Everything I’ve read about the American economy argues that our most serious problem is the number of able-bodied men and women who in previous generations would be working but now haven’t worked in years.
Such articles evoke the ghetto’s despair, the laid-off factory worker, the aging salaryman left behind by a digital economy.
But my immediate experience is with a different group of people : the 42-year-old engineers and entrepreneurs who retired from Microsoft, Google and Apple at the top of their game; the 28 year-old Facebook and Zynga millionaires already intent on doing deals, not making products.
Who could blame them? A high-growth company can rip the bones from your back. The people who built those companies have earned the right to do whatever they want. They’re reinventing philanthropy, and investing in thousands of new businesses.
But I can’t help but feel that if all the people getting lunch at the Bellevue Club or a coffee at Buck’s just got back in the game as operators and engineers, you could open a second Silicon Valley from the result. The glow from its economic activity could be seen from outer space.
We could use another Valley right now. The entrepreneurs working from the age of 22 – 32 are enough to make everyone in high-technology wealthy, but modernizing the whole economy is a lifelong project. What if the so-called greatest generation, which turned an agrarian country into an industrial powerhouse, had retired early? In our competition with China and India, America’s digital transformation seems to me like a challenge on the same scale.
That transformation begins with the people who know how to start and build high-growth companies. These are our economy’s unicorns, the mystical magical, rare wild creatures who can create jobs.
They are creatures like Adam Doppelt. Adam made plenty of money on Urbanspoon and, undoubtedly, Cubeduel, but is already back at it again with his VRBO-killer, Dwellable. He keeps doing his own startups because he’s worried one day no one else in high technology will hire him. Last I saw him, Adam’s parting question to me was, “Have you ever met a 65-year-old startup engineer?”
The commercial Internet is only 16 years old, so that question is just now dawning on many of us. But consider my ideal of commercial success when growing up, Michael Reidy. I initially met him on the deck of his house, which overlooked a 9-hole golf course. I was friends with his 14-year-old son, Conan Reidy.
Mr. Reidy was the first businessman I ever saw, and probably the first Republican too. Conan introduced me to him as if it were an audience with the pope. I stared at him as if he were a zoo animal.
It was a Sunday, and Mr. Reidy was working from a lawn chair. The deck may have been carpeted with an astroturf putting green, or I may be imagining this detail. Printed spreadsheets drifted like tumbleweeds by my feet. I looked up to see that he had a high-ball in his hand. I asked what he was doing.
“Trying… to get… this goddamn economy… MOVING AGAIN!” he said. Jimmy Carter had implored America’s business leaders to start new ventures, and Mr. Reidy said that he had to heed the call. He had already made enough money to kick back in Coeur d’Alene, but was up to his eyeballs again in a venture to build a chain of Hoagie’s Corners.
Long after he didn’t have to anymore, he kept on risking, building, trying. Last I heard, he’s now “doing windmills in Phoenix.”