This article originally appeared in the Union Tribune San Diego
By Steven Greenhut
SACRAMENTO — One of my guilty pleasures is watching the TV show, “Shark Tank,” in which budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists in the hopes they invest their cash in exchange for a share of the upstart companies. The “sharks” can be snarky and ruthless, but the show puts capitalism in a refreshingly favorable light.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper — known for his unsuccessful ballot drive to split California into six smaller and more politically responsive states — likes the TV show, too. His latest idea:Fix the state’s problems by starting his own shark tank. He and some colleagues will listen to idea pitches for improving state or local governance and will decide which ones to fund.
Yes, it will be broadcast. His Draper University (a short-term entrepreneurship program) already is slated for a reality show called “Startup U.” But in an interview, Draper said his shark-tank idea is more serious business than show biz. It could do for government what the Internet has done for other industries and what Uber has done for taxi services — i.e., improve customer service through innovation. “Government is the last laggard,” he said.
“California has become bottlenecked and … it feels to me like we’re being served the way a monopoly serves its peasants, not as a good competitive, cooperative group that loves its customer,” Draper added. “A lot of it gets caught up in partisan things … instead of thinking, ‘What’s the best thing we can possibly do here?’ And maybe (the idea) comes out of left field.”
In the business world, “sharks” can fund new ideas that can easily be taken to the market and succeed or fail based on the consumer. It’s harder to improve government because the people who control it are unlikely to go along with ideas (e.g., pension reform) that threaten their benefits or power. How does he get around that fundamental problem?
Draper didn’t have many specifics, but he could see funding state or even local voter initiatives that promote reform, or maybe think tanks, and business ideas that could help governments, say, improve technology. His “Fix California Challenge” only wants ideas that challenge the status quo, provide better representation to the citizenry, or improve education, government accountability and opportunity. He wouldn’t give specifics, but expects to make a multimillion-dollar investment.
“We created an initiative that I thought was a good initiative, Six Californias,” he said. “But we didn’t get it on the ballot, so we decided to retrench. … I thought … well, maybe we want other ideas, we want other entrepreneurs to bring their own ideas to us and I can fund them.” He hopes to crowd-source the project so other investors will fund them, also.
And he wants innovative thinking. “I think of Elon Musk,” Draper said. “He says we’re going to Mars and 95, 97 percent of the people think he’s crazy. The other 3 to 5 percent say, ‘How are we going to do it?’ and then they work on it. … The same kind of thing can happen with government.” He wants more than an idea. He wants specific plans pitched by people who will dedicate themselves to implementing the idea. He seeks passion, which is only fair given how passionate he is about his outside-the-mainstream ideas.
Bill Lyons, founder and CEO of San Diego-based Revestor on ABC's "Shark Tank." — Photo courtesy of ABC.
Not long ago, this kind of big thinking was more common. Observers were fixated on ways to “save” California given its massive budget deficits, tough business climate and soaring poverty rates. But this reform movement came to a halt after voters in 2012 agreed to hike taxes via Proposition 30.
The short-term deficit disappeared, but nothing fundamentally changed and legislators are back to business as usual — pitching new programs and looking at ways to hike taxes to fund them. The problems still are there, although the attention to them has faded. So it’s nice to see someone still thinking about fixing our state.
This new idea faces fewer obstacles than Six Californias. If it takes off, it might do for political reform and good governance what “Shark Tank” has done for entrepreneurship.