Polis: Startups Can’t Ignore Politics, Must Make Voices Heard

Entrepreneur-turned-Congressman Jared Polis has a brutal truth for entrepreneurs who don’t pay attention to politics.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could safely ignore politics?” asked Polis, the Democrat who represents Boulder, CO, in the U.S. House of Representatives. “But that’s not the case. The biggest principle to remember is if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and that’s the same for startups and politics.”

Polis has some credibility when it comes to talking about entrepreneurs. He helped to expand his parents’ Boulder, CO-based Blue Mountain Arts greeting card business online in 1996, and founded San Diego-based ProFlowers in 1998. The sale of both companies eventually made him one of the wealthiest persons in Congress. He also is a co-founder of Techstars.

Polis was among the panelists Wednesday at a forum devoted to the intersection of politics and entrepreneurship. The event was part of Boulder Startup Week.

While the speakers didn’t devote a lot of time to the ins-and-outs of issues currently before Congress, the discussion touched on a small laundry list of issues that affect startups and entrepreneurs. Issues like big businesses spending big bucks to pass legislation and regulations that stifle disruptive companies. Or patent trolls feeding off dubious claims to intellectual property rights. Or immigration reform measures that could benefit entrepreneurs languishing despite having the votes to pass.

Here are a few highlights from the event:

—Politics and policy matter, whether you like it or not

It’s tempting to view following politics as a waste of time, energy, and perhaps money, especially when you’re committed to running your business. But that attitude ignores the reality that politicians can have a big affect on the terrain startups have to navigate, Populus CEO Laura Hutchings said.

“It’s easy to see politics as the outcome of an election, or taking sides on a particular piece of legislation,” Hutchings said. “Really, politics is sort of the water in which we are all swimming.”

She likened running a startup to being on a raft. You need to know where the currents might take you and where the rapids are. That knowledge could keep you out of danger or even make you aware of opportunities.

Hutchings might be a special case, because Populus advises governments and utilities about energy efficiency and demand management programs. It’s a field that’s highly affected by regulations, but there are others, like edtech and healthcare, where startups need similar political savvy, Polis said.

Then there are issues like tax policy, which affect every business, or specific areas like intellectual property law, which can impact software and biotech companies.

“When you look at so many of the things we talk about that are so important for the ecosystem and the startup community, or even the success of our country, they do rely on public policy,” Polis said.

—Startups need to prove to politicians that they matter

Entrepreneurs shouldn’t expect to be on a level playing field when they enter the political arena. Industry associations and incumbent businesses have spent decades and millions of dollars gaining influence, said Alicia Robb, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

Startups are just getting into the game and are still finding ways to exert leverage, she said.

“There is no national association of entrepreneurs. That may be good or bad, but that means that individual entrepreneurs need to be forceful to make themselves heard,” Robb said.

Just speaking up can be a big first step, whether it shows immediate results or not.

“The startup community exists in every congressional district in the country, but guess what, many members of congress don’t know the startup community exists,” Polis said.

Startups could have a surprising amount of clout if they became involved, Polis said. Politicians listen to the business interests in their community, and startups that could become major businesses with a big economic impact are likely to catch their attention.

“Realize your elected officials want to know you, just as you’ll want their ear from time to time,” Polis said. “It’s critical they know you are part of the economic interests in their community.”

There’s evidence politicians are learning a few things, said Brad Feld, a managing director of the Foundry Group.

Until a few years ago, politicians and government agencies lumped all entrepreneurs together, whether they ran small businesses or were trying to create the next Google, he said. Now many have come to understand that entrepreneurs fall into distinct groups with very different needs.

There are other issues on the federal level where lawmakers have backed off measures the tech industry didn’t like, and have included so-called startup visas in the immigration reform package that’s passed the Senate.

—Entrepreneurs can change what activism looks like

Entrepreneurs should understand what types of activism works. For example, Polis called signing a petition “barely above doing nothing.” Writing a politician a short, personal letter, or better yet, meeting one at a town hall are far more effective, he said.

There are also ways to combine traditional activism with new digital tools like social media that entrepreneurs are familiar with. Feld said it was effective when the tech industry rallied against the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP acts, known as SOPA and PIPA respectively.

Tech companies like Google were against the measures, and sites including Wikipedia even famously “went dark” in protest. Activists also used social media to coordinate a real world protest in New York City.

The turnout outside the offices of New York’s two U.S. Senators helped expose the public to the issue and let politicians know there were people who were angry enough to take action.

“It got some attention. It was not the only turning point in the debate, but it had an impact,” Feld said.

Feld also said there are ways to “hack government,” especially on the state level. The idea is to find areas where policies and laws aren’t fully settled and take creative action that can make a difference. He gave the example of an effort in Massachusetts to help college grads who are foreign nationals stay in the country by using a loophole in the laws governing H1-B visas.

But the upshot is, entrepreneurs have to do something to be effective. Luckily, it’s in their natures.

“Signing petitions doesn’t work, but taking action and participating does. Do it the way entrepreneurs do it, and just do shit,” Feld said.

—Pick your battles

Few people, entrepreneurs especially, have the time to focus on every campaign, bill, or issue. Burnout can be a real problem, according to Feld.

Feld said he started getting involved in politics in the mid-2000s. That led to supporting candidates and lobbying on matters like immigration reform, in particular the startup visa and patent reform. But within the past couple of years he entered “a period of despondency” when he saw the effort he put in had “almost no discernible outcome.”

This year, he decided to change his approach.

“Instead of struggling, I decided to focus on a set of things that are important to me and be very targeted,” Feld said. “Instead of trying to cut across a lot of things, I decided to lean in and have a lot of impact on specific things when they matter.”

The big issue he’s currently focused on is net neutrality, he said. Feld is participating in the “Stop the Slow Lane” campaign, which is a protest against possible FCC regulations that could allow Internet service providers to charge different rates to different users. Opponents believe that could lead to discrimination based on content.

Then there are times when entrepreneurs have to bite their tongues for business reasons. Hutchings said that’s the case for her energy advisory startup, where she has clients with a broad range of views about energy policy.

“Sometimes the reality as an entrepreneur is you might have a perspective on things and an opinion, but it’s not always safe to share it,” Hutchings said. “Sometimes you have to stay silent.”

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