Columbus2020 CEO Discusses the Future of Entrepreneurialism

Columbus2020 is a new economic development plan for Central Ohio that aims to grow our economy in several ways: Attracting new businesses to relocate to the area, assisting the development of businesses already located here, and helping new business startups and entrepreneurs.

Kenny McDonald was tapped last July to lead this effort as CEO of Columbus2020. Kenny previously served as the executive vice president of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, an economic development organization.

We recently spoke with McDonald to discuss the scope of the Columbus2020 project and what it could mean for entrepreneurs and small business owners in Central Ohio.

Walker Evans: Several months ago I spoke with Alex Fischer, President and CEO of the Columbus Partnership for Columbus Underground to speak in general about Columbus2020, but for the uninitiated, could you provide a brief overview of what Columbus2020 is?

Kenny McDonald: Columbus2020 is a regional growth strategy to move the ball forward on our economy on several fronts. Number one, and it’s important to put this as number one, is to get out and start to talk to the companies that we already have here, our existing accounts, if you will. And start to talk to them, understand their challenges and, very importantly, surface opportunities. Either through their role as business leaders who are here, who want to see their peers and colleagues maybe a little bit closer to them, sometimes for personal reasons, sometimes for business reasons, and we’ll take either one.

Number two would be the attraction of industry. While existing industry is important, a lot of that existing industry came through an attraction strategy in the past. Maybe even 20, 30, or 40 years ago. They were brought to the region somehow, some way and we need to continue to put things in the bucket, replenish the economic base that we have. It has a couple of benefits.

Number one, if we’re out across the world talking to people −and it will be done globally, both in Europe and in Asia, and across North America− we want to be talking directly to influential people. Middle men, if you will, that represent multiple companies and their location decisions, and the companies themselves years before they have a project.

The second thing that brings us on the attraction side is that it gets us out and generates activity. I’m a believer and I think one of the values of the effort is that we need to go out and present ourselves, and talk about the Columbus region, let more people know about it. And have a bit of a bragging strategy. How do we go out and tell our story to people that have projects, who are possibly going to have projects in the future, and to people who are associated with certain industries? So we can raise the flag and they think about the Columbus region when the time comes.

And finally, I think it is really important, and often a missed piece of the puzzle, is how do we generate more of our own companies? Like the attraction strategy, many of the companies that we currently have that are large employers started as very small companies, perhaps one or two people in a basement or something. We want to be very intentional about how we try to commercialize more enterprises, both tech and non-tech. But build our economic base from within, if you will, based on large companies in the region buying from small companies, based on making it easy to connect to each other. And say our effort can raise awareness of the great small companies that we already have among the startup enterprises and some of the people behind them.

Underlying all of that is what we call “civic infrastructure,” which is nothing more than the feedback on improving our product, improving our commercialization projects, improving our connection to the challenges and opportunities in an existing industry is presenting to us, and feeding that back to elected officials and people who make policy so that we can generate a better place to do business.

WE: I think the areas the readers of The Metropreneur are going to be most interested in is growing small businesses from within, as well as generating new businesses from within. I understand 2020 is still in a very early stage, but are you already seeing any specific issues in the community that need to addressed or places that really need to be paid attention to to help boost those types of efforts?

KM: My personal answer to that, is that it’s a bit of a soft thing, but there’s a science to it. And that is improving our connectivity, delivering our message to those businesses and those leaders and those citizens here so that we’re all telling a piece of the story to friends, business leaders, anyone. We’re going to ramp up a medium-sized team, very competitive, to do the work of 2020.

More importantly, we need to have the whole community selling, perhaps provide a platform for that. We are probably going to overcommunicate selling points and bullet points, and have a very large public relations effort nationally as well as within the region, so that people know what we have to sell.

I think we’ve got a lot of great programs. We’ve got a lot of great entrepreneurs. We’ve got a lot of great ways to connect here, but they’ve been undermarketed. We need to bring them to the surface and let people know that it’s okay to brag a little bit. And we need to increase the connectivity of the people we have. That kind of rubbing elbows and shoulders will generate its own activity, which will generate job growth and investment opportunities for the people that are already here.

I think the business environment is actually a bit better than the perception is. Times are tough right now and everybody is still squeezed; I think particularly the small companies are very weary to invest. But I think to some degree, it’s a confidence thing, as well as the reality of less business to business spending. And the consumer has changed a lot over the past couple of years. We can do something about the confidence level, at least as it pertains to our region. I think pumping out the confidence level in our region is a really big deal.

WE: Going back to the connectivity issue… There’s been a large focus on the tech sector. And a lot of progress has already been made with TechColumbus and such. Personally, I like that it provides a physical, tangible community for those different tech entrepreneurs to interact and collaborate, even if it’s just something like bumping into someone in the hall and having a quick chat. That’s something that traditionally, if these businesses were getting started on their own, they wouldn’t have on a daily basis. Do you think that the incubator concept is something that we could provide for other startup industries going forward?

KM: I do. As virtual as everybody is today, with their phones and iPads and such, it’s still really important to get together and talk. Columbus probably has more of that than other communities. There’s already a lot of platforms to do that, both tech and non-tech. I think there are still people out there that have their heads down focused on their business, especially over the last few years. We need to encourage everyone try to find the venue that’s right for them.

Part of what we are doing there is working on a website that lays out all of those things. Where can you connect? Where are people getting together? If we’re out talking −this is where the “create” pillar of the strategy, to try to create more enterprises, and the “retention” and “expansion” pillar, to go out and talk to the companies that we have− our team can be a central point. And our platform can be a central point. To connect people that we’re out talking to, both small and large, with people that are not quite connected yet, but that we may meet because we’re working on all pieces of this.

Our team doesn’t control incentives, we don’t own anything. What we have to be great at is getting individuals together, as well as companies. We’re going to have a fairly decent team doing that. We also need to encourage our investors and the people that are going to be associated with the program, several hundred people, to be those facilitators as well.

Things like, “I think you should know this person,” is a really big step. And setting people up for breakfast or lunch together that have similar interests that they never would have know about. But with talking to companies, we can do a lot of that.

WE: It sounds like a lot of what this project is looking to do is something that, as a region, we’ve been doing for awhile, which is economic development, moving away from the older ideas and starting to implement some new ideas and strategies. Are you finding that people and companies and organizations that are set in those old ideas are difficult to get to change their mind or move in new directions, or even scrap old programs and start clean and fresh?

KM: It’s not really been my experience; I’ve only been on the ground less than six months. What I’ve encountered is a real pent-up demand for looking at different ways to do business and different ways to attack our economy− incredibly so. A, it’s a very open community and B, it can be very progressive, meaning people want to know the next thing. If anything, however, it’s not that we haven’t been doing things, or even doing things correctly or well. But, to some degree, our effort and the 2020 initiative came out of having those efforts not be very well resourced.

So we were trying to duct tape everything together and I think what we can do with a funded and staffed initiative is a lot of what was proposed in the past, but we didn’t have the physical or financial resources to go out and make it happen. Part of the strategy is to simply go and do the blocking and the tackling.

There’s really no silver bullet to this, if you will. I think it’s important that we just go tell our story. And we also open our ears and listen to those small companies and those that are already creating jobs here; they are struggling through a tough time. Listen to those companies that are actually doing quite well, but need a little help to get over the top to leverage their industry.

I’ve been very impressed with the openness and the aggressiveness that people want. Quite frankly, there are people who say, “This is an odd time to launch such an initiative.” On the other hand, it’s really the perfect time because crises and the prolonged recession that we’ve had has made people more open to try new ideas. If we were at 4 percent unemployment, in my opinion, it probably would be harder to launch and people would be a little more hesitant to move forward with something that’s new.

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