Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Seattle's Angel Gap: Too Many Maseratis, Too Few Seed Investments

A few months ago I was invited to speak to the Bellevue, WA chapter of Rotary International on my favorite topic: how to create a globally competitive early-stage technology ecosystem here in the Pacific Northwest.

As I was putting my thoughts together (full deck below + full props to Brad Feld, Fred WilsonMark Suster and Marcelo Calbucci for pushing my thinking on the topic), I found myself wondering for the thousandth time: for all the obvious strengths of the Pacific Northwest tech scene, why do we consistently underperform our considerable potential?

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about our local community, it would be to turn every Microsoft and Amazon alum who walked away with at least $5MM in personal net worth into an angel investor.

As a region, the Pacific Northwest is awash in "tech wealth", wealth that was created by some of the most remarkable entrepreneurs the tech world has ever seen. But of the thousands of people who participated in those companies' success, very few self-identify as entrepreneurs -- people who feel connected emotionally and intellectually to the startup experience. Absent that emotional connection to the entrepreneurial life, most wealthy beneficiaries of Bill Gates' and Jeff Bezos' startups put their money elsewhere -- family foundations and hedge funds, real estate and wine collections.

Paradoxically, because the vast entrepreneurial wealth Seattleites enjoy today was created by just a few massively successful companies, too little of that wealth is being recycled in the next generation of local entrepreneurs. And with fewer dollars flowing into the local innovation economy, the odds of the next Microsoft or Amazon emerging in the region are that much lower.

In the short run, Seattle loses because we have fewer startups. In the long run, though, we run a much more serious risk: of losing our position in the global innovation economy and failing to attract the kind of talent needed to make this the kind of city that our children and grandchildren want to live in.

Microsoft is on the ropes. Starbucks is up off mat but has had a tough few years. Amazon is still ascendant, but for how long?

Who among the many thousands of Microsoft and Amazon multimillionaires currently on the sidelines will step forward to help build the next generation of tech giants here in the Pacific Northwest? Raise your hand and I'll do everything I can to connect you with the early-stage community here, and to share the joy I feel every day chasing big dreams about the future with the smartest and hardest-working people I've ever met.