Construction of Starting Block, a Madison entrepreneurship resource center, is now underway at 821 East Washington Avenue.

As construction on the building progresses and the new group gears up for its opening next year, Chandra Miller Fienen discusses the importance of the city's startup scene, what has changed since she has been here, and what opportunities are available for women aiming to start businesses. 

Feinen is the group’s current director of operations and programming, has stepped up as an unofficial interim director. Notably, her current position is now listed as an opening at StartingBlock. When asked about her future plans with the group, Fienen that she plans to apply for a permanent position, and hopes to “stay to provide continuity.”

What is happening now at Starting Block, what's the timeline for your new space and what will it look like?

American Family Insurance and StartingBlock broke ground on January 25 of this year and now we have all of the city permits done, there's construction going on at the site. The geothermal footings are in and the crane has gone up. Our timeline is to be open by spring, late spring of next year for occupancy and then grand opening and public opening sometime during the summer 2018.

StartingBlock will have floors two, three and four of the Spark Building. On the first floor there will be community space and DreamBank activity and then American Family Insurance will have office space on the top floors. Within StartingBlock proper, we will have everything that a young, growing startup company needs, including scale-able office space, from desks to offices that could house a company of two or three people to office suites to a few more established anchor tenants that will be in the space as well as classrooms and meeting and event space.

Who will the tenants be?

I can't reveal who our startup companies are at this time, but we do have three partner organizations that will be partner organizations within StartingBlock that will include gener8tor, our accelerator program, the Doyenne Group, and Bunker Labs that works with entrepreneurs with a military background.

How can one utilize Starting Block's services, just email you?

You don't necessarily have to be a company. You do want to have to have an idea that that can be commercialized. So you have to have a business idea or a business plan.

It will be interesting to see how StartingBlock actually evolves once we’re open. Typically, there will be companies that are tenants within StartingBlock, companies that are working on their business plan and working on growing and scaling, but for those entrepreneurs that are working on an idea, they may come to a program at StartingBlock and engage with the StartingBlock community. They could be in the space even though they’re not a tenant, they could talk to our staff who is there. We have an Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Scott Resnick, he would be a great person to sit down and talk to and get help.

Would what StartingBlock is promoting considered a "collaborative entrepreneurship" model? And what does that mean exactly?

Collaborations and intersections are really important to innovation, so if you think about the model of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs are no longer toiling away in a garage on their own in isolation all day. The model today is pulling people together who might be working on different businesses, different products, but they’re having some of the same problems together … they can collaborate rather than compete in solving their problems. That’s why peer-to-peer is really important as well as peer-to-mentor as far as building a really vibrant ecosystem.

We don’t want to re-create the wheel. We want to support and build out support where there are not currently resources.

A recent Cap Times panel talked about barriers facing women entrepreneurs in Madison. What types of opportunity in the midst of that do you see here?

Madison is really a collaborative community. We’re really sort of on the cusp of putting Madison on the map as a startup city. We have all the components, it’s just really putting them together and leveraging them to they’re visible as well to those who live outside of Madison.

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I think the city and groups that exist today have been really thoughtful in thinking about things that Madison didn’t have and trying to work on those gaps. So for example, the City of Madison was concerned about access to capital for women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, that was the impetus for putting city money into the Evergreen Fund, which was matched by fundraising for the Doyenne Group that will provide $1.2 million to support loans and grants and equity investments in women-owned businesses and businesses founded by people of color.

What is StartingBlock's approach in how it will track its money and measure results from investments it receives?

If we’re really going to put Madison on the map as a startup city, we need to be able to compare Madison to other cities. What are those metrics that investors in New York and San Francisco care about and how do we attract them to our startups in Madison. In general, that requires us to track our metrics, which companies are growing fast as far as growth, how much revenue are companies getting, how long does it take our companies to reach 30 or 50 employees?

We're looking at how do we track the metrics that we care about, that are most informative? Then there’s how does the city track it? Then there’s how does the region track it? And I think we want to be able to tell a really powerful, cohesive story from the individual entrepreneur level from the startup ecosystem level to the city level, to the regional level.

How do you respond to those who might question why public money is being poured into startups with possibly no, or little return on investment?

From Starting Block’s perspective, we’re really thankful that the city of Madison showed leadership in seeding StartingBlock to make this happen. The public funds were sort of start-up money for us. We would like the model to be that we’re sustaining ourself, that in the long-term StartingBlock is not dependent on city or public money, that it has a sustainable business model.

But to make something as ambitious as StartingBlock in Madison a reality, it was the city’s vision. It was the state buying in, it was the economic development agency and the federal level that needed to come together with a corporate partner. Our capital campaign had 40 businesses. We needed all of that support to make it happen.

New businesses and startups is where net job creation matters. All net new job creation comes from early and mid stage companies. If we have startups in Madison, we have growth in Madison. We will continue to be a city that is attractive to young business professionals.


Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.