The judges’ decisions are in. And in the case of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards in Los Angeles, the Central Coast once again has been shut out.
Three apparently well-qualified finalists failed to bring home the hardware at a gala dinner at the Beverly Hilton on June 18, extending a string of poor showings for the Highway 101 tech corridor.
For reasons that were not particularly clear, Mindbody was competing in the consumer category. Mindbody is a fast-growing San Luis Obispo software company that sells software and related products to spas and yoga studios. Many people, myself included, expect CEO Rick Stollmeyer to take his company public next year.
Competing in the tech category was Tempest Telecom Solutions, a niche company based in Santa Barbara that got its start delivering extra bandwidth to sports and entertainment venues. The company is headed by CEO Jessica Firestone, a formidable player in the male-dominated telecom sector.
And a competitor in the smaller, emerging company category was Trade Desk, a digital advertising exchange that’s gobbling up the city of Ventura’s incubator. Founder Jeff Green is a serial entrepreneur in the clicks-for-cash space.
As a longtime observer of the Entrepreneur of the Year process, it’s hard for me to know whether the three companies had an off day during their selection interviews. Or whether their financials didn’t quite measure up.
But I think there are a few lessons to be drawn from this year’s competition.
First, as we’ve argued before in this column, reshaping a community’s economy and business culture doesn’t seem to resonate with the judges as it should in scoring a contestant. The awards have singled out role models — among women, minorities and young leaders.
But the impact that a company like Mindbody or Trade Desk is having across an entire city doesn’t seem to count for much. Consider if you will that with 500 regional workers, MindBody’s head count on any day equals roughly 1 percent of the entire population of San Luis Obispo or something like 3 percent of its entire work force.
However, size and impact don’t seem to matter. Even finalist Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Los Angeles company that has reshaped the working culture of Southern California, didn’t resonate enough with the judges to win in the consumer category.
Second, it may be that entrepreneurship in the 101 corridor is evolving away from the models that exist in Los Angeles. At the edges of this metropolitan behemoth, housing prices are higher, unemployment rates are much lower and it is much more difficult to recruit talent.
That means Central Coast entrepreneurs are more focused on recruitment and retention and also on building disciplined, niche companies.
Third, when it comes to more quantitative measures, the corridor continues to do fairly well. Whether it is the Inc. 5000 or the Deloitte & Touche Fast 50, our region continues to land plenty of companies on these lists. That means we are still an effective place to hatch a fast-growth company.
However, when it comes to qualitative measures, our companies are perhaps scrappier and harder-edged, with a focus on operating efficiency. And perhaps because of that our companies also like to break it out and have fun.
The bottom line on the Entrepreneur of the Year awards is that the big LA show and the region’s entrepreneurial culture may be beginning to drift apart. It is unlikely that the region’s entrepreneurs will change just to meet the criteria of one particular awards program.
Which means that as long as the Entrepreneur of the Year program retains its LA focus, it will have to recognize the particular attributes of Central Coast startups and vastly raise its profile with potential entrants who could enter and win.
Or be prepared to see a steady decline in the quality and quantity of companies willing to undertake the risk of falling short in the Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]