Fourteen years ago, I worked for the DSCC as a finance assistant. Our world was quickly becoming more tech-forward. Millennials were graduating from 1.0 (just reading and searching) to web 2.0, a more social experience. But our political tools reflected our web 1.0 world. We used phone, email, and spreadsheets and the NGP database management system for our call sheets, tracking commitments, and fundraising activities in general.
After 2006, the following happened in tech: Facebook overtook Friendster and MySpace, and now they own some of the most popular apps on our phone that we use to communicate with the world like Instagram and WhatsApp.
Stripe made payments easier and scalable for any developer to set up payments for an innovative business. We see news alerts all day long, we talk to our friends on multiple screens and apps (text, email, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Slack, et cetera). Everything is peer-to-peer: we send individuals payments, videos, pictures; we see each others’ locations.
People take video of themselves and others and post them daily. The speed of information has become so fast that it takes only minutes for an event to take place and a majority of the world to know it happened and to know how people in their social networks feel about it.
But political fundraising still happens the same way. We use the same two fundraising software offerings that are read-only and have no interactive features. Candidates still ask people to donate via email and call time. The only thing that has changed is now campaigns borderline barrage people through email, unless they have a really good digital strategist who knows how to cut through the noise with paid digital ads. The problem of innovation isn’t unique to fundraising – it’s persistent throughout a lot of political tech.
So why has there been so little innovation?
Part of the reason is that political tech is created by and dies with campaigns. Campaigns will typically build tech for the needs of one campaign and once the campaign is over, the people who built it move on to something else and that tech dies with the campaign.
Lesson: In order for our tech to get good, we need to fund those with long-term commitment, which means funding tech businesses instead of short-term tech projects.
The people who start political tech companies or ventures don’t have expertise in both tech and politics. To start a tech company that innovates in politics, you need to know a lot about the political industry and have a command of how to build a tech product. It’s hard to have both because most people cannot develop advanced skillsets in computer science and in politics – both sectors require deep industry focus. Let’s say you don’t have a master's in computer science – you have to find someone who has worked as a technical innovator for most of their career and persuade them to join you.
That co-founder is the person who’s going to make sure you have a product development process that’s not riddled with bugs and that you are using the best types of code and technology to make sure your product is positioned to be as innovative as other industries. I’ve found a co-founder who has deep experience in AI, data analytics, and building product at major corporations like Intel and Nationwide Insurance, as well as startups with successful exits.
She knows where the minefields are and how to develop products that don’t break when used for the first time. Having political expertise is also critical. Politics is like any other regulated industry that’s tough to crack – like health care or financial services. It’s highly regulated and industry know-how is best learned while working in the industry.
Lesson: Find founders who demonstrate deep knowledge of the political problem they are trying to solve and have experience as technical leaders.
There’s very little money available to invest in political innovation. When I first started my company, there was one accelerator with the mission to fund political innovation called New Media Ventures. Higher Ground Labs recently joined the scene, which means there is more opportunity for support in the space.
The market size when you look at profitability of a company purely focused on politics is small, which is why it typically does not attract venture capital. There have been a few startups funded in the Bay Area that didn’t deliver on revenue and some have folded. It soured their investors to the opportunity because it’s a tough space with unknown market potential.
But democracy and the future of our political system is more important than almost any sector, and we still don’t have a great funding model for technology that can move our democracy towards greater inclusivity.
Lesson: Those who care about solving technology through democracy need to angel invest, create funds, deploy capital, and decide how to they’ll work with their portfolio to balance outcomes with profit.
Innovation is hard and it takes a long time. When you hear of the most innovative companies, you typically don’t hear about how long they had to work before they made something that people wanted that was widely adopted.
Stripe took two years before they started to get mainstream use. Google was founded in 1998 – years before many of us ever used the search engine. When you’re making political tech, you have challenges along the adoption curve that are similar to industries reluctant to innovate, like health care, financial services, and legal.
It has taken me two years to learn how to build a product that excited all of my target users – campaigns, PACs, and people who want to make social change. I knew if we ever wanted to help political fundraising catch up and lead in the web 3.0 experience, we would have to build something completely new — but familiar enough that political professionals would accept it, and emotionally exciting enough that donors would use it.
Getting to that product, while making sure it’s highly profitable and scalable takes time. I hope people who are interested in funding the next generation of political tech, and are truly interested in seeing products that will change the industry (not just iterate on our current product offering) will invest in the long-game and founders who are deeply committed to building great products.
Namrata Mujumdar is the co-founder and CEO of FUND:THIS, a new kind of fundraising marketplace that helps political candidates and organizations that inspire activists to raise money fast through peer-to-peer fundraising networks and discoverability based on causes. Namrata raised money at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and was an appointee of the Obama administration.