Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 7, 2013

Forum: Sustain entrepreneurial momentum in 2013

By Rob Fowler

---- — As we track the growth in new businesses and jobs across the state and in the Traverse City region, we want to sustain the positive, pro-innovation progress of the past few years.

During 2011 and 2012 we witnessed the most pro-business, pro-growth and pro-employment reforms by a governor and Legislature in at least the past 50 years. Our challenge is to keep the entrepreneurial momentum going to reshape our local and state business climate and investment image.

From Detroit to Traverse City, entrepreneurial activity is on the rise, although it may look different from one region to the next. The common factor is that communities are working together to celebrate and support a culture of entrepreneurship.

Detroit capitalizes on a gritty urban image coupled with small-business support programs and big-business real estate investment to foster a thriving hotbed of small-business growth.

Ann Arbor is a model ecosystem of entrepreneurship flowing out of and supported by a world-class research university.

In the Traverse City region, far from larger population centers where business opportunity would likely be greater, entrepreneurs are creating innovative companies and making investments that translate into jobs. We've seen a 27 percent increase in members from the region, which equals about 162 companies, in just the last year.

Fostering entrepreneurship is different from making Michigan more "business friendly." Pro-business tax, regulatory and fiscal policies are important but not sufficient to help entrepreneurs create jobs. Gov. Snyder and legislative leaders deserve great credit for embracing the Small Business Association of Michigan's concept of "economic gardening" — the idea that future economic success hinges in large part on cultivating and nourishing home-grown business operations. Economic gardening depends, however, on a whole range of cultural and educational assets, not just business-friendly rules and regulations.

In the early 20th century, Michigan was the Silicon Valley of its era. Hundreds of entrepreneurs and innovators invented the automobile industry. Over the long term, however, that success led to cultural expectations that huge companies would continue to employ generations of well-paid — but not entrepreneurial — people. That paternalistic legacy is long gone, but the mindset remains.

The unsuccessful electoral counterattacks in 2012 against improvements in our business environment illustrate that economic backsliding is a real danger.

States and regions that have successfully improved their economies don't seem to depend on any one "magic bullet." Instead, they employ a range of strategies over a sustained period of time — not only business-friendly tax policies, but also support for education, infrastructure improvement, protection of natural resources and — most importantly — fostering a culture that celebrates risk-taking and innovation. Michigan has made progress, but there are different routes to success:

Strengthening our entrepreneurial foundation and building on the accomplishments of the past two years are key to economic growth. We'd like to start a conversation with labor unions to explore their role in promoting entrepreneurship and job growth. We need to enhance collaborative opportunities among state/local governments, communities that are pioneering "sense of place," our educational institutions and rapidly-growing private sector investment community.

Rob Fowler is president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan.