Government Relations:
10 Rules for Success

Interacting with government and policy makers is critical for young startups, but often overlooked. And in heavily regulated industries - like energy - it can be the difference between a big exit or no customers. Ian Adams, CET's Director of Public Affairs, shares his 10 rules for punching above your political weight.

When Regulation Drives Market Opportunities

Legislators, mayors and governors highlight innovative businesses every day during tours, funding announcements, and groundbreakings. How can your business end up on stage, plugged by policymakers? The answer may be a mystery, but it’s not a secret: government relations.

Early stage startups often overlook government relations – but it’s an important investment for any business to make  – and it’s particularly critical in the heavily-regulated energy industry. As a recent piece in the New York Times (Start-Up Leaders Embrace Lobbying as Part of the Job) noted, it is increasingly common to see early stage companies advocating for their interests with policymakers, especially where regulation is a major driver of market opportunities.

“For our start-ups, the advice we give is to get in early,” said Ted Ullyot, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, who is now at Andreessen Horowitz, “because the idea is not to stop regulation at a later date but to make sure they were aware and thoughtful about regulation early on.”

Uber is perhaps the best example of how interacting with policy makers became vital to their growth and success.

Asking For the Meeting 

You don’t need to hire a lobbyist to be effective in this space. The easiest way to connect with policymakers and elected representatives is simply to ask to meet them in their office.

State and local officials, in particular, set aside time on their calendars to meet with constituents in both their offices. Industry trade groups can also help set up meetings, and sometimes coordinate “fly-in” trips to Washington, DC meet with federal officials and elected officials.

Policymakers have full and unpredictable schedules, but if you plan ahead, your elected representatives and their staff will make time for you. After all, it’s their job to do so.

The 10 DO’s and DONT’s

  • DO meet with your local elected representatives – no matter their political persuasion, they will be happy to hear you are starting a business in their district (everybody loves jobs).
  • DON’T assume you need to make financial political contributions to get the attention of policymakers.
  • If you are in a business whose business is influenced or dependent on utility commission decisions, DO go meet with staff and/or commissioners.
  • DO ask for introductory meetings with relevant government agencies and important legislators – the worst thing they can say is no.
  • DON’T expect a specific tangible outcome or deliverable from meetings with policymakers or staff – simple introductory and informational meetings are common.
  • DO research which trade and advocacy groups represent your business’ interests. Consider engaging in public discourse in conjunction with these groups. These efforts can add prominence to your business and ingratiate yourself to organizations you can seek assistance from in the future.
  • DO partner with like-minded startups and even competitors in your market segment in order to expand the impact of your engagement and share information and best practices. For example, while residential solar installation companies are direct competitors with one another, they have generally had success coordinating advocacy efforts to ensure favorable policy for rooftop solar installation.
  • DO bring along materials about your company to leave behind with staff.
  • DO make an “ask” of your representative if there’s something you need support on (after all, you can’t get what you don’t ask for).
  • DO ask for help. Organizations like Clean Energy Trust are well positioned to provide advice and support as you get engaged.

An Investment That Pays Dividends 

While time is a scarce resource at all start-ups, it is important set some aside to meet with policymakers and establish relationships with local elected officials, no matter the stage or sector of your business.

It’s no secret: government relations is an investment that can pay significant dividends to your business now and in the future.

By Ian Adams | January 21, 2016