Start-Up America Initiative: Start-Ups Are Cool Again

Here’s my hope for our community- let’s place a lot of bets on start-ups over the next few years. We need more entrepreneurs starting more companies. We’ll most likely have more failures, but we’ll have more successes too. Then we double-down on the ones that show promise.

As I shared my ideas with Stephen Culp, Founder of SmartFurniture.com and Delegator.com, he listened carefully and then provided this thoughtful analogy: 

“It’s like most communities are looking for a hundred year old oak that they can dig up from another area and transplant to their community. Sometimes that tree gets all the water, fertilizer, sunlight, and a big share of the community’s economic expectations. But what if you focus more on cultivating the whole field, instead of the single plant? What if you make it easy for hundreds– or thousands– of seeds to germinate and get a little bit of water, fertilizer, and sunlight? Some will take root and grow fast, and some will die– but even those make the field more fertile. Nurture the healthy ones and they’ll start producing their own seeds. Over time, you’ll have dozens of oaks– and even better, you’ll have all kinds of trees, and shrubs, and grasses, and flowers, not to mention a wild kingdom of interesting entrepreneurial critters. Above all, you’ll have a healthy, diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem, which, with responsible stewardship, will fertilize itself, continue to grow, and adapt to changing times, environments, and climates. While a transplanted oak’s roots might not take, if you focus on the field –eventually an ecosystem– you’ll create a home for an endless supply of entrepreneurial seeds needing a place to take root. 

Culp added, “This is really economic gardening 101. It’s certainly easier than transplanting oaks (economic gardening 401), which requires a lot of patience and nearly perfect execution. In cultivating the field, if you get a few basics right, you can be a little messy and it still works.  And you don’t need central planning to see and shape the future– leave that to the entrepreneurs. We’re talking about the free market, creating the right environment for the market to thrive, and then telling the world, “hey, we’re open for business.”

Call me crazy, but I would rather have a field of oaks and a vibrant ecosystem than just a transplanted oak. Or at least a mixture of the two.

Back to the new Start-Up America initiative- there has been research from the Kauffman Foundation that shows just how much start-ups do for the local and national economies. So the natural question that comes to my mind is “Why did it take so long for the government (at all levels!) the recognize this powerful truth?” 

I think this is a simple question with a very complicated answer. I’ve got two answers off the top of my head. The first is an obvious one: most politicians (again, at all levels) are not business people, much less entrepreneurs. We live in a world of career politicians that don’t know what it’s like to sign a payroll check only to miss their own mortgage payment. This has created a fundamental lack of understanding about how innovation occurs and how jobs are created- it’s not from smokestack chasing.

My second opinion on why it took so long is a little more “conspiracy theorish.” Politicians love reeling in the “big fish.” Think about how cool it would be to fly over mega-sites in helicopters and tell your grandkids that you helped land the big one. It’s instant gratification! On the other hand, creating an entrepreneurial culture takes 10-15 years.

I’m not saying that an “economic hunting” strategy is a waste of time and money. It’s been effective for Southeast TN with VW, Amazon, Wacker and Hemlock all within an hour and a half of each other. But I am concerned that too many communities around the US “hunt” at the expense of the start-ups (or potential start-ups) already in their community.

Now that I’ve ranted for a couple minutes, I’ll shower praise upon the Start-Up America initiative. I love it! This is EXACTLY what our country needs right now. There are some very tricky things they’ve got to figure out (i.e. how to improve access to capital), but I have a lot of confidence in the Kauffman Foundation…I just hope they are at the table helping advise and make decisions.

Entrepreneurs have understood these principles for many years…free up access to capital, give them access to smart people, and get out of their way (ease regulations and taxation) and they’ll create the next Amazon or Access America Transport (one of Chattanooga’s skyrocketing superstars).

Lastly, Sunday’s article in the Times Free Press, might be evidence that start-ups are indeed cool once again in Chattanooga…we’re hoping they are!