Chandra.Miller Fienen Announces Search for Next Executive DirectorToday, I am excited to announce StartingBlock’s search for its next  Executive Director, whom we hope to select by early summer. I am honored to have served as StartingBlock’s second Executive Director, leading StartingBlock through construction and its critical first two years of operations.

This transition has been in the works for a long time and is part of StartingBlock’s overall strategy of termed leadership at every level.  For Hamilton fans, this was going to be my George Washington (“teach them how to say goodbye”) moment.

I started writing this message over four weeks ago.  We were in the pre-covid world – a world that feels very different and far away.  Today, we are scattered, connected virtually, but socially distant as StartingBlock and our companies, like most Madison businesses, are subject to the state’s Safer at Home order.

And yet, reading the early draft strangely made me more happy and optimistic than I have been all week.

When we founded StartingBlock in 2012, we knew we were tackling a big challenge.  We pulled together, worked hard, created this amazing community.  We persevered with the summit in sight.

StartingBlock Founders

StartingBlock Founders: Pam Christenson, Tim Cooley, Eric Englund, Michael Gay, Rob Gottschalk, Chris Meyer, Chandra Miller Fienen, Scott Resnick, Anne Smith, Terry Sivisend, Troy Vosseller and Forrest Woolworth, and step-by-step, we persevered up the mountain.

Today, we face new challenges and I know that new leadership will guide StartingBlock out of the covid-ravine and up the next mountain.

Chapter 1: We Dreamed It

StartingBlock’s founders – a passionate and dedicated group of entrepreneurs and business leaders – had a dream in 2012 of building a community where entrepreneurs could explore, launch, and grow startups.

We wanted Madison to think big, fear less, and listen deeply.

Like many startups, the dream was big and bold.  Failure was a possibility. Many projects this ambitious don’t ever get off the ground.  And many people just didn’t understand what we were trying to do. Was StartingBlock another accelerator? An incubator? A coworking space? Entrepreneurial hubs were new, and no mid-sized, Midwest city had attempted one as big and as collaborative as StartingBlock.  Our mission was (and still is!) to create the meaningful intersections that cultivate new entrepreneurs, accelerate growth, drive innovation and build an entrepreneur community that gives back. It was all about the density and collisions that lead to purposeful connections.

Chapter 2: We Launched It

Density and collisions.  That is certainly what StartingBlock has been about.  From Day 1—June 26, 2018—when over 475 Madisonians braved a tornado and pouring rain to celebrate opening day, StartingBlock has quickly become the center of mass for the Madison entrepreneur and startup community. Since opening, StartingBlock and our partners have held or supported over 650 programs and events with more than eight thousand participants. All three of Madison’s accelerators call StartingBlock home, as do four early-stage funds with a combined $50.7M under management.  Tens of thousands have come through our doors—everyone from entrepreneurs, students, investors, and innovators to ecosystem builders from across the country and government leaders (not to mention a few dogs).

In 2019, our first full year of operations, the 69 early-stage StartingBlock companies added 125 net new full-time employees and 75 part-time employees.   They had $18.3M in revenue and raised $18.8M in capital. Combining current companies with our alumni, StartingBlock companies have raised $41.9M to date, with nearly a quarter from out-of-state investors.  One founder who recently raised over $300,000 through crowdsourcing shared that over 70% came from the StartingBlock community. I’m proud of those numbers. But I am even prouder that 45% of the StartingBlock teams have a woman or entrepreneur of color as a founder and those teams collectively raised $23.5M—over half of the total dollars invested.

Density and collisions.  Thriving startups. Growing teams.

We all know that the post-covid world will be hard.  Let’s not be Pollyanna about the challenges that startups will face. Most will struggle.  Some will fail.

But I also know that entrepreneurs and the Madison entrepreneur ecosystem will survive and eventually thrive.  We have built one of the best, most collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystems in the country. The Madison entrepreneur ecosystem is already coordinating and collaborating in unprecedented ways.  We launched the COVID-19 Entrepreneurial Community Impact Survey.  StartingBlock and our partners are working on ways we can assist our companies, partners, and members⸺everything from financial help, explaining where to find resources, and working on new programs targeted at early-stage startups, to holding virtual programming and keeping the community connected.  More announcements coming soon.

StartingBlock companies are buckling down and getting things done.  Here are just four examples of how they are adapting, innovating, finding new opportunities and giving back.

  • eCIO (getecio.com) fast-tracked the development of its video-conference feature for its investment and nonprofit board management platform.
  • Digsite (digsite.com) published a webinar on how its agile insights technology can help companies transition to performing remote customer research.
  • LÜM (lum.fm), a music streaming service for emerging artists and fans, announced an incentive program for users to financially support artists at a time when emerging artists need support.
  • Zerology (zerology.com), Madison’s zero-emission transportation startup, has turned its fleet of Tesla into the safest ride-share platform during the covid situation, taking stringent cleaning and precautions that protect both their drivers and riders.

Madison’s entrepreneurs will survive because we have a strong foundation on which to build.  Our innovators and entrepreneurs increasingly attract attention from outside Wisconsin. We have world-class educational institutions and corporate leaders, like American Family Insurance, MGE, and Wipfli, creating opportunities and partnerships for entrepreneurship and innovation.  We have financial institutions, like Associated Bank and others, innovating how they help businesses build from the ground up.

Preparing for Chapter 3: Tackling what’s next

To be ready for the next chapter, we need to start now.  StartingBlock’s founders believe change is fundamental to keep StartingBlock fresh, innovative, and open to new opportunities and relationships.  We want the right leader for the right time. Scott Resnick, StartingBlock’s first Executive Director, got the project rolling. In startup speak, he led us through Chapter 1, our “ideation phase.” Scott handed the reins to me three years ago, and I have been proud to helm StartingBlock through Chapter 2, our “launch & startup phase.”  This summer, StartingBlock will turn two and we envisioned embarking on Chapter 3 as our “grow and scale phase.”

Now, Chapter 3 will probably look different than we planned.  Some may think now is not the right time for a change. But change is here.  It is unavoidable. And we collectively believe it is the right time to start looking for our next leader.

Now is the time for StartingBlock, Madison and indeed the entire nation to think hard about what’s next and how we get there.

  • How do we grow the strongest, most resilient, most connected entrepreneur ecosystem?
  • How do we cultivate entrepreneurs and build the most successful, agile, lean startups?
  • How do we help established companies innovate by partnering with startups?
  • How do we ensure innovation and technology benefits people in more equal, more respectful, and more dignified ways?
  • What is the next big idea for Madison’s entrepreneurs to take on?

We need everyone to think big, fear less, and listen deeply.  Think you know someone (or are someone) ready for the challenge?  Details on applying and the job description are here.

I am excited to see what the StartingBlock community becomes, and I cannot wait until StartingBlock hosts its next 400+ person StartingBlock party!

A Postscript

I can’t speak publicly (yet) about what I will be doing next, but I will always be connected to the StartingBlock community.  Rest assured, I am not leaving Madison or the larger Madison entrepreneur community. You have mentored me. You have accepted mentorship from me. We have learned together.  We have overcome challenges. We put egos aside. Together, we accomplished more than people thought was possible. Many of you became friends. None of you became enemies. Thank you.

Finally, when covid isolation makes you anxious, remember this. The StartingBlock community, in our short 22-month time together, has survived a tornado, the floods, the polar vortex, the transformer explosion, and the awful, terrible death of Doyenne co-founder Amy Gannon. We will survive covid.

 

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