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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Compromise vs. Problem Solving

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I spent all day Sunday at Silicon Flatirons’ Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This is a key national conference held in Boulder at the intersection of technology and public policy with a particular focus on the Internet. This year’s conference subtitle was “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.”

I was pondering something all morning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My close friend Phil Weiser (who is now the Dean of the CU Law School and hosts the conference) kicked it off and then handed things over to Vint Cerf (now at Google and one of the original architects of the Internet). A great panel full of engineers titled Tech Tutorial Backdrop: An All IP Network and Its Policy Implications came next, followed by a talk from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

I’m a supporter of Michael’s and even though he originally co-sponsored PIPA, he eventually understood that it was flawed legislation and got behind the effort to oppose it. As a co-sponsor he had plenty of influence in the background on the process and I’m glad that he spent the time to listen to the tech community, understand why it was bad legislation, and take action. It was great to see him at this particular conference given its national perpective on a key intersection of technology and policy.

After Michael came a panel I was on titled The Digital Broadband Migration in Perspective. David Cohen (EVP of Comcast), Larissa Herda (CEO of tw telecom inc.), and I were the loud mouths on this one. David and I had very different perspectives on many things which reached a head when he asked what my reaction to all of the major TV and cable channels blacking out for three hours and putting up messages that said “this is what TV would be like without SOPA/PIPA” (basically – the opposite of the Internet blackout that occurred on January 18th). While he asserted this would be an abuse of corporate power and responsibility, implying that the Internet companies participating in the Internet blackout where behaving inappropriately, my response was that “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.”  There was plenty more in that vein, but this was tame compared to what came next.

The panel after lunch was a debrief on what just happened with SOPA/PIPA. Mark Lemley (Stanford Law Professor) and Gigi Sohn (President of Public Knowledge) explained things from an anti-SOPA/PIPA perspective; Jonathan Taplin (Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California) and Michael Fricklas (General Counsel of Viacom) took a pro-SOPA/PIPA perspective, and Michael Gallagher (CEO of Entertainment Software Association) and Judge Stephen Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit) took a third perspective that I couldn’t quite parse. After everyone got a chance to give a 7 – 13 minute presentation, the conversation degenerated quickly into a very polarized argument where, in my opinion, facts were left at the doorstep by several of the participants. As the fact vs. fiction dynamic escalated, emotions ran hot and the discourse degenerated to a point of near uselessness. With every moment, the conversation became even more polarized, even though the anti-SOPA/PIPA folks would say things like I’m not going to defend SOPA/PIPA as it was bad legislation, we need to solve the problem of … in reaction to the pro-SOPA/PIPA folks saying If you assert that there are only 50 bad sites that represent 80% of the illegal content in the world, and we already have tools too take those sites down, what exactly are you talking about.  While there were hugs and handshakes after the panel ended, it definitely felt like there was plenty of grinfucking going around.

After this panel I ducked out for an hour to go meet Julius Genachowski (chairman of the FCC). We’ve crossed paths a few times but never spent any thoughtful time together. We had a nice 30 minute meeting where we talked about the dynamics going on at the conference and in Washington DC. He gave me one phrase which caused me to stop, ponder it for a minute, and respond with “that’s exactly right.” He said:

“What you are observing is the difference between compromise and problem solving.”

My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion.

When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they would respond “what’s the counter proposal?” My first response was usually “What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that shouldn’t even be considered.” The response to this was “Yes, but if I am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.”

Julius explained to me that Washington runs on a compromise mentality. You propose something and then begin negotiating from there. Innovative companies, where I spent almost all of my time, run on a problem solving mentality. You have a problem – you solve it. When I reflected on the panels during the day, the engineers and engineering heavy panels were problem solving and the policy / lawyer heavy panels were fighting over polarized positions which, if they converged, would be a convergence based on compromise rather than problem solving.

This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasing frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.

We ended the day with a wonderful talk from Senator Mark Udall. I’m a huge fan of Mark’s – he’s one of the most thoughtful people in government I’ve gotten to interact with. Colorado is lucky to have him as he listens to his constituents here and acts on their behalf, rather than some other agenda. He discussed his views on innovation and PIPA (which he opposed early) and then made a strong appeal for the Startup Visa, increased STEM education, and a long term focus on innovation as the base for job creation. He then took another 90 minutes to meet with a smaller set of entrepreneurs and public policy folks from the conference to hear what was on their mind. Mark definitely was listening and trying to understand what issues he should be looking out for that had similar negative impacts like PIPA.

We need a lot more problem solvers like Mark in the mix, especially in positions of power in government. And, the problem solvers should insist that the path is problem solving, not compromise.

This Is The Smell Of Inevitability

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In the “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” category, “a Missouri federal judge ruled the FBI did not need a warrant to secretly attach a GPS monitoring device to a suspect’s car to track his public movements for two months.”

I had to read that sentence twice. I simply didn’t believe it. Fortunately this one will go to the Supreme Court. The punch line from Justice Breyer is right on the money: “If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent the police or government from monitoring 24 hours a day every citizen of the United States.”

GPS tracking. Hey – did you know that you can already track me through my cell phone without my permission? How about a little tag sewn into all clothing that uniquely identifies me. Or maybe something injected under my skin. Giving the government the right to do it without probable cause or any process, or suggesting that someone doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy,  just feels evil to me.

The depth of the ethics of these issues are going to be significant over the next decade. It will be trivial for any of us to be tracked all the time without our knowledge. Don’t want a device – how about image recognition view the web of surveillance cameras everywhere.

I don’t have any answer for this, but I have a lot of questions and ideas. And I’m glad that I live in the US where presumably my civil liberties, privacy, and freedom of speech are sacred. I know there are plenty of people in the US that don’t agree with this, or believe that the government should have more control around this to “keep out or find the bad guys.”

Philosophically this is a hard and complex discussion and has been since the creation of the United States of America. The difference, right now, is that technology is about to take another step function leap that no one is ready for, or is thinking about, or even understands, that will create an entirely new set of dynamics in our society. Our government, especially leaders in Congress, the White House, and the Judicial System need to get much smarter – fast – about how this works. SOPA / PIPA is an example of terrible legislation that runs the risk of massively impacting innovation and individual freedom of speech. But it’s just a start – there is a lot more coming.

Denying that there is going to be a dramatic shift in how humans and computers interact is insane. Trying to hold on to incumbent business models and stifle innovation through legislation is dumb. Trying to create complex laws to contain and manage the evolution of technology, especially when it transfers power from innovators to non-innovators, or from the rights of private citizens to the government, is a mistake and will fail long term. Trying to repress free speech of any sort is wrong and won’t be sustainable.

I live in a world where you can’t anticipate or control change. It’s coming – and fast. Let’s embrace it and use it for good, not resist is and try to surpress it in the name of “protecting ourself from bad actors.” I pledge to do my best to always be thoughtful about it and be a force for good in the world. But please, don’t deny the inevitable – embrace it, and build off of it. It’s what makes America amazing and extremely durable long term.

Water Equals Food Equals Income

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Innovation happens all over the place. While I typically write about innovation in software and the Internet (which are the two areas I invest in), it’s useful to occasionally step back and tell a story about innovation in a different area that I’ve been exposed to.

Peter Frykman was 15 years old when Muhammad Yunus proposed alleviating poverty through the innovation of the social-objective-driven entrepreneur, one who “competes in the marketplace with all other competitors but is inspired by a set of social objectives.” In 2008 Frykman founded Driptech, his for-profit social venture located in Palo Alto, CA, with a mission to create extremely affordable, water efficient irrigation solutions for small-plot farmers in developing nations.

By devising drip irrigation technology that eliminates the complexity of emitters, Frykman and his team reduced the number of parts for a drip system by over 85%, cut the costs typical of commercial drip irrigation by over 60%, and simultaneously improved reliability and ease of maintenance. 

This innovation makes Driptech the first company to design and manufacture drip irrigation specifically for the world’s poorest farmers, allowing them to grow crops year-round while conserving water, labor, and time. Not only can these farmers now finally produce enough vegetables to meet their own families’ nutritional needs, they become micro-entrepreneurs by growing additional crops to sell in local markets, substantially raising their incomes.

But Driptech’s contribution to poverty eradication doesn’t end there. Frykman’s decentralized manufacturing model will deploy production facilities directly to where the product will be sold, allowing for local customization of the systems, additional cost reductions, and added benefit to rural economies through the generation of jobs. The for-profit nature of the venture is not only economically sustainable, but scalable as well, promising future positive social impacts that will grow along with the company.

Having proven his product through a pilot study in India and initial sales in China, Frykman recently raised angel funding to ramp up his manufacturing capabilities. While this isn’t an area that we invest in, I was turned on to Peter via a good friend, Scott Petry, who was the founder of Postini (and is now at Google).  Scott pulled in another long time friend – George Northup – the President of Memeo (Foundry Group is an investor). I find it easy to be supportive of entrepreneurs in social ventures that are supported by good friends.

So, congratulations to Peter Frykman and Driptech. Don’t miss his panel on Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business 2010 Conference on Entrepreneurship coming up February 26th from 1:30-2:45pm.

Ask a Ninja on Net Neutrality

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On the heels of the FCC doing what everyone expected them to do today with regard to Net Neutrality, I thought I’d remind you of the awesome Ask a Ninja on Net Neutrality from 2006.

Some Useful Articles on Net Neutrality

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Yesterday I mentioned my strong support of Net Neutrality.  As part of this, I signed on to a letter from a bunch of VC’s and entrepreneurs to Julies Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC.  Fred Wilson reprinted the letter (he also signed it along with his partners at Union Square Ventures) in his post Net Neutrality.

Not surprisingly I received some emails and had a few conversations with folks that amounted to “I don’t really know anything about this Net Neutrality thing – can you explain it.”  I did my best but after the third time decided to pull together a few public posts that might provide some perspective on the debate.

First, Ivan Seidenberg, the Verizon CEO slamming Net Neutrality.  I have trouble reading this stuff (and am glad I wasn’t at the Supercomm speech) as I just violently disagree with his perspective.  But – it’s useful context.  One thing you’ll notice if you read across a bunch of this is that it’s pretty consistent language from the CEO’s of broadband providers, which is usually a clue as to how politicized this stuff is.

Next, you get a very interesting post from Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) and Lowell McAdam (Verizon Wireless CEO) titled Finding common ground on an open Internet. I’m not sure this post actually resolves anything, but it does a useful job of setting up the conversation and reinforcing the key principles being discussed and debated. It’s also ironic (or perplexing) given McAdam’s statements given the position that Seidenberg takes.

The best article is My chat with Google’s Vint Cerf in the Washington Post.  If you don’t know Vint Cerf, he’s also commonly referred to as “the father of the Internet”  It’s a great, clear interview that expresses the position I support.

I expect there will be an incredible amount of rhetoric around this over the coming months.  Buckle up.

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