Recently Scott Meacham sat down with us to share his thoughts about WeGoLook, sharing economy platforms and Oklahoma City versus the Silicon Valley. Mr. Meacham is the former State Treasurer of Oklahoma serving from 2005-2011. He is currently the President and CEO of i2E providing business expertise and funding for Oklahoma’s emerging small businesses.
WeGoLook: From your perspective, can you tell us more about the tech startup environment in OKC?
Scott Meacham: One of the things that really surprised me is how the tech startup space has really taken off in the last few years. Historically at i2E (and we are a statewide organization), about 40% of our portfolio is life sciences and 40% was software/IT. Most of the software/IT was coming from the Tulsa market and of course, most of the life sciences were coming from OKC. In the last 2 years since I have been at i2E we have seen a surge in software/IT in Oklahoma City market. It has been not only the number of deals, but quality of deals unlike what we have seen before. Something is happening in this market that is driving a lot of new startups in this space, which is what we are really excited about. That is our fastest growing area of new clients and new investment: the Oklahoma City software/IT space.
WGL: What do you attribute that growth to?
SM: I think it is like most things, you have to have an ecosystem and it starts feeding on itself. Look at the investments that OKC has made in itself to remake Bricktown and bring in the Thunder. I remember it was probably around a decade ago there was an opinion piece in the Oklahoman that we are losing our best and brightest, college graduates. They were going to Dallas, Austin, or wherever and we had to figure out how to keep them here in Oklahoma. The dramatic investment made in Bricktown, revitalizing downtown, and bringing in the Thunder change the dynamic. Instead of young graduates looking out, they started looking in and looking for ways to stay home. Then, people from outside the state started staying, “Gosh, there are some great things going on in Oklahoma City right now. It would be nice if we could come back and raise our family there. I think that was the catalyst that started this ecosystem of now a growing vibrant community of both existing entrepreneurs coming in and saying, “You know, Oklahoma City is a good place to start a new tech startup.”
WGL: How do you feel this compares to other regions across the US and the Silicon Valley?
SM: Of course we are not going to see the quantity of deals that we see in the Silicon Valley and it is just because they have been doing this for decades. They have well established capital, students, and research institutions including: Stanford, UC Berkley, and government institutions. They have people, capital, and ideas. That convergence then is what leads to more startups which are what they have been doing for decades. We don’t see the quantity that Boston has because we don’t have MIT cranking out all these students and ideas. But when you look at national rankings, we have been ranking at the top of in tech startups and places to start a business. Obviously we are doing some things right, but we still are not seeing quite the numbers that other places are seeing. We are starting to see more numbers and dramatically higher quality of startups that we have seen in the past. That has really shifted in the last couple years.
WGL: Do you feel that OKC is an ideal place to start a nationwide tech company or are there other cities that have access to more resources, talent, etc.?
SM: Clearly in a place like Silicon Valley, there are more resources and more talent. The problem is, if you are a startup, how you get noticed in an environment like that because it is so big — you become another fish in the pond. Whereas with Oklahoma City, you become a big fish in a small pond and what we see is that the community and the resources embrace the high quality startups that we see in Oklahoma City. We definitely have the resources to help start the company and the resources to help support the company to help them grow. It is probably more of an effort where everyone is pitching in to help the communities here. If you are on either of the coasts, you are competing with a lot of other startups to get noticed, get the initial capital and resources, and get the bright light shined on what your company is doing. That is really unique factor that we have in this market. Then when you go against other small markets, you find that our resource base is better here and deeper. We don’t have the resources that the coast has, but we certainly have a really good resource base among the smaller markets to really help startups.
WGL: We have heard you compliment WeGoLook in various arenas, from your perspective what is setting WeGoLook apart from peer startups in OKC or nationwide?
SM: There are a lot of things that I like about WeGoLook. Really, in any startup, you start with the concept. Is this a high growth concept, scalable idea? Is this something that has national/international appeal or does it just have local appeal and a limited market?
I love the concept behind WeGoLook. I love the scalability behind WeGoLook. I love the ability to apply the WeGoLook solution in multiple markets and situations.
The second thing is, do you have a management team that can execute? The management team at WeGoLook is very experienced, has past successes/very successful entrepreneurs and small business people that know how to run and grow a small business. Really when you see a good idea with a good management team, that is what makes you feel good about a company. And I think the upside for WeGoLook is really tremendous and that is why I am excited about WeGoLook.
WGL: When traveling to other states, what do you tell people about WeGoLook?
SM: I specifically remember being at Berkley and I attended a week long venture capitalist school that was hosted through the business school. People were talking about the things they were doing in the Silicon Valley and I said, “You know what, we have things going on in Oklahoma City that are every bit as good as what you have going on here, if not better.” It was nice to have a WeGoLook to shine a bright light for what is going on in Oklahoma. Anywhere you are there is this idea that the only good things happening are happening in my backyard. It was nice to have a business like WeGoLook with the potential it has to talk about and use as an example of what is going on in Oklahoma.
WGL: You have said, “WeGoLook is one of the most exciting startups in Oklahoma.” What do you see in WeGoLook that would earn that endorsement?
SM: I like the idea that WeGoLook started on the concept of, “I had a bad experience on eBay, and how can I fix that to put some eyes on what I am actually buying and reduce my risk as a purchaser?” That is a nice channel and that is obviously a huge platform for potential business, but to me, that is a pretty narrow business. When you start thinking about the WeGoLook model and the nationwide network of Lookers, you suddenly have a resource that no one else has. The resource that can put eyes on things in a lot of different industries: you can start thinking about insurance, real estate, and all these other areas where you have a resource that is out there and a platform that you can put out there with a lot of different people, doing a lot of different things. That is the definition of a high growth, scalable business. That is what I like about WeGoLook.
WGL: WeGoLook is built on a sharing economy platform. How do you see sharing economy companies like Uber, Airbnb, and WeGoLook affecting the economy in OKC? And Nationwide?
SM: It is interesting because it is a whole new model for delivering services. Now if you look at Airbnb and Uber, they are more of a consumer model. It is a different way to get to the consumer and provide services to the consumer—it is really a whole new delivery channel. Whenever you start talking about new delivery channels, that creates competition. And competition in general is good for consumers because consumers used to have one way or a limited way to get from point a to b. Before Uber, consumers could either buy their car, call a taxi for a certain rate or maybe they would be lucky enough to have a bus route or bicycle. Now, it gives another channel for delivering services at a very competitive price. That helps save money for everybody and now companies like WeGoLook can offer a lower cost solution to consumers. This allows companies to be more competitive. At the end of the day, every business is about lowering the costs of the things they do so they can be more competitive, get more market share, and be in the marketplace. These become new tools that can be used by the consumer or in your case, businesses. This becomes a very powerful tool that helps drive prices down, make things more competitive and it creates more economic activity as business units become more competitive. I think it has a myriad of effects. We obviously like have companies like WeGoLook in Oklahoma because you employ people and it creates economic activity in our state.
WGL: Where do you see trends headed for micro-entrepreneurs (sharing economy suppliers) in the next 5 years? 10 years?
SM: I see the market being very large and growing. What we have seen so far are beachheads that have been established, like Airbnb, Uber, and WeGoLook. Those are just beachheads of much larger markets. What you will see over the next several years is those beachheads expanded to more market penetration and more market presence. On the one side you have a high growth potential and the opportunity to add on new markets, new applications, and places to send Lookers. The challenge will be how do you scale, grow, and maintain quality? How do you maintain enough bodies to go out and meet your demand? All these companies see the growing market, but there are always those cases. Uber had an issue pop up in the last week where some driver did something like overcharge and obviously that gives them somewhat of a black eye. The question is, how do you expand, maintain quality, maintain consistency, and maintain enough qualified bodies to maintain the things you are needing to do? It is an interesting time in the market and a great time to be in it, but there will be challenges.
As far as individuals completing the orders/tasks, I was thinking about my step-brother the other day who is an Uber Driver and it is the perfect job for him because he doesn’t want to have a full time job. It occurs to me that an Uber Driver can also be a Looker. I think there is a large percentage of the population that doesn’t want to have the traditional 9-5 full time job. They want to have the freedom of when they work, when they don’t work. I think the offer that an Uber or WeGoLook has appeal to segments that are both older and younger. A lot of people want to retire, but they don’t want to sit home. There are a lot of bodies out there that fit the profile. The challenge becomes, how do we link them to the opportunity, train them, keeping them plugged in and motivated? That is the interesting thing about any business, attracting, retaining, and motivating your workforce.
WGL: What do you think the biggest challenges sharing economy companies may face in the next 12-24 months may be?
SM: The key is quality control and scaling. It all comes down to that—and by the way, they are linked. It is harder to maintain quality control as they get bigger. If I was in your position, what would keep me up at night are the bad stories or headlines and managing that risk/minimizing that as much as possible because when you are a young company, you have not built up a track record. You tend to be judged probably unfairly by negative stories that come out. You have to get far enough down the road because there are going to be negative stories that come out that happens in any business. You have to have enough positive history to offset that. All of these businesses are fairly new. And there are detractors—obviously, if I own a taxi cab company, I am not real happy to have Uber enter my market. We have seen that in Oklahoma City. There was a big fight over that and they said that we need to regulate that to maintain quality. Uber said, “Well shouldn’t we have freedom of choice as consumers. And by the way, maybe we would like to pay a little less.”
WGL: Are there any untapped areas you think the sharing economy could expand to in the next 5 years?
SM: I think there a lot of untapped areas. We have seen WeGoLook find some of those, mine those and really do a good job from that. I think some growth will come from that and come from market extension strategy where you are moving into new markets. I think there is so much opportunity for growth where you already are that the easiest opportunity for growth is going to be those markets at least initially in the next few years versus trying to add new markets and probably smarter for a company to focus more on deeper penetration on existing markets versus trying to add.