Incubators / Startups

Why incubators mean community for early-stage founders

"We have to build more opportunities": The Commons and FOR-M Program Director Joe Poeschl on creating an open door to Milwaukee’s tech ecosystem.

Co-facilitators Joe Poeschl and Maggie Fernandes at FOR-M's 2022 spring program kickoff. (Photo by Jaclyn Tyler)

This article appears as part of This Week in Milwaukee Rising, a weekly newsletter from highlighting the innovators bringing a more just, equitable and dynamic Milwaukee economy. Subscribe here. The series is underwritten by American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.

Joe Poeschl has always considered himself an “ideas person.”

Following college, the Marquette University and Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design grad dabbled in advertising, aiming to get the most out of his degree, but an interest in entrepreneurship lingered in the background. When an opportunity to work for a big ad agency in Chicago came his way, Poeschl ultimately turned it down. He reached out to a connection for coffee, instead.

At the time, Poeschl was just beginning to rub elbows with folks in the startup scene, but said he lacked the right connections to make anything stick.

“I was doing the networking thing, but in these communities, I was met with ‘Oh, he’s just a young kid,’ and not really taken seriously,” Poeschl told One fortuitous coffee meeting with an acquaintance led to freelance design work — which ultimately led to cofounding Polymathic LLC, a web software design and development consultancy, where he worked as a product designer and business strategist for web startups across the country. The move put Poeschl squarely in the vicinity of the region’s startup community, but Milwaukee’s own tech scene was lagging, he said.

“I finally landed myself in a room for 94 Labs,” Poeschl said of the now-defunct startup accelerator. “We thought, ‘We should go get a beer and organize people and bring them together.’ That’s when we formed Startup Milwaukee.”

Milwaukee’s small, but growing tech community

Through Startup Milwaukee, Poeschl and others worked to shine a light on Milwaukee’s small, but growing tech community. They held networking events, hosted hackathons, and brought students, founders and corporations together to strengthen the city’s tech scene. Poeschl soon realized he was more fulfilled by creating a sense of community than by completing paid client work, and launched The Commons in 2014 to play a role in establishing Milwaukee’s tech ecosystem.

Joe Poeschl. (Photo via LinkedIn)

The initiative, backed by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, aims to “create a comprehensive framework for developing, connecting and retaining innovation workers across the region.” Poeschl serves as the group’s program director.

Fostering connections has been at the heart of Poeschl’s career. At The Commons, Poeschl is focused on building curriculum, programming and events to inspire innovation and “open the door” to the city’s tech ecosystem — including through its startup incubator, FOR-M.

FOR-M is working to capture startup founders in the idea stage, long before these companies have built out a beta product or even sought out funding, Poeschl said. It’s a free, three-month virtual workshop series to help founders figure out the next step in their entrepreneurial journey — from the basics of launching a startup to conducting market research and the ins-and-outs of fundraising. Poeschl serves as the incubator’s co-facilitator along with Maggie Fernandes, a software engineering manager at MacGregor Partners.

Connections matter for startup growth

Creating connections and finding the right mentors early on in the startup process is key. It can prevent young startups from scaling prematurely, entering into bad deals, or help them pivot when an idea isn’t fully fleshed out. A study from the Startup Genome Report on premature scaling found that startups with a strong mentorship network were seven times more likely to raise investment funds and have 3.5 times better user growth.

“We basically said: ‘What can we do to be a top-of-funnel part of the strategy?’” Poeschl explained. “There are so many fantastic resources for companies with ideas, and funding guidance, mentorship, coaching, etc. What’s missing out of this was the entry point: where you, as a new founder say, ‘I have the drive and motivation, but what do I do next?’”

Supported by the Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition as part of its goal to double tech talent in the region, the startup incubator recently celebrated its fifth cohort with its first ever in-person showcase.

Last year, FOR-M awarded more than $125,000 in grant funds secured through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and has had more than 225 founders from all ages, backgrounds and skill levels participate in program since it launched in 2019.

At FOR-M’s 2022 spring program kickoff. (Photo by Jaclyn Tyler)

Incubator as community launchpad

Poeschl believes programs like FOR-M have the power to create a positive trickle effect within the community, though he said Milwaukee must continue to make strides toward diversity and provide more business resources to keep the momentum going. Many of its participants have gone on to participate in accelerators, start businesses, apply for funding, or generate new business ideas, he added.

“We have been very conscious about community and connections,” he said. “Now you have a community and ecosystem, fantastic initiatives, entrepreneurship and processes available to all levels of talent. We are nowhere near a density point. We have to continue to build more opportunities for everyone to get involved.”

Still, Poeschl said Milwaukee’s tech scene has come a long way since he attended his first networking event at 94 Labs.

“What I love about the moment in Milwaukee right now, is that it’s all kind of on the table,” he said. “There’s equal opportunity to define what this ecosystem looks like and what it can look like in the future. Everybody has the power to make an impact on the community.”

Now that’s an idea.

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