budget, trying to entice young talent when your booth is next to big names like Google and General Electric is no easy feat. Just ask Forrest Woolworth, the chief operating officer of mobile game developer PerBlue, based in Madison, WI.
That challenge is one reason why Capital Entrepreneurs—the Madison startup networking and support organization that Woolworth co-founded in 2009—organized the first Madison Startup Fair last year on University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus.
The recruiting fair, which held its second annual event on Wednesday, brings together local tech startups and students looking for internships or entry-level jobs with intriguing young companies.
Most computer science majors “don’t know about these companies,” Woolworth said, wearing a PerBlue T-shirt at his company’s designated table at the fair. “The fact [that these startups] are in Madison is cool.”
Woolworth thinks putting on a job fair featuring solely startups helps to “even the playing field” with the big boys and can open students’ and young professionals’ eyes to the startup job opportunities available in Madison. The fair might also inspire them to start their own companies, he said.
This year’s startup fair featured about 25 companies that highlighted the variety of ideas percolating in Madison these days, from a beer company that uses crowdsourcing to come up with its recipes (MobCraft Beer) to a firm using motion-capture technology to help athletes analyze their performance (Sensori Athletics). Woolworth didn’t have hard numbers, but said the student turnout was higher this year than last.
I stopped by the fair to check out the companies and ask them about their biggest obstacles to success. The answers are typical of many startups around the country, but they paint a quick picture of the current climate in the Madison area. Here are three key challenges companies told me they’re facing:
1. Finding talented job candidates willing to take a risk. Connecting startups with students was the stated goal of the event, and it appeared to accomplish that. For example, local startup Sensori wants to hire a couple of iOS developers, and CEO Peter Oppermann told me the company generated more leads in a two-hour span at the fair than in the previous several weeks.
But it’s often up to the companies to convince young talent that they should join a startup as an intern or permanent hire. Easier said than done, since young people can be hesitant to choose working for a startup over the security of a larger corporation, said James Jackson, CEO of GoStrive, which makes a Web and mobile app to connect people to local community events such as those put on by a city’s parks and recreation department. Still, Jackson has seen firsthand the value that “millennials” bring to the table: a solid thought process, committed focus on their assigned tasks, and strong execution, he said. (GoStrive’s millennial hires include a 23-year-old iOS developer.)
“I think there needs to be … more affinity [by companies] for millennials and the value they bring to the table,” Jackson said.
2. A shallow VC pool in Wisconsin that doesn’t “get” tech startups quickly. Wisconsin isn’t a hotbed for venture capital investment. But it’s still easier for some sectors to get a foot in the door with VCs than others. Life sciences has traditionally been a strong industry in Madison that attracts VC—although, to be fair, some have questioned if investors’ taste for biotech is slightly waning. Local tech startups, on the other hand, seem to be still trying to command that level of attention from Wisconsin investors on a consistent basis.
“There’s not as much of a palate for tech startup ideas,” said Jackson of GoStrive, who in 2001 co-founded Accelerate Madison, a group that organizes events to connect digital technology entrepreneurs and executives.
GoStrive was founded in 2012 by UW-Whitewater information technology professor Choton Basu, and is based in Whitewater with an office in Madison. The company is currently raising its first funding round and has gotten traction with investors, Jackson said. But he has found that the rigorous due diligence process can take months—longer than some digital startups can last without an infusion of money.
Startups are “living in dog years, and the investor community is the complete opposite,” Jackson said. “We need access to an investor community that can make decisions at a speed that will make startups successful.”
3. Distinguishing themselves in crowded markets. Outflanking the competition is a must for any emerging company, and that’s particularly imperative for several of the startups present at Wednesday’s event.
The leaders of Osoride, a ride-sharing app founded by UW-Madison geography graduate student Fei Ma, recognize the sector is already crowded with more well-established players like Uber and Lyft. But Christopher Peters, an MBA student who is part of Osoride’s team, said Osoride could benefit from being located in Wisconsin, where Uber and Lyft haven’t yet established a presence. Osoride also aims to avoid the legal spats Uber and others have faced, by focusing more on city-to-city trips than going from address “A” to address “B,” Peters said.
Meanwhile, PerBlue is up against a dizzying amount of competition in the rapidly growing mobile gaming market, which now makes up about half of the total video game industry, Woolworth said. There are millions of mobile games available for download, but PerBlue aims to set itself apart with a strong product focus, he said. Its flagship game that launched in 2008, Parallel Kingdom, was the first to use GPS technology to create a location-based role-playing game for iOS and Android, according to PerBlue.
“We need to make games that are not only fun to play, but that also look amazing graphically and are built around strong characters and brands,” Woolworth said.