Startups Speak

Joining the Conversation


Marci Harris is cofounder and CEO of PopVox.

As a former Congressional staffer-turned-startup-entrepreneur, I am excited to see the discussion on the Engine blog address what it means to join the policymaking "conversation" in Washington.

That conversation doesn't have a very good reputation right now.  Congressional Job Approval (according to Gallup ) is at a flat 12%.  In an April 2011 poll, Americans said 71% of lobbyists had "too much power", ranking them on this scale above "major corporations" (67%), "banks and financial institutions" (67%), and "the federal government in Washington" (58%). The legacy networks of grassroots  organizations have been examining their own "Tragedy of Political Advocacy". This was the case even before "The Internet" pulled off the epic blackout of January 18 in opposition to the SOPA.

The Silicon Valley culture, which until recently served as a proxy for all "startups", historically has been happy to be detached from the conversation. Nigel Cameron describes (as only he can) the Silicon Valley/DC divide as "the Continental Divide," in which it can seem that the two most distant points in the universe are the Rayburn cafeteria and the Starbucks on Sand Hill Road.

Civic engagement, powered by game-changing technology, provides a vehicle for increasing trust and broadening the Conversation. Here are some things to keep in mind for all groups — including those in the startup community — that wish to engage and participate:

  1. Relationships. Bridging the Continental coffee shop divide is an important first step. Invite a staffer for coffee and get to know them. (They will have to pay for their own coffee.) Which leads to the next point:
  2. Staff are people too. A meeting with a staffer is frequently just as good (and sometimes better) than a meeting with a Member. You will probably get more time and speak with someone who can dig into the minutiae with you in a way that a busy Member of Congress just can’t.  Yes, that is still true if they look eighteen, happen to be answering the office phone, and even sometimes if their title is “intern.”
  3. Congress really wants to hear from constituents (but not everyone else). Unless a Member of Congress represents your district, they don’t technically work for you. If you want to convince them of something, convince their constituents.
  4. Big change (usually) takes a while. There is no hard and fast rule - BUT, you will usually have better luck with incremental steps over several years than attempting to push through a large proposal.
  5. Small things matter. There is value in baby legislative steps to demonstrate support — Naming a “day”, commissioning a study, “recognizing the goals of..." are all opportunities to explain your position and have a legitimate “ask” (i.e.“co-sponsor this bill”), to produce a list of allies on the record for your cause.
  6. Capitol Hill is the ultimate "Just In Time" fulfillment. Staff are busy and issues come quickly; if information is not available when needed, they will probably not go looking for you. It's helpful to keep tabs on the agenda, and (shameless plug) make sure your positions on bills are easy to find on a platform like POPVOX, which is designed to answer a staffer’s “need information about this bill NOW” need.
  7. Don't assume they know the details. Your letter or one-pager should summarize and re-explain the issue, even if you think that EVERYONE should know the background and what the acronyms mean. (Really, a ONE-pager is important.)
  8. Seasons change, people change. While your relationship building might seem best focused on leadership and committee chairs, keep in mind that the pieces are rearranged after every election.

Alan Simpson Talks Tech Safety for Kids

Alan Simpson is a veteran of traditional media, having cut his teeth at C-SPAN and NPR, before moving on to advocacy in the tech space with a particular focus on opportunities for children and learning. He currently works at Common Sense Media, and lives with his wife and mutt in San Francisco. This post represents his personal views, and not necessarily those of any organization.

I spend a lot of time with people working in technology, and even more time with parents and teachers who might be described as less than comfortable with technology. It’s no surprise that conversations in the startup world focus on the many opportunities and improvements created by the Internet and technology. On the other hand, when talking with parents, teachers, and policymakers, the conversation hinges not just on the upsides of technology, but also on the serious concerns many of this group have about potential downsides for children.

Many parents and educators are embracing the benefits of digital technology, and are hopeful about opportunities for personalized learning innovations that can be accessed in school, at home, and many places in between. But there are also parents who worry about trouble their children may get into with technology. The perceived problems are as varied as the parents – issues ranging from porn and piracy to child ID theft and the risk of jeopardizing college applications.

Some people might be tempted to dismiss the concerns of parents, but we should all recognize that worrying about children –- and weighing upsides and downsides -– is a big part of their jobs.
When I talk with parents and educators, I usually stress the importance of finding balance, and of engaging with new platforms and tools, so that they can make smart tech choices for their children, and perhaps more importantly, teach their children to make smart choices as they grow. This works in many cases, but sometimes I encounter parents or teachers who are frustrated, and know that they understand tech less than children do. They wish there was an off switch, or a time machine to make the Internet disappear. As we’ve seen recently, some policymakers agree.

It’s important to remind them that there is no time machine, and that kids are going to embrace digital technology, just as they’ve always embraced innovation. Parents, teachers and all adults can, and should, help teach kids to make smart choices about technology. What we can’t do is tell a generation of kids to stay offline, because they’re going to live their lives online.

This can be a challenging conversation, and it may be one most tech folks don’t want to have. But it’s a crucial conversation, and startups need to be part of it. Because in the end, the biggest potential digital downside for our nation’s children is that we may block them from technology innovations that can significantly improve their opportunities for learning, and help them prepare for the digital world where they will live, work, play, bank, vote, and more.

Our Internet

We’re excited to post a video today that we put together late last week with some great entrepreneurs in NYC. We asked them to talk to the amazing team at m ss ng p eces about why they started the business they have built, what motivates them every day, and the promise they see going forward. Each of them also spoke about why they fear legislation like PIPA and SOPA and the threats posed by legislation and regulation that have not been carefully thought through.

Now, when startups are the sole drivers of US job growth, accounting for practically all net new jobs in this country -- and the tech sector is the fastest growing among those -- is a good time to remember that protecting our Internet means letting our economy grow, and why our leaders need to ask important questions before passing legislation. And at the same time, to remember that the promise of tomorrow remains, as always, bright and innovative.

We’re grateful to the entrepreneurs who took time out of their busy day to participate in this video and the many others who volunteered to appear.

In alphabetical order:

Scott Belsky, Behance

Cindy Gallop, Consultant

Aaron Harris, Tutorspree

Chris Henry, Behance

Harry Heymann, Foursquare

Chris Mirabile, Hotlist