Posts from policy

Protecting The Right To Speak And Write And Blog

I stayed out of the public debate and discussion of the Gawker lawsuit because while I privately came down on the side of Gawker, the specifics of the case made me uncomfortable and I don’t think it was an ideal case to determine what is free speech and what is not.

However, the same lawyer, Charles Harder, who argued the case against Gawker, is back with another libel suit, this time against Techdirt and its founder and lead writer Mike Masnick. Regular and longtime readers of this blog will know that I am friends with Mike and have supported his efforts to speak out on Techdirt about all sorts of tech policy issues over the years.

The specifics of the Techdirt case are easier for me to get excited about. Mike has consistently and rigorously debunked the claims of Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai that he (Dr Ayyadurai) “invented” e-mail. Dr. Ayyadurai is upset with Mike about this and so he hired Charles Harder to file a $15mm libel suit against Techdirt and Mike.

Regardless of whether Dr. Ayyadurai invented email or not (I highly doubt it), we have a long standing history in scientific and technical circles and in the United States of freely, openly, and publicly debating and discussing technical issues like this. Through that sort of public debate and discussion we determine what is real and what is not and we also move the understanding of science and technology forward. These public debates can get nasty and personal, and that is unfortunate, but I believe it is better that we allow for this debate than set legal precedent that wealthy people can stifle debate by suing publications out of business.

So, I am urging everyone who cares about the legacy of free, open, and public speech and debate about technical issues to support Mike and Techdirt’s efforts to defend themselves. Mike wrote a blog post about this issue last week and this is taken from that post:

I am beyond thankful to the many of you who have reached out and offered to help in all sorts of ways. It is heartening to know so many people care about Techdirt. At some point soon, we may set up a dedicated legal defense fund. But, in the meantime, any support you can provide us will help — whether it’s just alerting people to this situation and the danger of trying to stifle a free press through meritless lawsuits, or it’s supporting Techdirt directly (or, if you have a company, advertising with us). As always, you can support us directly as a Friend of Techdirt, or check out some of the other perks you can get in our Insider program. You can also support us via Patreon.

I am hoping that Mike sets up a dedicated legal defense fund and plan to contribute to it if he does. I will let AVC readers know if that happens. Until then, let’s all get behind Mike and put a stop to this nonsense.

The Department of Homeland Security International Entrepreneur Rule

From GeekWire:

The Department of Homeland Security has officially enacted a provision to make it easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to build startups in the U.S. The rule, proposed by President Barack Obama last summer, takes effect exactly one week before he leaves the Oval Office.

The initial rule outlined a “parole” period that foreign entrepreneurs could apply for, granting two years in the U.S. to grow a startup. To qualify, the founder had to prove that the startup met certain requirements and demonstrated the potential for “significant public benefit.” After the initial parole period, the founder could apply to extend his or her stay in the U.S. for an additional three years, if the startup met additional benchmarks.

Over the past five months, DHS has been collecting public feedback on the proposal to inform the final rule. That comment period led to a few key changes to the final rule, enacted today.

Instead of a two-year period followed by a three-year period, the rule now says entrepreneurs can apply for an initial parole of 2.5 years, followed by an extended period of 2.5 additional years.

The proposed rule said startups needed to have investments of at least $345,000 from qualified U.S. investors to apply for parole. DHS has reduced that minimum required investment to $250,000. The official rule also gives entrepreneurs more time to land funding — 18 months instead of one year.

The final rule also reduces the ownership stake the founder needs to have to qualify. Instead of 15 percent, entrepreneurs need to own only 10 percent of the startup to qualify for the initial parole period. To re-apply for an additional 2.5 years, founders just need 5 percent ownership.

In the proposed rule, a startup had to generate at least 10 jobs during the initial 2.5-year parole period to qualify for an extension. That number has been reduced to five jobs in the final rule.

This is really good thing. I know of a number of founders who have been unable to stay in the US even though they started a company here that is growing and hiring people in the US. Tossing people out who are starting companies that are creating new jobs in the US is nuts but that’s what we have been doing. This rule changes that, at least temporarily, and that’s a good thing.

Here’s the rule in its entirety:

International Entrepreneur Parole by GeekWire on Scribd

What Is Going To Happen In 2017

Happy New Year Everyone. Yesterday we focused on the past, today we are going to focus on the future, specifically this year we are now in. Here’s what I expect to happen this year:

  • Trump will hit the ground running, cutting corporate and personal taxes, and eliminating the preferential treatment of carried interest capital gains. The stock market has already factored in these tax cuts so it won’t be as big of a boon for investors as might be expected, but the seven and half year bull market run will be extended as a result of this tax cut stimulus before being halted by rising rates and/or some boneheaded move by President Trump which seems inevitable. We just don’t know the timing of it. The loss of capital gains treatment on carried interest won’t hurt professional investors too much because the lower personal tax rates will take the sting out of it. In addition, corporations will use the lower tax rates as an excuse to bring back massive amounts of capital that have been locked up overseas, producing a cash surplus that will result in an M&A boom. This will lead to an even more fuel to the fire that is causing “old line” corporations to acquire startups.
  • The IPO market, led by Snapchat, will be white hot. Look for entrepreneurs and the VCs that back them to have IPO fever in 2017. I expect we will see more tech IPOs in 2017 than we have since 2000.
  • The ad:tech market will go the way of search, social, and mobile as investors and entrepreneurs concede that Google and Facebook have won and everyone else has lost. It will be nearly impossible to raise money for an online advertising business in 2017. However, there will be new players, like Snapchat, and existing ones, like Twitter, that succeed by offering advertisers a fundamentally different offering than Facebook and Google do.
  • The SAAS sector will continue to consolidate, driven by a trifecta of legacy enterprise software companies (like Oracle), successful SAAS companies (like Workday), and private equity firms all going in search of additional lines of business and recurring subscription revenue streams.
  • AI will be the new mobile. Investors will ask management what their “AI strategy” is before investing and will be wary of companies that don’t have one.
  • Tech investors will start to adopt genomics as an additional “information technology” investment category, blurring the distinction between life science and tech investors that has existed in the VC sector for the past thirty years. This will lead to a funding frenzy and many investments will go badly. But there will be big winners to be had in this sector and it will be an important category for VCs for the foreseeable future.
  • Google, Facebook, and to a lesser extent Apple and Amazon will be seen as monopolists by government and individuals in the US (as they have been for years outside the US). Things like the fake news crisis will make clear to everyone how reliant we have become on these tech powerhouses and there will be a backlash. It will be Microsoft redux and the government will seek remedies which will be futile. But as in the Microsoft situation, technology, particularly decentralized applications built on open data platforms (ie blockchain technology), will come to the rescue and reduce our reliance on these monopolies. This scenario will take years to play out, but the seeds have been sown and we will start to see this scenario play out in 2017.
  • Cyberwarfare will be front and center in our lives in the same way that nuclear warfare was during the cold war. Crypto will be the equivalent of bomb shelters and we will all be learning about private keys, how to use them, and how to manage them. A company will make crypto mainstream via an easy to use interface and it will become the next big thing.

These are my big predictions for 2017. If my prior track record is any indication, I will be wrong about more of this than I am right. The beauty of the VC business is you don’t have to be right that often, as long as you are right about something big. Which leads to going out on a limb and taking risks. And I think that strategy will pay dividends in 2017. Here’s to a new year and new challenges to overcome.

New Economics

I am tired of the classic left/right perspective on society, policy, and politics. I realize that markets are an incredible tool to allocate resources efficiently. And I also realize that markets are subject to failure and we need to protect our society from these market failures. I am not a purist on either side of this debate and I find the hard core advocates on the far left and the far right impossible to take. I believe orthodoxy is one of the worst human traits.

So I enjoyed reading this post on “new economics” and I particularly like this table that shows the difference between traditional economic thinking and new economic thinking:

The post goes on to explore how these new economics thinking will eventually impact politics, policy, and society at large.

One particular example reminds me of our work at USV on “Regulation 2.0”:

First, rather than predict we should experiment. Policymaking often starts with an engineering perspective – there is a problem and government should fix it. For example, we need to get student mathematics test scores up, we need to reduce traffic congestion, or we need to prevent financial fraud. Policy wonks design some rational solution, it goes through the political meat grinder, whatever emerges is implemented (often poorly), unintended consequences occur, and then – whether it works or not – it gets locked in for a long time. An alternative approach is to create a portfolio of small-scale experiments trying a variety of solutions, see which ones work, scale-up the ones that are working, and eliminate the ones that are not. Such an evolutionary approach recognises the complexity of social-economic systems, the difficulty of predicting what solutions will work in advance and difficulties in real-world implementation. Failures then happen on a small scale and become opportunities to learn rather than hard to reverse policy disasters. It won’t eliminate the distortions of politics. But the current process forces politicians to choose from competing forecasts about what will and won’t work put forward by competing interest groups – since it is hard to judge which forecast is right it is not surprising they simply choose the more powerful interest group. An evolutionary approach at least gives them an option of choosing what has been shown to actually work.

I also like this bit about the tolerance for failure:

A major challenge for these more adaptive approaches to policy is the political difficulty of failure. Learning from a portfolio of experiments necessitates that some experiments will fail. Evolution is a highly innovative, but inherently wasteful process – many options are often tried before the right one is discovered. Yet politicians are held to an impossibly high standard, where any failure, large or small, can be used to call into question their entire record.

I don’t think the way we do things in startup land should be a model for how everything should work, but there is a lot to be learned from the way the tech sector works. Innovating, trying new things, measuring the impacts of these new things, and evolving leads to forward progress. And when something fails, we accept is as a lesson learned, not something to be embarrassed about (or fired for).

If the worlds of economics and politics are moving in our direction, I am very pleased and optimistic about that.

What Does Trump Mean For Startups?

I got this tweet around 11pm last night:

Clearly the news that Trump will be the next President of the US is creating all sorts of financial jitters in the US and around the world this morning. There is a ton of uncertainty right now as many investors, me included, were not expecting this outcome. If there is anything that investors hate, it is uncertainty.

For me the best framework I have is Brexit. I feel that the economic and societal unease that has been brewing in much of the developed world over the past decade is coming home to roost and I believe that we will see more “brexits” in the coming months and years.

I wrote this right after Brexit:

But more than that, going into a foxhole right now seems like the wrong idea. Some of the best companies have been created in times of great economic turmoil. And, because of that, some of the best venture capital investments have been made in times when everyone was risk averse. I am not for getting too excited when times are good and I am not for getting too conservative when times feel bad. I am all for looking for opportunity at every turn.

I am certain that USV will continue to invest capital in interesting startups. While the financial markets may be in for a tough time, possibly a prolonged tough time, there is no correlation between startup success and strong financial markets. And those investors who understand that will act accordingly and be rewarded over the long term for doing so.

For entrepreneurs, this means be cautious and maybe even a bit conservative while all of this shakes out but don’t panic and don’t confuse uncertain times with a lack of opportunity. If you were excited about your business yesterday, you should be excited about your business today. But don’t be blind about the macro environment you are operating in. It’s going to be choppy for a bit here.

Cranes

I was walking down a street in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC this morning and came across a street closing.

cranes

The entire block was closed to cars because that crane was busy lifting heavy material to the upper floors of a building that is being constructed right now.

This is a common occurrence in NYC these days. There is construction all over the place.

I was in a cab last week and the driver told me that he has never seen more street closings and cranes in NYC than right now. He was complaining about it.

But I have a different view. Cranes, street closings, road construction, manhole work, etc are an inconvenience for sure. But they are a sign of vitality, the look of a city evolving and growing in front of our very eyes. Lose the cranes and the construction crews and you will see a city slowly dying.

I understand the anti-development, anti-gentrification folks. I appreciate that they are trying to maintain some semblance of history and personal scale. And I appreciate that they are trying to protect people from being forced out of their homes, schools, and neighborhoods by the capitalist desire for more, more, more.

But there must be a balance. We cannot decide to stop evolving and growing. We need to find ways to do it gracefully and respectfully. The anti-development forces are doing us all a favor by making sure that happens. But when they dominate the discussion, things grind to a halt and nothing happens. That is not where we want to be.

So when I see a street closed by a crane, I celebrate it. It’s progress. No pain, no gain.

Some Thoughts On Airbnb’s Struggles In New York State

As many readers likely know, this week New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill called S6340A/A8704C, which will levy heavy fines on individuals who advertise short-term rentals of residential multiple dwelling units in New York. This ends an effort that lasted several months to convince the Governor to veto this bill which was passed by both legislative bodies in Albany earlier this year.

Airbnb promptly filed a federal lawsuit as the New York Times reported. The Times piece states that:

In its lawsuit, filed Friday afternoon in Federal District Court in the Southern District of New York, the company contends that the law violates the company’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process, as well as the protection it is afforded under the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that says websites cannot be held accountable for content published by their users.

It is possible that this matter will be settled by the courts.

But it is my hope that, instead, calmer heads will prevail and New York State will pass sensible legislation that allows short term rentals when the tenant or owner is not present.

Airbnb has proposed a five point plan that attempts to address many of the issues that New Yorkers have with short term rentals.

This proposal is similar to legislation that has been adopted in large urban cities like Chicago.

There are many reasons why the current situation is not ideal for anyone. Most people living in apartment buildings don’t like the idea of an Airbnb in their building. It is also problematic when landlords to take apartments off the rental market and create illegal hotels. And landlords need a way to enforce the rules outlined in their leases.

On the other hand, many New Yorkers use income from short term rentals to allow them to afford an apartment in NYC when they have jobs that require them to travel extensively. There are also many New Yorkers who rent their homes during busy periods to make some extra income.

An outright ban on short term rentals is a bad thing for many New Yorkers.

I am certain there is middle ground to find a compromise that addresses the legitimate issues while allowing short term rentals to continue. And I am hopeful that will eventually happen.

Both sides are to blame for where we are right now. Airbnb allowed the NY short term rental market to emerge over the past seven years without sufficient concern over the negative impacts of unregulated short term rentals. It took way too long to engage in a real and substantive discussion with legislators and regulators and when it did, there was a lot of bad blood between both sides.

On the other hand, the hotel unions and the real estate industry have used their significant clout in Albany to push for a law that is overly restrictive and hurts many New Yorkers. And they got the legislature and the Governor to support it. It shines a bright light on the kind of back room dealing that voters are sick and tired of, in Albany and all around the US.

I would urge the Governor to provide some leadership here now that he has satisfied the legislature by signing their deeply flawed bill. There is a proposal on the table from Airbnb to regulate short term rentals sensibly. The Governor and the legislature should engage with that proposal. And the real estate industry should engage as well. Short term rentals can be a good thing for them too.

I am confident that we have not seen the end of Airbnb and short term rentals in NY State. If calmer heads prevail we can get short term rentals that make sense for NY State and NY City. And that is what we should do.

How About A City Instead Of A Wall?

Sometimes the best answer to a challenging issue is the exact opposite of what the conventional wisdom is.

We just spent a week in Mexico City and, as I always do when we travel to Mexico, I came away impressed with the character and work ethic of the Mexican people. They are entrepreneurial and hard working and always have a smile on their face. I have great respect for the people and culture of Mexico.

So when I read this piece on a proposal to build a “binational border city” instead of a wall between the US and Mexico, it got my attention.

Mexican architect Fernando Romero has proposed a new city be built between New Mexico and Texas in the U.S. and Chihuahua in Mexico. It would look like this from the sky.

border-city

I like the contrarian thinking. Instead of restricting trade and cross border economy between the US and Mexico, expand it.

It is my strong belief that globalization is a reality and we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. We should accept it and figure out how to work with it to everyone’s advantage.

USV Endorses Hillary Clinton For President

From the USV blog this morning:

Hillary Clinton for President

This is the fourth presidential election during the existence of Union Square Ventures and the first one in which we as a firm feel compelled to endorse a candidate: Hillary Clinton.

As investors in technology companies, we believe that technology and innovation create broad opportunity and improve lives. But we also know that, to date, the benefits of technology and globalization have not been evenly distributed. People with access to education and capital have prospered while many others have seen good jobs lost to automation or offshoring. We understand why people whose lives have been upended are frustrated by politicians who squabble for partisan advantage instead of developing consensus solutions. We are not surprised that many feel the urge to reboot the whole system.

We agree that more of the same is not the answer. In the next few years, we need to make the necessary smart policy adjustments to ensure that the benefits of technology and innovation are shared by society as a whole.

Shutting out the world is not an option. We don’t think it’s desirable, or even possible, to return to an earlier era when America was less diverse, or the economy was less global. There is no wall big enough to protect us from a changing climate or the unintended consequences of new technologies like artificial intelligence or DNA manipulation. Now, more than ever, we must work together. We cannot unilaterally set the rules for the other seven billion people on the planet. The only way forward is through an open, respectful, and rational dialogue grounded in science.

Of the two major party candidates, we believe that only Hillary Clinton has the temperament and experience to lead us at home and represent us abroad.

We hope that everyone, no matter how frustrated with our current politics, will get out and vote. We applaud the movement to give employees extra time off on election day. If you’re not registered and don’t see the point, we hope you will reconsider and register here orhere.  This is an important election and we need to make a choice among the two leading candidates — we believe that a protest vote is a wasted vote — and for us the clear choice is Hillary Clinton.