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I received at least one email a day last week pitching a politics oriented web startup. The emails start off something like this.
Over $8 billion dollars will be spent on the upcoming 2012 election. The web and social media are critical tools for any candidate. Every candidate will need our stuff and since over $8 billion dollars will be spent, even if we capture a tiny part of that market, we will create a huge company. Did I say that over $8 billion dollars will be spent? Would you like to hear more about the amazing opportunity we have in front of us?
The polite version of my answer has been “Thanks for reaching out but we aren’t interested in investing in the politics vertical market.” But, echoing in the back of my head is “$8 billion dollars? You’ve got to fucking be kidding me.”
I could go on about a rant about spending $8 billion to elect people in one election. But I realize there are lots of different ways to look at this, including the common refrains of “it’s a stimulus for our economy” and “but it’s entertainment, just like football.” And I have no doubt that there are people out there whose immediate response is “but don’t you think your ad-tech related companies make a lot of money off of this?” And as I cycle through the next ten thoughts in my head, I realize that my personal thoughts about this will have no impact on what actually happens.
So instead I just vote with my own wallet and get on board the Howard Schultz Boycott Campaign Donations train. And while I have no doubt that some people can make money creating web services for helping candidates get elected, especially those that include mobile, real-time data, and geo-location, I have no real interest in investing in companies that have the singular goal of helping politicians get elected.
After my Schoolhouse Rock posting on how a bill becomes a law, several people sent me alternative versions of the video. This one rang true to me.
This one – not so much – but it made me laugh out loud.
And then there’s this.
On Monday I was at the White House to help announce the Startup America Partnership. As part of this, TechStars announced the TechStars Network, an affiliation of TechStars-like programs across the country along with our commitment to the Startup America Partnership to help 5000 experienced mentors work with 6000 entrepreneurs to create 25,000 new jobs by 2015. For an awesome description of Startup America, please read Aneesh Chopra’s (the United States CTO) post on TechCrunch titled Startup America: A Campaign To Celebrate, Inspire And Accelerate Entrepreneurship. By the way, I think it is awesomely cool that the CTO of the United States blogs on TechCrunch!
Over the past eighteen months I’ve gotten to know a number of people in the executive brand of our government, especially at the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council. In general, I don’t engage that much with government, but I have with issues that I care deeply about like the Startup Visa and entrepreneurship. In this case I’ve been blown away by the intelligence, thoughtfulness, tirelessness, and capability of folks in OSTP and the NEC. When I was first involved in discussions around entrepreneurship that later evolved into the Startup America Partnership, I was originally skeptical about what I was hearing. Nine months, and a bunch of discussions later, I think the White House has approached Startup America in a very smart and powerful way and I believe that everyone involved has a major clue about entrepreneurship, the importance of it to our economy and our country in general, and how to help celebrate, inspire, and accelerate entrepreneurship across America.
When I was first approached to talk about how the White House could help entrepreneurs, I focused most of my comments on trying to help the folks I talked to understand the difference between high growth entrepreneurs and small business people. They are both important to our economy, but have very different needs and until recently I didn’t feel like the White House, or other branches of government, really understood the difference between the two.
Fortunately, the White House listened to a number of smart people, including the amazing folks at the Kauffman Foundation. I worked closely with the Kauffman Foundation in the mid-to-late 1990′s both through their partnership with the Young Entrepreneurs Organization as well as being an “entrepreneur-in-residence” (a fancy word for “one day a month consultant”) where I worked with a team on better understanding high growth entrepreneurs. I continued to spend time with the Kauffman Foundation over the past decade, but lost touch with many of the people I’d worked with as the organization evolved. In the past few years, under the leadership of Carl Schramm, the Kauffman Foundation has reasserted itself as the most significant organization thinking about, researching, and advocating for entrepreneurship as part of its mission to accelerate entrepreneurship in America. I’ve gotten to see them in action first hand through work that I’ve done with Lesa Mitchell, Paul Kedrosky, and Bo Fishback and I can confidently say that Mr. K’s legacy is in great hands.
Along with Kauffman, Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, his wife Jean and the Case Foundation, has been working hard to help the White House craft a public / private partnership to shine a bright light on entrepreneurship and help accelerate it across the country. I’ve never worked closely with Steve but have always admired him from afar and love the leadership team of Steve and Carl heading up the Startup America Partnership.
As David Cohen and I talked about the idea for the TechStars Network over the past few quarters, it became obvious to us that it would be a natural part of the Startup America Partnership as we both strongly believe that mentorship is a core attribute of growing entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. We both believe that TechStars like programs can existing in over 100 cities in the US, covering many different industry segments (not just software and Internet), and the value of coordinating the mentor, entrepreneur, and investor activity across the entire country is extremely powerful. We had already identified over 100 different accelerator programs in the US that were modeled after TechStars and had helped a number them get started, so as we put together the original members of the TechStars Network, we were psyched that 16 high quality accelerator programs joined us at launch.
It’s important to realize that each of the TechStars Network member programs will be locally owned and operated. We strongly believe in the power of a network model in the construct of expanding entrepreneurship, not a hierarchical centrally owned and controlled one. We think entrepreneurship across the US is not a zero-sum game and we want to play our part in expanding it. TechStars will still run programs that it owns and operates in Boulder, New York, Boston, and Seattle, but we’ll continue to aggressively expand the overall network across the US as well as the world.
I’m extremely excited to play my small part in the Startup America Partnership. For those of you out there questioning how government and entrepreneurs intersect, I encourage you to give the Startup America Partnership a chance. Start by looking at the 27 private organization commitments to the partnership. And, if you want to engage in any way, just email me and I’ll try to figure out how to get you plugged in.
I’m extremely excited that Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), the senior senator for Colorado, has signed on as a co-sponsor of The Startup Visa Act of 2010 that was originally proposed by Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Lugar (R-IN). Senator Udall joins his Colorado colleague in the House, Jared Polis (D-CO), who has proposed Startup Visa legislation as part of his EB-5 reform bill.
In addition, our friends at SVB Financial (the parent of Silicon Valley Bank) have also formally endorsed the Startup Visa. My partner Jason Mendelson wrote a post about a roundtable that Silicon Valley Bank hosted for members of “the new Democrat Coalition” which included Jared Polis. Shortly after this meeting, SVB formally endorsed the Startup Visa.
I’m really proud that two of Colorado’s members of Congress are leading the charge on the Startup Visa. I have deep respect for both Mark and Jared, their understanding of the importance of entrepreneurship, and their vision for innovation in our country. I’m also grateful that SVB – which has been an integral part of the entrepreneurial activity throughout the US – for their support as well.
We are working on a few additional major announcements and endorsements in the next sixty days. I’ve received a number of requests for ways to help. At this point, if you are part of an organization that you think would be supportive of the Startup Visa, please drop me an email and let’s talk about ways to get a formal endorsement.
Over the past 24 months, a deplorable activity in the money management business came to light. It got the name “pay to play” but was just another form of bribery. The common description of pay to play is “the practice of making campaign contributions and related payments to elected officials in order to influence the awarding of lucrative contracts for the management of public pension plan assets and similar government investment accounts.” Yup – sounds like bribery to me.
However, for some reason, the definition of this expanded to include any campaign contributions to any state or local officials, regardless of the size. So, if I contribute $1,000 to the campaign of the Colorado state treasurer, I violate this SEC rule and become someone who is “paying to play.” Now, as someone who gets multiple calls and emails most days to contribute to campaigns as an election approaches, I can assure you that it has never occurred to me to support the campaign for a state treasurer. However, I do know that a candidate for state treasurer has called me asking for campaign contributions. And I’ve politely declined.
After studying the implications of this ruling, I’ve decided it prohibits me and my spouse (Amy) from making any campaign contributions to state or local races anywhere in the country. The NVCA has also studied the new SEC rule and has come to the same conclusion:
“This ruling is consistent with guidance the NVCA has been providing members. It is now even more important to have a firm-wide policy against political contributions to these officials / candidates. This restriction does NOT include political contributions to candidates running for federal office (U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, U.S. President) nor does it include contributions to the NVCA PAC, which only gives to federal candidates.”
We’ve instituted this rule at Foundry Group, although it’s upsetting and offensive to me because I think it fundamentally violates my First Amendment rights. To err on the side of caution, we’ve determined that spouses cannot make state or local political contributions either. This infuriates Amy, as it should.
It’s even more upsetting when you consider that there is no cap on political contributions that corporations can make. The Supreme Court ruled on this in January stating that the government has no business regulating political speech. So, on one hand we have corporations who can give any amount to any candidate running for office while on the other hand my wife can’t contribute $1,000 to someone running for governor of Colorado.
Now, don’t misunderstand me – I think pay to play is grotesque. And Amy and I are huge advocates of campaign finance reform. However, the core problem of pay to play is bribery, not the active support of state and local candidates for office by individual citizens. They are totally different things and should be able to be easily and cleanly differentiated, without the government regulating my political speech.