Mike Zielinski is sprinting on a fast track toward launching a new company – one of several that aim to breathe fresh economic vitality into Northeast Wisconsin. Cheered on by a crowd of investors, mentors and corporate leaders rooting for success, Zielinski and four other entrepreneurs are this year’s graduating class of Fast Forward 1.0, a beta initiative aimed at incubating fast-growth companies to attract capital and talent to the New North region.
“Fast Forward is exciting because it rounds out our entrepreneurial ecosystem and brings venture dollars and a pipeline of jobs flowing into this state,” says Zielinski. He should know. As a member of the New North Small Business and Entrepreneurship subcommittee, Zielinski has been at the starting line with Fast Forward, participating in the project’s beta program.
Launched one year ago at the first Technology & Human Innovation Networking Conference – THINC! – Fast Forward is training a generation of innovative thinkers expected to grow the region’s investment base. (Insight’s THINC! 2013 event will be May 14 at UW-Fox Valley; for details see Connections, page 18.) The idea is to create companies that will spawn high-paying jobs and generate innovative products and services in new markets. Their target: $12 million in revenue within five years.
“The economy is strong in Northeast Wisconsin; we want it to be vibrant. In order to have that, we need all different types, shapes, sizes and flavors of companies operating and growing and creating jobs here,” says Amy Pietsch, director of the Fox Valley Technical College Venture Center and the Fast Forward program.
Pietsch says the Fast Forward process identifies high-impact leaders and accelerates their ability to access capital. This scalable, organizational model was developed in 2011. It matches regional and community resources with fast-growth start-ups, putting the focus on matching resources to needs for firms ready to leverage those resources towards capital objectives.
The “beta” version of Fast Forward 1.0 simply means that the program’s designers see this initiative as an experiment in which to learn key discoveries – such as best practices and unexpected risks – opportunities that will perfect the program’s new and improved 2.0 version.
The Risk Factor
The Fast Forward model is unique in that the mentoring element can quickly identify and coach companies and surround them with technical capabilities, as well as private and public resources for fast growth. Not all of the jobs created will necessarily be in Northeast Wisconsin. For that matter, the company itself may open its doors outside of the region.
“There’s no guarantee that won’t happen. In the course of directing our energy around a program that positions those not-ready-for prime-time entrepreneurs with big potential in a high-risk program, I don’t think it’s any more risky than not doing this. If we are successful in producing these companies, the revenue and the jobs will come,” explains New North Executive Director Jerry Murphy.
For Zielinski, those jobs can’t come fast enough. His catalyst company, RightDoc, will soon connect Wisconsinites seeking health care services to online profiles of 25,000 doctors, dentists and chiropractors across the state. Eventually RightDoc will launch nationwide, with more than 1 million profiles to start. Zielinski anticipates adding up to 100 jobs to his payroll during the next five years. But before he could prepare to pitch his ideas to investors, Zielinski needed to spend a considerable amount of time learning the ropes from those who had been in the trenches. That’s where mentors come in.
Tapping the experts
Fast Forward’s mentorship element prepares entrepreneurs to execute a robust business plan that will add value and vitality to the region by attracting and retaining great talent.
Last November, when the six Fast Forward candidates were chosen (one has dropped out due to health concerns) from a field of 28, they each were matched with mentors who coached, prepared and brought them up to speed on the unique challenges they’ll face in this fast-paced journey.
Mentors for Fast Forward must be successful, seasoned founders and principals who have invested in the New North region and are ready and willing to pass their wealth of knowledge to fledgling leaders. Zielinski’s two mentors, retired Outlook Group CEO Glen Yurjevich and Jack Riopelle, retired CEO of Wisconsin Film and Bag, both come with considerable experience that can help them see potential roadblocks the newcomers often can’t.
“Without the mentors it would be significantly more difficult to succeed in this challenging marketplace,” says Riopelle, who serves as mentor team leader for Fast Forward. “Every one of our candidates brought us great business plans, but there were some large ‘black holes’ that were obvious to the mentors but not to the entrepreneurs. If they had tried to pitch their plans to investors without first consulting with us, they’d have been blown out of the water and denied their chance.”
“Mistakes do teach,” echoes Fast Forward mentor Randall Lawton, the semi-retired CEO of C.A. Lawton. “I looked at it as a two-way street. I’ve had 40-plus years in executive management and can share my mistakes and lessons learned. When one goes through the process as a Fast Forward candidate, they probably feel put upon because mentors insist they practice certain old school disciplines in the correct order – but these are all necessary steps today’s leaders need more than ever before.”
Zielinski humbly and wholeheartedly agrees: “Jack and Glen are not only helping prepare my strategy, they are refining my product. I could not have gotten this far without them.”
In his 10 years of working in the health care arena as an orthopedic physical therapist, Zielinski’s niche has included some difficult physical therapy cases referred to him by other doctors. He learned from conversations with his patients that finding the right provider to fit their unique needs was often a trying, expensive ordeal.
“Patients could spend years visiting practitioners, wasting precious time, submitting to duplicate tests and spending their health care dollars in search of the solution. And if your insurance plan accepts multiple providers and clinics, how does one sort through them all? I saw an opportunity to help narrow that search, whether it be for doctors, therapists or dentists,” says Zielinski.
In 2011, Zielinski put his ideas onto paper and made connections that eventually led to the Venture Center, which helped vet some of those ideas. His new company, RightDoc, provides a robust library of physician and specialist profiles. The basic information is just the start. Individuals and clinics can edit their profiles and add as much data as they would like to help their patients make good decisions.
“We create the profiles as placeholders for all practitioners, and doctors can use our free template to add photos, videos, and basic information, including professional experience and personal statements. We also provide a premium level of service that allows providers to fully customize their profiles with a number of other enhancements to help potential patients learn more about them and practice online reputation management.”
Unlike similar models on the East and West coasts, RightDoc focuses on both patients and doctors rather than patients only.
“Health care professionals often have a negative view of similar sites, where patients can negatively rate (often unfairly) their experiences with doctors. We still allow for patient feedback but we focus on allowing patient endorsements based on a provider’s specific areas of practice. This allows us to help people assist others in finding good doctors.”
His mentors are impressed.
“Mike is a bright jewel who has done everything that we’ve suggested, and Glen and I are extremely excited for him. His business model was extraordinarily written and he had researched a lot of things that were germane to his business model. I think Mike will be among the first in this pilot program to get funding because of the work he had done up front,” says Riopelle. A lifelong Fox Cities resident, Zielinski is looking forward to bringing more jobs to the area. “This is home for me, and I am excited to give back to my community and the New North,” says Zielinski, who will eventually hire technical and skilled professionals in IT, programming, web development and sales at his Appleton facility.
Part of giving back, he says, is someday doing for others what his Fast Forward mentors have done for him.
“Fast Forward mentorship is a phenomenal thing to do, and we’ve built a dynamic relationship that has helped me discover my blind spots. I thought I had all of my bases covered, but my mentors refined my strategies and focused my energies, giving me the connections and feedback I needed.”
Heartfelt Celebrations > A Business Model Shifts
Tom Vandenboogart spent the past 25 years as a scientist at Kimberly-Clark. But when the economy slumped and he was offered a package to retire, he gladly took it as a challenge to launch his next adventure: Heartfelt Celebrations, Inc. He began to develop a business model based on insights he’d learned about the baby boomer generation. As this generation enters its golden years, Vandenboogart saw a unique opportunity to tap into one particular truth:
“Boomers like to buck tradition and do things their own way. We often struggle with traditional end-of-life planning, and don’t necessarily want the predictable ceremony,” says Vandenboogart. “The question is, what do we want instead?”
The answer seemed to center around legacy and story. So he began to build his business model for Heartfelt Celebrations around customizing alternative traditions that capture and celebrate a life well lived. It was an idea with heart, and a model that won the Marquette University and Kohler Business Plan of the Year for 2010, and was a top contender for the Governor’s Business Plan competition.
But something was missing. With neither entrepreneurial experience nor funding, Vandenboogart sought the Fast Forward program and found the right mentors to help him fill both gaps.
“My mentors, Randy Lawton and Jon Wright, helped me focus on go-to-market strategies and customer alignment through networking and connections. It’s finally happening now that we’ve fine-tuned my model to be more specific to generating revenue.”
For Lawton, mentoring Vandenboogart was especially satisfying.
“The overall idea of helping people with end-of-life celebrations is a wonderful concept,” Lawton says. “But creating a sustainable business model from that is a challenge when you’ve never run a business making your own calls and spending your time and resources in startup mode."
Vandenboogart presented his model and a video of Heartfelt Celebrations at the New North Summit in December. His story is already resonating with several potential companies, including Thrivent, which now has engaged in a pilot program with Vandenboogart.
“I am especially impressed that the Fast Forward program is approaching this for the wellbeing of the entire state instead of just the New North area,” says Vandenboogart, whose plans include creating an Appleton call center to support caregivers. The business will be headquartered in the Milwaukee area.
Snap Lab Media >prepping for prime time
Scott Francis knows the future of marketing is in the palm of our hands, as smart phones transform the next wave of retail and communications. His company, Snap Lab Media, which he co-founded with John Ernst, designs mobile phone engagement software that allows shoppers to experience products in a virtual way that extends beyond what they see on the shelves.
“Fast Forward has been a tremendous help in sharpening our go-to-market focus and fine tuning our offerings,” says Francis.
But after months of shaping their business plan, Francis and Ernst have discovered a valuable lesson: the market fit isn’t quite there yet.
“It doesn’t mean they had a bad idea; on the contrary, they have a neat technology,” explains their Fast Forward mentor, Paul Lemens, owner of enSight Consulting in Green Bay. “This is an excellent learning opportunity about the marketplace that will benefit the next Fast Forward candidate who steps up to do this, so in that respect this is a win.”
Peeps Eyewear >focusing on distribution
Kristen Ellsworth is a Fast Forward 1.0 graduate who can thank her toddler for inspiring her business idea for Peeps Eyewear, a specialty custom eyeglasses company geared toward tiny “princesses.” As her peepseyewear.com website explains, When my daughter was 3 she was prescribed glasses but refused to wear them because ‘Princesses don’t wear glasses!’”
Ellsworth created a story about an active, brave and curious young girl who saves the day – wearing glasses. The business model came into focus from that moment forward. Today her offerings tout an alternative to commercial eyeglasses options, and can be customized to match a child’s hair coloring and name. The eyewear is packaged in an organza cinch bag and includes a book Ellsworth wrote about a princess who “gets to” wear glasses. Other offerings include a dress-up kit complete with a crown and sparkly cape.
Ellsworth went to law school, but after taking a class at the Fox Valley Technical College’s Venture Center she became enthralled with the idea of solving her daughter’s vision challenges. The fabrication lab helped her create her first prototype of the frames. But would her idea sell?
“Kristen’s challenge was to capitalize on marketing her great concept by getting distribution,” says her mentor Jon Wright, who helped Ellsworth focus on key distribution for a revenue stream.
Ellsworth founded Peeps about 18 months ago. The company took first place in the business services category for the 2010 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.
Basiliere Pharmaceutical > 2 steps forward, 1 step …
The critical global shortage of injectable vaccines has brought two brothers together to create a solution. Richard and James Basiliere were raised in Oshkosh, where their dad was a physician. While they’ve always gotten along wonderfully, the two have never worked together until now.
Younger brother Richard is a forensic auditor for the state of Wisconsin who investigates whether health care providers and pharmaceutical companies are in compliance with state and federal regulations. James has been in the pharmaceutical industry for more than two decades, and is general manager at a renewable energy technology company in Minnesota. Together, the two are creating Basiliere Medical Laboratories – a high-quality, cost competitive player in the parenterals (injectables) market – through the Fast Forward initiative.
“As part of the model, we are most excited to partner with the university system to prepare students for positions in the pharmaceutical marketplace by allowing them to experience disciplines such as marketing, quality assurance, quality control, regulatory and operations within the company,” explains James Basiliere. “We hope to bring over 60 to 70 jobs to the region once we are at full capacity. We will run lean to maximize our impact, and hope to generate $90 million in net income in year seven, while contributing more than $3 million in state and federal taxes.”
Basiliere says three Fast Forward mentors, Lawton, Riopelle and Yurjevich, were instrumental in enhancing the business plan and preparing the brothers to eventually garner support from investors. Basiliere will manufacture the pharmaceutical generics and branded sterile injectables, and then package, label and distribute them to a global market that desperately needs these. As for location, the Basilieres are looking at leasing options in either Winnebago County or in Madison.
“It would be great to relocate back to the Fox Valley, and live and work in the area where we grew up,” says James.