Categorized | For Entrepreneurs, Seattle

Startups & Public Policy: So What Can I Do?

Recently, I had the privilege to work on the Startup Visa issue with folks like Brad Feld, Congressman Jarod Polis, Dave McClure, Eric Reis, Paul Kedrosky, Jason Mendelson, Andy Grove and others. Yesterday, I wrote a post about why I think the issue is an important one — thanks for all the retweets and comments. Glad to know people are still thinking about the issue.

This post isn’t simply about the Startup Visa though. Instead, it is about any issue that entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses care about — and how to make a difference in those issues you care about.

Startup Visa: Now What?

The Startup Visa issue began as a series of blog posts and eventually became a full scale lobbying effort. For me, through the efforts of the Startup Visa, I was able to participate on calls with congressional staffers, immigration experts from Capitol Hill, and various others. In fact, I even got to help with the drafting of the legislation ultimately submitted by Congressman Polis on the issue. On the Senate side, Senator Kerry’s team drafted legislation in support of the Startup Visa.

Today, bi-partisan leaders in Congress have drafted bills in support of Startup Visas and numerous other leaders are behind the issue; VCs have publicly supported the issue; lawyers were behind it; immigration experts support it… and yet, months later both of the bills remain buried in committee. Comprehensive immigration reform probably won’t be addressed in 2010.

Frustrating, yes. But not the end of the battle. Efforts are continuing to build support for the legislation post-November elections. With any luck, the continued citizen advocacy will pay off.

And while their is no guarantee of success, the issue is firmly in the hands of Congress, more every-day people are aware of the issue and people just like you and me now have the power to “hold their feet to the fire” to make this become a reality.

But, what does that mean? How can people like you and I push this bill or other pro-startup public policy forward? And what should we push forward? Great questions and something I hope to accomplish in this post — whether it is the Startup Visa, health care for entrepreneurs and small businesses, or tax reform, how can you make a difference on the things you care about?

Pro-Startup Public Policy

Startup Visas are just one plank of the pro-startup public policy goals. William Carleton has a very nice post where he summarizes some of the key public policies that support or would support startups, small businesses and entrepreneurship. These are some general changes that can be made to federal and state laws, policies and regulations to impact and enhance startups, small businesses and entrepreneurship. What I like about William’s post is its simplicity… so kudos!

Here’s a mashup of a pro startup public policy agenda:

  1. Tax dividends and capital gains at the same rate.
  2. Vigorously enforce net neutrality.
  3. Extend Medicare to all startup employees, regardless of age.
  4. Allow angels to exclude 100% of gains from the sale of “Qualified Business Stock.”
  5. Hand a green card to every immigrant who earns an engineering degree at a US school or starts, or lands a job at, a startup.
  6. Overturn Citizens United.
  7. End gerrymandering.

Joe Wallin, another of the blogging attorneys here in Seattle, has his own set of proposals that may be a bit more details and slightly more ‘progressive’ in favor of startups. Again, I applaud the effort to lay out some key legislative and regulatory reforms that would most definitely benefit entrepreneurs, small businesses and startups.

Why it matters?

The question I think average people out there are asking is, do these “suggestions” or “proposals” ever amount to anything? Was the efforts on the Startup Visa worth it when the bills remain in limbo? Unfortunately, average people have become more jaded than ever about the political process, the partisan wrangling, and the ability to make pragmatic and tangible changes. It seems like the old Schoolhouse Rock video needs to be updated to include hiring a lobbyist and ensuring you have support from congressional leadership in “safe” districts!

But the truth is that average citizens can and do influence legislation — the Startup Visa movement was inspired by a blog post by Paul Graham and a follow-up blog post by Brad Feld. And for the entrepreneurial, small business and startup community, these issues can be influenced directly by you. I’ve got numerous friends that work on Capitol Hill and each of them swears up and down that their member listens, cares about constituent needs, and wants to do the best for the country. And, frankly, I believe them. But that said, it also takes more than an issue that “makes sense” to get something passed in the federal or state governments.

So what are steps you can take to be involved in the process?

  1. Educate Yourself. The first step in the process is really to become more knowledgeable and understand the issue. Read both sides of the issues and try and find out what are the broader impacts of a public policy suggestion. Does this impact unions? Does this impact heath care companies? Does this impact foreign trade? The more you know, the better prepared you are to handle the rest of the suggestions in this list.
  2. Grouping. It is often said that there is power in numbers and that is certainly the case in public policy citizen advocacy. Good places to find these groups include trade associations, volunteer organizations or networking events. Even better than assembling a big list is getting turnout from that list at an event, a debate or an activity where you’ve invited the politician.
  3. Emails, Letters, Twitter & Calls. So those letter writing campaigns or those mass emailing efforts really work? The answer is actually that ‘it depends.’ Depending on the mechanism, you’ll get a slightly different response from a congressional staffer. Mass email: probably not much attention. Personalized emails: more attention. Mass letters: more attention than emails, but still not great. Personalized letters: much more attention and usually will be read. Follow-up call after sending a letter or email: Real attention from a staffer (and usually notation of such calls in tracking sheets). When you speak to a staffer, reference the letter and ask for their thoughts… it goes a long way. And, for the best impact, schedule an in person meeting — either when the member is in town or go to DC and take it on the road.
  4. Media. Op-Eds, news stories and television coverage does get monitored by Congressional staff. So leverage both old and new media.
  5. Lobbyists. These guys make big money because they are effective at their jobs: getting legislation passed or not passed. How are they so good? They know the system, they know the people, and they have money to back up their objectives. Working with or hiring a lobbyist may be crucial for your efforts. Sometimes an organization you partner with has a lobbyist (think the WTIA) and other times you can look to find an interested party with some lobbying or Hill experience willing to help. Even without money, try and get as much free information as you can.
  6. Key Support. Ultimately, getting legislation approved or overturned is about building coalitions. This may include coalitions of other interested groups, other interested geographies, other interested government agencies or other politicians. At the end of the day, you need to build a coalition of the right people and organizations to clear the dozens of hurdles that will be thrown in your way.
  7. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Understand the Process. Getting a bill submitted is a substantial step — on both a federal or state level. But that does not mean the work is even close to finished… in fact, it has just begun. Some experts say that less than 10% of bills submitted to Congress are ever passed into law. Why? Sometimes a bill is submitted to satisfy constituent groups even though the authors realize it will never become a law. Sometimes the committees needed to approve something are stacked against the bill. Sometimes politics and elections get in the way. And sometimes the bill just doesn’t make sense. Lobbyists get paid big bucks largely because they know the process.

Election Season

Right now is a particularly important time for advocacy on key public policy issues: it’s Election Season. Every Representative and a third of all Senators are looking for your vote, as well as countless state and local politicians. This means candidates are more likely to be out and about campaigning and are also more likely to be discussing their stance on key issues. If your issue is net neutrality, then attend a town hall or rally and ask the candidate and staffers. If you are interested in health care for small businesses, find candidates to talk about their stances. If you are concerned about getting our schools more wired or extending broadband access, you’ve got a chance to have those discussions with real decision-makers.

Then, and this is the important part, vote for candidates on your issue — and rally others to do the same. If an issue is particularly important to you, consider overlooking party lines. And, if your candidate wins, remember to continue to follow-up with letters, calls and meetings to discuss how the newly elected individual will work on your issue.

Sure, it may seem like it is a far flung idea or a lot for one person to tackle, but if you remember point #2 about grouping, you can make a big difference by rallying support across a broad base.

The “So What” and the “Ask” of this Post

The issues raised by folks like Brad, Paul, William, Joe and many others are important ones — and they each really do affect the entrepreneurial community of today and of the future. But these issues don’t get fixed by blog posts or Op-Eds alone. The reality is they get fixed by citizen advocates working to get change to occur. Startup Visa became a movement when leaders looped in congressional leaders and staff, and became lobbying themselves. And by no means am I saying it is easy — far from it… it is very difficult. But it can be impacted with the help of concerned citizens.

So I urge you to think about what policies are most important to you and become educated about the issue. You don’t necessarily need to lead a group of VCs to Washington, DC to make a difference, but you can be involved in the effort through education, voting, targeted outreach to politicians, media and more.

And if we care about the issues that impact entrepreneurship, it’s important to get involved. So my call to everyone is to get involved — even if that means just educating yourself and understanding where your candidates stand on a key issue. And, if you are willing to do more, attend a rally, talk to others in your industry, or organize a discussion among like-minded people. This may be the year where your effort and knowledge elects that 51st vote or changes the balance on a committee or encourages hearings to be held. Plus, remember that much of politics is local — and so many key issues might be governed by your state, county or city, where you may be able to see change happen at a faster pace.

We talk a lot about civic duty and love of our country. This year, whatever your issue, take the time to learn more and do more. Just like many of you, I love the entrepreneurial community — it’s many of my friends, my clients, my volunteer activities and even my ‘side gig.’ And since we care about it, make 2010 and beyond our year to learn more about public policies that affect our industry or our world.

Let me tell you what, I never realized a late-night email to Brad Feld asking how I could help on the Startup Visa initiative would lead to where it did. And, despite all the time and effort, I’m more than thankful that it did…

So what’s your Startup Visa? Keep the dialog going — and let me know how I can help.

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