Monday, January 12, 2009

Wanted: 10,000 Entrepreneurs

Barack Obama, who will become our President next week, puts his economic philosophy this way: “It depends on whether you want to reward wealth or reward the workers who create wealth.” That’s a standard Democratic mantra, for which he can be forgiven. But there is another subset of the population that is overlooked in both the Democratic and Republican catechisms. It is a tiny subset, but it is the subset we must depend on if we are to extract ourselves from a recession that could become a depression.

I am talking about the people who have the vision, knowledge, and leadership skills to create dynamic new companies.

Vision: Some people have a sixth sense that tells them where the markets are headed and what responses will best exploit the coming trends. These people are not infallible, and sometimes they get it wrong, but when they do they cut their losses and start again, because it’s in their DNA. Of course, to act on their vision they need

Knowledge: If the vision involves electronics, they must know electronics. If it involves pharmaceuticals, they must know medicine. Because we are talking about business opportunities, they must know the nuts and bolts of business, including finance and sales and, probably, manufacturing. Then, to give their new company critical mass, they need

Leadership skills. All the vision and knowledge in the world are useless without the ability to find, engage, motivate, and retain a work force that understands the dream and is inspired by it. We are talking now about communication skills, plus the indefinable quality that a platoon leader shows when he tells his troops “Follow me!” – and they do.

It is clear that we are talking about a rare combination of qualities. In many cases the visionary lacks one of the essentials, so a partner is found. Thus Dave Packard joined Bill Hewlett to found H-P, Larry Page joined Sergey Brin to found Google, Bob Noyce joined Gordon Moore to found Intel. Exceptional people all, and it is often impossible to know exactly which qualities were contributed by each member of the team.

Such people are a rare breed, much rarer than most people realize. (I worked for such a person for 27 years, so I know whereof I speak.) My guess is that in the whole United States there are no more than 10,000 people (and that's a generous estimate) who have the potential to create (or co-create) companies of substance. A few can create industries, and these are the rarest of the rare.

So, President-Elect Obama, don’t worry about rewarding capital or labor. That’s yesterday’s story. Concentrate on finding and motivating the 10,000 people who have the magic touch that can create a Google or an Intel or a Microsoft (or, for that matter, a Wal-Mart). You may say that education is the key, so we must have better schools. But that process takes years, and we need solutions now. The 10,000 are out there. Some have founded small companies and failed. Their next venture may be the next “new thing.” Some may be looking for the right partner. Some may need funding, just when the venture capitalists have gone missing. You can help, maybe. You could, for a start, sit down with someone like Steve Jobs or Larry Page for a brainstorming session on the subject of entrepreneurism. You need – we need - those 10,000 people in a hurry.