Politics is considered a dirty word, not just at dinner parties and among mixed company, but also within much of the startup ecosystem. It seems that since the political system can’t be hacked as consistently or predictably as the social graph its importance has been largely ignored.
At a macro level, there are key issues to be addressed including patents, privacy, antitrust, immigration reform, and the educational system. More locally, taxes, infrastructure, and Byzantine regulations are equally critical. In both cases, politics have the power to alter the course of the entire startup ecosystem.
The rapid innovation that Silicon Valley is built on is being impeded by these flawed policies. Even if the current issues are addressed, there will be endless others that arrise in the future. How long can our ecosystem tolerate the lack of organized response to these enormous issues before no longer being willing to ignore the negative effects on the pace of innovation?
We have yet to see Silicon Valley — meaning the world of venture-backed technology companies — accept and embrace the necessary evil of interfacing with the world of politics. The big boys of Apple, Google, Microsoft, and now Facebook, with their deep pockets, have plenty of their own representation. The rest of the ecosystem, not so much.
The issue is that these giants are fighting battles independently and focusing only on issues that matter most within their own private playgrounds. There’s sure to be some greater good spillover, but it’s not enough to leave the fight in their hands alone. Their efforts are too fragmented and decision making too self-serving.
Mike Arrington wrote a brilliant piece a few years ago titled, “Here’s How The Government Can Fix Silicon Valley: Leave It Alone.” A part of me agrees, as I would guess do most people in Silicon Valley. Culturally, many of the people in the Valley are there specifically so that they don’t have to deal with Washington or the world of traditional big business. If it were possible, it would be the best possible outcome. The only problem is that it’s a complete fantasy.
A former real estate development mentor of mine liked to say, “Real estate and politics are linked at every conceivable level.” The same can be said of Wall Street and a number of other industries. No longer do startups and the people who invest in them get the luxury of pretending that our small world is any different.
In long-established industries such as real estate, finance, pharma, and Hollywood, powerful lobbying bodies like the MPAA, PhMRA, and NAR are staffed with experienced Washington power-brokers relentlessly advancing their industry agendas. Wall Street has taken it a step further, turning the Department of Treasury into a veritable alumni league.
The technology and startup industries haven’t even approached this level of influence, nor have they tried.
“It’s really daunting for most entrepreneurs who haven’t interfaced with Washington,” says Crowdfunder founder and JOBS Act lobbying participant Chance Barnett. “I also think the JOBS Act was a bit of a perfect storm, maybe the same can be said for SOPA. It was just so clear how it would impact such a wide group of people. I’m not sure how we could achieve the same result on other issues.”
Politics are ugly and inefficient; no argument from me there. For founders, no resource is more precious with time and getting involved in politics is often directly at odds with building thier business. But this doesn’t mean that the industry as a whole can continue ignoring the problem.
I’m not claiming to have the answer, but I know that pretending there’s no problem isn’t it. Silicon Valley needs a policy commission, a think tank, an entrepreneur’s roundtable, or a PAC; something with a permanent seat at the table, voicing the concerns of a thus far unheard constituency.
Previously it has been only in the face of serious and direct threats such as SOPA that the Valley has mounted a tangible response. The recent JOBS Act passage was another small victory, but with the details far from flushed out, at this point it’s a moral one at best. There are at least a half-dozen other mission critical issues that could use even a fraction of the attention and focus that these fights received.
The reality is that based on its economic contribution, the startup ecosystem should wield as big a megaphone and an even bigger stick than nearly any other industry. It just doesn’t put much effort into wielding them. It hasn’t taken its rightful seat at the table.
Why isn’t the CTO of the US (it’s a real position) a cabinet level position? Worse yet, why isn’t his office located on Sand Hill Road with a full staff and all the resources of the federal government positioned on the front lines of technical innovation?
There are a few organizations attempting to address these shortfalls. One is Engine Advocacy, which rather than lobbying directly is working to teach Silicon Valley about Washington and to give tech entrepreneurs “action tools” for impacting public policy. Another, largely unknown body is the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation which has a mission to “formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity internationally, in Washington, and in the states.”
Taking an alternative approach, Votizen co-founder Jason Putorti says, “Votizen could make mobilizing our community very easy and give us an advantage, but it’s going to take a long time. [We need to] break down the system where politicians become lobbyists, and elections remain expensive to win, driving contributions from special interests.”
These organizations are a start, but they’re not nearly enough. Waiting until situations like SOPA become “code red” is not the answer. Building floating offshore startup hubs, although cool as hell, is not the answer to immigration reform. Most importantly, burying our collective heads in the sand and pretending there’s no problem is certainly not the answer.
The startup ecosystem is comprised of the world’s best, most irreverent problem solvers. Taking no for an answer is not in our DNA. The solutions aren’t easy, but the alternative of not finding them is far worse. It’s time we put on our big boy pants and tackle the biggest policy issues staring us in the face. The pace of innovation is at stake. We can’t afford for politics to be a dirty word.
[Image Credit, Getty Images]