Q&A: Former AOL chief executive Steve Case discusses the recommendations put forth by President’s Job Council

As stubborn unemployment continues to dominate the national debate over how to jumpstart America’s sluggish economy, President Obama asked 27 business executives to recommend policy changes that could get people back to work.

Former AOL chief executive and District-based investor Steve Case was among them. With a background in entre­pre­neur­ship, Case focused his attention on ways to bolster startups and fuel high-growth companies.

Case spoke with Capital Business last week about the proposed policy changes. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Why focus on entrepreneurship?

The two statistics that I think are most relevant here in terms of framing the opportunity but also the challenge is that over the past 30 years, 40 million jobs have been created by these high-growth companies, which is really all the net jobs.

District-based investor Steve Case was one of 27 executives asked to recommend policy changes. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

And number two, that the number of startups has declined 23 percent [since 2007] and if they had [not declined and] stayed at the same rate we would have had 2 million more jobs in our economy. I think those are both pretty compelling statistics that suggest this is the place to focus.

The report recommends ways to bolster private investment. Aren’t venture capitalists also struggling ?

They’re also struggling. I think there is a tendency for people to think about entrepreneurship as Silicon Valley. The reality is many sectors in the country [and] many regions in the country are undercapitalized.

It’s very difficult to get early-stage funding. It’s even more difficult to get the growth funding to scale the companies. Some of our council’s proposals relate to that in terms of incentives around capital gains.

Are investors open to long-term investments that might be eligible for capital gains tax breaks? Or do they want a quick exit?

I think it’s a mix. There are some who are focused on short-term, almost what I call built-to-flip companies. There’s others that take a longer-term, built-to-last approach. And our focus in terms of the incentives was obviously on the latter. How do you get capital flowing to companies that can really grow in a sustainable way over a reasonable period of time?

How does the market for initial public offerings impact investments?

Part of the reason it becomes more difficult to attract investment is the path to liquidity becomes less clear when the IPO market is struggling. The IPO market is always going to have windows where it is strong or where it is weak, that’s just the nature of the cycle. What’s changed is it’s just much more expensive and time consuming for young companies to go public, so fewer of them are.

That was the other sobering statistic: 80 percent of the IPOs in the ’90s were $50 million or less, now that’s down to 20 percent. What’s happening is more of those companies are getting sold instead of going public and that often provides liquidity for investors ... but also makes it more challenging in terms of the company’s growth trajectory and therefore job creation potential.

Should changes be made to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act?

[The proposal is] not trying to reduce the Sarbanes-Oxley rules in a general way because they were put in place obviously for some reasons. But to say that a young company that’s raising $50 million and going public at a $300 million valuation should have the same Sarbanes-Oxley regime as IBM is a little crazy.

[The proposal is] trying to have a little segmentation recognizing the unique needs of these companies and also the importance to the country of getting more of these young companies public so they can drive job creation.

What’s next?

Now that we have presented our proposals and gotten the initial feedback from the president and his team, we will be pushing forward trying to build awareness around the issue and trying to build bipartisan support for a congressional solution here so as much of our proposal as possible is put into place as quickly as possible.

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.

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