Glen Taylor built Taylor Corp. into the country's largest wedding-invitation printer. Earl Bakken built Medtronic into the world's largest electronic medical-device company and founded the medical electronics industry. Bob Kierlin built Fastenal into the country's largest fastener company and one of the best stocks on U.S. stock exchanges. Dick Schulze built Best Buy into the world's largest electronics retailer. And Richard Burke built UnitedHealth Group into the world's largest health care management company.
What do they all have in common?
They are all among Minnesota's billion-dollar entrepreneurs who built billion-dollar companies from scratch. We in Minnesota have the good fortune to live in a beautiful state with a vibrant economy. We enjoy a high living standard due to the achievements of entrepreneurs like these who built great companies supporting high-paying corporate jobs.
But where is our next generation of billion-dollar entrepreneurs?
When I wrote my book "Bootstrap to Billions" (2009) about these billion-dollar entrepreneurs and Minnesota's hundred-million-dollar entrepreneurs, Minnesota was an economic leader with one of the highest numbers of Fortune 500 companies per capita in the country. But these entrepreneurs are now in their 70s and 80s. Nearly all of them built their businesses in the 1960s and 1970s, and were already in the billion-dollar category by the 1980s. That is about 30 years ago. The last Minnesota firm to reach the Fortune 500 list was UnitedHealth, which started in 1977. We have not built a single billion-dollar company from scratch since then.
Why? Where are the entrepreneurs in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are building the Fortune 500 companies of tomorrow, companies that will stay in Minnesota and keep attractive headquarters jobs here? If any of them are going to become tomorrow's multibillion-dollar businesses, they should be on the upward trajectory by now. Do you see any on the horizon?
The only conclusion one can draw is that something has changed — that Minnesota has lost its mojo. Why? Why have we not started new companies that have become billion-dollar companies? And note that we need billion-dollar companies to pay the high wages that Minnesotans have become accustomed to.
We need to start and grow billion-dollar companies — and keep them here — if we are to reap the full benefits. Building a business that takes off and is then sold to out-of-state companies as venture capitalists often do to exit moves the lucrative jobs elsewhere. It ends up giving wealth to a few rather than long-term benefits to many.
Here are some factors I think have contributed to the lack of billion-dollar productivity.
Maybe we have lost the hunger. This is the story of many third-generation silver spoons who grow up in comfort and don't want to take the risk and endure the pain of a start-up. When it is easier to join a large company and survive in the comfortable obscurity of middle-management, why risk a start-up? If you read the stories of Minnesota's iconic entrepreneurs, their common trait was the hunger for great achievement. Where have all the hungry achievers gone?
Maybe the hungry need to be well-educated in the latest trends and technologies. When I taught high-performance entrepreneurship at Stanford University this summer, I found that many more seem to be studying the latest technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., than here. We need to teach the latest technologies to students who are hungry for achievement so they can found leading-edge ventures that can become Minnesota's Fortune 500 companies.
Maybe we are still focused on entrepreneurial education that was designed for the 1990s. We have business-plan competitions — as if anyone can predict future success by reading business plans. Steve Jobs was rejected by 12 venture capitalists. So were the founders of Google. About 96 to 98 percent of venture capital is provided after "Aha!" — when success is evident to everyone. What are business-plan competitions evaluating?
Maybe we're focusing too much on top-down venture capital and discussing tax breaks for investors, when the reality is that venture capital has worked mainly in Silicon Valley. It hasn't worked well elsewhere. Outside Silicon Valley, about 90 percent of billion-dollar entrepreneurs grew without venture capital. They were finance-smart.
Should we focus on bottom-up strategies to develop finance-smart entrepreneurs like Glen Taylor, Dick Schulze, Richard Burke and Bob Kierlin, who can grow without venture capital? What can be done?
First, recognize reality: that our billion-dollar companies will be built by finance-smart entrepreneurs, not capital-intensive, venture-capital strategies.
Second, focus on bottom-up strategies and teach our entrepreneurs to become finance-smart so they can grow without capital until "Aha!" After "Aha!" capital is easier to raise.
Then, train them to dominate in the next emerging trends. Large companies have been built by dominating high-potential, emerging industries (such as Facebook) or by growing with emerging trends in fragmented industries, such as Chipotle in organic foods. But with all of the recent consolidation, there are few fragmented industries left. What's left are emerging trends and emerging industries.
That's where we need new leaders to become Minnesota's Fortune 500 companies.
Dileep Rao (firstname.lastname@example.org), of Golden Valley, teaches high-performance entrepreneurship and finance at the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, Florida International University and INCAE (Costa Rica). In his first career, he was a venture financier.