Down to Business

A couple of years ago Nancy and I had the opportunity to interview the incomparable Swedish glass artists Bertil Vallien and Ulrica Hydman-Vallien. Both are highly respected around the world, and Bertil Vallien regularly produces museum quality, "unique" pieces that sell for as much as $90,000.

Yet as we sat and had coffee at their home a block from the Afors Glasbruk factory where they worked, we were struck by the time, energy and unyielding commitment they had to simply keeping the mass production of glass objects for Kosta Boda going so the factory that employed so many of their friends and neighbors in Afors would survive. It was remarkable to hear these two artists talk about business with such passion, and it deepened our respect for them both. For Bertil and Ulrica, the business and art of making glass are intertwined. I thought of that conversation while reading associate editor Katie Vaughn's terrific business story on this very topic. Art is a business, as anyone who has ever sold a ticket, re-wired a studio, filed quarterly tax returns or scheduled an opening on the snowiest day of the year can surely attest.

But her description of the difficult but absolutely necessary marriage of business and craft also reminded me of a transition in the maturation of the bio-medical industry in our region. Ten years ago the University of Wisconsin--Madison, and especially the UW Research Park, began seeing huge growth in product development from dozens of small start-up businesses. For the most part these start-ups were the creations of UW scientists and it became quite clear that comfort, indeed brilliance, in the lab did not necessarily include comfort creating business plans. During those years if you asked chief scientific officers what they needed most to grow their companies their answers--even before venture capital--were business skills.

Since then, the UW School of Business, Edgewood College, MATC, the Wisconsin Technology Council and others have provided people, training and business resources to these brilliant innovators and we're seeing the results. (Now the number-one answer is venture capital.) We clearly need a similar targeted effort to help the artists who make this community such a rich environment in which to live. To some degree it's a result of a growing and more diverse population, including the very highly skilled workers our biotech sector is now attracting, but these folks demand a vibrant arts scene and arts can only remain vibrant if they can support the artists and suppliers who make the arts possible. In turn they will contribute mightily to the economic well-being of the rest of the community with tax revenues, jobs, tourist attraction and more. I sure wish them all the best. And may they be as successful in the "business" of arts as some of our entrepreneurial researchers are in the "business" of science.

No need to wish the best to the hundreds of people and businesses also featured in this month's magazine. You've already done that. Go through the list of 2009 Best of Madison winners and I think you'll recognize a common theme: good, smart business operation. These are local folks who know their customers, provide good service, successfully balance risk and responsibility and, I would guess, sacrifice a lot to stay in business. We may vote for them because they have a product we value or an environment we enjoy. But a vote also represents acknowledgement that as best we can tell the business is well conceived and well run and we appreciate that. So whether it's a florist, a dance company or a manufacturer of human skin, great ideas will make you the best, but sound business skills and practices will keep you the best.

Neil P. Heinen, Editorial Director
Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or nheinen@madisonmagazine.com. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

 

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