I’ve always loved the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. If you haven’t seen it, it stars some of the biggest comedians of the golden age of comedy in a farce where they all try to outdo one another (and do one another in) in a madcap race to find the stolen treasure that lies below the Big W.
It should have been the Big A, because this plot is playing out over and over in cities across the U.S. and even abroad as everyone races to win Amazon’s new HQ2 project, estimated to cost $5 billion and employ more than 50,000 workers when complete.
It certainly has its share of comedians, such as Stonecrest, Georgia, which offered the company 345 acres of land to be named Amazon, Georgia. Tucson sent a real laugher to CEO Jeff Bezos, a 21-foot saguaro cactus. And then there’s the hilarious mayor of Kansas City, Missouri who purchased 1,000 items on Amazon.com and gave them all five stars.
What did Seattle do? They launched into a blame game, thinking they had done something wrong. Was it the city’s progressive politics? Their tax structure? Traffic? The possibilities were endless, but few mentioned the one most plausible: Washington State had grown a global business that was so successful, so amazing, that it simply ran out of workers and space.
Amazon is one of Washington’s true business legends, a homegrown success story that has created an additional 53,000 jobs in the city, $38 billion in additional investment, and put 233,000 heads in beds in area hotels.
Perhaps just as important, Amazon continues to create the seeds for new ideas. The average Amazonian stays at the company for one to two years before leaving. And when they leave, they often start new companies. By its mere presence, Amazon has boosted the entrepreneur community by giving it a continuous flow of new blood. These workers either take the money they made and go to work for startups or they start their own companies, creating a fertile field for innovation, invention and ideation.
The Puget Sound region of Washington has been very blessed over the years. In 1916 Bill Boeing started building airplanes. Today, the company is the largest aerospace company in the United States. In the 1970s two college buddies – Bill Gates and Paul Allen – started Microsoft, a computer company that changed the face of personal computing. And now Amazon, with its 40,000 employees, joins the elite ranks of Washington companies that have not only driven the economy for the last century, but which have changed the face of entire industries with their bold ideas, household names like Costco, Expedia, Nordstrom, and Starbucks.
Instead of celebrating this amazing run, this second Gold Rush of economic might in the state, business and political leaders are wringing their hands, wondering what they did wrong rather than what they did right.
It reminds me of the old parable, the one with the dog and his bone. Remember that one? The dog saw another dog with a bone and wanted both bones. But when he dropped his own bone to get the second one, he discovered that the other dog was his reflection in a pool of water. He not only didn’t get the second bone, but also lost the first one.
There’s a lesson here for economic developers (isn’t there always when I write about comedy and introduce parables midway?)
The lesson is this. For every established company out there shopping a project, there are dozens of entrepreneurs out there who have the potential to be the next Amazon, Microsoft or Starbucks. Now, here’s the best part. They are already in your own community. The owners chose to live there because they wanted to, not because they were offered incentives and perks.
They are the most valuable treasure you have because they want to live and work in your city or town. You don’t have to bribe them to be there. They are there because of the lifestyle, the recreation, the arts and culture, the schools – any number of reasons.
As their business grows, they put down new roots in the community. In Seattle, Amazon has donated 47,000 square feet of their new office space to house Mary’s Place, a family shelter. Paul Allen has given the community three world-class museums, kept the Seahawks from moving to Los Angeles, and redeveloped a once blighted part of the city which today houses HQ1. And then there’s Bill Gates, who with his wife Melinda, are working to cure life-robbing diseases and treat illnesses in third world countries from their foundation’s headquarters near the Space Needle.
Being the winner of the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes will be a feather in any politician’s cap. But we must remember that in the last three decades, entrepreneurs who have created new enterprises that were less than a year old have created 1.5 million jobs – annually! Small businesses are the true economic engine of the U.S. economy and the primary source of job creation, not the occasional out-of-state recruitment.
Twenty-three years ago, an entrepreneur with a crazy notion set up shop in the garage of his home in a Seattle suburb. His big idea: Sell books on the Internet. Today, cities are willing to sell their souls to get a piece of that company and the secret sauce that Washington seems to have when it comes to entrepreneurship.
We should all be jumping for joy at our good fortune here in Washington. HQ2 is the supreme compliment to the health and wealth of our entrepreneurial ecosystem. And economic developers throughout the country should be using it as a teaching lesson.
So rather than blaming each other for what we did wrong, or being envious of the states that can offer huge tax credits and incentives, think about how our communities can invest in our entrepreneurs. Think about how we can help them grow, become mentors, and create a diverse economy. It’s nice to have one large company feeding an economy, but its even better to have hundreds of companies that will feed a workforce.
Sometimes, the greatest economic treasures are the ones that are already sitting in our own backyard. It’s those entrepreneurs who already have the next big idea, the companies that will change the way we shop, relax, communicate, or travel. Not all that glitters is gold, even if it promises tens of thousands of jobs. And if you don’t believe me, watch the ending of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. You’ll see.
What’s New This Month…
Marketing Mentor: The Gig Economy
Book Review: Collaborative Intelligence
Director of Community Economic Development – Ford Family Foundation
For Veterans: Bob Woodruff Foundation
Technical Assistance for Entrepreneurs