Tech Entrepreneurs, Politics, and Policy

by Chip Griffin on November 9, 2011

I attended a great pre-conference dinner last night in Boulder, Colorado hosted by T.A. McCann, founder of Gist, where we talked about how tech entrepreneurs can have a greater impact on legislation and regulation, especially in Washington, DC. Naturally, with my background, that was a topic I had a lot to say about. And would have had a lot more to say if my voice were not failing me due to a nagging cold.

In any case, VC Brad Feld and Dean of the Colorado University Law School Phil Weiser are quite passionate in their desire to see better policy come out of our elected officials. They both zeroed in on a few specific issues, including software patents and the Protect IP legislation moving through Congress. Though not present, Fred Wilson‘s presence was felt as another blogging VC who has taken an increasingly active stance on policy issues.

There was a lot of constructive conversation around the issue, though we left it far from resolved. But one of the great benefits of Eric Norlin’s work on the Defrag conference is that it brings together smart people who come ready to discuss thorny issues like these.

Why are Tech Entrepreneurs Frustrated with Government Policy?

  • Tech entrepreneurs don’t have an organized voice in Washington. Sure, there are groups that sympathize with us on particular issues, but we don’t have our own association to represent us in the halls of Congress and the Administration.
  • As doers, entrepreneurs don’t understand the often plodding pace of policy. As founders of startups, we find problems and tackle them head-on. We don’t do an elaborate dance like politicians do.
  • Most entrepreneurs are not politically active. Let’s face it, when we’re busy solving problems, building companies, and creating jobs, there’s not a lot of time to get involved in the political fray. So while many of us may have the ability to connect with our policymakers, we often don’t.
  • “Leave us alone” is a tough message to win with in Washington. Most entrepreneurs would prefer government to stand aside and not get in the way of entrepreneurial progress. But our elected officials like to be seen as “doing something.” So often we need to find ways to fight bad policy with less bad policy rather than what would probably be best in some cases: no policy.
  • There’s not enough information about specific policy implications out there. With no organized Washington voice, we’re left to get information on an ad hoc basis. That means we may not all be singing from the same hymnal on important issues which diminishes our impact.

How Can Tech Entrepreneurs Have a Greater Impact on Policy?

  • Entrepreneurs need to take time to understand policy implications. Like it or not, we’re all operating in an environment where Congress, the President, state officials, and others can all have a substantial impact on our success. Fortunately, there are voices like Brad and Fred doing more to educate us about some issues that matter. We all need to participate in sharing that information with our fellow entrepreneurs.
  • Entrepreneurs need to participate in the political process. Voting is great, but your representative doesn’t know that you went to the polls on Election Day. To have a real voice, it is important to build bridges with elected officials and their staffs even when there’s not a hot issue on the table. Even a couple of contacts a year with a Member of Congress can be valuable so that you’re more than a name on a piece of paper when real action is needed.
  • Entrepreneurs need to take advantage of lofty titles to gain access. Most founders have impressive titles like Chairman, CEO, President, or Chief So-And-So. That’s a good way to get a politician to meet with you. Elected officials value meetings with local business leaders who create jobs. And who they think might be a supporter/donor some day. We can’t be afraid to leverage this point to let our voices be heard.
  • Entrepreneurs need to frame issues in terms of jobs. In the current economic climate, anyone who stands for election is petrified of being seen as being on the wrong side of job creation. Entrepreneurs drive the jobs engine in America, so we need to speak that language when we’re arguing about issues.
  • Entrepreneurs need to make issues local and human. Getting into theoretical debates about policy issues may be the rational thing to do, but it isn’t all that effective. We need to distill the issues into the real impact that they have on real people and real companies in each Member’s own state or district. Even when we’re up against prominent Hollywood or Wall Street interests, politicians care about the constituents back home.
  • Entrepreneurs need to work in tandem with supportive leaders in Washington. Tweeting or sending emails may feel good, but unless it is done in coordination with Washington insiders who know the score and which levers to pull, it isn’t nearly as effective. Often what we see from the outside may not be the reality behind the scenes. If we better understand which messaging would be most helpful targeted at which policymakers, we can have a greater impact. Rallying from the outside alone is unlikely to get it done.

What Else?

What else do you think can be done by tech entrepreneurs to have a greater impact on policy in Washington and the states? This list just scratches the surface of the challenges and potential solutions. I’ll have more to say about it in future posts since this has tickled my interest as someone who has spent large amount of time in both the tech and DC worlds.

In the meantime, share your thoughts here in the comments.

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  • Jen Zingsheim

    I think the concept of self-policing get short shrift. The bottom line is most regulations start as a response to what someone perceives as a problem. An entrepreneur might be too “in the weeds” to realize the practical implications of a product, service, etc. The perfect storm of this example is the privacy discussion. I don’t think entrepreneurs should over-think things to the point of inaction (that’s my specialty), but I do think an occasional 50K foot-view of an idea from an outsider might bring needed perspective–and, perhaps that perspective will shape an idea before it comes to the attention of a policy maker as a “problem” to “solve.”

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