It took me 33 years to make it to Madison, Wisconsin, and I grew up a state away in Michigan. To be fair there is a giant lake between us. Why now? Madison has momentum.
It's Top 5 in software publishing job concentration and developer salaries while still being 2 percent below the national average for cost of living. That's a rare combination. It's Top 10 in best cities for young entrepreneurs. And Madison has the highest concentration of Millennial talent in the country.
Madison surprised me, in a good way. It's the smallest big city in America and I mean that in the best possible way. It's a Top 15 global city in access to venture capital per capita because of its connectivity.
Why You Want to Start Your Business In Madison
The talent is there, the money is there to scale. And there isn't a biting sense of competition you see in other markets. It's not Midwest kindness but rather a sense of a collective "we" that will carry Madison past the perception of an up-and-coming startup city to its eventual position alongside Portland and Austin.
Great connectors include StartingBlock, gener8tor and University Research Park-which houses the $5.4B healthcare company, Exact Sciences that works well with startups. Having an access and proximity to a major company is vital when creating a startup.
Madison is a college town with a a Top 10 research institution at the University of Wisconsin. They spend more than $1 billion annually in research. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), is where stem cells were first discovered in 1998 as well as the blood-thinning drug, Warfarin.
"Our mission for 100 years has been to support university research by advancing the tremendous innovative spirit and intelligence that takes places here. No matter where you are you are not too far from an incubator, accelerator, technology, biotech company or IT experts dabbling in entrepreneurial activities," said Jeanan Yasiri Moe, Director of Strategic Communications, WARF. "When you have that robust system with a major university it develops a culture of innovation.
Madison Area-based SHINE featured in The New York Times, received the first nuclear patent in the United States since the 1950s, to help create a more reliable domestic supply chain of radioactive isotopes-used by 50,000 people daily in medical imaging and detection.
"Madison is smack in the goldilocks zone in terms of its startup ecosystem--big enough that we have sufficient talent, resources, and capital to support our growing startup community, and small enough that you can readily plug into and feel a part of our community," said Matt Younkle, who has built several successful national startups in Madison and started the national tech event, Forward Festival.
Why Madison Attracts More Millennials Than Any Other City
Epic Systems, with a sprawling campus 20 minutes outside of Madison in Verona, employs 10,000 people, mostly Millennials. They generate $2.5 billion in annual revenue and their medical records software accounts is used for 64 percent of patients in the United States.
Epic plays a crucial role in attracting Millennial talent globally to the Madison area.
Zendesk chose Madison over Austin for their second headquarters and has a beautiful office with 360 degree views of Madison's isthmus. It's underrated how beautiful Madison is with water on each sides of a mile strip of land.
"Beyond the quality of life and community that the city of Madison offers, there was a clear cultural fit and an amazing talent pool. The first eight employees in Madison had years of experience operating a help desk, training, and managing statewide projects for upwards of 100,000 students, faculty and staff at the University of WI - Madison," said Jess Hannes, Sr. Director of Global Customer Support, Zendesk.
"From the beginning, the office was set up to be the center of Global Customer Advocacy for all of Zendesk and our executives in San Francisco recognized and fostered that."
How Fitness Retains Talent
You can never out-hipster Portland or Austin. Instead Madison has focused on being the fittest city in America, according to Fitbit. It also convinced the Reebok CrossFit Games to relocate to Madison from Los Angeles through 2021.
This plays in to Madison's existing strengths. Trek is headquartered in the Madison area, 30 minutes away toward Milwaukee in Waterloo. There is a huge bike culture with some of the best bike paths in the country, hugging lakes and even bike-only streets to easily travel between downtown and campus.
"Madison has the ideal mix of culture and energy for an active lifestyle brand. It's an incredibly active community with a world class university and a growing tech landscape that is drawing a huge amount of young talent to the area," said Eric Bjorling, Trek Brand Manager, Madison Native, Badger Alum.
Madison is where Austin was in the late 1990s. It has the talent, access to capital, connectivity and livability that is seen in all major growing startup markets. And that's why after three days there it went from not being on my radar to in my top five places to start a business right now.