What starting a startup taught me about foreign policy | Jobs Recent


There are few ecosystems as far apart as the world of diplomacy, one of the oldest professions in the world, and the fast-growing and risky world of startups. However, going through the Y Combinator (YC) program as co-founder of Overwatch Data, I wondered what the foreign policy establishment, my former home, could learn from the startup world.

Understanding the needs of the market

The success of both a startup and foreign policy requires an understanding of a complex market or geography to make an effective intervention. Startups have fresh techniques to test whether an intervention will gain traction. All early-stage start-ups try to find a product/market where a product is being developed to meet the needs of a large and growing market. Your product is so popular that customers are adopting it much faster than you can keep up. While there is no secret sauce, there are methods to help find that match, including refining interview techniques, thoroughly testing assumptions, refining and researching the market, and using agile project management to ensure fast iterations and launches. Start-ups that fail to find the right product/market die a natural death.

Concepts like product-market fit don’t really exist in global, commercial, or humanitarian matters. It is true that the issues and stakeholders are often much more complex; however, there is rarely a clear measure of success to aim for, nor a method to quickly understand the state’s needs.

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

A product-to-market approach would prioritize opportunities where (1) there is already high demand for a solution, (2) existing substandard solutions, (3) clear and growing interest, (4) support from foreign governments, and (5) users who would be very disappointed if your intervention was undone.

A skilled immigration policy is crucial for democratic competitiveness

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

While I’ve always appreciated sentiment, I’ve seen how important and broken parts of the American immigration system actually were. Several non-US YC founders are unable to obtain a visa to attend a single US YC event. Statistically speaking, these founders represent the best technology to create useful products and reap the benefits of more 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

Technological innovation should be at the heart of our vision of high-value knowledge-based economies, but the public culture war between governments and big tech companies, especially social media companies and audacious VC funds, has poisoned the well.

Government delegations to Silicon Valley often meet exclusively with public policy teams at large tech companies, which limits their understanding of how a true tech ecosystem develops. These companies and their public policy teams are more like governments than YC newbies who often push the boundaries in everything from genetic engineering to space travel to groundbreaking machine learning products. To understand how to build an innovation ecosystem, policy makers should look beyond the big tech companies.

Piloting is more important than funding startups

The superpower of successful startups is to learn and adapt faster than anyone else, and nothing accelerates learning faster than working with clients. If we want to see more innovation in risk, humanitarian, peace, security and supply chain technology, we need to create more opportunities for pay pilots. There are more and more cyber-secure ways to do this, especially through web apps or third-party APIs that take advantage of the built-in security features of cloud providers and browsers.

The power of data and scale

Performing purely manual analysis, as is known in the field of international relations, is a missed opportunity. Thanks to innovations in geo-batch processing, machine learning and cloud computing, it is now possible to model parts of the world and understand the impact of geopolitical events, trends and decisions in real time.

That’s one of the reasons why we created Overwatch Data – to help detect and analyze web and deep web events and put them into context by highlighting their history and overlaying additional datasets such as supply chain routes, goods production locations, and heat maps of climate change.

Starting a startup taught me the importance of skilled migration programs, a deep commitment to the innovation ecosystem, using startup products to spur innovation, and harnessing the power of data to improve our world.

Arjun Bisen is a former Fulbright Scholar, Technology Policy Advisor, former Australian Diplomat, and Technology and Public Purpose Project partner at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @ArjunBisen1





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