Six years since the project was first announced, a group of entrepreneurs and business leaders have opened StartingBlock, which they say could take the local startup economy “to the next level.”
More than 500 people swarmed two floors of the new entrepreneurship center, located in a new eight-story building on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue across from Festival Foods, to get their first glimpses of the project.
Tuesday's soft opening was a long time coming, noted by the project’s most well-known visionary, former alder and mayoral candidate Scott Resnick.
“It was six years ago that we started having the conversation: What would it look like if startups had one location in Madison where, if you were looking to grow an idea, incubate an idea, you could find the resources under one roof?” said Resnick, now the space’s “entrepreneur-in-residence,” addressing a room full of hundreds of chattering, drinking people gathered on the center’s second floor (the third floor of the building overall).
More specifically, the plan behind Startingblock was to give early-stage startups a work space in close proximity to mentorship programs, accelerators, venture capitalists, other veteran entrepreneurs, larger startup companies and a diverse array of programming.
The idea caught fire in 2012, when a steering group of about a dozen entrepreneurs and business leaders began advocating for and raising money for the center. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that construction began on the space, following a long capital fundraising campaign, a few scrapped early proposals for construction, and a prolonged approval process for “The Spark” — the American Family Insurance building housing the space — in Common Council.
“I know you’ve been saying, well, someday StartingBlock is going to be here,” said Fienen Miller. “Someday is today. We are finally open.”
Event attendees who followed a line of blue tape along the center’s hallways could take a self-guided tour. The slick, industrial space with generous natural lighting hosts two floors of conference rooms, small booths for smaller companies to work in, dedicated offices, podcasting and coding dens for developers, private phone booths, and even a cafe. Upper levels are slated to host anchor tenants — larger startups that sign a more permanent lease.
While the space has opened, the building remains under construction. At times, attendees had to sidle past hard-hat-wearing construction workers lugging tools and building materials.
“There’s still construction going on, but it’s actually been really quiet here,” said Alex Surprise, strategic counsel with the tech startup Markable, who has already been working in the space for a few weeks. “It’s been an adventure getting in and out (of the building).”
Surprise said that she’s encountered some people skeptical of the StartingBlock idea: “They think the concept is a little wonky, StartingBlock being just for startups,” she said.
However, she’s a fan. She said that it puts Madison in the same league as other metropolitan areas rich in startup activity, like New York and Chicago.
“Other cities have (similar startup centers). I think Wisconsin’s been behind in some ways with that,” she said.
Matt Nelson, a designer who heads a local networking group for other freelancers, said that he’s enjoyed the few weeks he’s spent working in the space thus far. He said he appreciated being surrounded by other startups — thus far, there are 12 companies on StartingBlock’s initial roster.
“I’m working with several clients who are also working here. So it’s been great for business for sure,” he said.
He said he also plans to host freelancer meetups and workshops in the space — although that may be a bit tough, given that the Capitol East District Parking Structure that would provide parking for the building and its neighbors remains under construction.
Other organizations that are also in the space include gener8tor, the massive Midwestern startup accelerator program; the Doyenne Group, a mentorship program for women in entrepreneurship; Bunker Labs, an accelerator for veteran-led startups; Capital Entrepreneurs, a networking group; the Commons, an organization that connects university students with startups; and the Wisconsin Gaming Alliance, a trade group for the region’s video game industry.