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The open data movement is great for business, but is also great for us as citizens. To accelerate that program, President Obama and US CTO Todd Park have created a national event to leverage technology and open data to strengthen our democracy in the United States.
On June 1st and 2nd the largest hackathon in the world is forming. Over 5000 people in 87 locations will be joining up to use their talents to make their communities a better place. The National Day of Civic Hacking is the first of a yearly event created by the White House to gather Citizen Engineers and have them use newly accessible government data to improve their communities and our entire society. The multitude of data that is being released as part of the Open Data Initiatives.
A company I’ve been involved for a long time with – Rally Software – is taking a leadership role in this. Rally’s product development team is devoting their talent and energy to participate and host the Boulder, Denver, Seattle, and Raleigh event (join up at these locations.) Through their corporate social responsibility initiative, Rally for Impact they are offering an exclusive and complimentary one-year subscription to AgileZen and Flowdock to all participants of the National Day of Civic Hacking.
Specifically for Coloradans, there are sites in Denver and Boulder. In Denver, the site is focused on open data from the State of Colorado and called Hack4Colorado. In Boulder, the Boulder Civic Hackfest, is focused on local data, the Census Bureau and the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Open Energy Info project. On Saturday, NREL engineers will join the local civic hackers too. Hacking isn’t just about writing code, it’s about exploring the boundaries of what’s doable and what’s desirable.
Rally is also donating three seats to their Enterprise Lean Startup training course to this effort. This highly interactive workshop, on June 5 & 6 in Boulder, teaches you how to systematically discover what’s desirable for users and customers. To claim the training seats be the first three people to send email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you are attending the event in Boulder or Denver. Awards will be given at the closing of each event in Boulder and Denver by Rally staff.
I’m proud of my long time friends at Rally for providing leadership here!
This article originally appeared online at Inc.com in an article titled Government Shouldn’t Be In The Accelerator Business. I talk more about this and lots of other topics in my recent book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.
As a co-founder of TechStars, I’m a huge believer in the mentor-driven accelerator model. But I don’t think government should be funding these accelerators, nor do I think they need to.
A good accelerator can be run in any city in the world for $500,000. Entrepreneurs with a compelling track record and approach should be able to easily raise, or even provide this capital. As evidence of this, there are already hundreds of accelerators in the U.S., without government funding, being run as entrepreneurial ventures for profit by entrepreneurs.
When we started TechStars in 2006, the idea of an accelerator was brand new. We funded the first TechStars program in Boulder in 2007 with $230,000. There were four investors – me, TechStars CEO David Cohen, David Brown, and Jared Polis. All four of us had been successful entrepreneurs and we decided to try TechStars as an experiment to help create more early stage start-ups in Boulder. We figured out the downside case was that we’d spend $230,000 and end up attracting 20 or so new, smart entrepreneurs to Boulder.
That first program went great and has already returned over two times our invested capital with several of the companies still having future value. We ran the second program in 2008, expanded to Boston in 2009, and adopted a funding strategy for each local program which we continue to use to this day. TechStars surpassed our wildest expectations and now runs over 10 programs a year for over 100 start-ups around the United States. We’ve begun expanding internationally with our first program running this summer in London. And there are many other accelerators around the world using the TechStars mentor-driven model that are members of the Global Accelerator Network.
All of this is privately funded. We’ve never taken a dollar of government funding, nor do we plan to.
While the amount of money required to run a program has increased from the original $230,000, it’s still well under $1,000,000 per program cycle. As a result, the amount of capital we need to raise to run a TechStars program is modest, and since we run it to make a financial return, it is actually an investment, rather than an expense. And, by being focused first on the financial return as well as playing a long-term game (we expect to be running TechStars accelerators for a long time), we are very thoughtful about how we allocate capital.
If entrepreneurs can’t figure out how to fund it, why should the government do it? That just seems like a situation where capital is going to be allocated poorly and the incentives won’t be tightly aligned.
I heard the word “connector” several times yesterday at the Colorado Innovation Network summit. I gave the final speech of the day after being in Chicago in the morning to give the keynote speech at the Excelerate Labs Demo Day which was an awesome group where I discovered one company I’m very interested in potentially investing in.
In both cities (Chicago and Denver) I gave a talk about Startup Communities using the Boulder Thesis as a framework. The Chicago talk was short and tight (about 15 minutes) to warm up the event. The Denver talk ended up going almost an hour and having a lot of Q&A. Both were simulating (at least to me – hopefully to the crowd) and the entrepreneurial energy in both rooms was significant.
While I missed most of the COIN summit because I was traveling back from Chicago, I caught a few of the last talks before mine. I also talked to a bunch of people and kept hearing the word “connector” come up – it must have been one of the words of the day. This was used to define a role for many of the constituents in the COIN summit which included entrepreneurs, government, university, and big company folks.
My good friend Phil Weiser, Dean of the CU Law School, introduced me to the word “convener” several years ago. CU Law, and specifically the Silicon Flatirons program that Phil created a decade ago, plays a huge convening role for the Boulder startup community. As a result, it sits in the center of a lot of activity. It’s not a connector – it’s a convener.
Government and universities, in my view around startup communities, are feeders, not leaders. Feeders are important, but they are different – and play a different role than leaders. For a startup community to be vibrant and sustainable the leaders have to be entrepreneurs. This is the first tenet of the Boulder Thesis.
A convener has much more leverage than a connector. A connector implies a lot of work and a lot of control. There’s also a hierarchical dynamic – connectors are choosing who to connect; as a result they become gatekeepers which is not the right role for a feeder. I believe most gatekeepers inhibit the growth and development of a startup community so any role that looks gatekeeper-ish is often an inhibitor to progress.
Conveners quickly develop a reputation for being inclusive and accessible. This is another tenet of the Boulder Thesis – everyone in the startup community must be inclusive to anyone who wants to engage.
I was going back and forth with a founder of a startup in Chicago this morning by email who is now eight years old (not really a startup anymore) and just rented a 60,000 foot office and is looking to help the startup community more now that it’s gotten to a meaningful size. I suggested that, among other things, they play a convener role.
Basically, all feeders to a startup community can play a convener role. It’s more powerful than simply being a connector.
Yesterday I was with yet another non-US entrepreneur who is struggling to get the right visa to stay in the US and build his company here. This entrepreneur happens to be from England and his business partner (and best friend since they were kids) is also English, but managed to get into the US because he fell in love with and married and America a while ago. The business partner lives in Denver so they started the company in Denver a year or so ago.
They are a small company right now with a pretty interesting product and vision. One founder lives in the UK, the other lives in Denver. The UK founder travels to the US when he can get a travel visa, but he’s been careful not to get offsides since he’s been in the visa application process for a while. They’ve spent a bunch of money on legal fees, continue to chew up money on travel from the UK to the US, and have to deal with the uncertainty (both timing and functional) around the visa process.
Along with some others, I’ve been trying to get something called The Startup Visa Act passed in Congress and turned into law. The biggest thing to come out of it for me personally has been a deep understanding of how the process of an idea to bill to law works.
After two years of advocating for this, there is extremely broad support throughout Congress for this concept and it has been written into many of the job creation / startup type bills that are out there. But – nothing has been passed. The White House made some policy changes over the summer which have been somewhat helpful, but are still making their way through the USCIS bureaucracy, which means many of these policy changes are not yet being implemented, or people in the field at USCIS have no idea how to implement them.
In hindsight, I realized I’d made a giant mistake. Rather than call it the “Startup Visa Movement”, we should have called it the “Stealing Jobs From Foreign Countries Act.” I haven’t yet come up with the right acronym for it (SJFFCA doesn’t quite work, but I’m sure some of you out there could acronymize this.) Instead of positioning this as a “Startup Thing” or a “Visa Thing”, we should have just taken the same cynical approach to titling the activity that many in Washington do. I mean, c’mon, how could any red blooded America object to stealing jobs from foreign countries?
Every week I am in contact with at least one foreign entrepreneur who is struggling to stay in the US and build their company here. Over the past year, it’s probably been several hundred which represent thousands of jobs and who knows how much innovative, amazing stuff. Hopefully the new USCIS Entrepreneur in Residence program will help figure out how to make the Startup Visa a reality. Or maybe Congress will finally take some action and get a bill passed. Either way, I know that as every day passes, we are missing a huge opportunity in this country by making it hard for non-US citizens to stay here and build their high growth entrepreneurial companies.
This afternoon in Boulder I’ll be on a panel as part of the White House Startup America Roundtable. If you weren’t invited to the event, there is a web site called Reducing Barriers to Innovation that you can participate in.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent some time thinking about how the government can help entrepreneurship. It started with my role as the co-chairman of the Colorado Governors Innovation Council which was my first involvement in any formal way with any government initiative. More recently, I’ve focused my energy on the Startup Visa movement and the Startup America Partnership.
When I was reviewing the agenda for the Reducing Barriers to Innovation program, the goal of the program was pretty clear:
“The Startup America: Reducing Barriers event is a regional platform that allows federal agencies to hear directly, from entrepreneurs and local leaders like you, how we can achieve our goal of reducing the barriers faced by America’s entrepreneurs. Senior Obama administration officials need input on what changes are needed to build a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship. “
On my run yesterday, I mulled over the big activities that I thought the federal government could do to “build a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship.” I came up with five things that I think are relatively easy to measure over the long run. Following are short thoughts on each of these areas with one specific idea (in italics) that I think would materially impact entrepreneurship in America in a positive way.
Tax Policy: Incent people to invest in startups. While there are several well understood tax policies that could be implemented, the simplest is to provide long term tax breaks for individuals to invest in new startup companies. As with anything tax related, there are endless politics involved and many of the things that actual get rolled out are so obscure that they either never get implemented or are to difficult for investors to understand. Make it simple – eliminate capital gains if an individual (who is an accredited investor) invests equity (i.e. risk of 100% loss of investment) in a private company with less than 100 employees.
Immigration Policy: Make it easy for foreigner entrepreneurs to come to the US, or for foreign students to stay in the US, and start companies. This is the essence of what we’ve been trying to solve with the Startup Visa movement. The new Startup Visa Act of 2011 has plenty of improvements over the 2010 Act (which was introduced but never went anywhere) but still is stuck in Congress. If the White House wants to make a difference here, it should prioritize the Startup Visa separately from “broad immigration reform” and help get it passed since the Startup Visa is much less about immigration and much more about entrepreneurship, innovation, and jobs.
Regulatory Policy: Cut as much paperwork and bureaucracy out of the system. While this one is talked about regularly by the people in government that I know, the regulatory environment just seems to get more and more complicated. The solution so far has seemed to be “hire more people to process more paper faster.” This clearly hasn’t worked – how about taking the opposite approach and cut 20% of all jobs within various government agencies responsible for regulatory activity? I don’t care if you pay the fired people for two years – give them healthy severances and incentives to go work in the private sector. Necessity will drive efficiency.
Investment: Focus investment in university research. Then open source the results. The federal government has been a historically successful investor in innovation and the creation of new technologies, often through funding university research. If you want a good example of this, read Bright Boys. Unfortunately, this has gotten really messed up recently due to our byzantine patent system and the evolving dynamics of university technology licensing organizations. The government should allocate even more money to university research programs, but the results of this research should not be able to be patented and should be free for anyone to license. This would drastically change the technology licensing game by simplifying it and shifting economic incentives aggressively to companies that actually commercialize (or productize) this research, rather than simply claim ownership to the “intellectual property.”
Customer: The federal government is an enormous consumer of products and services. While it claims to want to do business with entrepreneurial companies and so far pays its bills in a predictable manner, it’s a miserable customer to deal with. The procurement process is painful, many entrepreneurial companies have to work through government contractor gatekeepers (who take up to a 30% tax for doing nothing other than being the contracting party), and often the execution and implementation process is a disaster. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a suggestion for how to improve this since there are so many rules and regulations around this – I guess the answer is “see regulatory policy” above.
I’m continuing to think through this and refine my thoughts on it, so as always I’m open to any and all feedback, including “Feld – you are such a knucklehead – that’s a stupid idea and will never work, but try this.” Fire away.