They turned half-baked ideas into successful startups, took complicated problems and invented new technologies. Curious to see how far they could go, these 12 business visionaries set a path for others to follow.
The grand idea of the American entrepreneur evokes certain imagery. There are the pioneering captains of industry, those 19th-century Milwaukeeans who filled in a swamp and built a powerhouse manufacturing economy. There are the bratty-but-brainy college dropouts of the 1970s and ’80s who disrupted the “business world” to create personal computing and the Internet.
Their ideas seemed crazy, but those visionaries could see the future. They were the future.
So who are the entrepreneurs shaping Milwaukee today? For the answer, we reached out to experts who work with startups, to government agencies and to area investors.
The entrepreneurs we found are intrepid, ambitious. Many are driven to make their mark, writ big a la Bill Gates. Some set out on their own when other doors slammed shut. Others simply prefer working for themselves.
All are bound by an almost primal commitment to perseverance and love of the game. They are not fearless, but fear doesn’t rule them. All share a personal wisdom that pushes them on: Go all in.
They are men and women, seasoned professionals and punk kids. Some were helped by well-situated families. Others started with little more than grit and shoe leather.
In these 12, presented in no particular order, we are reminded of our national origin, a tale of determination and derring-do, of a restless and creative enthusiasm that moves the needle forward.
No. 1: Geppetto Avatars
7 full-time employees
7 full time independent contractors
The dearth of well-trained health workers who can provide quality, one-on-one care is intensifying around the globe. We see it in the declining amount of face time we get during office visits.
Technology can streamline some processes, but Geppetto Avatars co-founder Norrie Daroga, asks, “How do you solve for the fact that only 60 percent of communication is words, voice another 20 percent?” The remainder – “the human variable,” as the 57-year-old calls it – includes facial expression, body language and other, nonverbal cues.
In 2012, the engineer/attorney/entrepreneur and former Metavante and GE executive was running a company in Milwaukee that made software to help create and manage health-care plans. Intended to improve efficiency, it still required a four-hour interview, followed by entry of all the data. In short, not efficient.
Daroga started doing research and learned this was the case almost everywhere. While in San Francisco on business, he met Mark Stephen Meadows, an artist who was living on his boat in Panama at the time, and happened to be traveling in the U.S. Daroga describes Meadows as “a genius guy who can’t stay focused, but he’d been thinking about the patient care problem for a long time.”
What if, they asked themselves, we could build an avatar smart enough to understand language, read body cues, even detect emotion?
The two partnered up on the West Coast and built a “proof of concept” – a rough model, fleshed out enough to prove that it would work if fully developed. They needed a source for the artificial intelligence, and they set their caps for IBM Watson, by many accounts the world’s most developed artificial brain.
The folks at Big Blue predicted it would take four years for Geppetto to develop a ready product. But a year later, Daroga knocked on IBM’s door in New York, a working model in hand. The woman he was scheduled to meet with blew him off and instead sent a junior team member to where he sat waiting.
“I said I wouldn’t leave until his boss told me herself.” Daroga waited another hour before she finally arrived. Undaunted, he flipped open his laptop and gave his demo, not pausing for breath.
“This is going to market, with you or without you,” he said at the end. “You’ve had a long time to decide if you’ll work with us. Now you have 10 more seconds.”
“When can you get started?” she replied. And Sophie, named after a close family friend, was officially “born.”
Their working study on the IBM Watson is for Parkinson’s disease, and Sophie will be the case manager. She is sympathetic and thorough. She understands everything you tell her, and a great deal that isn’t articulated. She has an excellent grasp of the vernacular, and can instantly prepare a 39-point assessment for your doctor.
In her current form, Sophie is a pleasant-looking Caucasian woman with brown hair and glasses who speaks impeccable English. In the future, she could be male or female, have many names and faces, and will speak dozens of languages, depending on the client’s needs. She will be the face of health systems, pharmaceutical companies, and more.
Based in Mequon near Daroga’s home, Geppetto Avatars is an expensive undertaking. But he’s determined to not seek conventional outside investment until the company has real revenue and he can set more favorable terms for receiving money.
For now, he has private investors, all of whom he knows personally, including a bicycle repair person and a nail tech, each of whom has given $5,000. He also has larger investors, who’ve contributed up to half a million dollars.
Born prematurely in India with massive health problems, Daroga almost didn’t survive infancy. Since then, ongoing health problems and a tobogganing accident have led to several close brushes with death.
Daroga, however, is sure that luck is on his side.
“I’ve been clinically dead three times” he jokes. “I’m part of God’s catch-and-release program.”
No. 2: Scanalytics
If someone told you the floor you were walking on could predict what you’re going to buy, would that seem futuristic? What if it could distinguish your family members? Creepy? Cool? A little of both?
Joe Scanlin and Matt McCoy were boyhood friends in Waunakee. Both smart, hyper and a little nerdy, at age 15, they filed their first LLC. The Neighbor Kid was a lawn care service, and when they sold off their accounts to head for college, they had seven employees and a small fleet of trucks. McCoy went to UW-Madison to double major in mass media and marketing while working for a market research firm; Scanlin went to UW-Whitewater to study marketing and management, joining the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve after his freshman year.
One day while shopping at Sears, Scanlin wondered what his movement patterns were saying about his purchase behavior. He thought about how much he was giving up just through his feet – his proximity to a product, how long he stood in front of the product, what he did while he stood there.
“So I ran home and tore apart my “DanceDanceRevolution” mat, re-engineered it to monitor those things,” he says. “That was the first prototype.” He couldn’t wait to show it to McCoy. They signed their first client in 2012 and launched a “real” company, Scanalytics.
The two looked to their own fathers, both entrepreneurial spirits, for guidance, while trusting their partnership.
“’Bring it on’ is pretty much how I felt, and the rest we’d be able to figure out,” says McCoy.
Today, Scanalytics has a large footprint (pun intended) in retail markets and events, counting Anheuser-Busch and Qualcomm among its clients. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell is building an educational gaming company with the technology. Microsoft is partnering with the young firm in an effort to reboot its smart-home initiative.
The technology takes the form of thin under-flooring, assembled in sections of polyester plastic with silver sensor filaments and diodes. “It connects to the Internet of things,” explains Scanlin, “so it can send text messages, turn heat on or off, activate alarms – really, anything you want.”
Even more futuristic than the floor is the intelligence it provides. In a retail setting, Scanalytics’ reporting software integrates with other store systems to create eerily in-depth, anonymous customer profiles. It can pull in mobile and wireless data, social media activity, in-store video and more, so that Target and others can figure out not only that you don’t like the orange soup bowls, but why.
Paradigm disruption can be an expensive proposition. So far, Scanalytics has raised about $2 million, mostly through Wisconsin investors CSA Partners and gener8tor, but it will need millions more.
Now both 26, Scanlin and McCoy know they’re on the ride of a lifetime.
“I’m going to steal a line from [LinkedIn co-founder] Reid Hoffman,” says McCoy. “‘Starting a company is like throwing yourself off a cliff and assembling the airplane on the way down.’ I think at this point, we’ve assembled a pretty impressive plane, now it’s a matter of seeing how far we fly.”
No. 3: Fix Development
A dyed-in-the-wool social entrepreneur, Juli Kaufmann started Fix Development out of frustration.
“Traditional real estate and financial systems wield tremendous power over the trajectory of communities,” she says. “These systems are designed to maximize profit, often benefiting people outside the community.”
Kaufmann doesn’t believe communities are commodities.
“We can care for the planet, care for people and create a better way of life” says Kaufmann, 46. “If that’s important – and it is – then there’s got to be a way to figure it out.”
As a development firm, Fix takes on more than physical buildings. It helps launch new companies; pursues diverse partnerships; and helps create nontraditional funding mechanisms such as Fund Milwaukee, a community-based microinvesting group.
The Clock Shadow Building in Walker’s Point is one example. It started as a brown field, so the land needed extensive environmental remediation. Kaufmann focused further on the environment by incorporating geothermal heating and cooling, and a green roof. Banks took a pass, so the prospective tenants – two nonprofits – contributed $1 million to the project.
Another $1 million came from grants. The remaining $5 million from what Kaufmann terms “like-minded investors.”
“They get about a 5 percent return annually, and reap the benefits of the social, cultural and environmental investment,” she says.
Kaufmann sees the investments as “quadruple bottom line” – long-term economic stability, environmental stewardship, social equality and cultural continuity.
Referring to herself as a “lifelong activist,” Kaufmann saw inequities as problems to be solved. As a child, she looked to adults to initiate change.
But as she grew up, she figured out that others didn’t always have the answers, or the will, to better the world. If she wanted some of her harder puzzles solved, she would have to do the heavy lifting.
In one of its current ventures, Fix is the project developer and “owner’s representative” for Walnut Way’s The Innovation and Wellness Commons, under development in Lindsay Heights. The firm is responsible for site development, project financing, tenant recruitment, construction oversight and all other activities to successfully bring the project to fruition.
Kaufmann thinks her holistic concept can take root here, and help create a road map for urban planning in a new way. “I want to make my neighborhood better,” she says. Although there’s not always an obvious way to do it, “I am going to keep working on it. And so far, it’s working.”
No. 4: Good Karma Brands
As a New Jersey teenager, Craig Karmazin worked at Sports Authority. He competed with his co-workers for the highest sales, and with himself, to beat his own records. He took notes about how the business could be improved. When his family vacationed in Florida, he made his mom drive him to the company’s corporate headquarters so he could meet the CEO. The meeting was no more than a brief introduction. But in Craig’s eyes, he had accomplished his goal.
Karmazin is at ease with his inner competitor. “I’m driven by winning,” he says. “I keep score on everything. When I was riding in the car as a kid, I’d pick the raindrop that I thought would hit the bottom of the windshield first.”
At 39, the prematurely silver-haired entrepreneur has a sparkle in his eye and broadcasting in his blood. His dad, Mel Karmazin, co-founded Infinity Broadcasting and has served as president of CBS and Viacom, as well as CEO of SiriusXM Radio. Craig Karmazin headed to Atlanta’s Emory University after high school to study business. But he found his passion as a radio-station intern.
“I wanted to be an intern forever – I got to do everything, all the time, and it was different every day, every minute” he says. “That’s how I envisioned my future, and that’s what I’ve worked to maintain.”
One quick glance at Good Karma’s holdings reflects the essence of the founder. The company owns and operates eight ESPN-affiliated stations and their respective digital assets, a few Verizon Premium Wireless retail locations, produces the annual Wisconsin Sports Awards and other sports events nationwide, and operates the Tundra Trio – three luxury rental houses right next to Lambeau Field. Good Karma also owns The Home Market in the Third Ward, and Karmazin is a minority owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Good Karma empire was spawned one fateful weekend in Madison. A childhood friend attending school at UW had talked his New Jersey pals into coming out for a visit, and they spent the weekend drinking and daydreaming of starting a radio station there. Karmazin took it seriously. Back at Emory, he discovered an entrepreneurship program in the business school and convinced the college to give him half a semester’s worth of credits to pursue his goal.
Researching the markets, he learned there was no way he could afford Madison. But a broker helped him find three stations for sale in Beaver Dam. Trading on family banking relationships and an appealing price point, he signed on the line in 1997. He was 22.
Arriving to work his first day in Beaver Dam, Karmazin realized he had no idea what he was doing.
“So I called my dad. He told me to order pizza and spend a half-hour with everyone in the building. After that, he said, I would never have another free moment in my career. He was right.”
Not one to shirk the trenches himself, he spent Black Friday last year in one of his Verizon stores, assisting customers and serving as an extra hand on deck to his team.
“What makes us different is our people,” he says, “and the passion we have to do things the right way, and for the right reasons – to help our guests, our partners and our teammates. When I see people here empowered and doing things right – and know I had nothing to do with it – that gets me excited.”
No. 5: WatrHub
WatrHub co-founders Sunit Mohindroo and Ahmed Badruddin didn’t need to change a thing. After graduating with top engineering honors from Ontario’s University of Waterloo, Mohindroo was snapped up by Apple to work on Macs and iPods. He then moved to Microsoft to work on the Xbox. There, he met Badruddin, a lead developer working on Windows 7. They were young men in their 20s, living the dream. Mohindroo and Badruddin became fast friends who shared a common desire.
“We could have honestly stayed for years,” says Mohindroo. “But both of us wanted to use our skills to solve major social and environmental challenges, rather than just improving software productivity and people’s entertainment.”
Living on the West Coast, the two knew firsthand that water supply is a major global concern. They began to research the industry, and realized that there was a gap between the huge amounts of data being collected and its ability to be used in an actionable way. It was a real problem – impending issues that could be identified were not because data lived on paper, in PDFs and isolated databases. Aggregating that information and making it accessible could make a big difference.
“That’s when we decided to quit our high-paying jobs and figure out how we could make our impact,” says Mohindroo.
He’s a lively speaker, yet candid about WatrHub’s start.
“It was really scary at first,” Mohindroo says, “but after a few ups and downs – like being down to our last few dollars with none in the pipeline – it doesn’t scare you anymore. It humbles you. I was at the top of my class, young, working for Apple and Microsoft doing cool stuff. But the pressure… It puts you in perspective immediately.”
In 2014, WatrHub was a runner-up in the global Imagine H2O Annual Water Competition, and got to pitch to investors and customers in San Francisco. There, they learned about The BREW, Milwaukee-based Water Council’s accelerator program that provides office and lab space, mentors and access to resources for water-focused companies. It was a perfect fit; they applied and were accepted.
WatrHub’s headquarters are in the Council’s Walker’s Point building. Despite ties to the West Coast and to Canada, it’s the partners’ intention to grow from their Midwest base. They cite a number of reasons: the growing water industry cluster, the work of the Water Council. But the clincher is the people.
“There’s a great labor force here – committed, loyal, not looking to hop to the next opportunity,” says Mohindroo. “With UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences and UW-Whitewater’s Institute for Water Business, especially, the caliber of talent here for us is unsurpassed. We couldn’t have found this anywhere else.”
No. 6: Sōsh
The secret to a happy partnership, in work and in life, is trust and loyalty. For Sōsh founders Jeannette Pham and Michelle D’Attilio, holding those values sacred has kept them in business for more than 15 years.
The two met in the 1990s, when both worked for a small software development company where everyone learned everything. Pham was a technical writer, D’Attilio the receptionist, but both had to learn to build websites in HTML to keep up with client demand. The World Wide Web was new and exciting.
“My dad was a business owner,” recounts D’Attilio. “One day, he came to me with a website proposal. These guys wanted $25K for a four-page site. I said ‘Dad, I can build this for you.’ It turned on a light for me.”
Soon after, she was driving to Chicago with Pham for a tech convention. “While she was trapped in my car, I spent the time convincing her that we needed to do this.”
The pair’s original Corporate Identity Solutions was a website development firm that helped small companies level the Internet playing field. It was a good business, if one-dimensional.
In early 2009, Pham was turned on to a scrappy new messaging platform – Twitter. She and D’Attilio opened accounts and discovered companies and conversations they had never known existed. They were hooked. Soon, it made sense to offer social media services to existing clients. The new offer almost immediately eclipsed the old one. And in 2010, CIS rebranded as Sōsh.
At their size, winning business meant doing the work themselves, which took them away from prospecting – an exhausting cycle. It’s a common challenge for a lot of small service providers.
Today, Sōsh is the social muscle behind Wisconsin companies like Briggs & Stratton, Johnsonville Sausage and GE Generator Systems, engaging directly with customers and prospects through social-media channels. With the recent addition of veteran business reporter Wendy Strong to the team, an evolution is underway – more event planning, traditional communications services, some PR.
Yet the two are adamant about minding their top priority – the professional development and overall well-being of the staff.
“We’re small enough that if one team member struggles, the ripple is felt throughout,” says D’Attilio. “We’re tight-knit and that’s a good thing, but helping everyone, plus myself, stay healthy and happy can be a daunting task as we grow.”
No. 7: Design Fugitives
It started with sort of an Algonquin Round Table of architecture students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but with (maybe) a little less drinking. Paul Mattek and his original six partners, plus a few faculty members, would get together for beers to talk about exciting things like parametric design and how to bring the world of architecture back into line with other fields. They were especially interested in industrial design, where the full cycle of manufacturing design is integrated into one cycle, instead of siloed with an abundance of individual specialists.
They asked themselves, “Do we want to go down the traditional path?” They believed there was a lot of mendacity in the actual practice of architecture that could dampen creativity. They wanted more creative control, more energy, and the idea for Design Fugitives was born.
Design Fugitives works primarily on commissions to solve its clients’ design problems, and then manufactures and installs whatever is needed, from fixtures to furnishings to public art. The Light Mobile for Johnson Controls is a good example: the firm served as the materials and fabrication consultants for the 1,500-piece sculpture that hangs in an atrium at the company’s Glendale headquarters.
“What we love to do is design and build things that our clients want that exist nowhere else,” Mattek says. “Is that the right strategy for the long run? We’ll see. If it’s not, we’ll evolve.”
Another project is an interior design and build-out of the Jesuit Retreat House outside Oshkosh. Throughout the small chapel, Design Fugitives incorporated a blowing wheat pattern that represents the breath of the Spirit. The chapel’s oval shape encourages a sense of community. Light shines through the edges of the oval to mimic the night sky and draw one’s eyes upward. Thus, the chapel encourages three connections – with oneself, with other worshippers (horizontal), and with the divine (vertical).
“We got to let our design juices loose on that one,” Mattek says.
Design Fugitives fills a gap in the market between architect and fabricator, offering an all-in-one service. That helps the team stay true to the design intention in the execution of a project, says Mattek.
“Frank Lloyd Wright could be called the proto-archetype for this” he says. “It puts the architect back in the driver’s seat.”
No. 8: Rent College Pads
At age 13, Dom Anzalone already had two jobs: in a family friend’s clothing factory and at a grocery store. By 16, he owned stocks. “I bought into Apple at about $100 per share and people said I was crazy, but it worked out well for me. When everybody was out playing, I was working.”
Fast forward to college. At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Anzalone and five friends were looking for a place to live. “It was one of the worst experiences I had in college,” he says, and marked the inspiration for his fast-growing company, Rent College Pads.
RCP, as it’s known around the office, matches landlords with college students. Both parties benefit, says Anzalone, because college landlords have high annual turnover rates and students aren’t the savviest renters. The one-stop resource simplifies the entire process.
He might be on to something. Marquette University became its first client, and during the partnership’s first year, RCP became a major player in helping the school’s off-campus students find housing.
Today, RCP is in more than a dozen markets in three states – with more expansion expected in 2015. Its offices are at 96square, a Downtown Milwaukee co-working space that offers affordable rent, shared amenities and educational events to local startups.
But “overnight success” stories don’t happen without unseen struggles, and RCP is no exception. “I couldn’t find a partner in the beginning,” he says. “Nobody could see the value, and I didn’t have any business connections. It was a lonely experience.”
Undaunted, he used his stock earnings and personal savings to hire website developers to build out the platform. He then went door to door, talking to colleges, property owners and other potential partners and customers. When Marquette came through, Anzalone’s model was validated.
He considered starting the company somewhere else, but ended up choosing Milwaukee. “I have this feeling we’re on the verge of something here. It’s new. In San Francisco, you’re another fish in the sea.” But Anzalone believes there’s much more the region could be doing to foster the much-publicized “startup economy” here.
He cites a need for incentives for startups on par with what bigger companies can leverage. One example is New York’s Startup NY, which offers tax-exempt status for up to a decade for businesses that are born, expand or relocate there within a “tax-free zone.”
The 23-year old go-getter has a few words of encouragement for peers thinking about striking out on their own. “I would say to people my age that this is the perfect time to do it. Determination is key. Never quit.”
No. 9: Rishi Tea
Touring Rishi Tea’s sparkling new 50,000-square-foot facility in the Menomonee Valley is like getting a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for the tea-loving faithful. To see where ingredients are stored and blended, paper shoes, hair nets and face masks must be worn; the tasting room is climate-controlled and engineered to be free of all odors. In a small lab, a tea master blends botanicals, creating new flavors and improving existing ones.
Designed by Briohn Building in Brookfield and supported by the MEDC (Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation), the $4.9 million campus is a far cry from Rishi’s cramped former headquarters in Bay View.
“It was stressful” says Benjamin Harrison, co-owner and vice president of sales, “but it had a certain rustic charm.” Now Rishi has room to grow: When the planned spaces are complete, they’ll be at about 30 percent capacity.
“No worries, though” says Joshua Kaiser, founder and CEO. “We’ve never had trouble filling a warehouse, not ever.”
Rishi Tea is a worldwide importer, manufacturer and distributor of organic specialty teas. Based far from traditional tea centers like Asia and the American coasts, the company’s fair trade, organic products are available locally, online and by the cup at coffee and tea shops, restaurants, hotels and airports. Rishi also creates formulas for coffee roasters, bottled beverage makers, brewers and distillers, and supplies ingredients for other tea brands.
It started with young Kaiser’s passion for the leaf, which he imparted to Harrison, his high school friend. The pair started out with $45,000 and a line of credit from a relative. Rishi’s first facility, in the Third Ward’s Marshall Building, was 500 square feet with no windows. Kaiser sat on the floor, making the teas by hand with a mortar and pestle. Harrison burned up the phone, building the client roster and opening up new avenues.
“Rochambo [a coffee and tea shop on Brady Street] was our first customer,” Kaiser says. “Some of our first business plans and ideas were hatched in their upstairs.”
When they got into the business, they were “just two bonehead kids selling loose-leaf tea and getting laughed out of offices” says Kaiser. But they stuck with it, believing that the market would catch up. Now, he says, “We’ve been able to not only lead that market, but in some ways drive it.”
Rishi Tea has thousands of retail clients in Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and the European Union. “We sell a lot of tea in Asia,” says Kaiser. “We feel like if we can sell such a traditional product back to its region of origin, we must be doing something right.”
The competitive pressures are intense, especially given Rishi’s insistence on organic production and its high quality standards. It’s a common, if troubling, conundrum.
“Mainland China wholesalers don’t care as much about being organic or about pesticides” says Kaiser. “We’ve worked with farmers to require an organic product at a certain price. But that’s a demand from a foreign market. It makes our job really interesting.”
The company also must look into ever-more remote areas for ingredients, due to massive urbanization, air pollution and polluted water sources. The partners cite additional pressure from “a frugal North American market that needs to have the identical product every time, at an identical price.”
Whatever pressures the market brings, Kaiser and Harrison can rely on the bedrock of their partnership.
“We’ve had our issues and tests,” says Kaiser. “But we always come back to our friendship. Within an organization, it’s easy to hide, to retreat into your fiefdom and avoid your issues. We don’t do that. And if we couldn’t come together, we would have divorced a long time ago.”
No. 10: The Good Jobs
Longtime friends and co-workers Anne Nimke and Betsy Rowbottom were chatting over margaritas one evening about a problem at work, when a thought began to bubble to the surface. “Somebody should build a way for companies and job seekers to connect in a new and better way. Why not figure out how to quantify workplace culture so companies can demonstrate why people would want to work for them?”
The idea grew quickly from cocktail napkin to business plan. “We named the company that night and bought the URL the next day,” chuckles Nimke. Little did they know that, as the U.S. economy recovered and companies started competing again for top talent, “employment culture” would become a hot topic in the world of talent retention.
“There are five generations now in the workforce,” says Rowbottom, crackling with energy. “The common attribute is that they all want to find meaning in their work. They want to believe in a company before they apply.” But conventional wisdom says when job seekers can’t find enough information about how a company invests in its people, they assume it doesn’t.
“We are fixing that,” says Nimke.
The Good Jobs coaches employers how to better engage with candidates, and to market their culture to the world. One way is with a proprietary set of “badges” – seven icons that can be used online or in print that signify a company’s key work culture attributes, including Fun, Extreme Perks, Flextime, Corporate Responsibility, Green DNA, Inclusion and Career Development.
Already, The Good Jobs counts CorvisaCloud, Neroli Spas and workplace mecca Zappos among its clients.
The two opened shop in 2012 and that summer were accepted into local startup business accelerator gener8tor’s 12-week program. For three intensive months, The Good Jobs’ team received training, mentorship, seed capital, office space, introductions to customer prospects and more. The BrightStar Foundation, a Milwaukee-based philanthropic angel investment firm, has also invested.
“The support we’ve received has been instrumental to our success so far,” says Rowbottom.
Despite The Good Jobs’ fairytale success, Rowbottom has concerns about the local startup climate. “We lack some critical momentum around startups in Milwaukee. We have bright lights and hard-working people, but we need to do more.”
Nimke is more specific: “The best way for larger companies to support entrepreneurs is to become their customers. There’s the old saying, ‘No one ever gets fired for buying IBM.’ In Wisconsin, established companies don’t necessarily think to do business with an innovative new company with less history, even if it’s the best offer.”
“Startups create new jobs,” adds Rowbottom. “I’m a big fan of our city; there are amazingly dedicated people who work hard to make Milwaukee better and more inclusive. I hope existing businesses will understand the tremendous impact they make by choosing to work with new companies. Startups need early adopters. Startups need believers.”
No. 11: Maures Development
In 2004, Melissa Goins was pregnant with her second child and working for both the state Department of Corrections and the Milwaukee Brewers, when an ad in a local newspaper caught her eye. It was for a 25-week, no-degree program called ACRE, for Associates in Commercial Real Estate.
“Apparently I needed something else on my to-do list” says Goins. “I was accepted into ACRE, and it changed my life perspective and set me on the path of real estate.”
It wasn’t just about the money. A self-billed “poor girl from inner-city Milwaukee,” she saw an opportunity to make a difference in her community – and a better life for herself and her family.
She threw herself into the program, and, as a top student, was offered a spot in the Mentor Protégé Program within the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, which was designed to diversify the field of commercial real estate.
It turned out WHEDA had access to federal funding that Goins was able to use to seed her first project, Teutonia Gardens.
Located at Teutonia Avenue and 27th Street, Teutonia Gardens has 24 units and 5,000 square feet of commercial space, fully leased. Its anchor business tenant is Handsome Barber Shop, a 45-year neighborhood institution. There’s an urban garden that was partially supported by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District because it included a 5,000-gallon cistern that collects rainwater.
In 2009, the development was bestowed with the Mayor’s Design Award; also in 2009, the Gardens received honorable mention in the Charles L. Edson Tax Credit Excellence Awards for its “outstanding effort in providing affordable housing to people in metropolitan areas.”
Goins says Teutonia Gardens centers on “the bigger idea of paying homage to the 1967 housing riots.” Many African-Americans had moved from southern states to Milwaukee’s near-North Side in the 1940s and ’50s, drawn to manufacturing jobs. As the jobs dried up, African-Americans were disproportionately affected, and by the 1960s, the once-vibrant neighborhood was blighted. Tensions mounted, with months of marches and entreaties to city officials. On July 30, 1967, violence broke out and
Mayor Henry Maier called in the National Guard. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. But the area still faces significant social and economic problems.
Where others saw a failure, Goins saw opportunity to create change.
“Our work is special because the intention behind all that we undertake is rooted in purpose – renewal,” she says. “When we broke ground on the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, it was intended to be a promise.”
Maures Development now also owns about 100 units in Lindsey Heights. The majority were purchased from the city and refurbished, with Maures retaining ownership or co-ownership.
“In our neighborhood stabilization work,” says Goins, “the units are in very poor condition. We purchase them, gut them to the studs, and replace everything brand new.”
The philosopher-developer works to stay rooted in her ideals and to align her efforts with her beliefs. “There is no separation between who we are as people” she says, “and the principles that we live.”
No. 12: Wantable
Jalem Getz seems unstoppable. After dropping out of college, the self-proclaimed “capitalist and retailer” landed an engineering gig in his homeland of northern California. When the company moved to Hartland and changed its name to Direct Data, he came along. There, he got his first patent, for a mechanical spring. He was barely in his 20s.
Getz left Direct Data for another 9-to-5 engineering job, moonlighting at Radio Shack in the evenings. With a co-worker at his day job, Jon Majdoch, he cofounded GMI, a specialty retailer, in 1995. He was just 22.
Fast forward four years to his first huge success, BuySeasons (formerly BuyCostumes), a Waukesha-based novelty tie company that grew into an early e-commerce giant, selling Halloween costumes and other seasonal items. In 2006, the company, now headquartered in New Berlin, was purchased by Liberty Media, added to a portfolio that includes interest in Time Inc., QVC, SiriusXM and the Atlanta Braves. Getz stayed on until 2010, then retired. For about five minutes.
“I figured at 38, I still had time to fail miserably and still not have to work, so why not?” He sought out connections to vet his idea for a personalized online shopping service. There wasn’t anything similar, and he knew he had his Next Big Thing.
Now 42, he’s ready to make a second fortune. And Wantable might be the ticket.
Wantable is a paid subscription website where women create a profile all about their personal style, the answers to which can be changed whenever the customer’s preferences evolve. Each month, they receive individually selected makeup, accessories, lingerie or athletic wear. If they like it, they keep it. If they don’t, they can send it back.
It seems like a winning formula; in just a year, Wantable has grown to 28 employees and is taking over even more space in its Third Ward headquarters. But the root of Getz’s passion isn’t women’s apparel. It’s success.
“An entrepreneur has to build a great business and have great timing,” Getz says. “You have to knock it out of the park in both categories.” He reads Women’s World Daily in the morning and follows trends in both business and fashion like a hawk.
Getz used his own resources to start Wantable, eventually raising capital to grow. He knows that not all startups, however, have a founder in his position.
“I had one of the top exits in this area in the last 10 years, so I could attract investment,” he says. It’s more challenging for someone who’s unproven, and Getz, like others interviewed for this story, cites a conservative investment climate here as a hindrance to the kind of economic growth startups provide.
Wisconsin’s most affluent business execs made their money “the old-fashioned way,” he says. “They want safety and security, and that’s not how it works. You have to roll 10 to get one. I would say this to entrepreneurs, especially in tech, where the needs are higher: If you’re not getting what you need here, don’t be afraid to move.”
Someday, he’ll cash out of Wantable, and he hopes the magic number is a big one.
“Was Nordstrom smart to pay $300 million for Trunk Club?” he muses. “For the opportunity it creates for Nordstrom’s, absolutely. Kohl’s should buy me.”
Write to Milwaukee freelance writer Jon Anne Willow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corrections: Due to an editing error, WatrHub’s founding year and employee count was incorrect. In the original article, the number of employees presently working at Scanalytics was also incorrect. We’ve updated this story to reflect the accurate data. We regret the errors.
Hear more from Jon Anne Willow when she visits WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Feb. 4 at 10 a.m.