Governor John Hickenlooper: An Entrepreneur Who Governs Like One

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(Above is a Youtube playlist featuring 9 short videos of our interview with Governor Hickenlooper. You may watch them in order or click on the playlist button in the upper left corner to view them as you like.)

By Scott Carpenter

The Colorado State Capitol is a sight to see. The golden-domed building sits atop a small hill in downtown Denver. On the day ID8 Nation was there the mostly snowy, bitter cold week had turned sunny and warm. Steam was rising from the steps of the capitol as the bright sun melted a week’s worth of ice and snow.

Inside the building, stone-faced walls and archways form a maze, which seems meant to be confusing, like government bureaucracy. In the center of the building is a rotunda that houses a grand staircase. Standing there, I couldn’t help but look up at the soaring dome, 180 feet above. The walls of the rotunda are decorated with 1930s murals celebrating Colorado’s lands and its industrious people. Through another archway I could see the south entrance, the building’s back door, where I was headed to meet the rest of the ID8 Nation crew.

It was Friday, about noon. My crew was waiting for me with boxes in tow. We were bringing in our cameras, lights and sound equipment to interview John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado and a dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur. At ID8 Nation we generally avoid interviews of politicians but we made an exception for Hickenlooper because of his record as governor and background as a successful entrepreneur.

The interview was scheduled for 2:30. The conference room we planned to use for the interview turned out to be a little small and overheated. We loaded in our equipment, making several trips up and down the capitol steps. And despite managing to tick off one of the governor’s staff when we moved some furniture, we were ready faster than expected. So I opened a window to let in some air and sat down and thought about the Colorado governor with the startup nature.

The entrepreneur

Hickenlooper wasn’t raised in Colorado. He grew up in Narberth, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. Even as a kid he was becoming a savvy little entrepreneur. He mowed lawns and shoveled snow just like everyone else in his neighborhood. But unlike most of his friends, he wasn’t a one-man operation; he organized bands of his pals to shovel snow for him. A startup pro was born.

But when the time came to put down his snow shovel, set aside his entrepreneurial nature, and pursue a proper career, he did. I was thinking about his career path when the man himself came into the room.

The politician

Meeting Hickenlooper was, at first, like meeting any other politician, all smiles and handshakes, but I sensed something different about the man. He doesn’t come off as a governor. A centrist Democrat, he seems like the kind of politician who would rather not be bothered by party affiliations. He’s more next-door neighbor than chief executive. So, after introducing ourselves, Hickenlooper started right in talking about entrepreneurship, government, and how a more businesslike approach to governing could change politics in this country.

Hickenlooper hasn’t always been a politician. A geologist by training, he came to Colorado to work in the oil industry. When the company he was working for was sold and the oil industry in Colorado went through one of its periodic busts, he found himself out of a job and wondering what to do next.

He told us about those shaky days and how he realized he was an entrepreneur at heart.

What’s the logical next step for an out-of-work geologist? Sitcom writer, of course.  A friend was executive producer of Night Court and Hickenlooper seriously considered leaving Denver for Hollywood. That’s when a Denver friend suggested they start a restaurant, one that brewed its own beer. Hickenlooper jumped at the idea: “I just kinda got captured by this notion of creating something, a business that hadn’t been done before.”

He found he had a knack for business. He loved being an entrepreneur, raising money and building his company. “We only had to raise 400 grand, but we had to talk to 200 [investors] and I think we gave out 220 business plans to raise that money.”

An entrepreneur revives a neighborhood

Starting the Wynkoop Brewing Company taught Hickenlooper a lot about marketing, sales and customer service.

In 1987, when Wynkoop opened, the LoDo (Lower Downtown) neighborhood was run down and largely devoid of clubs and restaurants. That’s when Hickenlooper came up with the idea to promote his competitors in the neighborhood. “My staff thought I was crazy. They said, ‘this is a cutthroat business. You can’t promote other restaurants.’ I said maybe the real competition is the TV set.”

Hickenlooper thought getting people off the couch and into the bar — anyone’s bar — was the first priority. “If we do a good enough job and our competitors do a good enough job, [people will] go out more often.”

His strategy worked. LoDo is now one of the most popular neighborhoods in the city. Over time, Hickenlooper grew the business, helped revive Denver’s LoDo district and, in the process, had his first run-in with Denver politics.

Bringing business practices to governing

After a successful battle with City Hall over the naming rights to Mile High Stadium, the city was considering dropping the ‘Mile High’ moniker and Hickenlooper and other business leaders railed to preserve the name. Afterwards, Hickenlooper was asked by community leaders to run for Mayor of Denver.

With a relentlessly positive attitude and a little humor, Hickenlooper told us how he learned to use his business smarts in the political arena.

It took almost two years to raise the money needed to open Wynkoop. Hickenlooper used that time to travel around the country, visiting other brewpubs, and convincing them to share their books.

When Hickenlooper ran for mayor of Denver, he did the same thing, only this time he visited mayors in other cities looking for better ways to run local government.  “So when I got into the campaign, I was probably the only candidate that had specific ideas of things . . . if I get elected, here’s what I’m going to do.”

An instinctive marketer, Hickenlooper doesn’t do attack ads. Instead he takes the “high road.” He’s been filmed jumping from airplanes, taking showers (fully clothed), and muscling past city meter readers, all to make amusing commercials that show how government can be run efficiently and accountably.

“If you’re in a small business, you learn . . . there’s no margin in having enemies . . . but in politics it’s like the opposite. People think the more I can put down my opponent, it raises me up.”  Not true, he says, political attack ads simply destroy how people view democracy.

So, without running a single attack ad, Hickenlooper won his first mayoral campaign in 2003 by a 2 to 1 margin.

Frustrated by government

Hickenlooper talks about government with a chuckle and a hint of disdain, almost as if he wasn’t employed in it. When he was still just a brewpub owner he saw how government can’t help but do the wrong thing. To illustrate this he told us a story about a parking problem he and his fellow business owners were having in LoDo and how government responded.

In 2002, Denver was in a recession caused by the dotcom bust and 9/11.  The strapped city decided to raise money by doubling the cost of parking downtown. Hickenlooper recalled his thinking at the time, “If your sales are going down you don’t raise the cost to the customer. It would basically tell anybody that downtown doesn’t want you and you might as well go to your restaurants in the suburbs.”

Hickenlooper put together a group of like-minded business owners and they met with the mayor at the time and pleaded their case. The mayor listened politely and responded, “We need the money.”  That’s when Hickenlooper realized sometimes government just can’t get out of its own way.

A year later he was mayor.

An entrepreneurial approach to solving a perpetual problem

Being mayor of a big city isn’t easy. You are often faced with what appear to be insurmountable problems, like hunger and homelessness. But as mayor of Denver, Hickenlooper didn’t see it that way. He saw a solution.

Looking at homelessness as a business challenge, Hickenlooper set out to understand the true cost of homelessness. His team determined that it cost taxpayers almost $40,000 per person a year. In response, Hickenlooper implemented a more cost-effective strategy that started with getting the homeless off the street, putting them in housing and providing them with healthcare and mental health services. They even started a job-training program. The idea worked. And Hickenlooper’s efforts have since become a model for other cities.

Those same business principles have driven most of Hickenlooper’s big ideas for improving government.

In 2010, Hickenlooper ran for governor on a platform to make Colorado the best place to be an entrepreneur. According to him, entrepreneurship is the key to job growth and one of his jobs is to be an effective curator of the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In the three years since he became governor, Colorado has gone from 40th to 4th in the nation in job growth and unemployment has been slashed more than 2.5 percent, outpacing the national average.

Recognizing that the startup community was cut off from the universities and the 28 federal laboratories located in Colorado, and that tech transfer and innovation are hampered by this disconnect, Hickenlooper started COIN, the Colorado Innovation Network.

Imagine a one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about starting a business in Colorado. COIN is an aggregator with links to all the services the state government and the startup community have to offer. It’s the state’s tool to ensure that government doesn’t get in the way of innovation, but instead fosters it and makes it a part of everyday business in Colorado.

Finding and recruiting entrepreneurs

Almost anyone would agree that government has its place in business development and COIN is a good example of how government can work best. But most would also agree that getting government out of the way is equally, if not more, important to fostering a successful startup ecosystem. But what if there aren’t enough entrepreneurs? Hickenlooper likes to tell people that if he hadn’t lost his job as a geologist he may never have discovered he was an entrepreneur.

When we talked with the governor he posed an interesting question: Why don’t we have a way to determine if a person has the talent to be an entrepreneur? “It’s interesting to me that  by the time a kid’s 16 or 17, we have a pretty good idea whether they’ve got the potential to play in the NBA or the NFL someday, the potential to go to Stanford or Harvard, but we have no measure, no idea of who’s going to be a great entrepreneur. And yet we should.”

Looking ahead

Hickenlooper and his staff are gearing up for his reelection campaign. A couple of posters on the walls of the conference room illustrate his administration’s successes, much of which is tied to the startup ecosystem. He talked with us about his plans for Colorado’s entrepreneurial future.

Big companies are important to maintain the status quo, “but real job growth is going to come from entrepreneurs . . .  I think we have to figure out how to stimulate job creation much more rapidly.”

 “CUT!”

That was it—our 30 minutes was up. But there was so much more to talk about. We were just hitting our stride and the interview was going so well. I was off camera pleading with the governor’s press aide to let us have a few more minutes when Hickenlooper barked: “Don’t be such a @&X*! Let them ask some more questions.”

So we did.

Bureaucracy vs. Leadocracy

Hickenlooper’s favorite book is Leadocracy. I know this because he said so and when the interview was finally over he gave me a copy and signed it to ID8 Nation. Plus, he’s quoted on the cover. In it, author Geoff Smart, a one-time consultant to Hickenlooper, writes about the need to get more talented business people involved in government.

Before Hickenlooper had to leave he talked with us about the differences between government and business, and explained that both need to hire the best people. He also told us how risk takers could transform government.

In 2011 Hickenlooper came into the governor’s office believing that if he surrounded himself with smart, talented people the better he would do as governor. So he wasted no time in hiring people from the private sector. “The more folks we can get into government, that’s where you really begin to change the culture of government.”

But having talented business-minded people on the team isn’t enough. They have to be risk takers. Government isn’t wired for risk and yet that’s what Hickenlooper thinks is needed most. That’s why he’s bent on attracting people from the private sector to positions of power in government. “In government, if you take a risk on a new program and it works, you get a pat on the back and that’s it. No one really cares, there’s no great reward. But if something goes wrong, you’re vilified in the papers.”

Hickenlooper imagines a government full of risk takers, people changing government from the inside out:  “Ultimately, I think if we can do that (risk taking) long enough we will begin to change the culture.”

So what’s next for this entrepreneur who governs like one? National office? Another startup?

The next election may tell.



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