Start-Ups Shine During Milwaukee's Entrepreneur Week

Nov 10, 2014

Employees build mirrors and light fixtures at Scathain in Milwaukee.
Credit Marti Mikkelson

Entrepreneur Week kicks off Monday in Milwaukee. The city has helped plan more than a dozen events to help new businesses grow.

While many face challenges, as far as John McWilliam is concerned, manufacturing is alive and well in Milwaukee.

McWilliam owns a huge shop on the near south side called Scathain. The shop designs mirrors and light fixtures for hotels and restaurants, as well as office furniture.

We stop to chat near a glass cutter McWilliam employs.

“He’s cutting wine bottles right now for a Pizza Man chandelier that takes 90 bottles for the one light fixture. He’s cutting them, sanding them and silvering them for a unique, silvered, old wine bottle kind of look,” McWilliam says.

McWilliam used to be a painting contractor, but he opened this business five years ago. He says one of his first customers was the owner of the Iron Horse Hotel.

“Tim Dixon offered to give us this space in this warehouse to make stuff for him for nothing. He gave us the place for free basically as long as we gave him a good deal on stuff we were making for him,” McWilliam says.

As word spread about McWilliam’s products, business grew. He now employs 24 people and his customers include Harley Davidson and Ann Sacks, a division of the Kohler Company. McWilliam says he grosses $2 million per year and hopes to double sales next year.

One person who’s going to help him is Daniel Isenberg, director of Scale Up Milwaukee. It’s a partnership of government and education leaders – along with support from the Greater Milwaukee Committee that helps fledgling companies expand. Isenberg says each year, about a dozen businesses participate in his entrepreneurial training program called “scalerator.”

“I work with them over a seven month period of time. We do seven or eight, 1.5 day workshops," Isenberg says. "They have a lot of homework in between, they have a lot of application exercises. They help each other too. In the first scalerator that we did last year, we had 12 companies and four of them now are doing business with each other."

Isenberg says companies that participated in last year’s program have seen growth of 25 percent.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is hosting the city’s first Entrepreneur Week. He says the city has made a commitment to encouraging small business startups, because they’re the backbone of the economy.

“If you look at the growth in businesses and the growth in jobs, they come primarily from small businesses and small businesses come primarily from an idea of an individual who decided whether it’s in their garage or with a couple of friends who decide to start a business, and then the business grows,” Barrett says.

Barrett says Entrepreneur Week will provide networking opportunities for new business owners to come together and share ideas. Events include a crowdfunding workshop and a panel discussion featuring several prominent entrepreneurs with the Milwaukee Water Council.