An Ode to Tulsa Remote
Author: Justin Wilson
I was happy to see an excellent piece published this morning in the Harvard Business Review by Walter Frick examining the effectiveness of the Tulsa Remote program. Moreover, I was even happier to see that the article points to objective measures like the $13 of economic activity generated by every $1 spent by the program, and cites third-party studies that suggest that, thus far, the program has been a resounding success – something that most of us locally have anecdotally suspected for some time now.1
As is appropriate with publications like HBR, the piece largely examines the program from a neutral, academic lens, seeking to understand potential red herrings in the results and differentiate signal from noise in an effort to gain a sense of whether the outcomes will hold up into the future and if the model is repeatable for other cities. It’s vitally important that the Tulsa Remote program, and other experiments in economic development like it, be examined in a rigorous, unbiased manner – in the end, as a city/state/nation/continent/planet, we should seek to understand the truth of these things so that we are more effective in building stronger economies and expanding opportunity to the maximum amount of people possible.
What inspired me to write about this, though, isn’t how happy I am with the article’s academic tact2, it’s that there is a heavy amount of subtext to the piece that isn’t made explicit I think is worth pointing out. Whether the program is ultimately a sustainable, repeatable success or not (I believe it will be), it can’t be said enough that what our friends in Tulsa, and specifically our friends at the George Kaiser Family Foundation have done in making Tulsa Remote a reality is truly genius, or at the very least, exceptionally bold, and worth applauding.3
Consider for a moment what is required to put a program like Tulsa Remote into motion. Obviously, you would first need the resources to actually pay the $10,000 stipend, which fortunately for Tulsa (and Oklahoma in general), Mr. Kaiser has. You would need more than the money, though, you would need to actually care about the overall well-being of your home city, be willing to measure the return on your investment in a metric outside of the numbers in your bank account, and most of all, be willing to stomach the risk of it failing.
I realize that that last point might seem a little silly at first blush. Obviously, the GKFF and Mr. Kaiser won’t miss payroll if the program doesn’t work. But if you truly care about achieving societal improvement, the opportunity cost of wasted time and money is painful, and sadly, many organizations in GKFF’s league shy away from things like this because they worry about its effect on their reputation, and frankly it’s a lot of work. It’s human, after all, to want to be admired and respected, and the criticism and risk of failure is daunting and easily avoided by simply not doing big, bold things. Think further, if you will, about internal dynamics of most organizations. Something like this required a human being to come up with the idea, have the temerity to advocate that it be implemented, and then see it through. Could you do that in your organization? Would you, or would you worry that it could mean risking your own job? If you’re a leader in an organization, do you think your team would worry about that, and if so, might you be missing out on the truly great ideas that really move the needle?
My other point about their willingness to measure the program’s success may be idiosyncratic to people that are overly focused on markets, but it’s worth expounding on a bit as well. For those of us in finance, the number of dollars in the bank is a comfortable crutch in determining both the absolute and relative value of an idea. For example, it’s notoriously hard to measure the true value of human happiness or dignity, or conversely, the cost of pollution or deforestation, but it’s easy to measure the net change in revenue or retained earnings!
This isn’t to suggest in any way that the GKFF doesn’t care deeply about the hard, measurable, economic indicators of its efforts – it has a well-earned reputation for being a philanthropic entity that actually monitors about the efficacy of its donated funds toward their purported aims. But the bet that they made with this program is one with real, measurable up-front costs, and difficult-to-tally, long horizon payoffs. It would be tempting for any such foundation to stick to small-order layups and just count the wins, but they are willing to bear the risk of simply losing the money if the program fails, which says to me that they actually care more about the true goals of their program than counting small “wins.”
In life, knowing your values is only half the battle, having the courage to live and act in accordance with them is just as hard, because failure is scary and embarrassing. Even those of us without the means to do something like Tulsa Remote experience this daily, it’s a truth to the human condition that transcends scale. I, for one, am appreciative when someone at any level defies the convention and actually tries to do something meaningful, and I believe in taking the opportunity to celebrate the effort even beyond the ultimate success or failure.
While I appreciate anyone who has read this far, I would be remiss if I didn’t make one last point. I do believe that the article falls short in one noticeable way – in describing how Tulsa Remote works, it perhaps unintentionally coalesces the argument for why someone would choose to move to Tulsa almost entirely into its discounted cost of living relative to larger cities. I believe this illustrates my earlier point about the comfort of measurability and is a non-trivial error and shortcoming of overly antiseptic economic study. While cost of living is obviously a huge factor, this does a genuine disservice to Tulsa’s livability and vibrancy; the palpable joie de vivre that is so obviously present in the city. I think this is worth arguing because I believe that it truly matters in putting an accurate and truthful depiction of the city out to the world, and more to the point of the HBR article, in why Tulsa Remote participants are likely to rate their experience highly. Anyone that has ever spent any significant time in Tulsa knows that it has always had vibrant art, culture, and food scenes. I would argue that on all three of those metrics, Tulsa has always punched way above its weight class4. I’ll put it this way – kids born in Tulsa grow up believing they can be world-class writers, artists, musicians, actors, and so on, and that’s owing to a rich lineage of people that have proven to them that it’s possible5.
Full disclosure – I am WILDLY biased in this case in more ways than I can count. I know many of the decision makers at GKFF personally, we work with them on a number of fronts, and we invest alongside some of their fund managers. Furthermore, because Plains’ deal flow and the availability of talent for the companies I invest in are both positively impacted by the existence of the Tulsa Remote program, I have a somewhat vested interest in it continuing and being heralded as a success.6
1 I’m not patting myself on the back too hard here, this is not a difficult concept – if you patriate the spending power of out-of-state payrolls to your city, it’s not exactly cosmic divination to predict that more money will be spent in your city and thus grow its economic engine commensurately.
2 My goodness this would be boring. Please, dear readers, I beg you – if I ever start writing think-pieces on how wonderfully “academic” a journal article is, stage an intervention on me.
3 I’m in venture capital, so I probably admire boldness to a pathological degree.
4 I would put the legendary Cain’s Ballroom up against any music venue in the world; and you’d be hard pressed to find many cities with a better artistic heritage than Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, The Turnpike Troubadours, Kelli Ohara, Bob Wills, S.E. Hinton, Sterlin Harjo, Joy Harjo, Garth Brooks, Charlie Wilson, and on and on. If we stretch the city limits just a bit, Woody Guthrie himself is on this list. Heck, Tulsa is literally home to the Bob Dylan museum, and not by accident.
5 Now that I think about it, this is probably as high of a compliment as I can give a city.
6 In spite of my bias, I very much stand by the arguments I’ve made throughout this entry. As the kids these days say – “I said what I said.”