Startups: Lessons from Big Tech in leveraging public policy
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The Communitech innovation center in Waterloo provides resources to some 1,100 startups in the city (screenshot)

Changes in tech don’t just happen in a vacuum. This is how tech and public policy are intertwined and help guide us towards the future

There is no understating the immensely significant role that public policy plays in the everyday operations of Big Tech. Since their inceptions, companies like Facebook and Google have pursued objectives based on the continually evolving policy concerns surrounding privacy, copyright and data security. As a result, technology regulation around the world is largely more robust owing to this continuous dialogue and relationship with regulators. This is not to say these agendas are no longer contentious, more that they have been subject to intense public debate and the results, in most cases, have been all the more innovative for it.

However, public policy is by no means the exclusive domain of Big Tech and given the challenges and opportunities presented in the space, should not be overlooked by the smaller players, the startups which are, more often than not, breaking into entirely unregulated territory. Neither should startups be of the view that there will be limited opportunities to engage in the policy debate given their size or perceived lack of influence.

Speaking at a recent TechCrunch Event, Ted Ullyoy, Partner, Policy and Regulatory Affairs at Andreessen Horowitz said public policy has to be “right up front, as part of the original thesis.” This is attested to by mature startups, like Uber and AirBnB, both effectively Big Tech companies in their own right, who both struggle with the ongoing issues of ride sharing and leasing laws, yet have managed to preemptively work with regulators to achieve desired outcomes. Indeed, it is efforts of Big Tech companies themselves, once nascent companies, that startups can turn to and consider for their own public policy strategies. Of these approaches which Big Tech have pursued, Evangelism, Industry Associations and Direct Interactions with Regulators stand out as some of the most notable and adaptable to the context of an early stage company.

Evangelism

Perhaps the most broad-based approach to public policy and advocacy is evangelism. This term is used to describe the activities of tech evangelist that promotes the adoption of a new technology by touting the benefits of and dealing with the initial public aversion that accompanies the foray of an unheard of innovative product or service. Through their efforts in legitimizing the more widespread usage of a product, evangelists, by positively bolstering the public perception of a company, indirectly help condition regulators to be more receptive of a new technologies uptake as a new standard.

Perhaps the best-known examples of this is utilizing the network of early adopters “converted” by such evangelism to advocate for the continued existence of a product, as happened with Uber drivers in jurisdictions where its legal status was uncertain. This can give credibility to and can lead to self-perpetuating, more organic campaigns as it is the customer base, building on the story of the brand by projecting it through their own personal experiences with it. While this method is clearly appealing, it can too narrowly target divergent individual interests and fail to identify an overarching purpose with which all consumers would in some sense support and in turn universally push for.

What this demonstrates, however, is that the companies need a compelling narrative that goes beyond their customers exclusively and but also be crafted with regulators as a secondary audience. A simple project that encompasses all these stakeholders is a company policy blog, which not only bridges the gap between regulators and companies, but consumers as well by letting them know of the public policy activities which often remain unseen to the general population. This blog acts as an open information forum to showcase legislative developments consumers need to be aware of, company initiatives aimed at constructively working with policymakers and other positive instances of regulatory interactions.

In the case of a startup, evangelism is also a function that can often be assumed by a startup’s communications manager or founder rather than warranting the creation a dedicated position as might be needed in a larger company.

Involvement through industry associations

Representing a particular sector, industry associations allow for a collective voice, something that may better suit a grouping of startups that have more of less the same policy goals and want to ensure these come to fruition. Given that startups usually lack the market presence to make an impact individually, industry associations also serve to reduce the risk of fragmentation in the approach that startups take toward public policy, something which would lead to ineffectual outcomes. Whats more, these groups usually have Big Tech members, giving them additional influence.

So what specific industry groups are available to entrepreneurs? In the innovation space, there exist several globally, with some of the most well known in their respective jurisdictions being:

TechNYC: Newly formed association comprising of a range of startups from heavyweights such as Snapchat to newer players like The Yams. Their aim is to develop New York’s innovation ecosystem and establish it as a major tech hub.

StartupAUS: Australian-based, not-for-profit, startup advocacy group that has successfully helped usher in government reform through the National Science and Innovation Agenda. Not membership based but open to input from all Australian startups, as per their mission to collectively represent all their interests.

IATI – Israeli Advanced Technology Industries: Pre-eminent coalition of 700+ members high-tech companies in Israel. Raises industry awareness, advocates to government and encourages the development of entrepreneurship public policy.

European Technology Alliance: Wants to form a viable alternative grouping of exclusively European early-stage companies and support the “digitalization of the economy with confidence and ambition.”

Startups at Vertical. Photo Credit: Vertical

Startups at Vertical. Photo Credit: Vertical

Direct contact with regulators

Rather than deal with issues retrospectively, regulators are looking for opportunity to innovate where they can and would much rather be working in collaboration with a company from the outset to map out the regulatory hurdles that might be encountered. A recent example is the Australian startup Flirtey which, with the help of regulators, has succeeded in securing early licensing for drone home delivery, something which has allowed it to enter the market ahead of Amazon.

Globally, governments have been formally recognizing innovation’s importance with Singapore having opened a government innovation lab. Australian government departments creating dedicated digital innovation teams and the United States Digital Service are some other efforts just to name but a few efforts.

Beyond this, there is also the opportunity to become involved in government consultative committees, make Senate submissions and take more direct approaches such as contacting the office of the relevant ministerial portfolio.

Although being better resourced, Google has pursued these avenues to promote clean energy innovation with energy ministers, AirBnB partnering with Auckland government to assist with disaster relief, and Twitter to train European MP’s on combatting hate speech and creating positive online narratives.

Where does this lead us

Public policy and lobbying does not have the carry the connotations of the “dark arts” if done in a way which is both effective and transparent. Neither is it inaccessible to any level and type of business. Startups should always be seeking further opportunities to become a part of the public policy debate, irrespective of their perceived clout. Failing to do so may mean the difference between getting a product to market ahead of competitors or falling behind and being unable to commercialize it at all.

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Sam Taylor

About Sam Taylor


A law student and legal content writer, Sam has an avid interest in compliance, AgTech, innovation in law and the Australian startup scene generally. Reach out to him on LinkedIn.

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