We've got the horses; it's jockeys we need

April 3, 2006


I don't like to disagree with Prof. Steve Kaplan. Kaplan's a brainy Hyde Park kind of guy. He knows his stuff. He ploughs through reams of data. He gets his facts straight. He calculates the odds.

Still, I have to say it. Steve, we need more entrepreneurial jockeys in this town. There are plenty of good horses to ride.

No, this column isn't about equestrians in the traditional sense. Jockeys and horses are Kaplan's metaphors for entrepreneurs (jockeys) and markets (horses).

This Thursday, Kaplan keynotes the Illinois Venture Capital Association/National Venture Capital Association luncheon at the Union League Club. His topic: "Should You Bet the Jockey or the Horse?"

Kaplan says, "Companies that go public almost never change their initial business. If you have a bad business, you are doomed no matter how good the management."

Kaplan adds, "Businesses that go public often have CEOs and managers who are not the founders. A good business can survive a mediocre management team if they are replaced with good ones.

"VCs should always want great businesses and great teams. However, you can replace a mediocre team in a great business, but a great team cannot make a mediocre business great."

I'm sure he's right. Kaplan is the Neubauer Family Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He's the foremost academic authority in the nation on the role that venture capital and private equity play in the economy. Institutional investors look to Kaplan for insights on how to make money. Entrepreneurs turn to him for advice.

He's a great teacher and a friendly, approachable, well-liked guy.

But he's wrong on who to bet on in the entrepreneurial stakes. Chicago needs jockeys to bet on.

According to the Illinois Venture Capital Association's recently published Private Equity Monitor, venture capital investments in Illinois companies rose 10 percent in 2005 to $246 million. While that sounds like good news, Illinois lagged the Midwest average.

Across the region venture investments rose 18 percent last year. In Missouri, venture investing rose 277 percent. In Ohio, it gained 109 percent. In 2005, Illinois venture investment represented 31 percent of the Midwest pie, down from 34 percent the prior year.

The problem is not enough jockeys. There's plenty of cash out there to back start-ups. There's a plethora of new products and new markets -- horses to ride. Chicago is missing steel-eyed jockeys willing to take the ride around the entrepreneurial race course.

A great jockey will pick a great horse to ride, and the money will follow.

The global race for knowledge- economy jobs has already begun. If we don't train more entrepreneurial jockeys, Chicago's going to be left at the starting gate in the global jobs competition.

All that race-horse-quality R&D developed at our local universities will be left grazing in the fields. Or worse yet, it will get loaded on a horse trailer and shipped to California, where there are lots of entrepreneurial jockeys.

Wouldn't that be a crime? Maybe it's time we fixed this race by developing more jockeys.

Mobile minute money-saver

Wireless costs are growing, and Northridge Group founder and CEO Therese Fauerbach thinks companies need to stay alert.

"You may be overpaying for those minutes," Fauerbach says. "It depends on whether you manage it."

Not only are companies overpaying, they're not protecting their rights to information on mobile devices.

"If your sales execs own the phone and leave, your contacts go with them," adds Fauerbach.

Businesses get confused by the array of cellular plans. Fauerbach warns a decentralized approach that allows individual employees to buy their phones and funnel costs through expense reports can be costly.

"You can pay 25 cents per minute for overages if the employee chooses poorly," adds Sue Platner, president and co-founder of the Northridge Group. She says 5-to-8 cents per minute is more reasonable.

Fauerbach and Platner just helped a Chicago-based company save $2 million annually in telecom costs.

According to Fauerbach, better management can reduce costs by 20 percent to 30 percent annually.

Maybe that's why Northridge Group's prospects look good. Wireless plans won't get simplified anytime soon.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.


 ©2006 Marion Consulting Partners