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What launching a startup taught me about foreign policy

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There are few ecosystems as far apart as the world of diplomacy, one of the oldest professions in the world, and the fast-paced and risk-taking world of startups. However, while going through the Y Combinator program (YC) as cofounder of Overwatch Data, I found myself reflecting on what the foreign policy establishment, my former home, could learn from the start-up world.

Understanding the needs of a market

Both startup and foreign policy success requires an understanding of a complex market or geography in order to make an effective intervention. Startups have fresh techniques to test whether the intervention will gain traction. All early-stage startups are trying to find product/market fit — where you develop a product that meets the needs of a large and growing market. Your product is so popular that customers are adopting it far more quickly than you can keep up. While there is no secret sauce, there are methods to help find that fit, including perfecting interviewing techniques, thoroughly testing assumptions, refining and researching the market, and using agile project management to ensure rapid iteration and launches. Start-ups that fail to find product/market fit die a natural death.

Concepts like product/market fit don’t really exist in global, trade, or humanitarian affairs. Granted, the problems and stakeholders are often much more complex; however, there is rarely a clear success metric to strive towards nor a method for rapidly understanding the needs of a polity.

This often results in a focus on too many ‘priorities’ at one time and top-down interventions based on a few ‘expert’ opinions or laborious randomized controlled trials.

A product/market fit approach would prioritize opportunities where there is (1) already a large demand for a solution, (2) existing sub-par solutions, (3) clear and increasing traction, (4) buy-in from foreign governments, and (5) users that would be severely disappointed if your intervention was taken away.

Skilled immigration policy is central to democratic competitiveness

Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew reportedly said “China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States can draw on a talent pool of 7 billion and recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.”

While I always appreciated the sentiment, I saw how important and broken parts of the U.S. skilled immigration system were in reality. Several YC founders from outside the U.S. are unable to get a visa to attend a single YC event in the US. Statistically, these founders represent the best bet in tech to create useful products and capitalize on the subsequent jobs and economic growth. Immigration policy should be on the agenda of every foreign policy conference

Big tech does not represent the majority of the tech innovation ecosystem

Tech innovation should be core to our vision of high-value knowledge economies, but the public culture war between governments and big tech companies, especially social media companies and brash VCs, has poisoned the well. 

Government delegations to Silicon Valley often meet exclusively with public policy teams at big tech firms, which limits their understanding of how a real tech ecosystem thrives. These companies and their public policy teams are more like governments than they are similar to YC upstarts, who are often pushing the envelope on everything from genetic engineering, to space travel, to productizing machine learning breakthroughs. To understand how to build an innovation ecosystem, policymakers should look beyond big tech companies.

Pilots are more important than funding for startups

The superpower of successful startups is to learn and adapt quicker than anyone else and nothing accelerates learning as much as working with customers. If we want to see more innovation in risk, humanitarian, peace, security, and supply chain tech, we need to create more opportunities for paid pilots. There are increasingly cyber secure ways to do this, especially through web apps or external APIs that leverage the inbuilt safety features of cloud providers and browsers.

The power of data and scale

Conducting solely manual analysis, as the field of international affairs is known to do, is a wasted opportunity. With innovations in geo-batch processing, machine learning, and cloud computing, it’s now possible to model parts of the world and understand the flow-on effects of geopolitical events, trends, and decisions in real-time. 

That’s one of the reasons why we built Overwatch Data — to help detect and analyze events as they surface on the web and deep web, and contextualize those events by highlighting their history and layering additional datasets, such as supply chain routes, commodity production sites, and climate change heatmaps.

Founding a startup taught me the importance of skilled migration programs, deep engagement with the innovation ecosystem, using startup products to spur innovation, and leveraging the power of data to better our world.

Arjun Bisen is a former Fulbright scholar, technology policy advisor, former Australian diplomat, and affiliate of the Technology and Public Purpose Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @ArjunBisen1

Tags Data Diplomacy Foreign policy immigration policy Innovation markets Pilots Silicon Valley Startup company Startups
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