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Entrepreneurs get lay of land with business seminar

The Explore Starting A Business class at Fox Valley Technical College can help set trajectory for success

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February 24, 2023

FOX VALLEY – For more than two decades, the Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) Venture Center has provided its Explore Starting A Business seminar to potential startups, existing entrepreneurs and small businesses looking to either get off the ground or scale up.

And the interest isn’t waning.

Amy Pietsch, director of the FVTC Venture Center, said that’s because the free introductory session has provided pivotal information to help individuals decide what, if anything, to do next in terms of their entrepreneurial idea or endeavor’s next step.

“What resonates most with people who attend the session is they leave with the confidence and knowledge to know they can do it if they want to,” she said.

Startup 101
Pietsch said the free, three-hour seminar, which is hosted monthly, looks at what it takes to launch a startup or small business, helps attendees evaluate the validity of their idea and plan and shares startup resources.

The seminar touches on the entrepreneur/business-owner mindset, critical questions to consider when launching a startup or small business, what E-Seed Entrepreneurship Training offers, essentials for marketing, public relations and ramping up a business, a question-and-answer session and an opportunity for attendees to network.

Specifically, Pietsch said, the seminar provides answers to some of the attendees’ most burning questions, such as:
“What do I do first?”“Do you have an idea and want to know if it will work?”“Do you need to generate more cash flow for your business?”“Do you need help developing a business plan?”
“Time and again we hear from attendees how they had no idea these resources existed – whether that’s mentoring, coaching and support available from the Venture Center or the entire startup ecosystem,” Pietsch said. “We’ve created an entrepreneurial resources map and people leave going, ‘Wow. This is a great place to launch and grow a business. I had no idea this many resources were available to me.’”

Pietsch said attendance has been consistently strong year after year, and statistics show overall interest in entrepreneurism is only growing.

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension, during the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurial activity increased sharply in Wisconsin – with business applications increasing by 21% from 2019-20 and 23% from 2020-21.

At FVTC, Pietsch said individuals have always entered business and industry services for the in-person session or joined virtual sessions.

“There has always been an interest in launching and growing businesses,” she said. “You can find studies that show at least 50% of the people walking around want to start a business. I tell people, the first American dream is to own your own home. The second is to own your own business.”

The pandemic and ever-changing workplace, Pietsch said, have accelerated some cycles in industries, such as the tech sector, paper industry and manufacturing industries.

“Self-employment that may have been a second or third idea for people has become more top of mind for them,” she said. “And we are here to help them explore this beyond an idea.” 

Broad focus
Pietsch said seminar attendees range from Gen Zers to Baby Boomers, typically working professionals or retired working professionals.

She said the biggest weight on participants’ shoulders is figuring out what to do and how to do it right.

“This is a big thing and a cultural thing here,” she said. “People want to know, ‘How do I do it right?’ We are obsessed with taking a risk, unlike California or the East Coast.”

In the Northeast Wisconsin region, Pietsch said the people FVTC is serving are usually risking their own money.

“I tell them, there is no actual right or wrong, per se,” she said. “There are a series of decisions made and actions taken, and we’re here to help them assess if there is enough opportunity to build structure around and move forward.”

Pietsch said that includes providing insights into what the Venture Center can provide through its E-seed Entrepreneurial Training Series, Innovation Accelerator Program for Veterans or other offerings.

But, she said it goes beyond the Venture Center’s offerings – with attendees often being connected with SCORE, the Small Business Development Center, Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) or others who are the right fit for the individual’s business. 

“We encourage them to continue to develop and elevate their entrepreneurial and small business skill sets regardless of where they do it,” she said. 

Pietsch said the Venture Center is about education and training and building entrepreneurial and small business management skill sets.

“And that’s the lane we stay in,” she said. “When it’s time to grow and scale and access financing, we may refer to a generator, accelerator or other resources.”

Pietsch said about half of Explore Starting A Business seminar attendees schedule a follow-up meeting with the Venture Center to learn more and share specifics on what they need, what challenges they face, what’s working so far and to determine what next steps to take.

“That’s important because we want them to have the confidence to take action, as entrepreneurship is more about action than anything else,” she said. “We ask, ‘What are you going to do tomorrow to be one step closer to hanging that open sign or toward growing your business?’”

Of the 2,500 people who have chosen to take the next step at the Venture Center and participate in its E-seed Entrepreneurship Training, Pietsch said about 650 have launched, expanded or grown businesses.

That’s why Pietsch said the introductory class is so important to her – it serves as a gateway to the Venture Center and other resources that can propel entrepreneurs forward.

“Each year, my goal as director is to have 250 or more people who need access to resources attend these free seminars,” she said. “Whether or not they come back and work with us, I want them leaving the seminar thinking, ‘That was one of the best things I’ve ever spent three hours doing.’”

‘Real-life’ examples
Patti Janz, owner of Pink Fusion Spices, and Tracy Russell, owner of Tinqre’s Cookies & More said that has definitely been the case with them.

Both entrepreneurs attended an Explore Starting A Business session they said led to the next steps in their business.

Janz participated in the seminar in 2017 and chose to launch the business she co-owns with her daughter, Amanda Dotson, in 2018. 

“I was about a year out from retiring and thought, ‘I’m too young to sit around and do nothing,’” she said. “I had fallen in love with pink Himalayan salt. I thought maybe I could do something with that. I had the idea of putting it with quality organic spices and not adding anti-caking agents or fillers.”

Amy Pietsch

At the time, Janz said a co-worker of hers was starting a business and told her about the FVTC seminar.

“After attending, I thought, ‘Wow, that gives you good insight into what’s to come,’” she said. “As a result, I took the Innovation Accelerator for Veterans program at Fox Valley Technical College.”

Janz said she was glad she did.

“I was that person who was just going to jump in, and if I had, there would have been a lot of mistakes,” she said.

Now that she’s ready to grow the business to another level in the next few years, Janz said she is consulting with the Venture Center again to figure out how to get into the wholesale business. 

Russell started Tinqre’s Cookies & More in 2021 and took the three-hour session in spring 2022 after dabbling with selling her baked goods at a local farmers’ market. 

“I was somewhat successful and was curious if I could grow it into a business or if it was more of a hobby,” she said. “Everyone who has had my baking said I should open a bakery, and I was always curious. Since I made OK money the summer before, I took (the) seminar and that led me to the (E-seed Entrepreneurial Training Series).”

Russell said one of the biggest things she learned at the seminar was how important it was to figure out the right time and what she needed.

“The Explore session gave me enough information to make a decision, and (gave me an idea of) what I need for a brick-and-mortar bakery,” she said. “I’m creating a path.”

Living a passion, one seminar at a time
Pietsch said helping entrepreneurs create and further their paths never gets old for her. 

“Every person has a different idea and a different vision for what they want to do,” she said. “I have an insatiable curiosity for ideas and helping people manifest an idea into reality if there is a real opportunity here.”

Pietsch said it’s important FVTC continues to help people who want to start a business be able to do that.

“Because it’s critical to our economy, and that has not changed in 20 years,” she said. “That’s a constant. Startups and small businesses are critical to our economy. There are lots of inventors and entrepreneurs here and when they’re ready, we’re here for them.”

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