As the technology business becomes more mainstream, tackling more legacy and non-tech problems, we’re seeing the tech industry look for better ways to engage with the communities they are potentially disrupting but also shaping in equal measure. Today, to kick off Disrupt NY, we brought Ron Conway and Fred Wilson — two titans of the startup, technology and investment worlds — to the stage to talk about some of the ways this is being done.
Conway, the founder of investment firm SV Angel, has made a name for himself in San Francisco for leading how technology companies and individuals can get involved. “I think it’s the responsibility of the tech industry to give back, whether it’s civic or philanthropic” efforts, he said. One of the more recent efforts is Circle the Schools, a program that was launched last autumn to help pair employees and companies in the tech industry with schools that they “adopt” and then offer assistance where it’s needed, whether it’s in an obvious area like offering computer science presentations or tutoring, or chaperoning field trips.
Programs like these are definitely useful, but also sit alongside much thornier issues, such as the civic regulatory hurdles that a lot of tech companies are facing as they grow, which potentially threaten their business models. One case in point are those businesses built on the so-called “sharing economy” model, where ordinary people and their assets are the basis of goods and services marketplaces.
The accommodation startup Airbnb came up as one notable example. While it’s disrupting the hotel industry with its private hiring platform, it’s also playing an unlikely role as potentially highlighting just how untenable and costly the larger permanent housing issues are in markets like San Francisco and New York.
Right now the company could be facing caps on how many nights its hosts can accept for a specific property, a state of affairs that both Conway and Wilson thought was misguided.
“The notion that Airbnb is part of the problem is completely false,” Conway noted. “It’s just a part of the argument from … people who don’t understand the sharing economy.”
He also took issue with the proposal of capping the numbers of days that a host can let out a room or residence. “I just think it’s a false ceiling. Why should the government be involved in that?”
But one area where the pair disagreed was on the subject of data. Airbnb and others may be required to hand over more data on how their services are used, as part of the gradual regulating of their businesses.
Where Conway was unequivocal — “Private companies should not be forced to hand over data about their users,” he said. Wilson was a lot more nuanced.
“On the other hand, if they did hand over the data they could resolve a lot of concerns,” Wilson countered. “Companies could use data to make clear that the fears are unfounded. I would encourage companies to share data as much as possible.” The idea here is that the more a company can disclose anonymized, aggregate data to make a specific case, the more they can argue for their businesses.
In other topics, it looks like the 1% pledge model that was pioneered first by Salesforce in San Francisco is now making its way to New York. Teaming up with New York anti poverty organization Robin Hood, the idea here is for businesses to commit 1 percent of a company’s equity, volunteer time and potentially 1 percent of its product to the city its operating or based in. Pioneered first by Salesforce, others that have adopted this include Google and Yelp. More on that here.
Wilson added that this doesn’t just need to be leviathan “unicorn” startups taking up this idea.
Calling out the attorneys who service startups, he said they should be incorporating this directly into a company’s foundation documents because it would make it easy and locked in from the start. “If founders could add this without any cost they would do that,” he said. “This is a call out to the legal community.”
Being Fred Wilson, he also threw a possible startup idea out there for anyone in search of a new area to tackle. “It’s important that each city creates a volunteer system so that people who want to volunteer know what the opportunity is,” he said. “They don’t know where they can use their skills. There are no good systems to match people with the nonprofits out there.”