Continuing our series on Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Troy Vosseller, co-founder of gener8tor, a Wisconsin-based accelerator that invests in high-growth startups. He also co-founded Sconnie Nation, an apparel company celebrating the Wisconsin lifestyle.
What was it that made you decide to co-found gener8tor in 2012?
I got my entrepreneurial start right out of college by founding a cliché student start-up, a t-shirt company called Sconnie Nation. It started in my dorm room, then went online, and we now have a storefront on State Street. So I was fortunate to have a successful entrepreneurial experience early on, which then freed me up to earn an MBA and law degree. When I graduated from law school, because I had this successful business, I didn’t have the pressure most graduates have of finding a job at a high-powered law firm. I instead went to work as a supervising attorney for the UW Law School’s Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, and was working with start-ups and entrepreneurs. Through my work there I met Joe Kirgues, who was working as an attorney at Quarles & Bradley representing the investor side.
Joe and I hit it off, and we both recognized that while there were a lot of high-growth startups in Wisconsin and lots of resources, no one was corralling these resources in a concerted way. Startups instead sort of had to pinball around to access what they needed. Joe and I both admired the accelerator model and felt like more companies needed to receive smaller investments in a shorter amount of time to support their growth. We found investors in Milwaukee who shared that belief and could put up the money for us to launch gener8tor.
gener8tor has just graduated its seventh class through the accelerator program. Any trends or differences you’re noticing between this class and the very first?
Yes, several. For one thing, for each subsequent class, we’ve received a greater number of applications, from a greater geographic area, and many of these companies have significant traction in their markets already. For our seventh class, we received 486 applications, from which 5 companies were selected, so the quality and competition is elevated. The efforts of each class really help establish gener8tor’s brand recognition for subsequent classes. In 2014, gener8tor was ranked the 14th Top Accelerator in the U.S. by the Seed Accelerator Rankings Project.
In addition, we’re seeing fewer Wisconsin companies apply and be accepted to our program. gener8tor is entirely privately funded, so it’s our job to invest in the best companies for our investors, no matter where those companies are from. But we also believe in helping companies in our own backyard, so we were able to secure some pilot sponsorship from American Family Insurance to mentor and invest in Wisconsin-based companies. And just last week we announced a new partnership with Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), to launch gBETA, a pre-seed accelerator for companies with a connection to a Wisconsin college or university. Our goal with gBETA is to help more nascent companies get started on the right foot by providing access to our community, network, and customers. And it’s our hope that some of these gBETA startups will then apply and be accepted to the gener8tor program as well.
What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in our community?
We need more role models of various sorts. The ecosystem in Wisconsin is ripe for another statement exit or series of exits from startups, particularly in the tech realm. Jellyfish is an example of company that had a successful exit, but there haven’t been any lately. Role models of this sort help give other startups confidence that they can go from an idea to raising capital to a successful exit as well. And hopefully those exiting companies will then return talent and money into the ecosystem, by become angel investors, for example.
We also need role models on the corporate side—like American Family—that view entrepreneurship as something they want to foster. And we need role model customers who look to local Wisconsin start-ups when they’re looking for a particular solution or service for their business.
Any books, blogs, or podcasts you recommend to new or established entrepreneurs?
For early-stage entrepreneurs I like Do More Faster by Brad Feld and David Cohen. I also like Venture Deals by Feld and Jason Mendlson, for both learning venture terminology, as well as understanding the art and science of venture capital. I also recommend The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. For more mature companies, I really like Predictable Revenue for thinking about the sales process. And in terms of blogs, I follow Brad Feld, Fred Wilson, Mark Suster, as well as Mattermark, which has a daily digest.
Last, what’s happening at Sconnie Nation?
The business continues to do well. We’re obviously excited when Wisconsin sports teams have good seasons, so we’ve been fortunate to have that happening over the last few years. I still have a lot of fun coming up with new products, designs, and slogans, and it’s great seeing someone walk down the street in one of our shirts. There’s no better feeling as an entrepreneur than seeing a customer engage with your product. It never gets old. Sconnie Nation was really the springboard experience that started me on my entrepreneurial path. I started low-tech and have gone high-tech thanks to that business, and it’s opened a lot of new doors for me.
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