By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Regardless of age, gender, race or social-economic status, the 21st century economic ecosystem in Greater Green Bay is full of diversity, thanks in part to the Greater Green Bay Chamber.
From an industrial control fabricating company to an online venture supporting underprivileged children, though the ideas, products, companies and entrepreneurs may be fundamentally different, they are both an important part of that ecosystem.
Communications Manager Patrick Stumpf said the economic development arm of the Chamber is committed to the area’s economic vitality and growth with its multiple-branched approach.
Stumpf said starting or expanding a business can be risky endeavors – full of promise and uncertainty but support during this time is crucial for success.
He said the Chamber has created a support system for area business owners and entrepreneurs, with resources, physical space, mentorship, financial support and information.
Starting operations in his garage, Tom Giese said he quickly realized his company, Gain Control, was running out of space.
Gain Control provides industrial control solutions, system integration and engineering for varying industries,
“After working from my unheated garage for a winter, we decided it was time to find a place that had reasonable rent,” Giese said.
He said upfront and overhead costs such as a security deposit, rent and utilities, made him unsure how to proceed.
Giese said the Startup Hub, a business incubator powered by the Chamber, housed at the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), was exactly what he needed as he looked to expand.
“We were referred to the Startup Hub by another tenant, who gave great reviews,” he said. “After inspecting a few options for leased space, we chose space with an external garage door and exit, since we have a lot of deliveries directly to our door. The Hub has dock access, a forklift to use and many amenities that made it a great fit for us to start with minimal additional expenditures.”
Manager Ron Franklin said the Startup Hub helps entrepreneurs in the beginning stages of business development, serving as a “much-needed, centralized starting point.”
“What that means is (the Startup Hub) will be the go-to place for any person, in any industry in our community that wants to start a business, they will come to us first…,” Franklin said. “We created a resource-heavy location. What that means is we have on-site resources that can help them with every aspect of their business to start and grow their business, and connect them with outside connections as well.”
He said the 50,000-square-foot facility offers office space and manufacturing bays.
As a Startup Hub tenant, Franklin said business owners are provided numerous supports in an effort to bolster success, such as desks, cubicles, chairs, filing cabinets; all utilities, maintenance and basic housekeeping; high-speed Wi-Fi, dedicated parking, access to presentation and video conferencing equipment; 24-hour secure access to the building, copy and printing availability for a small fee; and also interaction and collaboration with fellow entrepreneurs.
Franklin said the Hub also gives businesses lease flexibility.
“Most office places have an extended lease, so in a three-year lease, there are penalties if they exit (early), those kinds of things,” he said.
Franklin said the Startup Hub has a 12-month lease, but, there is a no-penalty exit clause, with 60-days advance notice.
“The reason we do that has two sides,” he said. “If their business is growing and can no longer sustain being inside the Hub, we don’t want to penalize them… We want them to exit and grow. On the flip side, if their business is not doing well and they have to close their doors permanently, or even close it and go back home and work from their home office, we don’t want them stuck paying for a lease they can’t financially afford.”
Giese said the Hub’s partnership with NWTC has helped his company tremendously.
“The Hub’s great location gave us easy access to interns in our field from both UW-Green Bay and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College,” he said. “We were able to utilize their talents to help build our business, and it proved to be a valuable experience for each of them to be able to work in their field while taking a full course load.”
Giese said his company blossomed in its time at the Startup Hub, and is thankful the area has something like this available.
“While spending a few years at the Hub, we were able to build a stronger customer base while keeping our expenses down,” he said. “This allowed us to make sure we have a viable backlog of work, and eventually be able to make the leap to moving away with a strong feeling of security and surety of our future as a company.”
Gain Control recently opened up shop in a 5,000-square-foot space in Pulaski.
Giese said the Hub afforded him the resources to build a strong foundation.
“We started with one full-time engineer and a part-time bookkeeper,” he said. “We have grown to two engineers, a full-time sales associate and several part-time technicians building our product. We will have another engineer coming on staff in March, and we are in the process of adding at least one more permanent technician for our shop. We are adding more benefits for our employees as we grow – 401K, health insurance, and profit sharing. We are building a great environment and atmosphere, which we hope will draw the best employees to us as we grow.”
Franklin said in the three years he’s been at the helm of the Startup Hub, he’s consulted with more than 300 businesses.
“About 90% of those have actually formed into a business, and I keep in touch with as many as I possibly can,” he said. “I know that 40-50% of those are still in business, that I actually keep in touch with. So in three years, that is about 150 that are still active.”
More information on the Startup Hub can be found at thestartuphub.org.
Marine Steve Janke, CEO and founder of Mission Wisconsin, a company which helps transitioning military and their families with career opportunities and benefits, said he knew connection with other professionals was key to success.
Janke said he found that at the Urban Hub, a co-working space in the Rail Yard Innovation District in downtown Green Bay.
“I started using the Urban Hub in December of 2020,” he said. “I joined the community at the Urban Hub because of the connectivity that it provides. From world-class internet speeds to the other businesses that are on the same journey my company is on, the Urban Hub made so much sense to take my business to the next level.”
Urban Hub Community Manager Lamarr Banks said Janke’s experience is exactly why the Urban Hub was created.
“Co-working spaces are more vibrant and energetic environments, and entrepreneurs thrive off of that type of creativity,” he said.
Launched in 2019, taking over operations and management of the former T2 Accelerator, Banks said the Urban Hub is an effort by the Chamber to extend its entrepreneurial reach affording entrepreneurs, small businesses and remote workers a co-working space in a growing downtown district.
“Having a co-working space, like the Urban Hub, gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to not only get their work done, but also to connect, network, meet different people, get different ideas, and that is something that they need,” he said.
Janke said the connections he’s made through the Urban Hub have been invaluable.
“Knowing that others are in the same place as we are, and being able to leverage some of their unique skill sets to augment my growth has proved invaluable,” he said. “Being at the Urban Hub has allowed me to gain and build connections that are helping me… The opportunity that the Hub has provided me to make connections has been priceless.”
Banks said the 10,000-square-foot space features an open concept design, furniture, high-speed Wi-Fi, meeting rooms and private meeting areas to facilitate one-on-one conversations.
Shared space monthly rent runs $149, with dedicated desk membership at $199.
There’s also corporate membership, which gives up to 20 different people access to the space, for $750 per month.
Day passes are also available for less than $20.
Banks said the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges.
“We relaunched the space in May, and since then there have been about 20 different types of events in our presentation space, probably around 26, 27 tours, and I’ve added six new members since then,” he said. “It is definitely getting some notice, even when we are in a period of uncertainty with COVID.”
Banks said to further extend its offerings, Urban Hub partners with outside resources.
Members have access to consultation services with the Hub’s official banking partner, Greenleaf Bank, and the space’s official accounting partner, Wipfli LLP.
“I think the world is moving (away) from the traditional framework of business, and as technology takes off, I mean everything is about high-tech,” Banks said. “These businesses need to start being more innovative, and I think having a co-working space for your cultivating, extensive entrepreneurship growing that ecosystem, that gives the company the opportunity to (employ) people who have these innovative ideas, or who have innovative technology that can take their company to the next level.”
Franklin managed the Urban Hub until Banks took the reins.
“The Urban Hub really focuses on technology-based businesses being around technology-based businesses,” Franklin said. “It was really defining the space and creating a home for a segment in the market that was completely underutilized, (creating) a space for people that didn’t have a space anywhere else in Green Bay.”
More information on the Urban Hub can be found thestartuphub.org/physical-spaces/urban-hub.
The Blueprint Green Bay
St. Norbert College graduate Avery Rhenwrick’s company, 4th N Long, sells T-shirts and other clothing to help underprivileged children participate in sports.
“I started the brand just over a year ago after coming across several articles on the number of children unable to play sports because of the rising cost of participation,” he said. “In creating this brand, I was able to combine my passion for helping others with my love for sports and fashion. We donate 20% of the proceeds to help children from low-income families across America play sports.”
His online-based business launched recently, and Rhenwrick said his journey as an entrepreneur is just beginning.
“I’ve never really had any business experience before I started this,” he said. “It was always something I wanted to do, eventually owning a business. I felt like the Blueprint Green Bay would provide me with knowledge and resources (to make it successful).”
Rhenwrick said the Blueprint Green Bay, a business accelerator program geared toward helping minority-, women- and veteran-owned startups, provided him with support.
He was one of six companies in the program’s first cohort, the first of its kind in Northeast Wisconsin.
The Green Bay program through the Chamber is an extension of entrepreneurs Que and Khalif El-Amin’s successful program in the Milwaukee area.
“I am a firm believer that entrepreneurship can serve as an equalizer, begin to level the playing field and give these underrepresented founders access, exposure, funding and confidence to continue to build, grow and sustain their respective startups,” Khalif El-Amin said.
The program consists of two, 12-week cohorts – with the first 12 weeks focused on the ideation phase of businesses.
Those three months wrapped up Nov. 4 with participants giving a 3-minute pitch in front of an audience of potential investors, entrepreneurs, community members and mentors, in hopes of grant funding.
“All the instructors have been great,” Rhenwrick said. “The experience has been great. The information that I’ve been given has been very personalized. They have really taken the time to make sure it makes sense to each individual business. I wanted something where I could learn a little more about business, gain some resources and potentially get funding at the end to help build my business.”
In the second 12-week cohort, which starts in January, entrepreneurs learn techniques on identifying market opportunities, including defining target markets, connecting to manufacturers, learning how to take a product/service to market and how to build a customer base.
When he started, Rhenwrick said he tried to cater his business to everyone, but the knowledge he gained through his participation in the Blueprint changed his thought process.
“I learned through this, I should just cater to one specific group of people, and then kind of branch out from there eventually,” he said.
More information on the Blueprint Green Bay can be found at thestartuphub.org/helpful-links/blueprint/.
In an effort to help bridge the gap between ideation and reality, Urban Hub formed the Tundra Angels, an angel investor group that offers startup companies funding, 18 months ago.
Stumpf said think “Shark Tank,” but smaller, and not on TV.
Tundra Angels Manager Matthew Kee said its focus is on early-stage startups and high-growth companies at the pre-seed or seed stage.
Kee said at its core, Tundra Angels is about delivering capital, strategic connections and customers.
“These three components are critical to startup progress, especially in the early stages,” he said.
Tundra Angels is geared toward funding companies with an average investment size between $50,000 to $100,000.
“I’ve probably talked to 120 entrepreneurs in the last year in Wisconsin, and then we’ve invested in five,” he said. “There is definitely a screening process. Every quarter we meet as a group, so I contact 30-40 entrepreneurs, and we (narrow) that to four companies, and those are the ones that pitch in front of the group. It’s an equity investment, it’s not a loan.”
More information about Tundra Angels can be found at thestartuphub.org/tundraangels.
WiSys VentureHome-Green Bay
A new partnership between WiSys, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the Chamber was formed to bring ideas, innovations and technologies into the marketplace.
WiSys President Arjun Sanga said WiSys VentureHome-Green Bay’s goal is to provide everything startups need under one roof.
“A WiSys VentureHome organizes key central and local resources in one place – like a Home Depot for entrepreneurs,” Sanga said. “This program is additive and non-competitive with local initiatives.”
Through WiSys VentureHome-Green Bay, which is housed at the Urban Hub, entrepreneurs will have access to:
• The Urban Hub co-working community.
• Local and statewide resources.
• Concierge service from startup experts.
• Connection to a statewide network of entrepreneurs and mentors.
• Research and patented technologies from the University of Wisconsin System.
• Established entrepreneurship toolkits and workshops.
• The Blueprint Green Bay accelerator program.
Sanga said the initiative aims to establish startup hubs in communities with UW-System campuses by working with local partners.
“UW-Green Bay is proud to partner with WiSys and the Greater Green Bay Chamber on VentureHome-Green Bay,” UW-Green Bay Chancellor Michael Alexander said. “We strive to use collaboration to strengthen our region and drive economic activity. This project is a great example of how we can work together to strengthen opportunities for entrepreneurs and support our community.”
Green Bay is home to the second WiSys VentureHome site.
The pilot launched in Eau Claire in February 2020.
For more information, visit venturehome.org.