Mr. President: See entrepreneurs as heroes

= Let’s be generous and give President Obama a mulligan on his gaffe when he said of American entrepreneurs: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

That comment, though, shows two dimensions of how the president’s mind works. One, he truly believes that collective efforts out-weigh individual performance. Two, he has never started a company and therefore has no clue about the Herculean effort required of entrepreneurial teams.

Yes, America is a great place to start a business, because we have roads, bridges, data transmission, rule of law, education systems and generally effective government. But that doesn’t, in and of itself, get a company started.

He commented that “there are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there.” I’ve worked construction crews, on a farm, in news rooms, in factories, in the Marine Corps, and I’ve met plenty of those hard working people. But it’s not the same. Starting a business is about 80-hour weeks, for months and years, not 40- or 50-hour weeks. It’s about mega-stress.

And it’s about taking a lot of risk with your own savings and investor money. I’ve been there, too, having started several businesses. I now participate as an angel investor in early stage companies, and that gives me a front-row seat on what it takes to launch a new enterprise. Let’s just say it’s not for the faint of heart.

Launching a new venture takes the same kind of almost maniacal commitment that running for president does.

The more worrisome part of the president’s misunderstanding is that he is missing a strategic opportunity. Because he thinks first about government solutions, he misses that job creation is all about engaging what has come to known as the innovation economy.

Entrepreneurs are the main spear carriers in bringing innovation to the world, and, in the process of creating new companies, they become the prime source of new jobs. He should be cheer-leading for the nation’s entrepreneurs, not diminishing their individual bursts of energy and talent. They should be national heroes, not just targets for income redistribution.

Look at it this way, Mr. President. If you pull market leading companies like QuadGraphics, BroanNutone and SigniCast out of Hartford, Wisconsin, what happens to the local retailers, to the local bank, the law firms, to revenues going into the school system and city government? They all suffer – mightily.

It’s Economics 101. When settlers arrived in America, they built their communities by first putting in the farms and grist mills. Once businesses were up and running, then came the schools and government.

In today’s global economy, we need innovative, exporting companies at the top of the nation’s supply chains, and smaller companies like mine can then sell goods and services to them. All the companies up and down the supply chains create the jobs that put people to work and generate tax revenues.

I should point out that the three Hartford companies were all startups at one point. That’s true of almost every company in Wisconsin and other states in the Heartland. Entrepreneurs started them here and grew them to their market leading positions. They didn’t come from heaven or somewhere else. Real individuals – yes, with support systems around them – stepped up to the huge challenge of creating an enterprise from nothing.

It is important to understand, Mr. President, that companies have life cycles. I’ve watched many once-great companies pass into history. In my hometown of West Bend, Wisconsin alone, that would include once fine corporations like Amity Leather Products, the West Bend Company and Enger-Kress. That’s why we need entrepreneurs – to replace the market leading companies that have gone away.

Not many people have the drive and appetite for risk necessary to launch a venture. Fortunately, we have a few such Americans. We need a lot more of them, Mr. President. Figure out how to get that done, and we’ll see a healthy economy that continually renews itself and puts people back to work in good-pay jobs.

Put another way, the government doesn’t create jobs; the private sector does. Without the private sector and its tax revenues, there is no public sector.

Government services are necessary, but they are not the strategic drivers of the economy. Entrepreneurs are. And, in the main, somebody else doesn’t make it happen for them.

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