In our continuing series on Leaders & Influencers, we kick off 2016 with Anne Smith, co-founder and co-director of the UW Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, which provides free legal services to nascent entrepreneurs and early-stage companies. In 2014 Smith co-founded of Madworks, a seed accelerator that provides grants, mentors, structure, and more to selected early-stage companies.
What was it that made you decide to found Madworks in 2014?
It had been a long time coming. Since 2009, when the UW Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic had opened, it was pretty obvious to us that our clients needed more than legal help. There were many resources for start-ups available, but they were scattered. Launching Madworks was a way to give entrepreneurs some focused attention beyond just the legal aspects. The first semester the Law & Entrepreneurship clinic was open, for example, we had a student who spent hours and hours of time developing a client contract. The student then revealed that she didn’t have any clients yet, but wanted to have a contract ready for when that happened. Focusing just on the legal aspects of a start-up is important, but that kind of singular focus can also be paralyzing in terms of moving a company forward.
At Madworks, we provide grants to early-stage companies. Our goal is jobs for Wisconsin, and that comes from both tech and non-tech companies. While we want tech companies that will scale quickly, we also want to take companies that offer things like luxury baby products or art. It’s an interesting mix, and there’s a great deal these varied types of companies can learn from each other.
You’re set to combine a number of startup resources into one space at the new @1403 on the University of Wisconsin campus. What’s the significance of this sort of space?
It was University Research Park’s idea, and it combines UW-Madison’s Discovery to Product program, the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, Madworks, and gBeta. There’s good energy there. And we try to incorporate the community with things like art displays and openings by local artists. The idea is to highlight all things entrepreneurial, and we’re happy it’s happening.
What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in our community?
If I look at the difference between what happens on the East and West Coasts and what happens in the Midwest and Wisconsin in particular, I feel like the conservative nature of this part of the country holds us back. We’re afraid to start companies that may fail, and investors are afraid of losing money. It makes things slower to happen. Not that we should get wild and loose, but failure is a part of it, and it’s just not in our nature here to take those risks.
We’re also missing some of the critical mass you find on the coasts. If you’re in a startup here and it fails or gets bought out, and you like working in the startup environment, we don’t have the pool of startups like they do on the coasts that allows you to jump right back into another.
What do you find most interesting and rewarding in your roles at the UW Law & Entrepreneur Clinic and Madworks?
The growth that I see in the people that we work with. The growth in their level of competence and understanding is just amazing. Seeing the people we’ve worked with over the years and where they are today is really rewarding. And it’s great to know that we’ve played a little part in helping them get there.
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