Representing Web business

Representing Web business
© Greg Nash

In 2012, he was looking for office space for a new venture he was launching and ran into a problem when he started talking to landlords.

“They want to see [a] three-year financial statement and your business model — all these things to show that you’re not just going to come in, take the office space for a month and then have to get evicted,” he told The Hill last week.

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“I’m like, ‘I can’t show you a three-year statement. I can show you, like, three days.’ ”

Beckerman didn’t need the space to run the next Google or Facebook or Amazon; the Internet Association is a trade group to represent those companies and others like them. Now, three and a half years later, the group has grown at a clip that, if it were one of its member companies, would undoubtedly attract attention from the press and investors.

That has put it in the thick of some of the most dynamic debates in tech policy, from how to protect consumers and workers in the on-demand economy to more conventional debates over privacy and trade.

Beckerman was recruited to start the group in 2012 after spending more than a decade on Capitol Hill. Before he left, he was serving as the deputy staff director to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired then and now by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). The committee’s jurisdiction is broad — and so was Beckerman’s portfolio.

“I worked on energy issues and Internet issues and everything that the committee did at that time,” he says. “Telecommunications, Internet — tech is part of that jurisdiction, so it’s a piece. But obviously I’m working on it a lot more closely now.”

Beckerman gave up his role in the House when companies like Google and Facebook came calling, despite the risk associated with launching a new venture.

“This is not like the envelope manufacturers saying ‘Hey, come leave the Hill and go work for us, and we’re selling envelopes, and that’s all we’re doing,’ ” he says. “These are the most awesome, cool companies that you could think of, that are just incredible, and so it was worth the risk.”

Being Employee No. 1 at the Internet Association meant building a business from the ground up.

Beckerman had to get the organization’s financials in order while figuring out whom to hire, creating the group’s website and, of course, finding office space. For months, he worked from his kitchen table.

When the group graduated to an actual office, Beckerman, in the interest of frugality, bought all the furniture at the Ikea in College Park, Md., a staple of 20-somethings furnishing their first apartments in the District but less common on K Street. It all helped him understand the lifecycle of companies just getting started in Silicon Valley.

“And so that was a really good learning experience and I think helped me personally better appreciate and understand what the companies have gone through,” he said. “Particularly some of our newer companies that are in that phase now and growing beyond that and scaling up.”

The association had 14 members when it launched in September 2012. Its membership included some big, consumer-friendly brands such as Google and Facebook, as well as businesses in the enterprise sector such as Rackspace and Salesforce.

It has grown quickly since then, outgrowing its first office and the Ikea furniture in 2014. A bullpen in the back of its current downtown digs on H Street NW has different spaces in the office named after popular fixtures of Internet culture, like Success Kid — a photo of a child whose particularly self-satisfied expression went viral in the late 2000s — and the online comic “Hyperbole and a Half.”

The group now employs 13 people.

The association has more than tripled its membership, now representing 46 companies that pay to be a part of the group. It’s a diverse bunch that includes companies engaged in some of the most hotly contested policy battles around the country.

Beckerman advocates for Uber, Airbnb and Lyft, the three dominant players in the on-demand economy of app-based services. The companies have faced questions about whether they do enough to keep their customers safe and about their policy of hiring workers as independent contractors rather than employees who are entitled to more benefits and protections.

He also represents FanDuel, one of the daily fantasy sports operators currently engaging in a high-stakes battle over whether their services constitute illegal gambling.

The association has had its missteps, as well. In 2013, for example, it launched a tool meant to let average citizens annotate draft legislation. A press release called it “unprecedented,” and Beckerman says the group hoped it would create a social media-style experience for users to engage in the policy process. 

It didn’t work out that way.

“It was a difficult undertaking to develop and put on the site and do, and nobody used it,” he said. “It was, like, a total flop.”

“I think that’s one of those things where we want to try something that’s going to be different and cool and interesting, and not everything’s going to work.”

But the association’s ambitions have still grown with its membership. It recently began an expansion into more state policy work and has an office in California. Beckerman travels there at least once a month and meets with his members as well as venture capitalists and angel investors, the powerful individuals who give early-stage startups enough cash to get off the ground. That lets him scout out emerging trends in the industry that could eventually lead to new members.

Beckerman says he’s personally excited by the “Internet of Things” (“I think this is the worst term,” he says), a growing network of Internet-connected products, and advances in artificial intelligence.

“The possibilities are endless, and it’s going to change our lives for the better,” he says of the latter, talking at length about the safety implications of self-driving cars.

His ambitions point to an obvious question that, at one point or another, plagues almost every tech company hoping to grow: How will the Internet Association maintain the culture that has made it successful so far as it expands?

“I mean, it will be a challenge,” Beckerman says. “It’s all probably a state of mind, right, it’s the culture you try to create, it’s the state of mind. If you think of yourself as new still, as still kind of the upstart, then that helps. Ask me in another four years if I’m still saying that. Hopefully.”