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The Road to 2027 

A closer look at Spokane's entrepreneurial needs

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Austin. Boulder. Durham-Chapel Hill. Do you ever wonder if the Spokane region could be mentioned in the same sentence as these hubs of innovation? I believe this is a realistic, achievable goal within the next 10 years. Our community possesses many of the requisite assets, and I expect demand for them will be robust as other cities increasingly become labor, real estate and quality-of-life constrained.

But is this a goal we even aspire to? If so, how do we get there? Are we willing to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset of disruption, creativity, tenacity and risk-taking?

The Inlander asked that I address these questions and others as a monthly columnist. So what are my qualifications to write on such topics?

You could say it all really started for me when I ran into a couple of high school buddies up by Sears one day back in the 1980s. But first, let's back up to the very beginning: Following graduation from Lewis and Clark High School, I attended the University of Washington, where I pursued a degree in business with a concentration in accounting. This was an academic decision, made impulsively when an upperclassman informed me he had accepted a position with a Big Eight accounting firm for $17,000 a year. That seemed like a very attractive sum back in 1980.

Following graduation, I took a job with Deloitte Haskins & Sells in Spokane. Soon, I had completed the CPA exam, got married, bought a house, secured a station wagon and became the proud owner of a dog. I was 23 years old.

On that fateful day, my wife and I got into the station wagon, with the dog, and set out to purchase a new washer and dryer at Sears. Pulling into the parking lot, I saw a red Corvette with its top down, music blaring, a cooler in the back seat. Inside were two of my high school friends. I looked at them, they looked at me, and I thought to myself that perhaps I was taking life too seriously.

I reflected upon how I could diversify my own portfolio of skills and decided to pursue an MBA. In 1985, I enrolled at Wharton, where I was surrounded by people with prep-school pedigrees and Ivy League diplomas. Business school there in Philadelphia was survival of the fittest.

I elected to pursue investment banking and spent the summer between my first and second year working on Wall Street. It was a colorful era marked by junk bonds, hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts and insider-trading scandals. I wanted to move back to Spokane, but the number of openings for investment bankers here was exactly zero.

Instead, I accepted a job with the investment banking firm of Dain Bosworth in Seattle. It was an amazing time to be in Seattle. Companies were going public at a prolific rate, and Seattle was in the early stages of its incredible growth, with Microsoft, Starbucks and McCaw Cellular getting started. I had the opportunity to be involved with a wide variety of deals and to meet many of the most successful entrepreneurs and financiers in the region.

Yet Spokane still called to me. I learned that Spokane Capital Management, an angel fund formed in connection with Momentum, was seeking a new manager. I reached out to Dave Clack, then chairman, and in the summer of 1995 moved home to raise a new fund for the organization. Dave became my mentor, for which I will forever be grateful.

We wound up raising $172 million across three funds, and even opened an office in Seattle. For the first five years, as markets were generous, our firm was at times the largest venture investor in Washington state. The next five years, however, were incredibly challenging. The tech bubble burst, there was 9/11, the venture market was overfunded and then Sarbanes-Oxley passed. I learned the meaning of "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

The silver lining to that tough stretch was that I could turn my efforts to working with up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Spokane. I occasionally teach entrepreneurship at Gonzaga, I manage the Spokane Angel Alliance and I am co-founder of the Toolbox, an incubator for manufacturing startups. At Gonzaga, I met Josh and Sarah Neblett and collectively we started etailz, which subsequently grew to nearly 200 employees and was recently acquired by Trans World Entertainment Corporation.

It's been over these past few years, witnessing the dynamic changes that have occurred in Spokane and observing national trends, that I have come to the believe our community has an opportunity to become hub of innovation like an Austin or a Boulder.

In the coming months, I'll highlight local success stories to better understand the opportunities before us — and I'll try to challenge our local conventional wisdom, with an eye toward what Spokane could look like in 2027.♦

Tom Simpson is an entrepreneur, angel investor and advisor to startups and other businesses in the Spokane region. His column will appear in this space the first Thursday of every month; you can reach him at tsimpson@inlander.com.

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