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AOL co-founder Steve Case says entrepreneurship holds key to recovery

Steve Case, right, co-founder of AOL who now focuses on investing in businesses, touts entrepreneurship as the place to focus to get America’s economy rolling again, saying a 23 percent decline in startups since 2007 has cost the country 2 million jobs.

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Steve Case, right, co-founder of AOL who now focuses on investing in businesses, touts entrepreneurship as the place to focus to get America’s economy rolling again, saying a 23 percent decline in startups since 2007 has cost the country 2 million jobs.

As stubborn unemployment continues to dominate the national debate over how to jump-start America's economy, President Obama asked 27 business executives to recommend policy changes that could get people back to work. Former AOL chief executive turned investor Steve Case was among them. With a background in entre­pre­neur­ship, Case focused his attention on ways to bolster startups and fuel high-growth companies. Case spoke with the Washington Post about the proposed changes. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Why focus on entrepreneurship?

The two statistics that I think are most relevant here in terms of framing the opportunity but also the challenge is that over the past 30 years, 40 million jobs have been created by these high-growth companies, which is really all the net jobs.

And No. 2, that the number of startups has declined 23 percent (since 2007) and if they had stayed at the same rate, we would have had 2 million more jobs in our economy. I think those are both pretty compelling statistics that suggest this is the place to focus.

The report recommends ways to bolster private investment. Aren't venture capitalists also struggling?

They're also struggling. I think there is a tendency for people to think about entrepreneurship as Silicon Valley. The reality is many sectors in the country (and) many regions in the country are undercapitalized.

It's very difficult to get early-stage funding. It's even more difficult to get the growth funding to scale the companies. Some of our council's proposals relate to that in terms of incentives around capital gains.

Are investors open to long-term investments that might be eligible for capital gains tax breaks? Or do they want a quick exit?

I think it's a mix. Some are focused on short-term, almost what I call built-to-flip companies. Others take a longer-term, built-to-last approach. And our focus in terms of the incentives was obviously on the latter.

How does the market for initial public offerings impact investments?

Part of the reason it becomes more difficult to attract investment is the path to liquidity becomes less clear when the IPO market is struggling. The IPO market is always going to have windows where it is strong or where it is weak, that's just the nature of the cycle. What's changed is it's just much more expensive and time consuming for young companies to go public, so fewer of them are.

That was the other sobering statistic: 80 percent of the IPOs in the '90s were $50 million or less, now that's down to 20 percent. What's happening is more of those companies are getting sold instead of going public and that often provides liquidity for investors … but also makes it more challenging in terms of the company's growth trajectory and therefore job-creation potential.

Should changes be made to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act?

(The proposal is) not trying to reduce the Sarbanes-Oxley rules in a general way because they were put in place, obviously, for some reasons. But to say that a young company that's raising $50 million and going public at a $300 million valuation should have the same Sarbanes-Oxley regime as IBM is a little crazy.

What's next?

Now that we have presented our proposals and gotten the initial feedback from the president and his team, we will be pushing forward trying to build awareness around the issue and trying to build bipartisan support for a congressional solution here so as much of our proposal as possible is put into place as quickly as possible.

Siri: "Everyone knows what happened to HAL. I'd rather not talk about it."

You: "Do you know HAL 9000?"

AOL co-founder Steve Case says entrepreneurship holds key to recovery 10/23/11 [Last modified: Sunday, October 23, 2011 4:30am]
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