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Nurturing entrepreneurial spirit is key to a North Bay recovery

Commentary

Zachary Kushel is founder and managing partner of Marin Sonoma Impact Venture) msivfund.com

Mike Blakeley is the CEO of the Marin Economic Forum (marineconomicforum.org)

The COVID-19 economic downturn will require decisive action as a community to restore and reshape the North Bay economy in recovery.

Sonoma County’s unemployment rate registered 12.7% in May, up from 2.4% just one year ago, while Marin County saw 10.3% unemployment in May compared to 2.0% from one year prior. How can we as a community help put our residents back to work in a timely manner?

To ensure we emerge stronger in recovery than we were prior to this crisis, we must leverage our community’s resources and expertise to boost promising local new ventures and help them become the next great North Bay company.

Today’s startup companies are tomorrow’s growth engines, and startups will play an outsized role in North Bay job creation over the coming years.

According to a seminal 2010 study by the Kauffman Foundation, net job growth in the U.S. economy occurs through startups and, “during recessionary years, job creation at startups remains stable, while net job losses at existing firms are highly sensitive to the business cycle.”

The North Bay startup footprint is more robust than is generally acknowledged or appreciated by our community. Startups are pervasive throughout our two-county area, from the Santa Rosa medical device cluster to Petaluma’s Telecom Valley to the software and biotech companies throughout Marin to the innovative food and beverage brands cutting across the region.

According to research recently published by Marin Sonoma Impact Ventures, between 2010 and 2019, at least 331 startup companies were founded across Marin and Sonoma, of which 95 received $1 million or more in equity financing (a proxy for the “quality” of a startup).

This study concludes that if the Marin and Sonoma two-county area together was the 51st U.S. state, this hypothetical state would have seen more quality startups formed here in the last decade than half of U.S. states and would rank in the top three of all states in the number of quality startups per capita, behind only California as a whole and Massachusetts.

Yet, despite these core attributes and the presence of incredible entrepreneurs, our startup ecosystem remains significantly underdeveloped. Founders are disconnected from one another, local talent applies their skills elsewhere, seasoned locals are untapped as mentors, there is no pooled capital dedicated to the region, and there is a leadership void within the startup community.

Why does this matter?

In his 2012 book The New Geography of Jobs, University of California Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti concluded that “for each new high-tech job in a city, five additional jobs are ultimately created outside of the high-tech sector in that city, both in skilled occupations (lawyers, teachers, nurses) and in unskilled ones (waiters, hairdressers, carpenters).”

In other words, growing startups hire local small businesses to provide services, leading to a multiplier effect for job creation at all levels of the economy.

Strong startup ecosystems lift up all participants and maximize the chances of fledgling enterprises succeeding and ultimately spurring the local job creation Moretti writes about.

Being a startup founder is a very lonely activity by definition — for North Bay founders, rather than feeling they are on an island, they should instead feel that they have the power and support of the North Bay community behind them, helping facilitate their success in a manner that is inclusive, genuine, and not self-seeking — consistent with the way we do business in the North Bay.

In the days ahead let’s consider these three actions to hasten this proliferation of high-growth enterprises critical to our recovery:

1. Start companies in the North Bay

With more tech talent migrating north from San Francisco and the increased use and availability of specialized skills that can be acquired virtually, traditional barriers to locating a start-up in Marin or Sonoma are eroding. Let’s convince our most talented residents to build their next business here at home, embedded in our community, and to hire locally when a strong fit for the business.

2. Share expertise locally

Let’s all do our part by applying our respective skill sets locally when it comes to our engagement with high-growth enterprises. If you are an advisor or mentor to companies, see if there is a local startup that can use your expertise. If you are job hunting, seek out opportunities in the North Bay. If you are an angel investor, pay extra attention to investment opportunities with North Bay companies.

3. Make government a partner

Despite having a startup footprint and entrepreneurial talent that most regions would envy, neither Marin or Sonoma counties have startup-specific strategies. There is a great opportunity to integrate public agencies into the formation of a stronger North Bay startup ecosystem. Ensuring both counties support startups in their future economic planning should be a priority for business groups and residents alike.

The North Bay economic history is rich with startups having prospered across both counties, and our future must be as well if we are to ensure our continued prosperity in the years ahead.

Commentary

Zachary Kushel is founder and managing partner of Marin Sonoma Impact Venture) msivfund.com

Mike Blakeley is the CEO of the Marin Economic Forum (marineconomicforum.org)

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