Hanging around hundreds of the world's savviest entrepreneurs in the Arizona desert at the 23rd annual Inc. 500 conference, I found the mood among participants to be a mix of impatience and inspiration. The prevailing sentiment: Why wait for someone (especially the hapless federal government) to hand you something when you can do better on your own?
That message was emphasized by speaker Burt Rutan, the silver-haired, leather-jacketed entrepreneur whose celebrated SpaceShipOne made private space flight a reality in June 2004. Rutan managed to put a man into space with the help of just 23 people in a mere three and a half years. Compare that with the decades and billions of our tax dollars that it took NASA (or "Nay-say" as he calls it) to build the troubled space shuttle. No wonder the conference's biggest round of applause occurred when Rutan rolled video footage of one of his workers holding up a sign that read, "SpaceShipOne, Government Zero."
But -- there's always a but -- even the most ardent supporters of laissez faire among the Inc. 500 CEOs felt that Washington should do something to prevent those annual 10% increases in health care premiums. One poor guy who runs a software company in Tennessee had an employee who fathered the state's first surviving set of quintuplets. He'd try just about anything to reduce costs. Health savings accounts and wellness programs ("We've got a fruit bowl, but it's next to the Twinkies," said the Tennessean) were hot topics.
A few entrepreneurs were more hopeful, suggesting that the health care mess presents opportunities for new business. One CEO said that he's considering investing in an airline that would fly patients to Taiwan where they can receive treatment from U.S.-trained doctors in state-of-the-art facilities for a fraction of the price.
That can-do attitude was also the hallmark of Bill Strickland's speech. The founder and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Manchester Bidwell trains ex-steelworkers and welfare moms to work in a series of entrepreneurial businesses. Strickland kept repeating that "it's no big deal to make a difference." But judging by the ovation he received, the entrepreneurs who gathered in Tucson knew better than that.