Last week, I attended a book release event for Regulatory Hacking: A Playbook for Startups, by Evan Burfield with J.D. Harrison. Evan is well-known in DC tech circles as one of the co-founders of the 1776 startup network. I’m not a fan of the term regulatory hacking, but the basic concept raised by the book is extremely important: the most exciting and consequential business growth opportunities today are mainly found in highly regulated markets. Examples include drug discovery, agtech, autonomous vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and artificial intelligence. Succeeding in these markets requires more than crafting a cool new app. Entrepreneurs will need to understand how regulations affect market development. They can’t just “hack” their way through problems, but will need to work carefully to ensure that new products, services, and technologies improve our lives and do no harm, while also making money along the way. As the book notes, “the easy problems in tech have been solved.”
Regulatory Hacking is very strong in making this case, and in providing a playbook for how to succeed in these new market structures. The new market realities also suggest that building businesses may become more challenging in the years ahead, as time to market and the cost to develop new business models will increase. Complex markets create complexity. So, while the potential for growth is profound, the path to success will not be easy. Hard problems will require sophisticated solutions that involve new approaches to business, closer collaborations between government and the tech sector, and a good dose of patience as well.
I’ve posted a few times about Bucksport, Maine, a small Midcoast town near where our family has a house. I’m a huge fan of Bucksport, but the town has had a rough go of it in recent years. The biggest blow came in 2014 when the local paper mill, a long-time economic anchor, shut down, cutting around 500 jobs (in town with around 5,000 residents). This was a tough blow, but the town has come together in tremendous ways. The biggest news has been the decision from Whole Oceans to construct a $250 salmon farm on the old paper mill site. That’s exciting news, but I’ve been even more excited about how the community came together to deal with the plant closing and to create a strong community spirit. That’s the real heart of this story.
A number of groups have been in on this work, but Bucksport Heart and Soul has been one of the key players. This community initiative uses tools and approaches pioneered by the Orton Foundation that empower local people to take control of their town’s future destinies. This effort has been very successful in Bucksport. If you want to get a flavor of the process, and get ideas for your own community, I encourage you to take a look at a new document from the group that lists 82 community-generated ideas for making Bucksport a better place. While I doubt that they’ll be able to follow up on all 82 ideas, this is yet another sign that local people have good ideas about transforming where they live. You only have to ask them!
Last week, the DC-based Hamilton Project released a number of studies looking at the state of entrepreneurship and business dynamism in the US. The core analysis took a deep dive into why US business dynamism is declining. Startup rates and firm survival rates are down, and job growth from new firms is also declining. The researchers point to decreased competition as a core causal factor: industry consolidation (especially in formerly small business intensive sectors like retail) and a growth in occupational licensing are among the many factors that make it harder for new firms to start and to gain market traction. The study also offers a number of small scale recommendations related to occupational licensing as possible means to address these market barriers. The project also suggests a bigger idea as well—A federal Main Street Fund that could make as much as $5 billion available for state investments in entrepreneurs and small businesses. The fund would be managed by the US Economic Development Administration, with funds provided to states based on population, demographics, and economic activity. It would also include penalties for states that created major new incentive programs–it is designed to generate new funding tools that support home-grown businesses and prevent inter-state battles for corporate relocations.
As a long time advocate for home grown business development and a critic of many tax incentive programs, I’m pleased to see ideas such as the Main Street Fund get some public attention. While I question the political feasibility of this idea, I like the concept of a data-driven fund that helps fund innovations in entrepreneurial support programs while also discouraging “the war between the states” for corporate headquarters and other facilities. This is a debate worth having!
Today, the US Senate continues to debate the 2018 Farm Bill, also known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. The Farm Bill is a big deal, setting policies in myriad areas from food stamps to nutrition programs to commodity payments. The Farm Bill typically provides authorization for various rural development programs, although this important piece of the debate rarely generates much attention. I hope to see this change in 2018. I’m especially intrigued with a new proposal from Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) known as the Rural Jobs and Investment Act. This bill, and an expected related amendment to the Farm Bill, supports a smart expansion of current rural development efforts. Among other things, it creates a new RISE (Rural Innovation Stronger Economy) program at USDA to further incentivize partnerships that support innovation-driven economic development in rural areas, and to allow USDA investments in incubators, accelerators, and maker spaces. It also tweaks current rules to help encourage the development of new equity investment pools focused on rural America. This amendment should be offered for consideration during the Farm Bill debate. Its passage should be good news for entrepreneurs across rural America.
The latest edition of our quarterly e-newsletter, EntreWorks Insights, is now available. This issue looks at innovative economic development ideas in the states. You can learn more and subscribe here.
Today’s economic environment can be tough on communities of all types, but small micropolitan areas face particular challenges. They can be far removed from larger markets and may lack the scale and scope to spur economic growth. But, many smaller places are able to turn lemons into lemonade, and create thriving towns and regions. What the secret of their success? That’s the focus on an excellent new study sponsored by the Walton Foundation. Micropolitan Success Stories from the Heartland profiles five smaller communities that are thriving, with booming economies and an enviable quality of life. (The study includes case studies of Ardmore OK, Brookings SD, Findlay OH, Jasper IN, and Oxford, MS).
The study focused on what works in these communities, seeking commonalities found in successful places. First, it helps to be home to a major college or university. If you’re not so blessed, other strategies make a difference. These include a focus on nurturing local entrepreneurs, building a diverse base of local manufacturers, and hosting a sizable cluster of firms and workers in the professional and business services sectors. Successful places combine a diverse economic base with a distinctive sense of place. The authors’ final conclusions quote Shakespeare’s famous line of “to thine ownself be true.” Building on unique amenities and assets, and realistically assessing your strengths and weaknesses, are the real keys to successful community building.
My colleagues at the Global Entrepreneurship Network and Startup Genome have released a new report that’s definitely worth a look. The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2018 offers a state of the field look at what’s happening with technology startup ecosystems around the world. Here’s a few highlights from this year’s publication:
- America’s global dominance in the startup world is eroding, while other nations, especially China, are becoming major players in the tech world.
- New ecosystem hotspots are gaining traction. Keep an eye out for Frankfurt, Helsinki and Lisbon!
- Fast-growing startups are concentrating in two broad areas: Vertical sectors, such as transportation and Uber, that rely on the third wave of the Internet; and those firms that rely on “deep tech”-major technology breakthroughs such as AI, Blockchain or life science innovations.
- “Hot” sectors are undergoing an interesting transition. Current growth sectors include advanced manufacturing and agtech, while new funding levels for adtech, gaming, and digital media are falling.
(NOTE: The report is free, but registration is required.)
I’m continuing to work with my colleagues from the National Association of Counties and the National Association of Development Organizations on a project to aid coal-reliant communities in the West seeking to develop economic diversification strategies and programs. We’ve been holding a series of workshops over the past year, and you’re invited to attend our next session. Strengthening Economies in Wyoming will be an opportunity to engage national and local experts in developing strategies and program that help coal-reliant regions replace lost jobs and identify new economic growth opportunities. The event will be held on June 21-22 in Gillette Wyoming, and registration is free. This should be a very interesting set of discussions. Wyoming has one of the US’s least diverse economies, but is making a major push to identify new economic engines. A new statewide effort called ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) is getting a lot of attention, and is sparking fascinating conversations about Wyoming’s economic future. Hope you can join us in June!
I’m in the midst of reading an interesting new(ish) book that should also interest my fellow economic developers. Coping with Adversity: Regional Economic Resilience and Public Policy (by Harold Wolman, Howard Wial, Travis St. Clair and Ned Hill) takes a deep dive into one of the most complex issues facing community builders: why do some communities bounce back from economic crises while others stay distressed and challenged? This comprehensive study examines the economic performance of every US metropolitan area between 1978 and 2007, with a particular focus on how they responded in the face of “shocks” (i.e., a natural disaster or a major economic hit such as plant closings). Over this time frame, the authors identify more than 1,500 different employment shocks. These shocks are shrugged off by nearly half of all regions as the economic hit does not trigger a wider downturn. For those regions that do face a downturn, 65% recover within four years as they return to previous rates of economic growth. A smaller share of regions lack resilience and teeter into a longer term chronic economic distress.
The authors use this data and six detailed case studies of resilient regions (Charlotte, Grand Rapids, and Seattle) and distressed regions (Cleveland, Detroit and Hartford) to ask a critical question: what works in promoting economic resilience? This is a complex question—that’s why it takes a whole book to discuss!! But, I’ll try to briefly summarize. The authors find that there are no specific community characteristics or policies that ensure resilience—all communities face economic shocks and it’s unrealistic to expect immediate recovery. But more resilient places tend to have a better educated workforce, more industry diversity among their export oriented sectors, and a perceived business-friendly climate, including right-to-work laws. In terms of policy, they find that state and local economic development programs appear to have a limited short term effect in addressing economic shocks. However, these policies do matter over the longer term, as they serve to improve a region’s overall economic competiveness and community assets.
My cursory summary doesn’t do justice to this very extensive and detailed analysis. The authors are all based in academia, but bring a practitioner’s perspective to the issues. This is not a dry academic tome—it’s a very readable, compelling, and realistic look at challenges caused by economic shocks and the real life difficulties of responding and recovering.
The rise of the independent workforce is one of the most important trends in our economy today, yet the topic is invisible in our public discourse. With the exception of Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), I can think of few public officials who even acknowledge that independent work is now the norm for a large share of our workforce. And, because protections for these workers and solo entrepreneurs is minimal, many of them face precarious situations related to health care, retirement, and workplace protections.
Here in the US, we’ve opted to ignore this elephant in the room. It’s too complicated to discuss! It is a tough topic and solutions are not easy, but it’s time to at least start discussing solutions. Thankfully, our colleagues in the UK are beginning to have these types of public discussions which I’ve blogged about in past posts. A new study from Demos, Free Radicals, is the latest example of new thinking about the future world of work. This is a long study that contains many insights, but a few stand out. It finds that most independent workers (80%) like the work and intend for this to be a permanent situation. Seventy percent note that they do not intend to take “regular” work. What does this mean? It means that these are not “gigs.” Instead, they are a new way of working which requires protections and benefits just like traditional jobs. This is an issue that isn’t going away.
The study also includes a host of interesting policy recommendations. A few new ideas include:
- Automatic enrollment for independent workers in a pension fund with small government matching investments.
- A new “engagers tax” for firms that use free lancers. These funds would help support the proposed pension plan.
- Development of new financial tools for savings and retirement that are geared to the independent workforce.
- Refinement of other benefits, such as maternity and paternity leave, to extend similar protections to independent workers.
The report includes thirty different new ideas for improving the safety net for the independent workforce and it’s well worth a read.