Think Global, Act Global

How can Madison, a midsize city in the heartland, embrace a global mindset? The real question is: How can we not?

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PHOTO BY LARRY CHUA

Mark Schmitz, founder of Madison business Zebradog, says something as simple as having a website makes a business present on a global level.

Indeed, Fischer says UW ranked number six in the number of students studying abroad. “We have students doing international internships actually understanding what the workplace is in these other places, so I think that’s what the partnership might be or what the city could use.”

Fischer points to a recent international careers night on campus that featured a panel including foreign ambassador, Ian Kelly, Andy Best who works for Saris, the Madison bicycle group that does business around the world, Barbara Nichols, a pioneering African American nurse doing nursing consulting all around the world, and Lora Klinke from WEDC. “And Lora was saying she hears from employers all the time how they need employees with these skills,” says Fischer. “And so we’re going to be working together to match up, because I need employers who want those students. It’s really a matter of trying to find those linkages, and hopefully find more places where the university can help the business community find the talent as the business community recognizes and reaches out to the university to help train the students they want.”

Fischer takes advantage of existing relationships with Madison’s Sister Cities whenever possible, especially Freiburg, Germany, where Madison sustainable energy consultant Ted Petith is from. Petith’s wife, Elizabeth Tryon, shares the Freiburg connection through her work at the UW Morgridge Center for Public Service, where she co-chairs the Wisconsin Without Borders Initiative. Tryon is also one of the founders of the Global Alliance for Community-Engaged Research. She and Petith were in the group that accompanied Mayor Paul Soglin on a trip to Freiburg last year, then hosted a reciprocal visit with a delegation from Freiburg. Fischer’s view of how global the greater Madison community at large really is is admittedly skewed by the fact that she is in contact with people around the world “on an hourly basis.” That’s the world in which she lives.

For Madison to become even more global, Fischer says more international flights would certainly help, as would more networking between existing international organizations like the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Global Wisconsin, the Dane County chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States of America and perhaps groups of international professionals.

“I don’t think we have a common umbrella where everybody has a good list or understanding of what the different groups are and what each of their specific missions are or how each is different, so that when people move here to town and are interested in finding that type of group there’s no central resource or listing or collaboration between them, which I think would be really interesting,” says Fischer. “It’s just a matter of communicating what’s happening, people collaborating on those things and really having the impact feel much bigger than the parts of what people are doing. I think that big splash is really what we are missing.”  

THE GLOBAL BUSINESS OWNER

There are so many opportunities for Madison businesses to build international connections or export their work that it can seem overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why so many still do not. But those that do, a number that is growing all the time from what is arguably already a critical mass, are finding a global strategy an indispensable part of their company’s mission. It doesn’t hurt if that strategy is a niche that is unique and difficult to replicate.

Mark Schmitz is the founder of Zebradog, but his business card, which in shape would double nicely as a drink coaster, reads Principal/Creative Director and Visual Therapist. Zebradog has precisely that unique, difficult-to-replicate niche. And it has won them global recognition, and business. “We are not a design firm, we’re not an ad agency, we’re not an architectural firm or interior design firm, we’re sort of all of that,” Schmitz tells me in a conference room in the stunning one-hundred-year-old headquarters building on Williamson Street that originally housed the Sixth Ward Carnegie Library. It’s the last of the original Madison library buildings in existence and the way Schmitz has designed and remodeled the space, and the way the staff and business fit that space, is a good place to start understanding what Zebradog does.

“I started years ago establishing an organization that would have multiple layers of service underneath the headline or category of design,” says Schmitz. What that means, he says, is “we can provide a thread of brand visioning throughout an entire organization’s space that they occupy. So that right away diversified our offering.”

Zebradog has had plenty of local success stories, big contracts with prestigious clients like UW, Neenah-based Miron Construction and Aurora Health Care. But Schmitz recognized earlier than most—in other words, before the 2008–09 onset of the recession—the business had to expand its footprint.

“You must leave Madison, which we did, in 1995. You must leave the Midwest, which we did in 1998. And then ultimately you need to be able to work in a community that has not suffered the similar economic ups and downs that we might have suffered here. And I can tell you that the world at large, other than some European cities, our technology and the way we use technology is uniquely forward or ahead of the rest of the world in many ways.”

In many ways, then, Zebradog is the perfect example of the new marketability of “what you do,” versus ‘what you make.”

“This isn’t a commodity,” says Schmitz. “There is a unique style of thinking and a way to approach a facility project, whether it’s new construction or the reimagination of a current space; it’s not interior design. And we sort of invented the category. I don’t know of anybody else. There are people that do museum design. There are people who do media development. There are people who do interior design. This place brings that all together.”

Zebradog also has a website, zebradog.com, of course. And says Schmitz, in a “fly-over” world as this one now is, having a web presence “makes you an international firm, period. If you’re a design firm on Willy Street or a design firm on Michigan Avenue, you have the same imprint. You have the same opportunity to grab anybody that’s looking for you.”

That’s what’s fun when a Saudi Arabian company finds you through a Google search. As a Saudi Arabian company recently did.

First your idea of a work schedule changes. “It’s definitely becoming more frequent that we are jumping on a conference call at midnight or one in the morning. Or we’re jumping on a conference call at six in the morning because it’s the end of their day.”

But then Schmitz says your idea of a global business changes as well. “The interesting thing is that there are American companies we are working with that have a global imprint. So we have helped them to develop their national headquarters and regional headquarters in this country and now we’re sort of going around the world with them as they go around the world.”

And that’s in addition to the destination first-time clients who are overseas. It can be heady stuff. “When you go over to Dubai,” says Schmitz, “and you’re sitting on a plane looking around, there are all these businessmen from the U.S. going to do three days’ worth of work and then come back; it’s amazing.”

Schmitz says there is a respect abroad for U.S. companies that can “get stuff done.” And that, he says, is “where Madison’s brand and Madison’s stamp on the world is very critical.” That and “the ability to have absolutely no fear.”

“Because you could stop this immediately,” says Schmitz, “when you find out what the tax [issues are] and how are we going to be paid in dollars, are we going to be paid in Krugerrands and where’s the transfer going to take place, and how is that all going to work, and what about all the contracts? You can’t let those barriers stop you. Because you get through some of those and then it’s a much easier process afterward.”

But Schmitz says ultimately doing business on a global stage is more than just twenty-first-century technology, opportunities and fearlessness. “I also think, ‘Why else do you wake up?’ We’re here to share what we know. And what we know goes well beyond the borders of Madison, or Wisconsin, or the U.S.”

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