A couple months ago, I had lunch with some fellow tech entrepreneurs in downtown Phoenix. It was a really special lunch.
Across the table from me was Steve Case, the billionaire co-founder of AOL. He is now a venture capitalist, author and business leader with the usual charitable foundation and many entrepreneurial projects.
Steve was in Phoenix for his Rise of the Rest tour, which brings attention to the rest of the cities who aren’t already booming and attracting a lot of attention.
Phoenix is not one of those big tech boom cities right now. There’s a lot of startup activity and some success here, but it isn’t booming like Seattle, Austin, Denver or Salt Lake City. The success of local technology companies has not fundamentally and permanently improved the economy here.
Steve had walked in to the restaurant, shook hands and introduced himself all around. He sat down on the other side the table from me.
Then he asked me directly:
“So, Greg, what do you think needs to happen for Phoenix to create more big growth-company wins and expand the economy here faster?”
I took a deep breath. Then I told him what I have been telling others for years:
“I have helped grow two companies here in Phoenix from startup or early stage to over $100 million in revenues – SalesLogix and Infusionsoft.” (He recognized both of those companies, and ACT! too, which was nice.)
“We grew both of those companies up before there was an ecosystem of incubators, local capital, startup events, university support, city government assistance and all that. We just created world-class companies and didn’t expect anyone else to help us. We aimed high and did enough of the hard things to succeed. We got the capital we needed from Silicon Valley. We attracted talent from all over or we grew our own talent. We made a lot of mistakes, survived and never gave up on our big visions.
“We need more entrepreneurs who think bigger and solve big problems in world-class ways, from right here in Phoenix. We have a lot of good companies that are doing OK, but we don’t have enough big success stories that change the outside world – and the future of our cities.
“We have really smart people here, so I think it’s a mindset issue. Entrepreneurs need to dream bigger and believe they can do big things that change the world even when nobody in the local area thinks that’s normal — or possible. Everything else follows the entrepreneur – money, talent, ecosystems, infrastructure.”
I knew what AOL had done for the Virginia area near Washington DC. Lots of jobs, lots of millionaires. “Over 100 companies started or funded by AOL leaders in the area,” he told me. Phoenix would be a different place if Steve had started AOL here.
Steve talked about getting America Online (AOL) started and growing it against the odds. About how had to convince the board not to accept buyout offers for $400 million from Microsoft. That’s a lot less than the $165 billion that Time-Warner paid for AOL in 2000, which was also crazy. And it created massive change in the world.
There are a lot of problems in the world. Entrepreneurs solve many of these problems by creating businesses that make money and create jobs at the same time.
The world needs more entrepreneurs to succeed in creating their big visions.
And Phoenix needs more entrepreneurs to think bigger and solve problems in world-class ways.