Business friendly

Photos by Dan Bishop

November 2012

John Torinus (left) and Dan Steininger are co-founders of BizStarts, a group that promotes regional business development.

The group recently received a $200,000 grant from the United States Department of Commerce.


Just a few years ago Wisconsin ranked 48 out of 50 states for business start-ups. Seeing economic growth stalling and unemployment rising, Dan Steininger, along with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, assembled a task force to identify new ways to create jobs in southeastern Wisconsin.

"Our economy was suffering," says Steininger, a former CEO and attorney. "We needed to get out and solve the problem."

The task force concluded that innovation was the solution to kick-start the regional economy. Soon after, Steininger recruited John Torinus to co-found BizStarts Milwaukee, an organization committed to accelerating start-up companies in southeastern Wisconsin. "It’s clear that entrepreneurship is the best strategy to reinvent our economy," says Torinus, CEO of Serigraph.

When BizStarts formed in September 2008, southeast Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial strategy was fragmented at best. "There was no place for people who wanted to start a business to turn to," Steininger says.

BizStarts has remedied that by offering guidance to would-be entrepreneurs, including a support network of more than 2,000 people, and the necessary tools and resources to launch a new business. "BizStarts is designed to be a portal to connect entrepreneurs with the resources they need to get started," says Steininger.

Since the group’s inception, 43 new high-growth companies have launched, creating more than 500 new, full-time jobs, according to BizStart Milwaukee’s most recent Impact Report.

Due to groups like BizStarts, Wisconsin is climbing out of its bottom-dweller status for business start-ups nationally, ranking 40th in a 2011 study by the Missouri-based Kauffman Foundation. While BizStarts hasn’t played a direct role in all business start-ups in the Milwaukee area, the organization views itself as a catalyst, serving to inspire, nurture and celebrate new business endeavors. "Start-up companies are where most new jobs come from today," says BizStarts Executive Director Eric Paulsen. "We’re here to smooth the process of creating and investing in these new companies."

Among the start-up companies BizStarts has helped is HoodiePet, a children’s clothing company that makes fleece hoodies with detachable, interchangeable stuffed animals. After some initial success, founder Louise Kempe turned to BizStarts for direction on marketing and raising capital. The group connected Kempe with mentor Frank Botto, president of Florence Eiseman, and the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. for financing guidance.

Another start-up BizStarts has been working with is Procubed, a Kenosha-based engineering firm that is reinventing the manual wheelchair with its Linear to Rotary Motion conversion technology. The firm has relied heavily on BizStart’s Venture Track program to develop a business plan and attract investors.

Although many of the start-ups BizStarts works with have a technology element, Steininger says the group is industry agnostic. "We’ll help anyone."

While BizStarts’ accomplishments to date are impressive, Torinus says the group is still in the early stages of what it hopes to achieve. "Right now we’re at about one high-grossing start-up business launching per month," he says. "We’d like to see that double in the next few years."

Further down the road, BizStarts also anticipates expanding its reach beyond the seven counties on which it currently focuses.

"Offices in Madison and Green Bay are on the drawing board," says Steininger. "We have the infrastructure, so it wouldn’t be hard to duplicate, but we want to make sure we have a well-oiled machine here before moving into other markets."


This story ran in the November2012 issue of: