This time, I didn't find out about the acquisition of Votizen by reading TechCrunch in the morning. This was a deliberate decision I had a large role in, along with my co-founder and the rest of the company. Everyone had a say, and I'm proud that nearly all of us made the decision to go along.
Second, in 2007 I joined Mint as lead designer because I saw an amazing opportunity. I saw a compelling value proposition that most startups were missing back then (and still are). There was an opportunity to build an amazing brand, and I could learn a lot about startups that I could apply later.
When it sold, I felt I had done what I had set out to do. Although I felt the larger mission of the company—to help people understand their money—was unfinished, I didn't see the same kind of risk-taking and innovation as likely to happen at Intuit. I wouldn’t be able to have the impact in the world that I became an entrepreneur to have. My days became filled with design-by-committee conference calls where people were compelled to say “no” to justify being on the payroll. We also spent our entire existence positioning ourselves against them so it was tough to feel good about joining in. The culture of our startup and the culture of Intuit were not well matched in my opinion, and it seemed that the mission had long since bled out of that place.
There's also the matter of appreciation. Everyone wants to feel like they have value to an organization. I heard later from more than one Intuit employee that they were excited to have me, but nobody from Intuit reached out. It wasn't clear to me what Intuit truly valued about the company, but it clearly wasn't me–and that's okay.
Most importantly though, I wasn't passionate enough about personal finance. My mission wasn't to transform money management, though it felt good to help people. I worked in the problem space for a few years, but I became swept up in electoral politics during the 2008 election. I had an interest in elections ever since the first one I could vote in ended via Supreme Court decision. Carnegie Mellon was a campaign stop for Al Gore in 2000, for John Kerry in 2004, and finally the wide open primary of 2008 was too compelling of a story to ignore. I saw my very first episode of Meet the Press with Tim Russert and I was hooked. It was something that I couldn't shake, and I began to think about the problems in the space and play around with building products in my spare time, sacrificing fun and relationships in the process. I couldn't not build something in politics, and over the next year I found my mission.
Once you figure out what that is, and believe it's possible, the rest of the decisions become a lot easier. Your mission becomes what defines your success. So I asked myself, where is it that I can go that gives me the best chance of success as I define it?
I'm not interested in being a founder for the sake of the title, or hacking on an inconsequential project just to build, or raising money because I can. I'm interested in making voters so powerful that no amount of money or top-down advertising will make any difference in an election. Social media has created a new era of many-to-many communications on a massive scale, which has yet to fully break down our politics.
I'm now working with a lot of incrediblepeople with a common vision. We've spent months now re-imagining the product, and integrating the never-realized Votizen roadmap. Long gone is Causes on Facebook, and birthday wish, and in its place is emerging a new, powerful platform for citizen-driven change. I'm valued, appreciated, there's culture alignment with Votizen, and—most importantly—I'm making a difference.
How long will I stay?
I've told many people I've run into over the years, that entrepreneurs are irrational people. You can have a safer income, and usually a higher one, doing a lot of other things. Success is incredibly rare. Starting a business and changing the base of political power in America takes that to a whole new level, but that's me. As long as I'm crazy enough to think I can do this, I'm going to do so.
So if you're contemplating a change of scenery, ask yourself where you can have the greatest impact on your mission. It could be a small startup, or your own if nobody else will let you pursue the innovation you want to see in the world. It could be a large company that will give you the resources to get you where you need to go, or if your mission is the same as mine, It could be right here, sitting next to me.
Michael Lewis in his 2003 book Moneyball wrote in-part about how baseball has become an unfair game controlled by the big-spending teams. The same can be said of our political system, and the problem is only getting worse.
Article I of the Constitution contains the following:
After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.
In short, the Constitution called for proportional representation in the United States Congress. The Framers' intent was to keep the lower house close to the people, and to faithfully represent our interests. Each Representative was only supposed to represent 50,000 – 60,000 citizens. However in 1929, Congress passed a law called the Reapportionment Act, largely designed to prevent many of them from losing their seats to redistricting. This bill allowed the political parties to draw their own districts, which clearly isn't in our best interest, as it allows them to build their own constituencies and preserve their duopoly. It also capped the House of Representatives at 435 members, despite the fact that the population of the United States continued to grow. Now we're close to one member for every 700,000 citizens. According to Article I we should have a Congress with somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 members. Unwieldy maybe, but the alternative is the status quo, and we know what that's like.
Because the ratio of representatives-to-voters is so out of whack, intermediaries have become necessary: unions, lobbyists, special-interest groups, PACs, SuperPACs, etc. Together they raise and spend millions, and with only 435 members of Congress, only 218 are needed to pass any given bill, in a nation of over 300 million. That makes it relatively easy for a lot of a attention to be showered on Representatives by these full-time lobbyists, crowding out your voice.
Elections however, are the biggest problem. With districts as large as they are, winning votes is very difficult, and has become very expensive. As a challenger you simply can't knock on enough doors or talk to enough people, so you need to resort to mass media and direct mail, both very expensive forms of top-down communication that can reach the numbers required. This shuts out a lot of highly qualified potential politicians, and rewards only those who can raise, or already have, a lot of money.
Raising money often means raising money from a small number of wealthy donors, who will want access after the election, as well as special interest groups who can deliver a lot of votes, but will not do so in the next election if their agenda isn't adhered to. This takes a sizable portion of any legislator's agenda out of the public square. Incumbents have a huge advantage simply from name recognition alone.
It wasn't always this way.
Before mass media, there was a level playing field. The campaigning technology available to candidates was whistle-stops and retail politics. Even in the early days of television, political ads were more like news broadcasts where politicians just read speeches into the camera.
In 1964 we saw the unfortunate invention of the political attack ad by DDB, the infamous Daisy Ad. It contained nothing useful about Lyndon Johnson, simply a very scary suggestion that by voting for his opponent Barry Goldwater you were inviting nuclear catastrophe. It was the first time the medium of television was used to maximum emotional effect. Ever since, attack ads have been standard issue. Politics became much less reliant on convincing people that you were the right man or woman to represent them, and more about raising money in order to run ads. Money has become a proxy for votes, and (just like in baseball) the richest candidate wins. Sure there are a few exceptions, like the A's once again who defied all odds to win the AL West this year with a $49M payroll, but the final four teams in this year's playoffs all have payrolls over $110M.
This is 200 years of progress.
I don't think this is what our Framers intended to happen. So with all of this stacked against us, what do we have? We now have social media to assemble. We have new means to assemble large numbers of voters that aren't limited by transportation technology, or how many people fit in a room. We have the means to replace donor-candidate-media-voter with voter-to-voter. By using social media to effectively win votes, we can break the stranglehold of big money and mass media on our elections.
Whereas mass media is top-down, expensive, controlled by very few, and reinforces a command-and-control political organization, social media is many-to-many, cheap, accessible, the message can evolve, and enables the self-organization of voting blocs.
Also, the voter and consumer data that has enabled large-scale micro-targeting since the early 2000s is no longer über-expensive and privy to just political parties and large PACs. Your friends are on Facebook telling you what matters to them. Voter roll data is now available for free from Votizen, so you can see which of your friends are registered to vote, and register the friends who aren't. Television watching is on the decline, and Internet and cell phone usage is rapidly rising. The people who master community-building on social media are the center of a new political order that's coming. It may take 5 years, or 10, but it's coming. In the 2012 election, the Presidential campaigns are now directly reaching out to influential twitter users asking for them to pass along their messages. They're on our turf now, not the airwaves.
Today, donors and their agendas dominate, negative ads dominate, and politicians are forced to satisfy donors to continue to get their money to buy votes. Tomorrow, you are the new power-broker, spreading positive messages about the candidates you choose, only if you agree with their vision, and politicians will be accountable to you if you've built a community or use your voice.
Outfriending will beat outspending.
It's time to get started. I could understand voter apathy before these tools existed, but no longer. You can get involved locally, meet and vet your candidates, and build communities without leaving your house. You have the power now.
Some years ago, Fortune magazine coined the term “Paypal Mafia” for the former executive team at Paypal that went on to shape Silicon Valley over this past decade, from founding companies of their own to making investments, and advising the next generation.
Ever since, people have been trying to label the next mafia. The Facebook mafia is mentioned quite a bit as we approach their IPO, and even the Twitter mafia has a singular fan out there.
Here's a prediction: the Paypal mafia is the last mafia. I don't believe the level of talent and intellectual horsepower that came together to create Paypal will happen again, especially in today's climate. There's too many startups, too much greed, too much ego. It's going to take a big and very special vision to bring together anything close to that kind of team again, and even then it's going to be a struggle.
Even the Facebook executives, as gifted as they are, I don't believe will match the achievements of their Paypal predecessors. The Paypal team went on to create billions of dollars in value in companies they've founded alone, let alone investments. Everyone wants to be the first to spot the next trend or coin the next buzzword, but stop and marvel at what this group has accomplished, and appreciate what it will truly take to repeat history.
People often ask me to explain Votizen, and I always enjoy watching someone's face light up when I share our vision for the future. However, until now, I’ve never published where we’ve been, what we’re building and where we’re headed. With over a million voters now reachable through our platform, it's time to fix that.
March 2011: Get your voting history, and use it to certify messages to Congress
We flipped the switch on Votizen in March of 2011. At that time, it was a product where registered voters could sign up, retrieve their voting record and history, and write messages to Congress. Think of it as a certified letter, although instead of certifying the contents with the post office, you could certify that you were a real constituent of the official you were writing— and not just any constituent, but one with the power to vote him or her in or out of office every election year.
At that point in time, Votizen was focused on the individual voter. We wanted each voter to be able back up their voice with the power of their vote. We knew that people were frustrated by not being heard by those who represented them, and felt that by backing their words with a way to hold officials accountable, the representatives would be more likely to take their opinions seriously.
Early learnings: @2gov
This early approach was bolstered by the success of a precursor to Votizen called 2gov, which allowed people to send 'verified' tweets to Congress backed by their voting records. (You can read a case study of 2gov in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.) The use of 2gov to promote the Startup Visa movement was a harbinger of the use of social tools in public policy debates a year before the SOPA and PIPA blackouts of January 2012. Most of our early product learnings came from 2gov, but the overall Startup Visa lobbying effort taught us quite a bit, which I’ll get to later.
Summer 2011: Open Letters to Congress
Our first product was a UI for the basic process of writing certified messages to Congress. On the back end, our voters’ messages were printed in-house and shipped to our delivery person in the Capitol. Our next iteration of the product in July allowed people to create longer form letters than the original short messages inspired by the 2gov approach. This came from voter feedback, as well as our desire to allow people to share their stories, which we learned from elected officials is immensely powerful for them. The other piece of this was making these letters open letters to Congress, so voters could sign off on each others’ ideas and have them delivered to their officials as well. So if I wrote a letter to Washington, D.C., Votizen would deliver it to Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Zoe Lofgren. If my Mom in New York agreed, we would similarly then deliver to Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Paul Tonko. Similar to petitions, we took cues from existing open letter publishing tools we saw online; the difference with ours being the authenticity of the signer and the political power represented by his or her vote. This helped increase our usage, but we knew that something was still missing. Social media channels are lossy: tweets and Facebook posts can be missed, and emails can be ignored, so without a truly remarkable issue, organizing and getting attention on yours, is difficult. But we soon found an answer to this problem in the world of campaigning.
September 2011: Campaign Season Begins
In September 2011, the San Francisco Mayor’s Race was heating up and we wanted to provide a way for our users to get involved in the race. We then came up with the idea of creating an online tool to mirror what was happening in the real world. So, just as traditional political campaigns organize and have volunteers conduct precinct walks (walking through neighborhoods knocking on doors) we decided we could replicate that experience over social networks. Instead of knocking on doors, why not talk to your friends instead and ask for their vote? We called it a virtual precinct walk and launched it at TechCrunch Disrupt, activating it for every Mayoral campaign in San Francisco.
Supporters of any campaign could sign up, see who among their friends on Facebook was actually a registered voter in San Francisco, and make individual requests for voters to pledge their votes in the November election. Votizen then handled voting reminders, and polling locations for those who pledged. And since this entire system was focused on the actual registered voters in San Francisco, we knew that these efforts would have a direct impact on the outcome of the election. This is the first known example of tying a consumer web application to real voting data from a state government.
The virtual precinct walk was real eye-opener for us. First, it worked! We were able to verify after the election that our voters turned out and actually did what they said they were going to do. Second, this represented a huge shift in how campaigns could be conducted. We charged the campaigns pennies per vote — not per pledge, but the actual vote as verified on the returns after the election. In a country where millions of dollars are needed for very expensive forms of advertising, fueled by special interest money, we had just proven that friends could get other friends to vote. And finally, we learned that when people could come together on something they believe in, it's a powerful motivator that goes well beyond the individual experience of writing a letter, even one that was certified and verified.
Post-election 2011: Open letters retired, retool for 2012
Shortly after this experiment ended, we realized that our public policy tools were underpowered and were unlikely to deliver the transformative change in our politics that is our vision. We didn’t want Votizen to become another petition site where people get politically-correct and content-free answers. We want to make a difference. We want to show that 14,286 voters in their district will vote them out in November if they don’t represent their interests. That’s real power, and it’s the essence of politics. We want to solve the problem of accountability, not just astroturf. Officials getting voter sentiment doesn't matter if they're still beholden to donors and bundlers instead of the voters. If you fix that, and break down the forces that make us all apathetic about our politics, you’ll begin to see a new kind of politician, and a new kind of discourse in Washington, your state capitol, and your city hall.
And here’s where our key learnings have paid off. People want to join a movement. They want to make a difference. By making them not just a target of campaigns, but as active participants with a stake in the outcome and a goal greater than themselves, they can have a much more powerful experience than acting alone.
When only 50% of people are registered to vote, and only 25% actually vote with regularity (½ of that for an odd-year special election like this one) knowing who to talk to is incredibly important. Imagine, if you as the volunteer — or even as the politician — knew the individual conversations you could have that would tilt the election? Isn’t that the world we want to live in? A world where those who seek office need to have relationships with those they want to represent? This is at the heart of the Votizen vision: replacing the top-down mass media campaign that’s been the standard since the Daisy ad in 1964, with retail politics through friends today, and ultimately self-organization among voting constituencies to demand candidates that share their values, and who refuse to vote for those who don’t.
March 2012: Your voter network
It’s been a year, and we’ve expanded the ability to find your voting friends to the entire United States. We've also made it easier to find by adding Twitter and LinkedIn alongside our original Facebook connectivity. Today, you can run a campaign for candidates actively campaigning for President as well as the Senate, and we’re in the process of working our way through Congressional and state races, to our ultimate goal of having every local race in the United States available for you. Our base of Votizens campaigning on-site are now connected to over 1,200,000 real voters in the U.S., and several million more who are eligible to register. If you multiply this base by all the different races each of them can vote in, where maybe a message or a phone call from a friend or family member will turn that person from someone who was going to skip the election, into votes for a dozen candidates or ballot initiatives, this is a big deal, and a game changer for the American voter.
Later in 2012
Throughout 2012, Votizen will be the place where you can find the voters (or register new ones) who can help your candidates or ballot initiatives get the votes needed for victory. Together we will have an impact this year across the country. Candidates running for office that can’t afford to spend like a traditional campaign on media buys, will look to us to empower their supporters to spread their message, and have the conversations that will turn into real votes. New features are coming that will let you have real conversations with people, find common ground, trade support in races across the country, express yourself politically, and continue to build your own network of voters so you can exercise your political influence. Tools and technologies that have been reserved for the two major parties and Presidential campaigns will continue to be rolled out for you to use in your campaign. The near term vision is to give you greater power than just your one vote: the power to move all the votes you know. A voter in California has very little impact on the Presidential race, but that voter in California can influence, potentially, hundreds of votes in swing states. Now all politics is social, not local.
2013 and Beyond
This year we're focused on empowering you to change election outcomes using the power of your social networks. In 2013 Votizen will move to self-organization of new voting blocs, from electorates as small as your school district to the country. This will enable new candidates to compete for your votes and run for office by the strength of their ideas and their ability to establish real relationships with voters, not on the strength of their donors funding attack ads. We will empower you to lobby for public policy by locating everyone you know represented by a bill co-sponsor in the House or Senate, or your state legislatures, and rallying them together. We are looking at allowing you to introduce your own legislation; today lobbyists are writing a lot of our bills, but why shouldn't they come from the people?
We believe the wisdom of the crowd prevails over the narrow extremism that drives today's flavor of politics. We believe that voters, connected to each other through a new kind of network, represents the future of democracy. To this end, Votizen aims to foster, create, and empower this new kind of network. It aims to give real people access to tools that will give them the chance to make an impact on the challenges facing their communities, their country, and their world.
I'm often asked, “why Votizen?” Or, “if you could be doing any other startup right now, what would it be?” I had my pick of startups after Mint but I chose to do this. My answer is always the same, I can't imagine doing anything but this.
Peter Thiel and a few others in Silicon Valley lament the lack of entrepreneurs solving truly large problems. To me, politics is both my greatest passion, and the biggest problem I can think of, and that by fixing it, we will improve the lives of citizens by giving them their government back. This is a very hard problem. Anyone who starts a company is already irrational, and this is even more irrational. So, I need your help! Join me on Votizen, spread the word, and together we can restore American democracy.