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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.

New Course: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Public Policy

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For a number of years, my partner Jason Mendelson has been teaching an extremely popular course at CU Boulder Law School with Brad Bernthal titled Venture Capital – A 360 Degree Perspective. While it’s a course taught in the law school, it’s (not surprisingly) become popular with the MBA students at CU Boulder.

Brad Bernthal, Phil Weiser (the Dean of the CU Law School), and I have been talking about a new course to complement VC 360 called Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Public Policy. We’ve decided to take a crack at a cross-campus course (law, engineering, and business) that focused on contemporary issues around entrepreneurship, would be a great introduction to any student who wants to immerse herself in entrepreneurship, and would enable us to create some unique content around this topic.

We envision a two hour a week course (over seven sessions) that has a heavy reading, class participation, and writing component. Our goal will be to put this up on the web as well to provide content (and potentially interaction) to a much wider community.

Following is a first draft of a syllabus. I’m looking for two types of feedback: (1) comments on the syllabus and (2) suggestions for web services to use to package this content up for broader distribution.

This one credit course, available to first year law students in their second semester as well as a select number of graduate students in the Business School students and School of Engineering, will explore a set of cutting edge questions around entrepreneurship.  Students in the class will be required to write a ten page paper as well as participate actively in the course (including on a class blog).  Since class participation is a core part of the course (counting for 20% of the grade, with the other 80% based on the paper), any missed class must be made up by writing a 1 page reaction paper.

1. Being an Entrepreneur. Reading: The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career (Hoffman, Casnocha). Five Minds for the Future (Gardner).

2. Leadership and What Makes a Great Founding Team. Reading: Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup:  (Cohen, Feld). Leadership Lessons From the Shackleton Expedition (Koehn).

3. Building and Scaling A Business. Reading: The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (Ries).

4. Entrepreneurial Communities. Reading: Startup Communities: Creating A Great Entrepreneurial Ecosystem In Your City (Feld). Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity 1996 – 2010.

5. Financing Entrepreneurial Companies. Reading: Venture Deals: How To Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer (Mendelson, Feld). Improving Access to Capital for High-Growth Companies (Department of Commerce – National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship)

6. Entrepreneurial Leadership in Government. Reading: Alfred Kahn As A Case Study of A Political Entrepreneur (Weiser). Start-up Nation:  The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Senor and Singer).

7. Entrepreneurship and Innovation Policy: Reading: Accelerating Energy Innovation: Insights from Multiple Sectors (Henderson, Newell).

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.

American Censorship Day Is Tomorrow (11/16/11)

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There are two very disturbing bills making their way through Congress: Protect IP Act (PIPA - S.968) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA – H.R.3261). These bills are coated in rhetoric that I find disgusting since at their core they are online censorship bills. It’s incredible to me that Congress would take seriously anything that censors the Internet and the American public but in the last few weeks PIPA and SOPA have burst forth with incredibly momentum, largely being underwritten by large media companies and their lobbyists.

A number of organizations in support of free speech and a free and open Internet have recently come out in opposition to these bills. They include EFF, Free Software Foundation, Public Knowledge, Demand Progress, Fight For the Future, Participatory Politics Foundation, and Creative Commons who have organized American Censorship Day tomorrow (11/16/11).

If you run a website or have a blog, go to the American Censorship site to see how you can participate on 11/16/11.

In addition to being censorship bills, these are anti-entrepreneurship bills. They are a classic example of industry incumbents trying to use the law to stifle disruptive innovation, or at least innovation that they view as disruptive to their established business. To date, the Internet has been an incredible force for entrepreneurship and positive change throughout the world (did anyone notice what recently happened in Egypt?) It’s beyond comprehension why some people in Congress would want to slow this down in any way.

While you can try to understand the bills, this short video does a phenomenal job of summarizing their potential impact along with second order effects (intended or unintended).

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

I’m furious about this, as are many of my friends, including Fred Wilson who wrote today about how these bills undermine The Architecture of the Internet. But we are aware, as are many others, that simply being mad doesn’t solve anything. Join us and speak out loudly against censorship – right now! If you have a blog or website, please take part in American Censorship Day - the instructions are on their website which – so far – hasn’t been censored.

Does Me-Too Stuff Bore You?

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As 2011 kicks off, I think we are in for a ton of innovative software and Internet stuff this year.  Yeah, some of it will be “just like everything else but different.”  However, of the areas we invest heavily in – human computer interaction – has an incredible amount of activity going on.  I’ll be at CES in Las Vegas this week so I expect to have a dose of nerd-eye-candy (e.g. the latest TV sets) along with a bunch of cool / amazing / clever / intriguing new HCI things.

I expect CES will be a classic case of “a mile wide and an inch deep.”  If you want to go really deep with HCI, consider joining me at the Blur Conference in Orlando on 2/22 and 2/23 especially if any of the following topics appeal to you.

  • markerless motion capture
  • phone controlled robotic gaming devices
  • augmented reality apps
  • alternative input mechanisms
  • neuro-physiological measurements
  • all kinds of Kinect hacks
  • 3D/digital sculptures
  • neuro-ergonomics
  • social robotics
  • multi-touch interfaces
  • speech recognition
  • human instrumentation
  • natural user interfaces

I’ve accepted the reality that the computers are going to take over during my lifetime.  I just want to help be involved in writing some of the code to hedge my bets.  Register now to come join me in my quest.

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