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Economic development program would match entrepreneurs with mentors

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Jim Leute
March 15, 2014

JANESVILLE—Brian Rubash is different from many entrepreneurs.

He's willing to accept advice.

Rubash, one of the newest tenants at the Janesville Innovation Center, is getting guidance from a team of four mentors associated with MERLIN Mentors, a Madison-based group of about 100 volunteers who use their skills, experience and enthusiasm to mentor emerging entrepreneurs.

“For me, it was the only option for mentorship,” said Rubash, who recently founded Tapzi. The mobile marketing company has developed an app that allows targeted messages sent to potential customers based on their proximity to a store, business or organization.

Tapzi and K4 Innovations, another new tenant at the innovation center, are already involved with the MERLIN program. A couple of the center's other tenants also are considering the program.

MERLIN, however, could be just one piece of a mentorship program that economic development officials are trying to put together for entrepreneurs and fledgling companies in Rock County.

“We want to do whatever we can to help entrepreneurs in Rock County,” said Mike Mathews, the contracted operations manager of the center. “That will be driven by their needs.

“Some might work with MERLIN, some might work with the center's board of directors, and some might do something else.”

That something else is yet to be determined.

Rock County 5.0 has formed a partnership with the Janesville Innovation Center, which opened last April and now has seven of its 13 offices and manufacturing bays leased to young companies.

The center is a 22,000-square-foot business incubator that serves small, early-stage firms.

Rock County 5.0 will pay to expand the consulting services of Mathews and his employer, Economic Growth Advisors, to any entrepreneurs or small businesses in Rock County.

The group's involvement is in response to an increasing demand from entrepreneurial and small businesses, said James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager.

“By expanding these consulting services, emerging entrepreneurial interests and existing small businesses will be able to leverage the synergies that JIC tenants are currently enjoying,” he said.

LOCAL OPTIONS

Representatives of Rock 5.0, the innovation center and Blackhawk Technical College believe a critical component in helping local entrepreneurs is accessibility to mentors.

One option is MERLIN. While the free service is technically open to anyone, the group tends to focus on the Madison and Dane County areas.

Rubash and Kaderabek travel to Madison monthly to meet with their respective mentors.

“I went into this as a lone entrepreneur with the understanding that I needed people to bounce ideas off of,” Rubash said. “I'm open to hearing where I've gone wrong, and my mentors keep me honest and on track.”

In addition to MERLIN, Kaderabek tapped the expertise of several innovation center board members. He asked distribution questions of one, finance questions of another and was pointed in the right direction by a third for market research help.

That's an example, Mathews said, of a local entrepreneur getting local help. To reach more entrepreneurs, the pool of potential mentors must be identified and expanded, he said.

Rubash agrees.

“What's always bothered me about Janesville is that we have a lot of successful businesses here, but the mentors seem to be hidden,” Rubash said. “I wouldn't even know who to approach in Janesville, whether it's for capital or just advice.”

With a lengthy career in e-commerce and digital strategies, Rubash recognizes his skill set might not be a prevailing skill set in Janesville.

Still, he said, there's no reason Janesville can't become known as a tech sector if entrepreneurs can get the help they need.

“Why not build a tech company in Janesville?” he said. “I've been here since 2004, and I'm happy here.

“I want to build the business here, hire here and get investment here.”

'I WANT IT ALL'

Lori Huntoon opened HydroGeoLOGIC, an environmental consulting firm, at the center in December.

She, too, believes the area has all kinds of potential.

“There's so much great energy in Rock County,” the geologist said, noting that she will probably apply to the MERLIN program because many of its mentors likely would be better versed in her particular line of work.

“For Rock County, I really want it all for entrepreneurs: MERLIN, the resources of the center's board and a solid pool of local mentors. In fact, I would hope that I can someday be a MERLIN Mentor in Rock County.”

Huntoon is already involved in an informal mentorship of sorts. When she moved into the innovation center in December, she learned that friend Irais Valenzuela was bringing her young company to the center.

While they're both running different businesses—Valenzuela's IV Quest is an employment services firm—the two women meet weekly to keep each other on task.

“Informally, we hold each other accountable,” Huntoon said. “It's easy to say, 'What I need to do is …' or 'What I should do is …,'

“We gently prod each other to make sure you did what you said you should do.”

The two have taken the concept beyond the walls of the innovation center. Now a group of about six sole entrepreneurs meets every three weeks to discuss issues unique to very small businesses.

“We've all gone to these seminars for small businesses, and most of the small businesses have about 100 employees,” Huntoon said. “Very little of what's said there pertains to us.”

That's an example that local entrepreneurs hunger for advice and networking, officials said.

“It's my view that we should certainly determine what kinds of skill sets mentors in Rock County could bring to the table,” said John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville. “We could then make them available for some very specific situations such as inventory control, product pricing, hiring and firing or other issues.”

Mathews said local officials would work to identify mentors and put together a program that could involve several options that best meet the needs of entrepreneurs.

“You've got the nascent start here in Rock County to do a lot of this,” said Allen Dines of UW-Madison's office of corporate relations and one of the founders of MERLIN Mentors. “You might not think you have a supply of mentors, but you'll never know unless you try.”



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