There are a handful of high-profile incubators and VCs targeted specifically at political tech, but new founders shouldn’t stop there when looking for support. The field of potential investors for startups working in the political space is far larger than conventional wisdom dictates, something that we’ve been fortunate enough to learn from first-hand experience at our company.
Here are four lessons from our experience to help guide you in reaching out as you go beyond traditional political funders.
Lesson 1: Good Political Tech = Good Tech
There’s often a presumption that political tech is so specialized that translating our use cases, our focus and our business models into “real business” terms is difficult, if not impossible. But this assumption is dead wrong.
Solid political tech can hold its own on the critical marks that make or break a business, but very few investors or donor advisors have intimate experience with knocking doors, community organizing, volunteer management or running campaigns. So it’s crucial to meet your audience of investors where they are: speaking in terms of product market fit, traction, overhead, burn rate, competitive advantage, and impact improvements. In other words, can you make it clear how solid your business is and how unique your contribution is to solving the problem, quickly and succinctly?
Lesson 2: The Dollars Make Sense
There are two misconceptions that have traditionally stood in the way of mainstream investors when they think about investing in technology for social movements, civic engagement, and politics: the market is too small and campaigns are too short.
So how big is the political market exactly? If you go by last cycle’s spend, it’s $14.4 billion.
That’s more than any sports league, including the NFL, made in their 2020 season. There are also well north of 500,000 elected officials, socially active nonprofits, and civic groups in America.
On the “too short” side of things, the average major campaign typically runs for almost 600 days now. With election cycles every 24 months and major campaigns lasting for more than 19 of those months, politics has less downtime than most sports leagues operating in the same timeframe.
Lesson 3: Ask for More Than Money
An investment is not just financial. Do you want to scale? Work in other industries? Or crack the glass ceiling of political tech and go public?
Finding folks who believe in your vision and are also willing to open more than just their wallets to make it happen, will benefit you in the long run. Look for investors who won’t just cut a check, but will also support the type of company you’re looking to build, now and in the future.
Our company is supported by a mix of firms that specialize in political tech like Higher Ground Labs and New Media Ventures, along with those that bring a different, and complementary, skillset to the table. Still, all of them help us do what we do better.
Don’t know what to ask for? There’s a common saying among CEOs, “hire your weaknesses.” Make a list of your priorities and areas where guidance could be helpful – scaling, verticals, design, whatever it is for you — and be sure to ask funders what they’re willing to do beyond funding to support you in addressing these challenges.
You can even ask for references from other companies that prospective investors have backed in the past to get a sense of how they operate as partners in the real world.
Lesson 4: Shoot Your Shot
Funders like MassChallenge and Pharrell Williams’s Black Ambition Prize have both backed our company as they get more involved in supporting tech that empowers people who are working to fulfill the promise of democracy.
But there are more investors in this space than you might think. A16Z of Lyft, AirBNB, and Coinbase fame has funded political tech while big names like Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Pierre Omidyar (eBay), Marc Benioff (Salesforce) and Sean Parker (Napster and Facebook) among others have also gotten in on the game.
So, our primary advice: Go for it.
If you think an accelerator or prize program could benefit your business, apply. Don’t worry if they’ve never given to political tech before or do or don’t consider themselves impact investors. Stand up as a business, meet investors on their terms and speak to them in their language. Your new partner may be on the horizon.
Ari Trujillo-Wesler (she/they) and Emily Del Beccaro (she/her) are the Co-Founders of OpenField. With over 30 years of combined experience they have built a national voter file from scratch and worked for folks like TargetSmart, Bernie 2016, Obama 2008 and 2012, NationBuilder, and the Sierra Club among others before founding OpenField.