Gerard Niemira is the Fund IV managing director at Higher Ground Labs, the progressive tech incubator.
We spoke to him about non-technical founders and the funding landscape for political tech.
C&E: What’s your advice for non-technical founders in this space?
Niemira: I would encourage non-technical founders to not be deterred by the fact that they don’t have a technical background. There are plenty of great entrepreneurs, even in the political tech space, who didn’t start out with a technical background. At Higher Ground Labs, we are actively working on ways to match technical founders who don’t know a ton about the political space but want to help with non technical founders who know a ton about the political space but don’t have the technical background. I would also say show up where technical people are. You can go to conferences like Netroots and meet people. There are all kinds of places where engineers congregate.
C&E: Take that a step further for us. If I’m a non-technical person with what I think is a good idea and I’m trying to engage an engineer to see if we can solve a problem, how do I best approach that to see if there’s a relationship fit there?
Niemira: I think the most important thing is to be really crisp and clear about the problem that you’re trying to solve and why it’s important. People who are software engineers, now more than ever, have an enormous opportunity to make money at companies like Google and Facebook. And usually when they come to political tech, it’s because they want to make a difference in the political space. They want to understand the problem set really, really well and have a deep understanding of how what they’re doing is going to move the needle. So I would be as specific as possible in what it is you’re trying to accomplish and where people hit walls. And then the engineer can tell you whether or not they’re a fit.
Maybe you’re an engineer who specializes in finance, and so you might make more sense on the fundraising side of the house. Maybe you’re a great front end engineer who has really great design capabilities, and so it might make sense for you to lean more into something that’s a little bit more UX intensive. So I think just be really crisp about the problem. Describe the value add from a political perspective. How does this win votes? That’s how the best products get made anyway: a really deep understanding of problems.
C&E: There was obviously a time when people weren’t getting into political tech with the goal of making a lot of money. But in recent years we’ve seen some large exits. How has that changed the funding landscape? And has it changed the kind of people coming to this space?
Niemira: After the 2016 campaign we’ve seen a lot of different kinds of people entering the space. But even since some of the bigger exits we haven’t really seen anyone who’s entered the space specifically because they thought, ‘this is a great way for me to get rich.’ And I think one of the reasons for that is you really have to deeply understand the value add that you’re bringing to the table. So it’s a little bit different in terms of customer discovery than it is for a normal consumer app where the scale is there.
I think what has been nice is that you’re seeing people who are more willing to step up to fund these companies because there is a potential for either an exit or ongoing revenue. And that can sustain an investment ecosystem that otherwise wouldn’t be there. That allows us to take more chances than we did maybe prior to some of these exits with more funders with patient capital and a fund like Higher Ground Labs is completely sustainable.