On the flight back from Austin after SXSW last March, I was taking with Jesse about how much fun it would be to have something like it in Madison. We thought it would be cool to try to set something up for the summer. When I got back, I pitched the idea to my friend Matt Younkle, who really liked the idea. In May, over some beers, we decided to try to make a go of it. As the summer rolled along, Matt, Bryan Chan and I continued to plan Madison’s tech conference.
The Forward Technology Conference took place at the Memorial Union on the UW campus on Friday and was a huge success. Over 120 Madison entrepreneurs, techies, investors and other tech savvy Madisonians attended the inaugural FTC2010 to hear from some of the most interesting people in the Madison technology scene.
FTC2010 was only a small part of the 10 day long Forward Technology Festival, which was sort of a “taste of Madison” but for all of the tech and entrepreneur focused groups in town. The Forward Technology Festival was the brainchild of Preston Austin, who had the foresight to try to bring all of the different tech groups in town together in a week long celebration. FTF2010 included High Tech Happy Hour, Capital Entrepreneurs, Sector67, BarCamp and other tech focused events.
The Forward Technology Conference kicked off with a panel called Entrepreneur 101, which featured four successful Madison entrepreneurs: Greg Tracy (Sharendipity), Dan Voell (GoBuzz), Chad Sorenson (Flamedisk) and Roy Elkins (Broadjam) and was moderated by Bryan Chan (Supranet). The panelists talked about their successes and lessons they’ve learned over their careers in the startup game. All of the entrepreneurs talked about staying focused as one of they keys to their success.
Next up was All About LLCs featuring attorney Joseph Boucher of Neider and Boucher and Kevin Kelbel an accountant from Smith & Gesteland LLP moderated by Matt Younkle (Y-Innovation). Boucher and Kelbel talked about the different types of business entities and shared stories about why different companies should choose LLCs, S or C corps.
After a quick lunch break, we did an hour of breakout sessions with topics proposed from the attendees. We ended up with a wide range of topics and settled on four. First was how to run an intern program led by Jesse Davis of Entrustet. The second group was about what a shared hackerspace in Madison should look like, led by Chris Meyer of Sector67. Another session was about biomimicry, with the last session focusing on the future of the web and HTML5 (hosted by Momenta’s Dan Gordon).
The final panel of the day was all about design, branding and identity. It featured John Besmer (Planet Propaganda), Wesley Grubbs (Pitch Interactive), Andy Wallman (Knupp & Watson & Wallman), Gage Mitchell (Gage Mitchell Design) and was moderated by Dan Merfeld, (TheoryThree Interactive). This was one of the more fun panels of the day and featured spirited discussion on the pros and cons of large and small design shops. The panelists stressed that brands need consistent messaging across all platforms or their marketing won’t work. My favorite quote of the day came from Besmer “If you’re thinking about your marketing when its time to do marketing, its way too late.”
We rolled on into my favorite part of the day: Pitch Your Biz. 5 startups had 5 minutes each to present their ideas to the crowd and then the crowd had 5 minutes to provide feedback, ideas and ways to improve the business. Biz Pitchers included Heidi Allstop (Student Spill), Derek Swoboda (Golf Links Cafe), Joseph Beck (Loacsys), Justin Beck (PerBlue) and Mudit Tyagi (Open ADC).
I love this format because it keeps the participants and the audience on their toes. The audience can’t fall asleep, since the pitches come fast and furious and there’s a new one every five minutes. All of the startups did a great job, as did the audience. My personal favorites were Student Spill, which I think has the potential to be a game changer by bringing support groups online, but with a tweak and PerBlue. Justin Beck from PerBlue is always an entertaining speaker because he is right to the point, provides compelling stats and doesn’t mince words. All five startups did a great job and Laurie Benson (Innacom) was a phenomenal MC.
Fred Foster of Electronic Theater Controls was the keynote speaker and told the story of how he founded ETC while he was still in school at UW. He told war story after war story about his battles growing the company into what it is today: $200m in revenue and 700+ employees. Foster had the audience laughing every few minutes and I could have listened to him tell stories for as long as he wanted to talk. I thought it was awesome that when he started the company, he wanted to sell theater controls to The Met and 20 years later, he actually did it. Talk about perseverance!
After the keynote, we put on a reception above the union terrace, right on the lake. The weather was perfect and I enjoyed talking with all of the attendees and learning about their current projects.
I really enjoyed FTC2010 and am hoping to make it an annual event. I know that with a full year to prepare, we can do an even better job and get more people in town to attend. Madison is turning into a startup hub in the Midwest. TechCrunch noticed. Forbes noticed and the local media is starting to take note. The Forward Tech Conference is another step in the right direction and one that I hope continues to put Madison on the map!
Did you attend FTC2010? What was your favorite part of the festival? Do you have any suggestions or feedback?
Favorite part, drinks on the union terrace on a beautiful evening. Second favorite, the conference was part of a week of discussions and meetups. I liked having an unconference and a conference back to back, they stir different types of knowledge and conversations.