Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
It’s after hours on a Wednesday at the offices of Innovation in Milwaukee, a partnership spearheaded by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a high-flying business group laden with some of the city’s heftiest corporate citizens – Harley-Davidson, We Energies, MillerCoors. But the man everyone seems to know has never been a vice president of anything, never served on a corporate board, never even celebrated a birthday that starts with “40.”
Romke de Haan is this man, and he’s beelining through a crowd of more than 100 marketers, designers, eager young entrepreneurs and mayoral staffers, shaking hands and hugging shoulders. Dark-haired and slim-figured, the 32-year-old is wearing a black T-shirt with cryptic lettering (“A.part,” a local promoter of electronic music), stylish TOMS shoes and fitted jeans. Soon, he’ll add a pair of headphones as he ducks behind turntables to DJ the rest of the party.
But his DJ chops aren’t gaining the nods of approval from area bigwigs (though he is in demand for local gigs as well as shows in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York). Rather, it’s his role as president of Spreenkler, a Milwaukee creative firm that, since its founding in 2009, has become regarded as a savior of the city’s aging business scene, a plug in the brain drain and an early leader in efforts to turn the city into a technology and design-centered hub.
Recently, de Haan, who dropped out of a handful of high schools and then college before finding his creative footing, has been to thank for that.
“He’s really critical to this city in how he’s grown the Milwaukee tech scene,” says Tarik Moody, online community manager for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, one of Spreenkler’s clients. “When most people think of tech startups, they think of Silicon Valley, Chicago, New York.”
Milwaukee isn't a city known for raising tech pioneers. The son of an Indonesian artist raised in Holland and a Mexican mother from Milwaukee, de Haan grew up on the South Side with “no hopes or aspirations,” he says. Just 10 when his parents divorced, he started to rebel. At 13, that translated into smoking marijuana and dropping out of three area high schools. At Pulaski, he lasted a mere 35 days.
“I was told by teachers in high school that I would never amount to anything,” he says.
In an interview posted on the Hanson Dodge website in January 2010, de Haan is quoted as saying he “didn’t have the same sense of ‘family’ anymore” after his parents’ divorce, and he “eventually turned to gangs and graffiti to replace that.” Today, he denies gang involvement and says he’s asked Hanson Dodge to remove the interview’s reference to it. The text remains, however, and the firm admits to no error. Company spokesman Matt Braun says the reference “was part of a direct interview with Romke in 2010, when he was with Hanson Dodge.”
When de Haan was 17, a South Side priest from the St. Patrick Parish introduced his mother to Homeboyz Interactive, a nonprofit that taught computer skills to at-risk youth. De Haan later skipped school to check out the program. “I was hooked,” he says. “It was computers, design and art, so it was everything I liked.” He signed up and earned a GED diploma, as the program required. Four years later, he took another stab at traditional education, enrolling at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design at 21, but left without earning a degree. Also during these formative years, he worked on staff at Homeboyz and held down gigs at Chicago’s Razorfish, an international advertising firm, and at Milwaukee’s Hanson Dodge Creative, working with such brands as Kraft, Miller and Amway.
But de Haan’s upbringing wasn’t all trials and tribulations turned to gold. He recalls the day his dad brought home a Tandy 3000 personal computer, wowing his 9-year-old son. Romke read the manual “obsessively,” he says, and programmed the screen to display a functioning piano that lit up with bright colors. “It was super cool that I could write something and have it be reactive,” he says.
Many of Spreenkler’s formative years were spent in meetings called “Meetups” after meetup.com, well-attended networking events for entrepreneurs and creative professionals that remain popular today. These gatherings, which began in 2006, grew into Spreenkler, which Steve Glynn founded in 2009. And in 2010, he handpicked de Haan, who was then working at Hanson Dodge, to run the firm’s for-profit side. Glynn took over the nonprofit half, Spreenkler Talent Labs.
“It’s a really scary thing when you start a company to even think about how you would bring on a business partner, much less turn [the business] over to someone,” Glynn says of hiring de Haan. “I’ve never had a doubt with him because of his integrity, honesty and passion. He walked away from a very lucrative position to join the Spreenkler team.”
Spreenkler, known for tapping into burgeoning talent like de Haan, serves as both an incubator for young professionals and a cutting-edge technology and design firm. It specializes in developing Web platforms – smartphone apps, Web design, digital media, Flash animations and more. “We don’t have a specific skill we try to capitalize on,” de Haan says. “If anything, you could say we’re client-centric.”
“They’re working with the most talented college students, people who are probably destined for New York, Chicago or overseas, giving them real-world experience while getting them connected in the community,” says Ian Abston, whose Newaukee group, also founded in 2009, organizes networking events for young professionals. “[Spreenkler] is keeping young talent here in the city.”
Innovation in Milwaukee, dubbed “MiKE,” began in late 2010 as a partnership between Spreenkler, the august Greater Milwaukee Committee and other organizations. De Haan has been a key player from the beginning, luring Common Pitch, a blockbuster small business pitching competition, to Milwaukee this past June, making the Wisconsin city only its fourth stop. An acquaintance of de Haan’s at Common Pitch put Milwaukee on the outfit’s radar.
“In a short year and a half, he’s already increased the size of projects we’re working on,” Glynn says. They’re moving past a purely Milwaukee impact – working with Kohl’s, for instance, or marketing the soft launch of the “Amtrak to Parks” campaign that’s aimed at delivering train passengers to national parks.
De Haan is also one of the city’s best promoters, says Moody, but not a natural self-promoter. “He’s very humble,” Moody says. “On first meeting him, you’d never know he was an entrepreneur. He could tout his skills a bit more.”
Regardless, Milwaukeeans are taking note.
“If [Spreenkler] disappeared from Milwaukee tomorrow,” says Bryan Le Monds, founder of Third Ward public relations firm Caffeine Communications, “the city would be missing a fertile platform for young talent.”
At 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in March, de Haan is sitting on a black leather couch in the Spreenkler offices on the second floor of the Shops of Grand Avenue, and he’s exhausted. He’s just pulled an all-nighter to work on an “emergency” project for a client, traveling to Chicago and back during the night.
At a quarter to 10, team members trail in, and de Haan comes to life, yelling to them from where he sits.
“Bill!” he says. “What’s up man?”
“Bill” is Bill Bensman, Spreenkler’s “social and inbound marketing strategist.”
Another team member bounds in, high-fives de Haan and asks for approval on a project. “That’s beautiful,” de Haan says, looking over the employee’s work on a laptop. “Check that in.” Translation: “Submit your work to the client.”
Like de Haan, Spreenkler’s office is polished and modern in spite of an incongruous past. The space was formerly a Lane Bryant store, and its dressing rooms are still evident, along with a counter that once housed a cash register. Spreenkler staffers have also packed in flat-screen TVs, an antique film projector, a Nerf gun and a Nintendo Super Mario Bros. cartridge.
Amid this retro bric-a-brac, Romke is trying to let go of his own past.
“I’m motivated by my fear of failure, but that doesn’t work for me anymore because now I’m in charge of this company, and it’s no longer just my failure,” he says. “I’m no longer a developer. I’m a business owner. It’s not just how good I am, but how good we are as a team.”