They might be masters of innovation in some areas, but startups like Airbnb, Uber, Sidecar and Fitbit are finding that when it comes to Washington, D.C., the old ways are the best.
In the last few months, several young tech companies have put their faith in the power of money to influence government policy and regulation. Some lobbied the federal government for the first time, while others expanded lobbying efforts by opening dedicated offices in the U.S. capital.
The companies pursuing these efforts tend to be those challenging existing business models, in areas like the sharing economy and streaming content over the web. And when new business models arise, they often bump up against aging regulations.
To be sure, lobbying by the tech industry isn't new. Microsoft and IBM have been at it for years, and Google now leads the industry in money spent. But the moves by smaller companies are notable in part because they're at odds with the image they present of scrappy start-ups battling the establishment -- the same establishment they're now having to cozy up to.
"These smaller startups have recognized the grim reality that the incumbents they hope to disrupt are well connected in D.C. and state capitals across the U.S.," said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. "They have made the calculation that either we invest in lobbying or our competitors crush us."
In the last three months, Fitbit, Snapchat and Sidecar all began lobbying in Washington for the first time, each paying D.C.-based lobbying companies to monitor moves by the federal government and lawmakers that might impact their business.
"In general, for startups, it's good to have a firm in D.C. acting as your 'boots on the ground' because it's important to have a presence and your finger on the pulse of issues affecting your company," said a lobbyist at one tech start-up, who asked not to be named.
Some companies have gone a step further and opened their own office in D.C., with their own lobbyist. An in-house lobbyist doesn't have to split time with other clients and helps ensure a company has a "seat at the table" in discussions of policy or regulatory matters.
Uber began in-house lobbying this year, less than a year after it first arrived in Washington, and has already spent $100,000 on its own efforts. Music streaming service Pandora, which has spent almost a million dollars on lobbying in the last four years, registered its own lobbyist in September and quickly spent a further $120,000.
"They are making a rational business decision," said Tim LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University. "They don't expect an immediate return, but are establishing a long-term strategy and monitoring what the government does in case there is an opportunity that might open up and they can take advantage of it."
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