Jim Gilliam entered the campaign industry on a mission: To put the tools of online organizing into the hands of as many candidates and groups in as many countries as possible.
Nearly a decade after he founded NationBuilder, the company boasts 9,000 clients in 112 countries and has helped elect leaders ranging from President Emmanuel Macron in France to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in Canada. Now, with his passing in late November, practitioners are weighing his impact on the campaign industry.
Gilliam came to the campaign industry with a background in technology, online activism, and progressive documentary filmmaking. In 2009, he launched NationBuilder out of offices in downtown Los Angeles with $250,000 of his own money, according to the firm. He selected the company’s location for symbolic reasons.
“I wanted to be in a community where people were trying to build new from something old,” Gilliam told the Los Angeles Downtown News. At the time, Los Angeles’ long-neglected city center was on the cusp of a major construction boom. The company grew quickly.
After adding a roster of paying clients, NationBuilder in 2012 successfully raised $6.25 million in Series A funding from investors including Ben Horowitz and Sean Parker. (Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, was an angel investor in a 2011 round). He secured another $8 million in Series B funding in 2013.
Joe Trippi explained the attraction. “Jim Gilliam embodied the exhilarating vision of all the pioneers that saw Internet technology as a tool to connect us as creators of our future together,” Trippi, himself a pioneering digital consultant, told C&E.
In fact, Gilliam had gained acclaim in Silicon Valley for his 2011 speech, “The Internet Is My Religion,” which explored his struggle with cancer, his search for a donor for a double lung transplant — and a doctor willing to perform the risky operation. Horowitz blogged about the speech, noting it was “Jim’s vision” that caused him to invest in the company.
Gilliam, meanwhile, credited the paying clients NationBuilder attracted early on as the reason why he gained investors’ confidence. “As soon as you have paying customers, the dynamic changes,” he told C&E in 2014. “Then the challenge is to prove that you’re big enough … that you’re a billion dollar company.”
Gilliam didn’t just put relatively cheap tech tools into the hands of all-comers. He also helped democratize voter data for campaigns and consultants in the United States. In 2012, Gilliam cleaned up 170 million voter-registration records from every U.S. state and made them available free of charge to “qualified candidates and campaigns.”
The successful democratization of the voter file made the consulting industry better by enhancing competition, according to Zac Moffatt, founder and CEO of the GOP digital firm Targeted Victory.
“The marketplace can only get better when there is more competition and I think that was one of Jim's great contributions to campaigns across the country,” Moffatt said.
“He built world-class products that were not limited by the tribal relationships that so often dominates politics and he forced the other tools to improve or be consumed. He was a cross-partisan force in the development of the political technology space and he will be missed.”
Gilliam himself considered data to be key to helping the campaign industry flourish.
“Because the voter data has been so controlled and used for partisan purposes, an ecosystem has not been allowed to develop around that data,” Gilliam told C&E in 2013. “We are just getting started with enabling that kind of an economy system.”
Gilliam had his detractors, in part, for one of the same qualities that Moffatt praised: his lack of partisanship.
For instance, many on the left thought his democratization mission went too far and put the powerful tools of digital campaigning into the hands of the wrong people on the right. Still, NationBuilder remained avowedly non-partisan, albeit willing to engage in partisan bickering.
For instance, during the great Democratic data breach donnybrook in December 2015, when members of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign were able to access proprietary Clinton campaign data due to an NGP VAN software glitch, Gilliam needled his competitor.
In a statement, he said the security lapse showed that “even a simple bug can expose data across customers” of NGP VAN. Gilliam also pushed the hashtag #VANghazi on Twitter and retweeted a plethora of news coverage of NGP VAN's breach. (Amidst the news event, NationBuilder was accused of its own breach after it was linked to an exposed online database containing the voting records of 191 million registered U.S. voters.)
Gilliam had earlier accused his Democratic rival of “bullying” NationBuilder’s clients and aggressively poaching his staff. Meanwhile, NGP VAN CEO Stu Trevelyan accused Gilliam of cooking up a feud “possibly as a means of marketing NationBuilder.” Trevelyan didn’t respond to a request for comment on Gilliam’s passing.
Gilliam stepped down from his position as CEO in October 2017 and was succeeded by Lea Endres. Over the past year, his health deteriorated and he passed away on Nov. 23, 2018 after battling cancer and its complications.
Adriel Hampton, who first bonded with Gilliam over a shared love of “Battlestar Galactica,” said he will be remembered for helping inspire innovation in the campaign industry.
“Jim was very successful in taking what had been largely a professional services market for political technology and introducing the discipline of a SaaS [software as a service] model,” said Hampton, who was hired as employee number three at NationBuilder but subsequently left to launch his own firm.
“In a political digital market that will expand by more than a billion dollars this cycle, every political software company owes a debt to Jim's pioneering work at NationBuilder.”