We’ve heard the statistics: 50% of startups don’t make it five years. Seventy percent don’t make it ten years. Research has shown that many businesses fail because of lack of basic business knowledge. What if entrepreneurs had a way to vet ideas before investing too much time and money? The Business and Entrepreneurship Clinic at the Wisconsin School of Business is helping local Wisconsin startups do just that.
Established in Fall 2013 semester with funding and insights from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the clinic brings together business students and entrepreneurs in a partnership that benefits both groups; the business owners gain valuable business advice and the students gain real-world experience.
The clinic provides more than 30 consultative services within finance, accounting, strategy, market research/analysis, marketing, and HR management. Although the clinic offers a broad range of services, Director and Faculty Associate Michael Williams makes it clear that its purpose is to provide guidance and the tools to succeed.
“We provide them with a road map so they understand what should be done. We may do some of the work. We might do a financial model for someone,” Williams said. “But the bigger piece of the puzzle is that they’ll come to us without knowing what needs to be done. So we can help set them in the right direction.”
Blatnik, Sherman (standing), and Williams consult with a client, Tim Shedd, associate professor in Mechanical Engineering and co-founder of ebullient.
Clients enter the Business and Entrepreneurship Clinic through a variety of ways. Some are referred from the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship and direct contact, but the largest source is referrals from the law school’s Law & Entrepreneurship (L&E) Clinic.
The L&E clinic, in its fifth year, is a group of students and faculty who advise startups on legal issues. Through the L&E’s application process, the organization does an intake once a month where each company makes a 15-minute pitch. Williams and students sit in on the meetings, looking for companies that could also benefit from business consulting.
“I think business students and law students can really learn from each other, and the client can only benefit from a more holistic view,” said Anne Smith, co-founder and co-director of the L&E clinic.
Once the entrepreneurship team identifies a company with a business need, Williams and the students will meet with the potential client to better understand their company. The group chooses a lead for the project, and as the students work on deliverables, Williams reviews everything before it’s sent to the client.
The Student Experience
The clinic’s ultimate purpose is an educational one. Throughout the process of acquiring and working with clients, students learn business management and problem solving skills.
Wisconsin School of Business senior Jake Blatnik started working for the Business and Entrepreneurship clinic in January. The finance, management, and entrepreneurship major has already worked on several client projects, tweaking business plans, financial models and pricing strategies.
“In terms of the depth that we’re able to interact with these companies, the closeness to the product and to the owners that we’re able to get, that type of experience is invaluable,” Blatnik said.
For some students, like Brent Sugimoto, an MBA student who previously worked for startups, the clinic is an opportunity to help other entrepreneurs avoid common pitfalls of starting a business.
“Being in similar situations myself years ago, I kind of see it as the mistakes I’ve made and things I wish I would have done differently,” said Sugimoto, who is in his second year in the brand and product management specialization. “And it’s great to have this kind of resources. At a lot of universities, there isn’t as much outreach to startup companies and other organizations.”
Adam Sherman, a second-year MBA student specializing in Corporate Finance and Investment Banking, comes to the clinic with a unique background, having worked as an attorney in Florida before enrolling in the MBA program.
“The excitement for me has been the most fun. There is a certain energy that goes along with working with startups and helping them try to achieve their ultimate goal of creating a sustainable business,” said Sherman, who has ambitions to start his own business someday. “I am really happy to have been a part of it.”
Because the clinic is relatively new, the group has worked with only 27 clients, but as they grow in size, the group hopes to expand its reach. At this time, the program has two MBA students, two undergraduate students, and is looking for two more undergraduates to join the team.
A Dream Realized
Although the clinic has only been operational since August 2013, they’ve already had the opportunity to see one client, Share the Health, successfully launch. The co-founders of Share the Health, a nonprofit organization that provides gynecological care to women without health insurance, applied to the entrepreneurship program during the summer of 2013.
According to co-founder and UW Hospital resident Dr. Katherine O’Rourke, the idea for Share the Health came after she treated an uninsured woman who came to the emergency room complaining of abdominal pains. The woman was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer and died a few weeks later.
“Cervical cancer is almost 100 percent preventable,” O’Rourke said. “Had she gotten pap smears and treatment for abnormal pap smears she wouldn’t have been in that situation.”
By the time O’Rourke and co-founder Dr. Mary Landry, physician, clinical professor, and women’s health manager at University Health Services, applied to the program, they had been planning it for nine months.
“They are doctors, and they didn’t have business experience, but they were really hungry for the information. We provided it to them, and they took the ball and ran with it,” Williams said. “They did some things before we even asked for them! They were the ultimate entrepreneurs.”
The group of students and Williams worked closely with O’Rourke and Landry from August until their launch in January, revising the business plan and budget. The Share the Health founders credit the clinic for guiding them through the process.
“We wouldn’t have gotten here as efficiently [without the clinic]. We wouldn’t have gotten here with the same level of confidence. We would have second guessed ourselves,” Landry explained. “They set us up with a very solid foundation.”
While Share the Health is the only nonprofit group the clinic has worked with, it presented a unique opportunity for the students to learn the similarities and differences between for profit and not for profit.
“The [entrepreneurship clinic] fully embraced that we are set up as a nonprofit. Mike Williams and the students very easily adapted a more traditional business model into a nonprofit model,” Landry said. “They really stepped outside the traditional box of business to reach out to us.”
Ultimately, the Business and Entrepreneurship Clinic’s purpose is to educate students on entrepreneurship and business consulting, but it also uses the knowledge and expertise from the university to make a difference.
“We’re going to be a small piece in the overall arching vision of discovering products and making them commercially viable—but an important one,” Williams said. “The goal is to help create a company that creates value for the community and the state.”