Dan Blake covered some of Chicago’s grittiest stories — from the murder of a judge’s family members to a former Illinois governor’s federal corruption trial — during his five years as a reporter and web producer in Chicago.
He spent the past year setting up electronic health records systems at a California health organization as an employee of Verona-based Epic Systems Corp.
No longer chasing down crime or computerizing health data functions, the Madison native is now charged with corralling capital for the state’s promising young companies.
Blake, 31, took over in March as director of the Wisconsin Angel Network, part of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
He succeeds Zach Brandon, who became president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce last November.
A graduate of Jefferson Middle School and Memorial High School with degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Denver, Blake probably has both newspaper and investment savvy in his DNA. His father, Phil Blake, was publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal from 1993-2000 and is a member of Wisconsin Investment Partners, the longest-running investment group in the state.
Not only is Dan Blake starting a new job, but he is about to embark on another venture, as well. He plans to marry Alexis Garrett, an interior designer with Garrett Paschen Interior Design, over Memorial Day weekend.
Q: What interested you in the position of director of the Wisconsin Angel Network?
A: I have an MBA in finance and accounting. I’ve also grown up around investing and I’ve been involved in some of the startup communities in Chicago and Denver. I’ve seen how companies can use equity financing to grow into much larger organizations and bring exciting products and services to market.
Q: It’s a big change from being a reporter in Chicago. What were some of the stories you covered?
A: I worked very hard to get a reporting job at (the now defunct) City News Service in Chicago, which is basically a boot camp for journalists. I worked the overnight shift on the biggest stories happening in Chicago at that time. That included the murders of the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow; the killing of a University of Illinois Chicago campus professor, Peter D’Agostino; and the federal corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan. You’d be working out of police stations in very tough neighborhoods of Chicago with a laptop on your lap at 11:30 at night.
There were also some lighthearted moments, such as covering the Tuba Christmas, the largest tuba concert in the world at that time. You really got to see how the city operates, the good and the bad.
From there, I was hired by the Chicago Tribune to be part of a small team of journalists who helped revamp their websites. We started several websites to showcase breaking news. We were a few years out of college and were trying to scoop our competitors on the news of the day.
We brought in video and audio from WGN radio and TV, also owned by the Tribune Co. It was separate from the Tribune’s own website and was quite successful.
I gained a lot of skills related to web media and how to reach an audience and use data to target information to the audience we were trying to build.
I also reported on politics at City Hall, when Richard M. Daley was mayor, including the city’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics.
Q: Chicago is also a city that seems to be very interested in building its entrepreneurial community. What was your involvement in that?
A: A lot of young people move to Chicago. It’s a dynamic city to spend time in, to start a company. The Tribune was involved in a lot of innovative technologies, and I knew folks in that ecosystem through Built-in Chicago, a networking group for entrepreneurs. I was there during the time Groupon (discount deals) and GrubHub (restaurant delivery) were growing.
Most cities in today’s economy are making an effort to bring those new companies and jobs to their communities and grow them.
Q: What are you learning about Wisconsin’s angel investment community? Just how active is it?
A: One thing I’m working on is creating an overall picture of angel investments in the state. The amount of activity varies by group and by individual investor. One group did as many as 16 deals last year, and a single investor invested in 27 companies in 2012. The funding ranged from $5,000 to $2 million per company.
I recently attended the Angel Capital Association summit in San Francisco.
Wisconsin is seen as a leader; a lot of states are interested in what Wisconsin has been able to achieve.
Not a lot of other states have that kind of community, which allows for angel groups to invest together, and to provide a special blend of due-diligence expertise, as well as mentors to advise some of these young companies.
Wisconsin has about 16 or so angel groups, but in addition, several groups in other states invest in Wisconsin companies.
Q: What is the best way to explain the difference between angel funding and venture capital?
A: In the funding continuum, angels typically give the seed or pre-seed funding. An entrepreneur will have an idea and will put his or her own money in, go out to friends and family and try to bootstrap the company, to get the idea up and running.
Then, oftentimes, the entrepreneur will go talk to an angel group or individual investors. They provide expertise, resources and are willing to put their own hard-earned money into a risky venture that often is not going to make it.
As these companies grow and need larger funding to scale up their businesses, they may go to a venture capital firm, often with the help of an angel network.
Q: What do angel investors look for when they make funding
A: I think it depends on the group. I think a lot are looking for the potential and at the entrepreneurs. They see opportunities from their experience in life and in business. They’re looking for good ideas,
folks who have well-formulated ideas that can really grow, and the people who can get the job done. The co-founders are important: Do they get along? What is their history? And are they both aligned in wanting to be entrepreneurs?
Q: What are your plans for the Wisconsin Angel Network over the next few years?
A: I want to build on the great infrastructure in the state, not only for early-stage investments but also for expertise. There’s a great opportunity to connect different angel groups in the state, for potential syndication (co-investing) opportunities and also to build relationships that can lead to better deals.
We see a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of great ideas; we know where the investors are. We are able to be a spark to make that connection happen.