Bruce Carlson | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Bruce Carlson

Background:  

Founded in 1994, the East Hartford-based Connecticut Technology Council is an association of technology-focused companies and institutions that advocates for the state's 2,500 tech companies and their employees.

Bruce W. Carlson became the technology council’s CEO in July 2014 and continues to be managing director of UConn’s Office of Technology Commercialization, a post he has held since 1998. Previously, he was policy development director in the state Office of Policy and Management from 1984 to 1998, during which time he worked under four governors and three political parties, advising on economic development and environmental issues. Other career highlights include serving as chief of staff at the University of Connecticut Health Center for 11 years and founding IP Factory Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to creating new companies and jobs.

The Mistake:

My mind was geared toward the big bang as the key thing in economic development. When I was working for various governors [in the state Office of Policy and Management] I was involved in some big negotiations with sports teams and projects. Those things make headlines, but what about when the headlines stop? Are they the sustainers of the economy? I’ve become much more of a believer in small ball.

After the negotiations [to bring the Patriots to Hartford] didn’t bear fruit, I thought the 7 Pillars program [a list of major economic development projects that included renovating the Hartford Civic Center] would be a “big bang” because it had great potential for boosting Hartford. But it turned out not to be a silver bullet because we needed little projects to connect these large projects in different parts of Hartford. For instance, having the Convention Center distant from the downtown businesses without a nice connecting walkway corridor would not allow that project to meet its economic development potential.

Over time, I saw that the big bangs did not have the sustaining impacts that we hoped for. It is one of the reasons why I am jaded about the economic impact studies that show hundreds of jobs and millions of state revenue being generated by these major economic development projects because it rarely works out that way.

Startups are talked about a lot, but the scale-ups are where the jobs really are.

The Lesson:

The medium-sized companies are the true builders of the economy. GE’s move [to Boston] made a lot of headlines, but look at the facts: it was more of a makeover and 200 headquarters people were moved out of state. True, the state is still dealing with the hangover from GE, yet there are a lot of good things going on that people don’t know about.

We have a really strong base in Connecticut. Focusing on the small- and medium-sized companies already here is what I’m about now. Give them the support services they need to grow. Startups are talked about a lot, but the scale-ups are where the jobs really are.

The scale-ups want to know how to diversify and how to create and reach new markets. If we do it right in fostering the growth of these companies, then Connecticut can become a magnet for companies residing elsewhere. Picture some of the entrepreneurs in Cambridge getting sticker shock and starting to look for alternatives. If we’re properly focused, then Connecticut will look good to people like that.

We have to watch out for acquisitions because those can take some of our companies and jobs away. But if we’re lined up properly then the parent company will likely want to keep a presence here. “If you grow ‘em then you’ll keep ‘em” is what I say.

Follow the Connecticut Technology Council on Twitter at @CTTech.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Carlson.

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