Far from the sprawling, Verona campus where electronic health records developer Epic Systems Corp. continues to expand, two young Madison companies started by former Epic employees occupy part of a single train car at the West Washington Avenue railroad depot, known as Caboose Coworking.
Hoos.in and Words, Numbers, Images are among several young businesses sharing the small, offbeat, Downtown space and collaborating on ideas.
"We graduated from Epic. That's what it feels like," said Adam Braus, who co-founded both companies.
A variety of non-Epic-related startups are beginning to sprout at the hands of Epic alums, just as several companies in health information technology launched by ex-Epic staffers also are getting a foothold here.
It's a natural evolution, said Dan Olszewski, director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at the UW-Madison School of Business.
"To have these people spinning off to do other startups would be similar to what you'd see with Google in Silicon Valley or in Seattle with Microsoft. It would be normal to see employees spinning off to do their own thing," Olszewski said.
In contrast to Epic's vast collection of murals, paintings and sculptures, at Caboose Coworking, the cozy train car is decorated with notebook-sized pictures painted by guests, and the entryway houses a drum set and keyboards for impromptu jam sessions.
Braus teamed with serial entrepreneur Michael Fenchel on hoos.in, a networking site for friends to plan social gatherings together. Madison natives who grew up about a mile from each other, Braus and Fenchel didn't know each other until they both got involved in organizing a TEDx conference — a worldwide program for discussing big ideas — in Madison two years ago.
Braus and Fenchel started working on hoos.in last summer. Now, the company has a couple of part-time employees, and about 600 people have signed up for the service so far, mostly in Madison.
Concurrently, Braus launched Words, Numbers, Images — a question-and-answer platform for companies to communicate with their customers — with fellow Epic alum Nikolai Skievaski, of Phoenix, last August. They also are part of a team working on an electronic pet licensing website, PetPass.net.
The train depot is just one location where ex-Epic folks are brainstorming new company ideas. Forrest Woolworth, a co-founder of the Capital Entrepreneurs networking group, estimates as many as 50 Epic alums are probably working on startups in Madison.
"That's definitely something we've seen more of, in the last few years," Woolworth said. "People who are leaving Epic are realizing that's an option, once you come to Madison and love it.
"Churn like this is a great thing for the Madison tech community as a whole," Woolworth said. "By continuing to strengthen the tech community and raise the profile of Madison as a top tech hub as a whole, the entire tech community pie grows and benefits."
Events for kids
Former Epic employee Katie Hensel started Tri 4 Schools, a nonprofit that hosts athletic events for children, in 2011.
Hensel, of Verona, is getting ready for Tri 4's second annual youth triathlon on May 4 in Waunakee and will add an adaptive aquathon — a swimming and running event — for children with disabilities or special needs. The nonprofit organization also will host its first Kids Mud Run in Verona on May 18.
"I never thought I would start or run my own business," Hensel said. "It's definitely a challenge, but I think if you are passionate about what you do, the `creative' components of running a business, like marketing and strategic planning, come more naturally."
Oil and fashion
Bret Wagner, who grew up Fort Atkinson and has a chemical engineering degree from UW-Madison, founded a company that connects broker/dealers with small oil and gas investment groups. "It pulls private dollars into developing smaller pockets of untapped oil," like crowdfunding for the oil industry, he said.
Wagner was a field engineer on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and after returning to Wisconsin and working on web applications for Epic's MyChart for nearly five years, realized he missed the oil and gas industry. A previous startup that helped people track royalties from mineral rights on their property didn't work out.
Pursuing a totally different vein, in February, Wagner founded StyleMadison, offering fashion consulting to men. "I enjoy connecting with men in the Madison area to help them with their wardrobes and save them time and money on custom clothing," he said.
Ex-Epic software developer Aaron Larner also built an online fashion business in Madison, StyleShuffler. It won first place in the business services category of the 2012 Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest. But sales came slowly and Larner realized fashion wasn't his true passion. So StyleShuffler is dormant.
Larner said he learned that a strong team is essential. In addition, "the subject matter really is very important," he said. "It was draining to be working on something that I wasn't super-passionate about."
He works full time for The Art Commission, a business that connects artists with those who commission art, co-founded by serial entrepreneur Toni Sikes and former investment banker Terry Maxwell.
Larner, who grew up in Cleveland and in Bethesda, Md., still has his fingers in the startup business, too, working with Braus and Skievaski on a question-and-answer platform for the health IT industry.
"I just love Madison. I really see the entrepreneur scene here exploding," Larner said. "I see it as a huge opportunity for anyone here who's interested in entrepreneurship."
Interest on campus in launching a business is growing, as well, the UW's Olszewski said. The number of students taking those classes has "skyrocketed," he said.
In the past, courses on starting a business were few, and limited to the business school. "Now, they are not just in the business school, but other parts of campus have offerings — computer programming, biomedical engineering and even the arts," Olszewski said.
He said the relatively low cost makes a startup an appealing option. "Tools to do Web design and create a mobile app have just plummeted in cost. It is so much easier today to create something and get it to market than it ever has been in the past," he said.
When employees leave Epic, they are under a one-year non-compete clause. That's a perfect time to try starting a tech company, Braus said. "I can have five failed startups and it won't cost me more than $40 grand. This is the best education I can get," he said.