“Be Legendary” – North Dakota’s famous tagline – now has the opportunity to live up to its word once again with Wonder Fund, an entrepreneurship-meets-policy initiative led by eminent venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary. Backed by North Dakota, O’Leary aims to make Governor Burgum’s state one of the most successful entrepreneurial hubs in America. The fund has a $45M war chest ready to be deployed into early-stage companies spanning a wide spectrum of products and services. Since Governor Burgum and Shark Tank investor declared North Dakota the next go-to business destination, the word has spread like wildfire.
“There’s a direct link to ‘Be Legendary’ and Wonder Fund North Dakota,” began Governor Burgum, speaking from his office.”Kevin and I are both entrepreneurs. We both spent our lives trying to build great companies. The role of the entrepreneur in society in North Dakota has had a huge impact on the development of our state,” he continued. “Whether those entrepreneurs were some of the earliest settlers that came here, or whether it’s the modern bioscience high tech clean energy entrepreneurs that we have today, in many ways, they’re all creating their own legends as they work on solutions that serve customers that can have a positive impact on the whole world,” Burgum noted proudly.
Kevin O’Leary, in charge of the vision for the Wonder Fund, wants to cultivate a great entrepreneurial spirit in an environment fueled by the talent and buoyancy of the next generation of business innovators. “Now that the Wonder Fund is set up and the capital is ready to be deployed, our second big challenge is to find entrepreneurs and opportunities. We need every advantage we possibly can to get that deal flow,” Kevin O’Leary shared, explaining what lies ahead now that the inaugural plans have been finalized. “We also have to find additional capital. We assume that the majority of where we place this capital will be successful, and that’s just the beginning of the journey.”
Attracting entrepreneurs is something Kevin O’Leary has an excellent track record of. Known from the popular ABC show “Shark Tank,” Mr. Wonderful has propelled many businesses to stratospheric success. “My brand supports that mandate, but it also supports other pools of capital, particularly private equity and other venture funds.”
Announced only a few weeks ago, Wonder Fund has already been inundated with other players in the venture capital space wanting to find out what’s going on in North Dakota. A heavy stream of talented people has been uploading their investor pitch decks at olearyventures.com.
“We will have a closing this week with a very large private equity partner on our very first implementation of this capital and the North Dakota deal,” O’Leary revealed. “Success will bring success,” the Shark Tank investor is convinced. “The work has just begun.”
A rising tide lifts all boats
Following President Biden’s State of the Union address, Governor Burgum responded by stating that while he agrees with the President’s desire for national unity and support for the middle class, this needs to be demonstrated “through action, not just words.” Wonder Fund North Dakota, not only wants to assist entrepreneurs but also serve as a role model for economic growth across America.
“In North Dakota, our byword every day is innovation, not regulation,” noted Burgum. The Republican governor expressed his dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the Democrats.”They want to have low inflation. They want to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. They want to have low energy prices. Then, at the same time, they’re pursuing a bunch of regulations which are forcing clean energy development overseas,” he said.
“We’re restricting our energy production in the United States. We’re restricting the support of having a stable, reliable electrical grid, which would be part of their electrification of transportation. So there’s a bunch of opposing policies and actions that they’re taking,” he remarked. In North Dakota, according to Governor Burgum, economic policies are in sync.
“We’ve got alignment in North Dakota, where innovation is driving the solutions, not regulations that are driven by ideology and not by science, not by physics and not by economics,” the governor declared.
Speaking of Wonder Fund, Governor Burgam expressed his enthusiasm for having Kevin O’Leary as a partner in making North Dakota a place where “capital can go to work at creating solutions to some of the world’s best or toughest problems.”
Wonder Fund North Dakota: The game-changing venture disrupting American entrepreneurship
According to Kevin O’Leary, capital “seeks the path of least resistance,” aiming for the highest return at the lowest risk. “There is a very healthy competition occurring now between states,” said O’Leary. “Because I’m not a politician, I get to say things that a good governor can’t, and so I will,” he announced. “I would never put money to work in New York. I would never put money to work in New Jersey, Massachusetts or California. I wouldn’t ever form a fund like this in any of those states because all of these unstable taxes are, to say the least, uncompetitive, but also you’re not welcome there if you’re in business,” he said.” Elizabeth Warren doesn’t want me to grow business in Massachusetts. She wants to punish me if I grow business in Massachusetts by overtaxing my employees and my CEOs and taxing my capital,” O’Leary shared, not wanting to be in a state where his business is not appreciated.
“Why wouldn’t I go to a place like North Dakota where the policy is extremely stable, the taxes are competitive, but more importantly, the government and the leadership wants business. They want business. Everybody knows that and the capital knows that, “O’Leary said. “So it’s much easier for me to say, ‘Look, I’ve got a project in North Dakota, I need $600 million. And it’s really stable and it pencils out 11% return over three decades.’ That’s the kind of thing that I want to work on because I can get that done,” he added. “I couldn’t do that in upstate New York. I tried it. I couldn’t do it. I lost $20 million on a data center project in upstate New York, because they’re crazy there. And that’s okay. I don’t have to do business there anymore, and I won’t,” he said unapologetically.
If Kevin O’Leary is known for anything, that’s tough love and saying what people do not want to hear. “I’m known for telling the truth,” said the tough-minded investor. “We’re putting this money to work in North Dakota because it wants to be there. The money wants to be there. The people want to be there. The deals want to be there. Other money wants to be there, and I can go anywhere in the world and say I’ve got a project in North Dakota, and they get it right away,”the seasoned investor explained.
Great American success story
The United States has a divided government. There is a national understanding that the country lacks unity. Wonder Fund North Dakota, with its nonpartisan underlyings and universal values centered around the American dream, creates an opportunity for Americans of all stripes to come together in the red state, and, as North Dakota’s tagline promises, “Be Legendary.” The appeal of the American dream and an immigrant hustle story is something Kevin O’Leary can relate to.
“I am living proof of what makes this country great. I’m an immigrant too, “declared O’Leary, whose children are second-generation Americans. Canada-born maverick feels very much part of the American dream.
“I left Canada when the left-wing government came into the province. I was setting up a business and they told me they were going to tax me at a rate that none of my competitors had and I was competing globally,” he revealed. “I was the fastest growing educational software company in the world. I had to move it out of Canada. I went to see the Prime Minister at the time and I explained to him that I am not gold. You don’t have to dig it out on the ground! I’m data. I can move it anywhere I want, and I’m gonna take it to where I can hire people that are taxed at a competitive rate and that was America,” he recalled the conversation that triggered his decision to immigrate. “That is the story of America and the story of Wonder Fund is no different.”
O’Leary shared that while he wants to see unity in the American government, “we don’t have that right now,”especially regarding business-friendly states. “I have to live in reality,” he said. “We have go-to states like North Dakota and no-go states like Massachusetts, New York, and California. California is not in business anymore. I can’t understand what they’re doing. But the point is, we have to deal with that reality, and it’s not so much a political statement as it is providing success.
“My job is to get returns for taxpayers here. I take that very seriously. I can’t ignore the environment. I need to grow businesses. This is going to take three, five, seven, ten years for these companies to come to fruition. They’re going to need tons of money, and I need to be able to raise it. I mean, that’s the practical reality,” O’Leary shared his pragmatic point of view. “I would have never done this in a state where I couldn’t see a path to success. North Dakota has that path.”
North Dakota kid achieving the American Dream
Professional paths Governor Burgum and Kevin O’Leary walked on as entrepreneurs share many parallels. Prior to his foray into politics, Doug Burgum was a successful businessman, an investor in an accounting software company, Great Plains Software. He started in North Dakota with less than ten people on his team to see it grow to over two thousand members and customers in over one hundred countries.
“I had a very successful public offering and then ended up becoming a division of Microsoft. I mean, if that’s not the American Dream for a kid from a small town in North Dakota, I don’t know what it is,” he said proudly. “So I know that there’s what Kevin is doing right now: trying to attract capital and talent to North Dakota. That’s something that I’ve been doing my whole life. I know that you can build world-class companies that are highly competitive here. That’s why I’m so excited about having the Wonder Fund in North Dakota to keep helping entrepreneurs achieve those American dreams.”
In the cutthroat world of Washington politics, where politicians have a reputation for sparing little room for the recognition of others, the credit for any success, no matter how small, is often fiercely guarded by those in power. Against this backdrop, one might wonder whether Governor Burgum struggled with the decision to entrust the project to Kevin O’Leary, a well-known figure in the business world whose reputation could overshadow Burgum’s own accomplishments and steal the spotlight.
“I’m grateful that such a thought never occurred to me,” said Governor Burgum, reflecting on his dream collaboration with Kevin O’Leary. The Governor attributed his lack of territorialism to his approach to business and life, stating,”A stated goal that we have in the Governor’s office is we have four values and the first one of those is gratitude. The second one is humility,” he revealed. “In a world where so much new information is happening so quickly the key is not trying to be the smartest guy in the room,” Burgam summed up his ethos.
“Sometimes we have a third goal which is being curious, being the most curious person in the room, and part of that is having the humility and the curiosity to know that the best way to move forward is to surround yourself with people that have got reach and talent and experience and wisdom,” Governor Burgum revealed. “Kevin has all of that. We’re very excited to have him as part of that, and he’s doing a fantastic job of not only helping us attract companies in North Dakota, but shining a light on the difference between red states and blue states,” he said. “That’s an important message for entrepreneurs across the country to understand right now. We’re coming at this thing with a lot of gratitude for Kevin and everything that he and the Wonder Fund are bringing to North Dakota.”
In an interview, Kevin O’Leary expressed his admiration for Governor Burgum, noting that they share a similar background as entrepreneurs. “Governor Burgum is a contemporary of mine,” he said, reflecting on their rise to success.”We’re almost the same age. We did the same thing in different sectors of software. I know that he knows how hard that is to do. And so it’s not difficult for me to understand he’s going to be a great partner. Because not everything works the way you want in entrepreneurial endeavors and we know that but when I put my name on something, I have to make sure that I see a path to success.”
According to O’Leary, the road of entrepreneurship is a challenging one, and he emphasized the importance of removing all roadblocks and giving his team every possible advantage. “I know this is going to be hard,” he remarked. O’Leary has faced his fair share of failure and bad policy, which he spoke candidly about.
“I’ve had some experience with bad policy. It really stung me to go and support a big project in upstate New York, gather capital from other investors, put my name on it, and then get totally shafted by policymakers. I’m never doing that again,” he declared. Despite this, he expressed his confidence in the stability of the policy in North Dakota, attributing it to the leadership’s stability and entrepreneurial spirit.
O’Leary, he shared, is deeply aware of the responsibility that comes with Wonderfund and $45 million taxpayers’ money. “I feel that burden, I feel that weight, I understand exactly what it means and I need to deliver,” O’Leary said with conviction. “My whole point is, I want to do it in a place where I have a very good probability of success, and I feel that partnership is there. Burgum’s team is amazing. His staff, his Commissioner, we’ve met them all. This has been a multi-month journey to get to where we are today.”
O’Leary expressed his desire to provide support and encouragement to entrepreneurs with promising ideas by inviting them to upload their business proposals on olearyventures.com. “We want to see everything,” he said. The companies can start in any city in North Dakota, from Fargo to Bismark.
“Everybody who has a dream should apply,” encouraged O’Leary. “Serendipity! You just have no idea. Sometimes, the most innocent or early-stage idea ends up being the most successful deal you invested in. I know that with certainty. I’ve done it for decades.”
Anyone with an idea and at least a 12-page deck “must upload” it to olearyventures.com. “I implore you. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. You get our support, you get our capital, you get our network, you get other players that are interested in you, and we can build a business with you.”
Gov Burgum: Good ideas can come from anywhere
For entrepreneurs who may have reservations about moving to a traditionally red state like North Dakota, Governor Doug Burgum has a message of encouragement and first-hand success to share.
“Kevin and I are living examples of good ideas and great companies. Good ideas can come from anywhere. From any walk of life, from any geography. Great companies can now be built just about anywhere. I think that’s the key,” he said. “There’s red state, blue state, in terms of policy and taxes, but there has been, as Kevin talked about, a belief going back to the 1980s that if you’re not from one of the two coasts, you can’t do anything that’s innovative or high tech, and we know that we know that’s not true. We know that there’s many great American companies, global companies that have come from the smallest towns. We encourage any entrepreneur,” added the Governor. “Your company might hit a homerun, but if you never step up to that, if you never step into the batter’s box you’re never going to know how that might play out. So again, I would encourage everybody to send in their ideas.”
Kevin O’Leary has had prior experience in North Dakota before his involvement with Wonderfund. The two entrepreneurs from Fargo led a company that made one of the biggest hits Shark Tank has ever seen. PRX Performance, a fitness equipment manufacturer, went in to present their product to the Sharks, and all investors except for O’Leary declined to invest, believing that the Fargo-based entrepreneurs had come in “too early.” Mr. Wonderful thought their fitness solution was “interesting,” and offered them a deal that proved to be forward-looking.
“They came on Shark Tank eight years ago,” O’Leary took a stroll down memory lane, recalling how PRX Performance went from zero sales to 50 million. “We’ve never seen anything like it and we shot an update in Fargo in February with ABC, and it was one of the most successful updates,” said O’Leary. “So that was my first real experience in Fargo,” said O’Leary.
As remote work becomes increasingly prevalent in the post-pandemic world, working from any city in North Dakota has become an attractive option for many. With 35 to 40% of staff now working remotely in most American companies, businesses can now establish their headquarters in virtually any location. “Why not put them in North Dakota, where you get the advantage of policy and tax?” asks O’Leary. “We can build international companies out of there.”
According to O’Leary, the first deal that will be closing soon has assets in both red and blue states, but the driving force behind it all is North Dakota. “That’s the point of how things have changed,” he explained. “You don’t have to be in a place that doesn’t want you. We may hire a coder in California. We don’t want a headquarters there. That’s the whole point.”
The Wonderfund has the potential to serve as an effective model against the flight of capital and brain drain, by attracting new talent to North Dakota and encouraging people to return to the state.
“There’s a statistic that just came out of China. Wealthy individuals are taking out money by the billions out there because it’s a very unstable place. And where do they want to go? Well, lots of is coming to the United States,” said O’Leary.
“Just two days ago, we got a call from a British infrastructure company that had heard about Wonder Fund, asking if there were any infrastructure projects in North Dakota because they know it’s stable. As a matter of fact, we have one there around the pyramid where we’re building a data center, which is going to be a very stable site because it was built, in a place in the world or in the United States, which is probably the least problem for earthquakes. So that’s the kind of thing you want for a data center. So we’re going to show them that project,” he revealed. “I just find it’s very easy for me to go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi or London or Zurich and say North Dakota, and everybody listens,” he shared, pointing out the interest in infrastructure deals and real estate. “Everybody takes your call on North Dakota. You can’t say that for California or Massachusetts or New York.”
According to Governor Burgum, as the competition between states is heating up, America is well poised to attract capital.” This is part of the strength of America and being able to navigate change over centuries, which is we’re a Republic, we’re fifty states, we’re not one monolith. And having foreign investors understand that yes, investing in the US is a good idea, but when you come to the US, you better understand how much difference there is from state to state. Directing foreign investment towards states that have stable tax and regulatory structures is key,” he said.
“If North Dakota is trying to attract talent and capital, there is a big opportunity in the decades ahead for the United States to benefit from attracting capital and talent to our country versus having them go other places,” Burgum laid out a long-term vision.
Wonder Fund North Dakota in pursuit of legacy and generational impact
For Governor Burgum and Kevin O’Leary, their partnership on the Wonder Fund North Dakota project is centered around leaving a positive footprint for humanity.
As O’Leary puts it,”It’s not just putting the money in the ground. It’s managing the growth process and working with young entrepreneurs and bringing what you know to the table to help them avoid the pitfalls that every one of them is going to have to go through and trying to find the ones that are going to get to the end of the race,” he said. O’Leary is aware that venture capital is volatile and comes with risk.
“I want to be associated with something that’s going to work. I’m going to come and join the team. That’s the key. I’m hiring now and I’m also deploying capital,” he said. “It’s a two-way street. We need great ideas. You need money,” he explained.” They all have to meet in the center of town.”
Speaking of the great American success story, Burgum immediately cited the Bobcat Company that came out of North Dakota. The tale of two farmers coming together to solve a problem resulted in a new implementation, the skid-steer loader, which became the Bobcat Company.
“I traveled all over the world. I’ve been in communist countries, emerging markets, well-established democracies and you’ll see a piece of equipment that I know is made in North Dakota, that came out of the minds of a couple of farmers just over fifty years ago,” Burgum spoke of North Dakota as an inspiration for the new generation of businessmen.
“The company I had an opportunity to help build has spawned dozens and dozens of other companies. Some of those have had really successful exits and been acquired by other public companies,” he said. “And so when you see that sort of the generational impact, then the work that Kevin and the Wonder Fund is doing is one of these companies that they’re going to be involved in, is going to still be having an impact in three generations from now,” he added.
“Success leads to more success. That’s why it’s exciting about what Kevin is doing. I know that the work they’re going to do is going to be legendary, and I know that some of the success stories of those legends are going to carry on in the future,” said Governor Burgum. The pursuit of betterment continues. Republic of Dreams is now open in North Dakota.
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