Category Archives: Policy Issues

How to succeed as a startup

At Tech In Motion
At Tech In Motion

By Dennis Clemente

How would you like to know what it takes to succeed as a startup? That question is surely in the minds of everyone planning a startup or even those who are years, even nearly a decade, into their startup.

One of the Twitter founders once said that timing, perseverance and 10 years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success. Today, Twitter is still trying to find a way to monetize its business. It’s really that hard.

But nobody in recent memory has said it with all honesty than the guest panel at Tech in Motion last June 18. The honesty part is about how they told their own stories of failure staring back at them when they first started 10 to 15 years ago.

The intrepid panel consisted of Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America; Nihal Mehta, founder of Local Response & general partner at Eniac Ventures; Brett Martin, entrepreneur, building Switch, a co-founder of Sonar Media; Anna Khan, venture capitalist at Bessemer Venture Partners. Kunal Mehta, author of The Disruptors, moderated the talk.

It’s a great panel and if nobody noticed a diverse one that ultimately led to what you often don’t hear in a tech meetup– a multicultural perspective on success. Nihal is proud of his Indian American heritage but he reveals how it’s also a culture where failure is not taken lightly.

If everybody is wondering why Indians or Indian Americans are driven and ambitious, it’s also because the pressure to succeed is very high in this ethnic group. As Nihal was brought up to think, you either you become a doctor or engineer, as these professions reward you with stability.

Right after college, Nihal didn’t do this, as jumped into the world of startups and failed miserably. He was 22 when he filed for bankruptcy. He has had five startups since then before he turned to venture capital.

What does it take to succeed? For him, it’s a four-letter word that he wants every startup to own: grit.

Before the dot.com crash in 2001, Nihal said people invested in your idea in a napkin. In 1999, he claimed having the Elon Musk sign a check on the spot. Today, 93 percent of the time you can be declined.

The panel oscillated between success and failure in their talk, but they agreed with each other on what it takes to succeed. Right after Nihal said “grit,” one after the other pitched in. Khan said “passion and visionary operators”; Martin said “resilience” and Yang said “persistent adaptability.”

But rather than serving platitudes, the panel revealed more of themselves.

Elaborating, Yang said, “You need to have a thirst for solving a problem and this problem consumes (you).It’s going to shape to a different person: closer to the person you want to become.”

Failure is part of it all. Giving us more complex layers of his views, he added: “What you don’t know is actually your friend or you wouldn’t be doing what you need to do.”

Like Nihal, Yang has been in the startup world for over a decade. He left a corporate law firm for a startup. Like Nihal, he also admitted to failing big time. He can be blasé about it now, but he experienced the pits of living without money. “I would even take my dates to Subway.”
Martin had a longer and also honest response on this one. He thinks you need resilience more than persistence.

In his startup years ago, he remembers “racking up $60,000 credit card bills” and trying to get “$11,000 in 3 days”. Somehow he got the money, lost it again, and got it when he gained traction.

What he learned from the experience can give all startups some hope. After his big failure, he decompressed at the beach. “Then the next thing I know, I had five job offers with startups.”
What’s the lesson here? “If you stay in the same job and the world has changed, what are you going to do?”

If you failed as a startup, that’s a badge of honor. It means you know why you failed and startups will want you for the wisdom and experience you can bring to the table.

All of them have one advice to give for those preparing to launch their startups: Try to find a team to apprentice or join to learn what it takes to be a startup, as it also helps you gain the confidence you will need. Because if you don’t have the confidence, then how can you expect investors to have confidence in you?

“Be an apprentice for a startup for 2 years,” Yang said.

As a woman, Khan said it’s important for women not just to have confidence but to know how to “talk up” an investor. From Pakistan, Khan said that there are few women in tech because it’s populated by men.

Nihal agreed, saying it’s because men know only other men, like how referrals go. He said crucial to have women in the tech world, whether they’re in a startup or they’re a VC. He cited how one instance when a young girl produced an app that solves the queue problem in the women’s restroom. “A guy will not be able to think of that.”

The coup de grace of the night was when Martin answered a question from the audience regarding the question of bootstrapping or getting funding. He said there’s something patently wrong about approaching a VC: “93 percent of you will be rejected. A VC can tell you how another startup is going to take your market share.”

But why are people talking about getting funding from VCs all the time. Martin added, “They (VCs) have so much mindshare (read: exposure out there). They’re everywhere, because their main job is to be out there.”

The rest of the panel chimed in, saying bootstrapping your way is ok, but if you need to scale your startup, at least you know where to go. But if you need an angel investor instead, Yang said you’ll need to rely on your network.
The meetup was sponsored by Microsoft.

Aspiring NY mayors to tech companies: Do more for city, middle class

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By Dennis Clemente

How would you like New York to be Monaco where only the richest of the rich can afford it? Trust our politicians to have a flair for the dramatic. The reference is coming from former congressman Anthony Weiner who thinks that the city is facing a challenge (dwindling middle class jobs) as much as an opportunity (growing tech industry) for being the second tech capital of the United States.

He welcomes the 10,000 tech jobs gained but decries the diminishing job opportunities for the middle class. “We’ve been eliminating middle class jobs and backfilling them with restaurant and tourism jobs.”

Weiner was speaking at the Mayoral Candidates Tech Policy Forum at the Museum of Moving Image last June 17, along with other confirmed mayoral candidates– former NYC Councilmember Sal Albanese, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr. and NYC Comptroller John Liu.

The candidates were a study in contrasting styles. Where Weiner and Liu were bold and audacious, the two other candidates, Carrion and Albanese, favored caution and discreetness.

For Weiner, “New York has to remain a magnet for the middle class, because they are the DNA of the city whose success hinges on the three-legged middle-class aspirational stool—being able to afford a place; having some decent public education and getting a steady job with benefits.” Without one leg, the middle class is bound to suffer. Nobody likes to be Monaco.

Speaking for the average middle class, Liu cited how the city is already “facing an aging infrastructure and how it’s made worse by monopolistic systems of big telecommunications companies and Internet service providers who are not holding their end of the bargain.”

He showed his displeasure about how companies can’t even provide the essentials. He said not enough neighborhoods are connected and that there are still dead spots. “We should hold big companies to a higher level of accountability. (If not), the city has to be the enforcer.”

Nilay Patel, the moderator who also writes for The Verge, laid down the tech companies’ most pressing concerns about the city, those who fought or are still fighting some regulations—Aereo with its streaming TV service, uber with its cab-calling app and AirBnb with its short stay rentals.

It was Weiner who responded boldly. “I don’t think uber will ever be a success in New York City. We have a system in place for dispatch cabs, yellow cabs and black cabs. You can argue with the structure. But it has worked very well for the city, in keeping the quality of our rides.”

He added, “It’s (app) a false choice, when somebody could get a ride because he has an app and bypass other people who, not having the app, is left standing in a corner (waiting for a cab). A tech company should not undermine laws so as to protect consumers.”

Patel’s rejoinder: “I hope you reconsider your answer next time you’re looking for a cab in the rain.”

As for AirBnb, Carrion thinks detailed SROs (single room occupancy laws) just need to be followed. “I believe it (AirBnb) will be good for us. It will be good for tourism. It’s expensive to go to New York City. We just need to revisit rules, our land-use policies, and make sure we don’t disrupt neighborhoods.”

In principle, Liu agreed with both Weiner and Carrion. “If you’re making a profit from your business model based on innovation, that’s great. But if you’re skirting regulations that other legitimate businesses have to follow, then that’s not a great thing.”

Carrion puts it simply, “Are you a developer or (job) creator? Are you adding value?”

The forum ran also discussed the need to address STEM (science technology engineering math) education, including teachers of computer science, and a rethinking of zoning laws as well as tech infrastructure. Albanese said residents in Williamsburg have asked him to run their businesses there. Liu said millions of dollars are being poured in a tech school in Long Island City where it thinks the City University of New York should also get some support.

Joel Natividad, founder of open data company, Ontodia, wished the candidates also talked about open government but there was simply no more time.

The forum was organized by the Coalition for Queens with Anjali Athavaley of the Wall Street Journal as the other moderator.

The mayoral candidates draw first blood.

How public Wi-Fi affects public policy, security and civil liberties

By Dennis Clemente

When you nonchalantly access public Wi-Fi in a café to check your friends’ newsfeeds on Facebook, other people have something more than Caramel Macchiato in mind. They’re thinking where does anyone even begin to think of public policy issues, including universal broadband access, federal spectrum policy, data security and civil liberties. The purpose of spectrum policy is to manage a natural resource for the maximum possible benefit of the public.

It turns out public Wi-Fi access is that serious a subject, as it even brought in the cavalry to the eBay office last April 11, in an event called “Internet Everywhere: Role and Implications.” The panels of experts came from government, the academe, legal profession, non-profit organizations, public policymakers and cyber security world.

With a big panel to moderate, Nilay Patel, managing editor of The Verge, had the experts take their turn answering questions based on their field of expertise. However, the talk presented more questions than answers with little wiggle room for the panel of eight experts to elaborate on their thoughts given the limited one and a half-hour time period.

Still, there were some interesting answers to questions that don’t come up too often. For example, is it possible to lose your Internet rights? Yes, if you have six recorded copyright violations.

There were comments about anonymity and security, as both have a corollary effect on a computer user. One can be anonymous at a Starbucks, but you may not be safe and can actually be rendered vulnerable by an application that can be easily bought online.

Others were confident about security online. One expert assured how encrypted data provides protection 90 percent of the time, although developing better mousetraps were still suggested.

Panel of experts at eBay office
Panel of experts at eBay office

New York City Council’s Gale Brewer was in attendance and she pointed how times have certainly changed since she allowed IBM to set up kiosks near municipal hall in the mid-90s. That was the time when just getting an Internet connection was already a big deal.

She might have been referring to how in January 8 this year Google didn’t need kiosks, as they wrapped Chelsea in free Wi-Fi—the largest Wi-Fi hotspot in the area where it also holds office, incidentally.

And that’s even a year too late, as Brewer recounts how “MTA (Metro Transit Authority) took a year to respond to Google” about the tech giant’s plans. She claimed the MTA finally responded when she asked MTA to return the call from Google. This anecdote drew some laughs but it also raised the issue of the city’s tech preparedness. Because in January this year, the city also announced a pilot program to turn payphones into open Wi-Fi hotspots.

To date, the City and AT&T has a five-year initiative to provide free Wi-Fi service at 26 locations in 20 New York City parks across the five boroughs. At present, AT&T Wi-Fi is now available free of charge to park visitors in all five boroughs. There are also plans to have 200 underground stations in New York’s subway platforms.

The event was hosted and organized by the Federal Communications Bar Association (NY Chapter), New York Law School, eBay NYC, the New York Legal Hackers Meetup, the Cardozo Cyberlaw Society, and the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic.

The panel of experts, not in any particular order, were: Diedre Flynn, executive director of Telecommunications Policy and Strategy, NYC DoITT; Joe Plotkin, Board member, NYCWireless; Bruce Regal, senior counsel, New York City Law Department; Mike Roudi, SVP Corporate Development, Time Warner Inc.; Michael Santorelli, Director, Advance Communications Law & Policy Institute, New York Law School; Christopher Soghoian, Indepdent Privacy Researcher; and Jody Westby, CEO, Global Cyber Risk.

Food experts agree genetically modified foods need labeling

By Dennis Clemente

Last March 5, food experts from various fields speaking at the “Future of Food” talk hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) all agreed to have genetically modified foods labeled–if they had their way. Three days later, Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, had its way. It became the first retailer in the United States to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/business/grocery-chain-to-require-labels-for-genetically-modified-food.html?_r=0

The experts at the AMNH consisted of plant geneticist Paul Gepts, ethicist Paul Wolpe and intellectual property lawyer Rochelle Dreyfuss with Frederick Kaufman, author of “Bet the Farm,” as moderator. The talk was in conjunction with the museum’s one-of-a-kind exhibition, “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture.” (http://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/adults/exhibition-related-programs/the-future-of-food)

Gene-modified food has become one of the most hotly contested issues of our time. There are so many gray areas that everyone in the panel also think there should be further evaluation–not just about the genetic engineering of crops, but also of animals using “modern biotechnology” and “gene technology”.

Gepts leads the way in saying, “Current genetically engineered crops could be improved by a stronger regulatory process based on improved testing protocols.”

Trying to cover as much ground in one hour, the talk veered in many overlapping directions. The speakers took turns answering questions about the hidden forces that shape what we eat; the legal and ethic implications at play; how biotechnology could affect our food systems; “patenting” nature, and if genetically modified foods are the answer or the problem.

In differentiating our food sources, Gepts points out how meats may be derived from animals that were fed genetically engineered crops, such as corn, but the animals themselves may not be genetically engineered.

Dairy products, on the other hand, may reportedly use bovine growth hormone to increase lactation dairy cows or use genetically engineered rennet to produce cheese. There are snack foods that are said to contain or are derived from corn, cotton, soybean or canola.

Gepts says most fruits and vegetables are not genetically engineered, except for papayas where production in Hawaii is said to be partly genetically engineered to resist a plant virus.

Gene-modified food may cause some health issues, if “diseases are created” as a result of it, not to mention how modification can introduce allergies. Combining peanuts with tomatoes can cause a problem if one is, Wolpe says, allergic to one or the other.

The talk certainly presented itself as a prelude to a wide-ranging issue that could bring in more personalities to the table–more food experts, lawyers, ethicists, environmentalists, foodies and various food companies, all seemingly headed for a serious collision.

It’s what Kaufman called the “wall” between food activists and scientists and what Dreyfuss thinks will make her a mediator to an issue that is going to breed all sorts of reactions and intense debates for sometime to come, especially when other First World countries already have gene-modified food labeled.