Todd Cullen

Assistant Director, Tech Advancement and Outreach

Fall Experiment: Celebrating the Intersections of Tech, Art, Gaming and Music

Topics: Tech Advancement.

"It probably makes sense to wait until next year, so we have more time to plan."

That was the path I proposed to a room of 40 tech, civic and business leaders, most of whom were nodding in agreement. These individuals – and their representative organizations – were diligently committed to building a better future in Milwaukee, and here they were, gathered for a half-day "design thinking" workshop to prototype a potential new, technology-based event in Milwaukee that could propel our rising city even faster. The idea came as part of Northwestern Mutual’s larger commitment to advancing Milwaukee as a tech hub. As our company continues to create a world-class financial planning experience for our clients, technology is a critical enabler. Growing the Milwaukee tech ecosystem and expanding the talent pool in Milwaukee plays a vital role in delivering on that strategy.

Back to the workshop.

"We should do something now," said Joe Kirgues, co-founder of gener8tor , a nationally-ranked startup accelerator headquartered in Milwaukee. "There's no reason to wait until next year. You need to get something out the door quickly to test and learn." After a lively and healthy debate, a decision was made: We would move fast to test our prototype, learn from it and adjust. (As someone who began their career as a software developer, I loved the challenge of applying lean startup methodology to an event.)

After a quick three months of planning, the minimum viable product (MVP) for a new tech conference and festival, Fall Experiment, was born. At one point leading up to the event, our team sat in a room and asked, "Should we really keep going forward with so many unknowns?" We nearly called it off but decided to go for it – despite many reasons not to. Good things don't come to those who wait.

So, what did that prototype look like?

Not a bad start!

It helped that we established three bold and guiding principles. We wanted to:

  1. Shine a spotlight on all the incredible talent in southeast Wisconsin
  2. Convene world-class technologists and creatives from across the Midwest to create our future
  3. Expand the tech community and represent the diverse city in which we live

These simple principles have allowed us to start small, think big over the long term and come at this in a unique way.

Finding the First Follower

We also used data to guide us. I won't nerd out too much on this, but in our post-event survey, 64 percent of respondents ranked our initial prototype a 9 or 10. Even more important, we were discovering our "first follower," as evidenced by the feedback we received:

The positivity and excitement of events like this is what's going to carry Milwaukee to the next level.

Overall it was a great event - who knew Milwaukee was actually this ahead in technology!

It was the best tech event I went to in Milwaukee this year.

If you're not familiar with the term "first follower," Derek Sivers famously defined it in his 2010 TED Talk. Attracting a supporter to an initiative is the first step toward beginning a movement that might seem unusual to the general population. I liken Fall Experiment to the grassy field in the video where the "crazy dancing" can take place, and our broader MKE Tech Hub efforts are "the movement." Through Fall Experiment, we want to give everyone who attends the license to take risks, do their own dance and "first follow" the growing roster of gritty doers, startups, corporate innovators and creative communities in our city who are shaping this movement.

Radical Collaboration

As we gear up for the second Fall Experiment. October 4-5 at the Wisconsin Center, it's important to look at another central tenet: Fall X, as we affectionately refer to it, needs to be built by the community and for the community for it to be sustainable. One way we’ve committed to this is by having each track of programming. be led by a different organization and the passionate, talented individuals within them.

While the initial prototype included a lot of teamwork, 2019 has shown even greater commitment to collaboration. For us to truly propel Milwaukee forward, we need to usher in an era of radical collaboration – where arbitrary barriers no longer get in the way of great people connecting with one another. We want to foster a culture where, for example, artists can connect with coders, startup founders can influence corporate innovators, and medical specialists can share their problems with IoT experts.

If you don't fashion an environment where creators and originators can get things going, you won't have any new ideas! It's really that simple.

- Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO, from the documentary Creative Brain

Join the Movement

All great movements start somewhere, and I’d love for you to join us right away in these early days. Fall Experiment is a big tent and welcomes anyone who wants to shape the future. Come explore it with us this October.

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