Matt Younkle was sitting with his friend Nate Lustig at Jenna’s one night in 2009, reminiscing about their recent visit to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest.
“We were sitting and having beers at Jenna’s, and (Nate) said, ‘Matt, I think South by Southwest is awesome. We should do that in Madison.’” Younkle recalls.
Easier said than done.
“‘But Nate, that’s been like 20 years in the making,’” Younkle remembers saying. “‘You don’t do something like that over night, so what do you have in mind?’ He said, ‘how about a conference, how about we put on a conference?’ And I said, ‘Well there’s all sorts of conferences happening about entrepreneurship and startups and that kind of thing.’”
But they had an idea to make their conference something special.
“None of them are the entrepreneurs putting them on,” Younkle says. “It’s all very top down. It’s a law firm that’s putting on an event for entrepreneurs or some economic development organization putting on events for entrepreneurs. It’s not the entrepreneurs dictating and trying to get really the current content and everything else. I said okay, that sounds interesting, so let’s do that.”
And just like that, Forward Fesitval was born.
It was originally called North by Midwest, but that didn’t last real long.
“It wasn’t a full on cease and desist order from South by Southwest, but it was very friendly, but firm notice from the South by people saying you know …” Younkle recalls with a laugh. So that first edition ended up being called the Forward Technology Conference.
In its first edition in 2010, five different events drew a total of 600 people — 500 of them at one High Tech Happy Hour.
The eighth festival, set to get underway Thursday, will be literally ten times as large — more than 55 events over the course of eight days.
One of the main ideas of Forward Festival is that it’s not a single event, but a collection of many — what Younkle calls a “federated approach.”
The events range from events for startups to social change brainstorming sessions to a panel discussion on immigrant entrepreneurship to the new Makeshift arts and food festival at Olbrich Park.
“ A lot of us travel in our circles throughout the year,” Younkle says. “We have a limited amount of time, so we have a limited number of organizations that we really are engaged with, so we all operate in our silos, and the idea with the Forward Festival, just is one week out of the year. Let’s get all of the organizations that are there to help foster and encourage creativity in entrepreneurship, to host events to that everybody can get a flavor of what everybody else is doing and really connect a lot of those dots across the silos.”
Younkle says you don’t have to own a startup to get something out of the Forward Festival.
“If you’re thinking about getting started or starting a company or getting involved with a startup … it’s a great way to be incredibly efficient about connecting and getting a feel for what it’s like to start a company in Madison,” Younkle says. “f you are somebody that isn’t entrepreneurial inclined, but is really interested in seeing the types of companies that are starting up and what’s next or what’s coming down the pike here in Madison in the startup world, the entrepreneurial world, this is a great time to come out and see some pitches and get a feeling for all the great companies and the great entrepreneurs and what they’re doing. We could certainly use more cheerleaders for our entrepreneurs in Madison, because as you know, starting a company is a hard thing. We need all the help we can get. Madison isn’t that big of a place. I think Madison as a community can certainly improve what it’s doing to rally around the entrepreneurs that are here that our out there building these products, trying to make the world a better place.”
Many events are free but some require tickets. Most events take place downtown. Visit forwardfestival.org for information and tickets.
Madison365 is the exclusive media partner of Forward Festival.