Pando

What potato growers could teach entrepreneurs

By Hamish McKenzie , written on February 28, 2013

From The News Desk

Yesterday I was on Capitol Hill in Washington DC with a group of startups that was visiting members of Congress and their staffers as part of an advocacy tour organized by Engine Advocacy. In the afternoon, we were stalking the halls of the Cannon House Office Building, which houses the offices of members of the US House of Representatives. On our way to a meeting room to meet with some Democratic lawmakers, we passed by an event hosted by the National Potato Council, “Standing Up For Potatoes On Capitol Hill.”

The organization had a sign standing outside the door to the room, inside of which a gaggle of suited white males were mingling over drinks and, one assumes, potato chips. Some of the entrepreneurs in our group snickered at the scene and the slogan. One took a photo of the sign. Potato growers in the corridors of power!

Yes, potato growers. The same potato growers that have been attempting to skirt anti-trust laws to scale back crop production and therefore raise prices. The same potato growers that successfully pressured Congress to let french fries remain a major part of school lunches.

My point here is not to cast aspersions on the political positions of growers of the humble spud, but to highlight that these farmers are effective at influencing legislation at the highest level. Courting Congressmen in events on Capitol Hill might have something to do with that, even if they do come with slogans like “Standing Up For Potatoes.”

Meanwhile, our group, made up of startups that are ostensibly part of a cohort of disruption, was essentially on a field trip. They might have been snickering, but many in the group were total political naifs. Among the 33 startups represented in the group, a couple confessed to me that they had never even heard of Engine Advocacy before learning of the excursion. Outside of the trip, they didn’t spend much of their time thinking about politics. They weren’t sure what to expect in Washington and had basically come along out of curiosity.

But at least they were there, making an effort, learning. Other founders care far less about politics, offering the excuse that they’re too busy starting companies to pay attention. One founder of a prominent startup who frequently greases me up by complimenting my stories said he doesn’t read PandoDaily’s political coverage, because he’s just not interested. As understandable as that is – policy is often boring and these people are busy enough as it is – the apathy is also somewhat alarming. This year in particular, the startup community needs to get savvy to what’s going on in Washington. More than ever in the evolution of the community, what is happening at the federal level of government will materially affect what happens in Startupland.

Among the issues that are likely to come before Congress this year are immigration reform, cyber security, online privacy, patent reform, and legislation that pertains to age limits around gaming and apps. Each of those subjects has potentially serious implications for startups, particularly with regards to whom they can employ, what information they have to share with government, what they can do with user data, how they can protect their intellectual property, whom they can market their products to, and, ultimately, how much money they can make.

For each one of these issues, there are parties that want exactly the opposite outcomes to the ones favored by the startup community, whether it be xenophobes, the entertainment industry, telcos, or patent trolls. And each one of those groups will have well-organized representation making sure their voices are heard loud and clear in Congress. As Rep. Jared Polis, a former entrepreneur himself and a co-founder of TechStars, said on Tuesday, “If you’re not at the dinner party, then you’re on the menu.”

Startups can’t even rely on their older siblings within the tech industry. For instance, when it comes to immigration reform, the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Apple care a lot about raising the H-1B visa quota for high-skilled immigrants, but they’re indifferent when it comes to the idea of a startup visa that would allow foreigners to come to the US to start companies. On that issue, the startup community has to speak out for itself.

The other thing is that politicians are ready to listen to startups. All of the dozen or so members of Congress who met with the startups over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday stressed that they wanted to hear more from them. They said repeatedly that startups are one of the key drivers of growth in the US economy, and they recognized that innovation is central to the country’s future. Given the tech sector’s continued growth in an otherwise bleak national economy, it makes sense for Congressmen to endear themselves to entrepreneurs and their investors. So the startup community has a tremendous opportunity to have some influence.

But how? Well, it’s okay not to know everything about how Washington DC works, or to not follow every little political development in the news. But you should at the very least make yourself aware of the issues and consider supporting the groups that are organizing on your behalf. That means familiarizing yourself with Engine Advocacy, getting to know the Application Developers Allicance, taking part in the March for Innovation, getting wise to gamesmanship and wedge politics, and of course religiously reading the political coverage in publications like PandoDaily. (You can start with our series on immigration.) You should never put yourself in the position where one day your business might be shut down by regulations that you didn’t realize were preventable.

The idea of startups becoming a lobbying force in Washington is still a relatively new one. Engine Advocacy, for instance, has only been around for just over a year, and politically-minded startups like Votizen came along only a couple of years before that. But when it comes to politics, startups don't have the luxury of time. They have to organize now and make their cases to lawmakers at the local and national levels on everything from patent reform to online privacy.

While it is true that the world of politics is often boring and distasteful, not to mention totally not disrupty, it is also essential to how society works, and it’s never going away. Every entrepreneur who is serious about changing the world, then, also has to be serious about learning how the world works.

The startup community might one day become a force on Capitol Hill, but as was obvious yesterday it is still a babe. Perhaps instead of snickering at those potato growers and their corny slogan, entrepreneurs could instead learn something from them.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]