On October 3rd, I sat on a roundtable with six other folks from the Triangle entrepreneurial community and six folks from the White House, including United States CTO Todd Park.
The fact that this article lags said roundtable by a couple weeks is a good sign not to expect any massive revelations to emerge herein. But that’s OK. I didn’t have massive expectations for the roundtable itself, which is to say I had none, but it turned out to be better than I thought.
See, I learned a long time ago not to put a whole lot of stake in big entities — whether they be government, foundations, corporations, or just tall people — when those entities say they want to help the startup community, even if they have the best intentions or motivation.
For whatever reason, startups are sometimes seen as the rock starts of the business world, which is exactly like being the coolest nerd in the room.
You see this phenomenon play out in major motion pictures dedicated to Facebook. You hear it in the stump speeches of politicians who shout that startups (and small businesses) are the future of the economy. You feel it when large companies host hackathons or sponsor startup-related events.
There’s a lot of back-patting, a lot of words, and a lot of everyone wanting to pull together to make something awesome.
And don’t get me wrong. That’s awesome. To a point.
Startups fall out of fashion when they do things like bring boring products to market that make investors money but do so in a way that doesn’t provide one-liners for twenty-something Hollywood actors who want to stretch themselves out of the superhero and/or rom-com role.
Politicians inevitably become civil servants who can’t figure out how to tax the thing they’re trying to grow without killing it.
Corporations start to realize that, at a certain level of success, startups become more competition than customer, and the margins are much better selling into, say, big government.
Anyway, the roundtable wasn’t rah-rah at all, in fact it was rather quiet. And it wasn’t about how the federal government can help the startup community — which is exactly what I had feared it might be, because try as I might, I really don’t have a good answer to that question.
Todd Park was a nice guy with a solid handshake who is enthusiastic about everything he talks about. In a conversation with me, he used the phrase, “That’s just full of awesomeness.”
Which is a phrase I use often.
It also happens that the government wanted help from startups, more specifically, they wanted our input into ways to get the word out about five major initiatives at the federal level that seemed like great opportunities for entrepreneurs to build products around.
The gist of it was like this: The government shouldn’t be building GPS devices or apps that track your run. They would be, and I quote Park here, “terrible at it.” But they can put the satellites in the air and deliver the mechanism to make the GPS data available to the public.
In this, they establish a new market. Now they had five more potential markets either just emerging or about to emerge. One of those is viable right away, and that’s the one we all jumped on.
The Open Data Initiatives Program — at data.gov –like the GPS example, structures a bunch of different silos of data and presents that data for public consumption, in everything from education to energy.
While it’s an open question whether or not startups can be created around sets of data, certainly startups (much like my own home at Automated Insights) could use that data to improve their existing offering, exactly like your mobile phone uses GPS to get you where you need to go.
Unless you have an iPhone 5.
The question was how would Park and his team of fellows get the word out about the existence of this data (and the other programs), how to access it, and how they could help make that happen.
And that’s the kind of question I built the ExitEvent network on. Not a network of who is getting funded by whom and how much, not a social network, not a trading post, school, or marketing forum, but a network of information exchange (data, it’s what I do), that serves as a backbone for this emerging community.
The problem is (problem for them, not me), I also learned a while back that it’s way more difficult (and thus, a losing proposition) to build that network from the nationwide level down. In my view, it has to be built from somewhere (say, Durham) out — laying the foundation in one place and building spokes to the next. Repeat.
So yes, ExitEvent can carry that message to Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte, DC, and the signal will carry all the way to Silicon Valley, but of course it isn’t as strong there yet.
But that’s a good, hopeful sign and a whole hell of a lot of confirmation that the mission is correct. Build the network for the startups, by the startups, and let the big entities and tall people come and go as they please. We’ll catch the ones that are serious and filter out the others. Less noise. More signal.
Oh, and in the meantime, there is a team working on executing on the Open Data Initiative here in the Triangle, led by Chris Gergen from Bull City Forward. More information will follow soon.