Ask not what government can do for startups…

There’s an interesting debate happening at Roundtable about entrepreneurship and public policy that includes some of my favourite people in the tech world such as Esther Dyson and Anil Dash. I generally come down on the side of public policy being able to help startups and create jobs, but only if it does things sensibly. However, Anil Dash outlines the prevailing attitude nicely:

From what I’ve seen (and I readily concede that this is anecdote, not data), founders often see policy as irrelevant, inherently evil, or hopelessly unresponsive. Given that reality, getting founders to substantively engage in policy discussions will be fruitless until that reality changes. That issue seems bigger to me than all of these individual policy concerns combined.

I’m currently more interested in the other side of the coin — not what government can do to help startups but whether startups can help government. I’ve written a piece for Ethos Magazine called ‘Aim big, start small’ that argues that if Government wants to save money and achieve better social results then they’re better off working with new startups who can look at the problem from a different angle:

Unless things change, the public sector is going to find it hard to work with the most innovative of startups and miss out on the potentially game-changing efficiencies that their way of solving problems might offer.

I imagine that in years to come, we won’t think of ‘public sector’ as just meaning you work for the civil service, a school or the NHS — we’ll take it to include tens of thousands of other organisations small and large whose aim is to solve social problems. This is going to raise all kinds of questions: should the public sector buy companies for example? In some cases I think that would make a lot of sense and create huge savings. We’d also need to debate whether this would change our expectations of pay, rewards and profits. But overall, my feeling is that our best bet for creating better social and economic outcomes is to look for ways to get more startups working with the public sector to find better ways of doing things.

Helping people work out what to do with their lives

It’s been a day of sad news. I guess I knew it was coming but I woke up this morning to find out that Steve Jobs had died. I’m glad that his commencement address at Stanford is doing the rounds — it is a fantastic talk. It’s filled with emotion and insight but I also love the way he doesn’t respond to any of the whoops or applause. He had something to say and was going to say it.

I find it interesting that the Whole Earth Catalogue had a massive impact on Jobs when he was a student. He says that “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” (a Stewart Brand line) was the phrase that saw him through. I like the fact that 25 years later Stewart is still finding ways to make young people think — now through the Long Now Foundation and his books. Jobs in turn went on to inspire huge numbers of people working out what they want to do with their lives — through the things he created and the occasional interviews and talks he gave.

It hasn’t made the headlines in the same way but I also found out this morning that James Cornford has passed away. I only met James once but he had a very strong influence on me in the short time we spent together. He set up an essay prize which I found out about somehow — I’m fairly sure the day before the deadline. I remember that I liked the given title “In defence of apathy” and so I decided to have a go. It was one of the first times I sat down and wrote down what I thought. A few months later I got the call to say my essay had won.

The ceremony was tagged onto another event and wasn’t a big deal. But we met afterwards and he told me that the reason he liked it was that mine was just different to everybody else’s and that was a good thing. I was just starting to work for think tanks at the time and ‘stay different’ stuck with me.

So I just want to say thank you to the people who spend time helping people who are working out what to do with their lives and how to do it. It’s important and I hope I can do it too.