Panel Encourages Entrepreneurship Among Young Milwaukee Professionals

Surpassing goals and learning to fail are some of the keys to successful entrepreneurship in Milwaukee, according to a Young Professionals Week panel hosted by networking group Newaukee.

County Executive Chris Abele, founder of the CSA Partners venture fund and Ward4 co-working space, was joined on the Entrepreneurship 101 panel by Digital Measures Founder and CEO Matt Bartel, Lizzibeth Owner Lizzi Weasler, RentCollegePads.com Founder and CEO Dominic Anzalone, and Milwaukee Bucks Manager of Business Strategy and Platform Development Jonathon Zuckerbrod.

The panel was moderated by Matt Cordio, co-founder of StartUp Milwaukee, Skills Pipeline and The Commons, which hosted about 75 attendees in its new space in the Fifth Ward above Colectivo Coffee. It was one of many events that make up Young Professionals Week, an annual celebration of, well, young professionals that this year included events across Wisconsin, from Madison to Kenosha and Green Bay, among others.

Cordio began by asking about the advantages to starting a company young—in Anzalone’s case, while still in college.

“Your expectations are low, you have a lot of time, you can take a lot of risks” he answered. “I think it’s the best time to do it.”

Abele said that he made his “most valuable mistakes” in his 20s, saying the gulf between what you think you know and what you actually know is never bigger—generating agreement from the panel and laughs from the audience.

“College is a great time to get a lot more comfortable with really improvising,” he added.

The panel moved on to the strengths and weaknesses of Milwaukee’s startup community, with Bartel echoing Abele that there are distinct advantages to being away from the coasts when starting a company.

“It’s not me against everybody else,” said Bartel, whose software quantifies the skills, awards, research, and other activities and achievements of higher education faculty. “There’s definitely more of a sense of community.”

Weasler agreed, saying Milwaukeeans’ tendency to be “so gosh-darn friendly” has been a tool in building her business, a personal shopping boutique and event space geared toward women.

“I’ve built up a huge network just by asking to go out to lunch with people,” she said.

When Cordio asked the standing-room-only crowd how many were thinking of starting a business, more than a dozen hands went up, and encouragement and advice from the panel followed.

Anzalone chided the group not to wait any longer to dive in, with Weasler echoing, “If it’s something that you truly believe in, make a plan.”

Abele said his tried-and-true formula is to under-promise and over-deliver.

“Be 100 percent sure you’re going to hit a goal, but be 95 percent sure you’re going to beat it,” he said.

“Understand what failure is—get close to it,” Zuckerbrod added in order to learn how it works and how to move on.

Bartel offered, “As long as you’re learning, challenged, and having fun, you’re on the right track.”

A question about go-to entrepreneurship resources led to Abele sharing political anecdotes, ending with, “Never hand a microphone to a politician.”

Weasler’s advice was to seek mentors, while Zuckerbrod said clear goals and metrics lead to success.

“Double down on what works, get rid of what doesn’t work,” he said.

Cordio opened up the questions to the audience, with one participant asking how to encourage more women to become entrepreneurs.

Weasler said she had far more women colleagues since switching to business from engineering, but added that “more advocacy for females” was a need.

Another audience question was how to keep the spirit of entrepreneurship alive as a business succeeded.

Bartel said he spends a lot of time focused on growth, but initially saw it as a destination rather than a means to an end.

“If I’m saying I’m comfortable, I’m going to regret it,” Bartel said. “I’m going to look back and wish I did more.”

The final question was how to measure whether all the talk and resources are leading to success in entrepreneurship.

While Anzalone focused on companies exiting the startup phase, using Groupon as an example, Abele said that could be a distraction, instead encouraging focus on “real added value” from entrepreneurs as a metric of success.

Abele, who called himself “the most unapologetically proud Milwaukeean,” said companies that relocate here soon find that value, despite initially feeling they’re doing him and the city a favor.

“I say, ‘No, I’m doing you a favor. You’ll figure that out,’” he said. “And they always do.”

Molly Willms is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, WI. Follow @MollyWillms

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