Wearing Two Hats, Resnick Pushes Tech Issues on Madison Council
Scott Resnick’s appearance doesn’t exactly scream “politician.”
On this particular afternoon, the 27-year-old is seated comfortably in the conference room of his software company’s office overlooking Lake Mendota in Madison, WI. He is wearing a collared shirt with blue, grey, and magenta stripes, along with tan pants.
No suit, no tie, no problem. Anything above business casual would look alien in the local Hardin Design & Development office, a 15-employee outfit with a vibe that fits neatly into today’s typical tech company image: a game room with ping pong and pool tables, a wall print of the Death Star from “Star Wars,” and a beer keg in the corner.
In a few minutes, Resnick will take a cab to the Barrymore Theatre, where the five startups that just graduated Gener8tor’s winter startup accelerator will pitch to a room of more than 400 investors, entrepreneurs, and government leaders. Resnick is among the few locals who fits into both of the two latter categories. At this event, as with many events he attends, Resnick is wearing two hats: Hardin vice president and Madison Common Council alder. (That’s Madison-speak for city council member.)
Political colleagues and private sector peers say Resnick has championed progressive issues that are important to the local tech startup sector since his election to the council in 2011, from the passage of the nation’s second municipal open data ordinance (modeled closely after New York’s), to what Resnick says was essentially a failed attempt to make it easier for online home rental companies like Airbnb to operate in Madison. He’s not the first tech-savvy Millennial or Generation X entrepreneur to get into American politics, and he certainly won’t be the last, particularly as issues like net neutrality, dangerous software bugs, and disruptive startups of debatable legality continue to dominate headlines and legislative chamber debates nationwide.
“All of a sudden, issues that for many years have been on the forefront of tech conversations, but you may have only read about in a tech blog or on Reddit, have actually gone to the point where it’s actually penetrating mainstream media,” Resnick says. “As [the tech sector] does become more of a force, and we now see a clash between certain disruptive technologies or new ideas and existing traditional businesses, or existing laws and norms, the tech sector is going to have more of an influence on political decisions.”
Local techies are taking notice of Resnick’s efforts in that arena.
“Scott’s been instrumental in getting the voice of the Madison tech and startup communities heard at the city level, and has transformed my perspective of the role the city can play,” says Forrest Woolworth, chief operating officer of Madison-based mobile gaming company PerBlue and a co-founder of Capital Entrepreneurs, a networking and support group for Madison’s tech startups. Resnick was a founding member of the group in 2009, which now has more than 300 members. “I think government is starting to recognize the role the tech community plays in the future of the economy at all levels—local to national,” Woolworth says.
Resnick, whose district includes most of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, has quickly risen in the ranks of local government. Despite being the youngest council member, he was named the council’s vice chair last year, and he could be named council president this spring, colleagues say. There are also whispers of a possible run for mayor. (When asked by Xconomy, Resnick plays coy but says he will make a decision about his plans in the next few weeks.)
Resnick has earned the respect and support of his fellow alders by exhibiting strong leadership skills, striving to be fair, collaborating with council members, and having the guts to take sometimes controversial stances, says Mark Clear, a Madison Common Council member who is also co-founder and CEO of Madison software company IMS. Clear, a council member for seven years who is currently running for state representative, has worked with Resnick to pass the open data initiative and tackle local Internet access gaps. Recently, the pair has started talking about legislation that would allow incoming ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to operate in Madison without threat of lawsuits or fines.
“He’s grown more refined since he first came on,” Clear says of Resnick. “Coming from a startup, there’s this great mentality of ‘just do this, let’s go.’ [Large public entities] do not always work at that speed. That’s frustrating to him at times, as I think it is to everyone. He’s getting more patient.”
The native of Wausau, a city in central Wisconsin, has long shown an interest in politics. In high school, he volunteered to perform data entry in Wausau for Democrat Tom Barrett’s unsuccessful 2002 campaign for Wisconsin governor. While studying at UW-Madison, Resnick worked on several political campaigns as a member of the College Democrats, he says.
Resnick intended to get a law degree but abandoned that plan partly because of the tough job market for attorneys. He graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and legal studies.
“I remember telling my parents, ‘No, I’m not going to law school,’ after all the preparation, the classes. ‘I’m going into business for myself,’” Resnick says. “At that time, that was a very risky decision, but it paid off.”
Resnick was one of the first employees at Hardin Design & Development, co-founded by his college friend Jon Hardin, the company’s president and CEO. During school the two had previously worked together on a startup called Inzum. It was a failed Hulu-like venture run by eight sophomore students in the dorms, Resnick says. Inzum was able to put episodes of “Popeye the Sailor,” “I Love Lucy,” and Japanese anime series “Naruto” on its platform because they were in the public domain, but the students lacked the financial resources and business connections to try and negotiate with Viacom and other major media companies to license content, Resnick says.
“That company didn’t make any money,” Resnick says. “We made like $50, split eight ways over the course of nine months. It just wasn’t good.”
But it planted the seed for Hardin and Resnick to work together again at Hardin Design & Development, a much more successful enterprise that builds software and Web and mobile applications for clients including Mercedes-Benz, HarperCollins Publishers, the Golf Channel, and CNN. Resnick oversees business development, marketing, and human resources, among other duties.
Resnick never lost the political itch, though, and when his district’s common council seat opened up three and a half years ago, he seized the opportunity. He was re-elected to the seat last year.
“There’s something about serving others and serving the community [through politics] that you cannot do in business,” Resnick says. “There are certain issues that I just want to tackle and look for innovative solutions.”
One such issue that is dear to his heart is conquering Madison’s “digital divide” by finding ways to bring Internet access to homes in poorer neighborhoods. To that end, Resnick spearheaded passage of a city budget amendment that will spend $150,000 to try to solve that problem in a pilot neighborhood, he says.
“I could never do that while sitting at Hardin Design & Development,” Resnick says.
Long term, Resnick says he isn’t sure where his path will lead. Right now he’s just excited to wear those multiple hats: helping to run a company that builds better technology and trying to make Madison an innovative, tech-friendly city, all while striving to be a good husband. (He got married last August.)
“I know [my future endeavors will] be something that I’m passionate about, and it’ll be serving the general public,” Resnick says. “That’s right now what gets me going in the morning and drives whatever I’m doing.”
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