On a Friday night in early June, eight strangers came up with an idea to help poor Americans on government assistance gain access to healthier food. They designed a website and business model to help overcome a problem referred to as urban “food deserts –– that many low-income Americans in big cities live miles from the nearest grocery store. After three days, the eight strangers, which included the two authors of this piece, pitched the company and won a little prize –– the invitation to present the solution at an international summit organized by the World Bank and the White House. But strangely, the initial goal of our meeting wasn’t to eliminate food deserts or win little prizes –– it was to strengthen the still-underdeveloped bond between D.C. policymakers and tech entrepreneurs.
Earlier this year, the disconnect between our nation’s tech entrepreneurs and Washington, D.C.’s policymakers prompted a very public showdown over proposed Internet copyright legislation. That legislation was called the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate (or SOPA and PIPA). Entrepreneurs, venture investors, and Internet users argued that the bills would censor websites and cripple American startups. Wikipedia and Google, among thousands of other sites, symbolically censored its own site for a day in January to protest. Throughout the Congressional hearings and public debates on the bills, there was an overwhelming sense that the two groups — entrepreneurs and government staff — spoke different languages, had different cultures, and simply could not understand one another. Government staffers get much of their information from the specialized lobbyists of the most established companies, not entrepreneurs creating new ones.
But both groups would benefit from learning more about the other, and developing a more meaningful, working relationship. Government can help startups by adopting policies designed to spur innovation and make data transparent –– while startups can help government solve some of its most vexing administrative and policy problems.
In the post-SOPA moment, many groups have proposed initiatives to bridge the divide, often by bringing startup entrepreneurs to Capitol Hill to meet Congressmen and their credentialed legal staffs.
But perhaps we should reverse the journey, and transport government officials to the land of startups, both physically and psychologically. It was one of these initiatives, to reverse the journey, that resulted in our meeting and mingling with entrepreneurs and government staff to create another modest attempt to address food deserts. Startup Weekend, a Seattle-based nonprofit, that organizes 500 weekend startup events a year, was inspired this year to unveil an initiative in April designed to bring government and entrepreneurs together. We attended the second event in the initiative, which convened 150 people at Microsoft’s D.C. offices where we collectively created 14 companies devoted to addressing social problems. The White House CTO attended, encouraging us to tap into public government databases and use that data to solve social and governmental problems.
To understand the profound benefit of these events, we have to ask why there remains a divide between those who start tech companies and those who write laws to regulate them. Congress and the headquarters of federal agencies are in Washington, D.C., a city where every third person seems to be a buttoned down lawyer, and where government “staffers” work in austere marble buildings dotted with statues of dead statesmen holding quills, riding horses, sometimes wearing wigs. Some government staffers seem to assume that if a company is a startup, its fifth hire will be a lawyer, and its tenth or eleventh will be the all-important head of “government relations.” They conclude that the startup operates just like the stylized economic model of large companies selling widgets taught in economics 101 courses ¬–– courses that any decent staffer aced before going to work for Chairman So-and-So or Senator That-Guy.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley –– and in the many other tech communities from the New York City Flatiron District to the Kansas Silicon Prairie –– every third person seems to be a coder or designer. They co-work in wide-open collaborative spaces flooded with natural light or huddle in real or figurative garages and group houses. Only the largest, most established companies can afford to lose focus on growth and devote some, very late resources to government relations. The first lawyer is the fiftieth hire, perhaps, and the government relations person might be the 500th. In a tech startup, other skills are needed, earlier and more often. Despite economic theory, resources are scarce and none scarcer than time; execution can be messy; and leaders usually must be focused on business and merely complying with the many complex laws affecting them, rather than lobbying on newly proposed ones.
An event like Startup Weekend can teach government officials a little about the creativity and commitment required to build a startup. First, entrepreneurship is really hard. It requires many different skills, the consideration of potentially crazy ideas, the willingness to take risks, and the certainty of many failures along the way. Second, some of the solutions to our biggest problems will likely emerge from startups: In today’s environment of partisan finger-pointing and complaints over wasted dollars, government agencies may hesitate to support inventive policies that pose the risk of failure.
Policymakers should spend more time meeting with—and walking in the shoes of –– tech entrepreneurs. Doing so will make them more likely to pass laws that empower entrepreneurs to confront the biggest policy challenges (rising healthcare costs, aging population, inadequate education), rather than laws like the ill-conceived SOPA and PIPA that would stifle innovation and American competitiveness.