A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a pitch panel and it was an amazing experience. Now, you probably don’t know what a pitch panel is but I bet you’re familiar with the TV show Shark Tank, where inventors and innovators get in front of a group of celebrity panelists to pitch their idea for a million dollar business. That’s what a pitch panel is, but in my case, Mark Cuban was not sitting next to me on the panel, although there were a lot of notable members of the tech community helping me judge the entrepreneurs that came before us to pitch their big idea or business plan. This was part of the Thrive Accelerator, an organization that is backed by both Silicon Valley tech interests and agricultural companies from the Salinas Valley, which is not only where I live, it also produces more than 70% of the lettuce eaten in the US. The Thrive Accelerator is an incubator that supports technology startups that are developing or innovating in the agricultural space. Of the dozens of startups that made their pitch to us, only ten or so got selected to get the investment of time, mentoring and money that comes with making the cut.
It was really a pleasure and an honor to be asked to sit on the panel and I was really impressed with the number of new and interesting ag-tech ideas were brought to us. It was hard to only select the ten best, but I’m sure the others will either try again or move on to find funding somewhere else. I was also gratified to see so many young people who wanted to strike out on their own and build a business, hire employees and contribute to the American Dream. You know, it’s never been easier to start a business than it is today.
The first company I started required a lot of investment. I had to buy a lot of stuff, computers, software, desks, you name it, and this was before I hired my first employee! Back then, brick and mortar ruled the day. You had to have an office, you had to invest in expensive technology to outfit that office and you had to raise a lot of money to afford to get started. So when I think about how easy it is to get started in business today thanks to the rapid innovation of technology, I’m surprised there aren’t more startups.
Think about it, you can literally start a business today without spending any money. You can get email for free, store your documents online for free, get free office productivity software online that lets you compose letters, create presentations and crunch the numbers with spreadsheets. Thanks to companies like Google and Microsoft, if you are a small business – one with just a handful of employees – almost everything you need to run an office day-to-day is either free or virtually free. I remember having to get AT&T to bring in phone lines and by a phone system so we could act like and be considered a legitimate business. I spent thousands of dollars before I got my first call! Now, I can subscribe to any number of hosted voice over IP phone services, think of Skype or Netmeeting for business, and I only pay ten bucks a month for unlimited local and long distance calling and I get all the fancy features of the most sophisticated office phone. Even Salesforce, which is considered to be the gold standard of customer relationship management systems, is free to really small businesses.
Which brings me to an article I just read by Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup, the famous polling company. He was lamenting the decline of the growth of small business. According to the statistics he shared, for the first time in the 35 years that they’ve been tracking the data, we are now losing more small businesses than we are creating in America. We’re talking about real small businesses, the kind with employees that make money. He’s concerned that, despite all the recent positive economic news, our country is losing its tradition of entrepreneurship and innovation. The U.S. is now 12th among developed nations in terms of business startups, falling behind countries like Finland and Hungary.
I think, though, that what’s happening is that we are seeing a new era of startups that don’t necessarily function like traditional companies. For example, a lot of the people who came to pitch us on their ideas had full time jobs and were doing their startup on the side. With all that technology enables now-a-days, you don’t have to quit your day job while you work on your dream job. You can create a completely functional company online, without having to make all that investment we had to make back in the day. I think that’s where all those missing entrepreneurs are.