What Tulsa should be doing: Developing venture capital


I've been saying that giving Boeing and American millions of bucks is putting all our eggs in one basket, making Tulsa even more dependent on the weak commercial aviation industry. I've also said that it fails to replace the thousands of high tech jobs we lost due to the "tech wreck" and specific problems at WorldCom and Williams. These are folks who aren't qualified to turn a wrench for Boeing or American, and they're leaving Tulsa because of the lack of local jobs in their line of work.

Since the head of economic development for the Chamber of Commerce had "no idea" how to replace high tech jobs, I asked my friend Russ McGuire, who knows the tech sector like the back of his hand, for his thoughts. Here's the heart of his initial response:

I struggle with this since the real answer requires investment. Public investment means tax dollars and I just don't have confidence that government bureaucracy will efficiently translate my tax dollars into real jobs for real people. Private investment means companies committing to investing in Tulsa, which these days seems to mean tax dollars given (or surrendered) to bribe companies to invest here rather than elsewhere. ...

I've given lots of thought to what core competencies exist within NE Oklahoma (business and academia) that could be leveraged to create a world class leadership position for the state/area. This should translate into jobs. ...

Oklahoma has strong competencies in the following areas:
- Building and operating telecommunications networks (WilTel,Worldcom,Williams,WilTel(2),McLeod,AFN,etc.)
- Building and operating mission critical data centers (Sabre)
- Data Security (Sujeet et al at TU)
- Data/computation-intensive applications (national severe weather center in Norman)
- General construction (pipeline/energy heritage)

We have the following resources:
- Land (cheap and plentiful)
- People (bright, trained, low cost of living)
- Numerous fiber optic/data networks
- Several research universities geographically distributed, but relatively close (Norman, Stillwater, Tulsa)

The question is how to exploit those competencies. One possibility Russ suggests is a centrally located, large-scale data center, doing both production work and R&D, with the R&D focused on "new technologies and services with near-term commercial applications, so that the center could quickly become self-funding." There's a hitch, though.

Initial funding is a real problem. A couple of years ago, I believed that strong local companies, combined with national grants through the universities could cover the cost. Today, I just don't know...

But starting something big isn't the only way to go. Russ e-mailed me again a day later. We could and should be helping entrepreneurs get off the ground, but Tulsa isn't making it happen.

Lying in bed unable to sleep, it hit me that I skipped the entire class of job creation about which I'm most passionate - entrepreneurism.

The reason I skipped it is because I've already reached the conclusion that entrepreneurship, or rather technology entrepreneurship is not supported in Tulsa.

Yesterday I mentioned competencies and resources that can play into Tulsa's technology future. I didn't mention capital. Is that because there isn't any money in Tulsa? Of course not. But, from my experience, that money isn't focused on building great new technology companies.

Over the years I've looked at this from a number of angles. I've been a speaker at two of the Southwest Capital conferences hosted here each year. I've attended meetings of a local Entrepreneurs Club. I've even started a few companies myself. I've been a member of the small committee at Williams Communications that made decisions about which entrepreneurial companies to invest in. I've participated in the COEITT forums aimed at nurturing technology excellence in the area. Bottom line - I've seen just about every angle there is to this issue.

And to be honest, it's embarrasing.

As an expert on the telecommunications industry, I've been invited to speak by chambers of commerce in the Dallas area, the Boston area, the Silicon Valley area, the Seattle area, and even Ottawa. Venture capitalists on both coasts have flown me in to speak to their partners about which opportunities are most promising. I was asked to serve on advisory boards to venture backed firms in Boston, San Jose, and Washington. For three years, TeleChoice, the firm I served as Chief Strategist, and widely recognized as a top expert in launching innovative telecommunications companies, technologies, products, and services, was headquartered in Tulsa. Clients, literally on every continent except Antartica, actively sought out our advice.

We did virtually no business in Tulsa.

We couldn't get the Tulsa Chamber to return our calls. (We actually got excited one time when they DID call back and arrange a meeting. The summer intern who showed up had merely finally gotten to our name in his list of technology companies that he was surveying for some expensive study that yielded no meaningful results...)

Same with local venture capitalists. ...

I fear that Tulsa's "entrepreneurial spirit" is dead. Sure, it was central to the creation of the city and economy, but today it is as dead as downtown. There is capital in Tulsa. Much of it flows to other cities and other states. What stays here gets invested in old economy companies - many of them entrepreneurial.

Is this wrong? Am I condemning the investors?

No. Two obvious observations. I bet those "boring" investments have been much more profitable than technology investments the past few years. But more defensibly - investors are best off investing in what they know, and wealthy Tulsans generally don't know technology...

Am I saying there are no technology entrepreneurs in the Tulsa area? No. I'm one. You're one. There are many more.

Am I saying that entrepreneurial companies can't survive in Tulsa? I certainly hope that's not the case...

So, the natural thought process is: Aha, we should take all that tax money planned to be spent to lure Boeing et al to Tulsa, and instead create a huge fund to invest in entrepreneurial technology companies!

Or, how about, we don't collect the taxes in the first place, meaning that individual investors can choose to do that investing themselves...

It's a shame that someone with Russ McGuire's intelligence and experience doesn't have a seat at the table when we're talking about developing a shared regional vision. But it seems that our city and county leaders and the Chamber Pots only have time for the same old-money interest groups and the same old set of ideas.

And another idea -- let's have our public officials use their "bully pulpits" to encourage the local aristocracy to participate in the development of a private "Tulsa technology" fund to encourage the development of new technology ventures. Treat it as an exercise in local boosterism. As seed money, start with the $800,000 they're about to spend convincing us to raise our own taxes. Add to that seed money the millions in tax dollars that we annually flush down the toilet known as the Metro Tulsa Chamber, as payment for their feeble and clueless "economic development" efforts.

Just prying the Metro Tulsa Chamber off of the public teat would be a tremendous step in the right direction.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 18, 2003 2:04 AM.

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