Each cycle, our team has the privilege of working with a new crop of managers.
After handling a campaign’s voter ID, advocacy, and GOTV, our team feels like a part of the family. We experience the highs and lows of the race. We work together to find a solution when the opponent attacks or something unexpected goes wrong. We rejoice, or commiserate, together when the polls close on Election Day.
Inevitably, when we ask these managers what they plan to do next, many say they want to “hang their own shingle” and become a consultant.
Secretly, I cringe. Because after more than two decades as a business owner, I can tell you most of them will fail.
Being a great campaign manager is much different from being a great business owner. As a consultant or vendor, your mission is aligned with your clients. (And if it’s not, you’d better stop and figure out why). However, your mission is not identical.
Yes, you want your clients to win. And it will certainly help your bottom line when they do. But your mission is to build a profitable organization that can financially support you, your family, and your staff for many years to come.
So how can you become one of the few who not only survives but thrives? Here are the top three reasons why political businesses fail, and what you can do about it:
Your political advice is sound, but your underlying business structure is not.
A great manager looking to start a political business is typically coming right off a winning race. He or she has innovative ideas, great execution, and lots of energy. What he or she typically does not have is any experience running a business.
As a campaign manager, one of your most important tasks is to spend all the money. You should not end Election Day with money in the bank that you could have spent turning out voters for your candidate.
As a business owner, the opposite is true. You have to budget very carefully to avoid spending all the money. You have to know the cost to produce your product or service to sell it for an appropriate price. This is easier said than done. And don’t forget that your time has a cost associated with it, too. You aren’t a volunteer.
Make sure your business is registered as an appropriate entity with the IRS and any necessary state and federal agencies. Have an attorney – preferably one who isn’t your Uncle Frank – look things over. You can always get yourself out of political trouble — it’s not as easy to get yourself out of legal trouble.
Don’t treat your company’s checkbook like your personal bank account. Keep track of every expense, and hire a bookkeeper if you need to. Even if you aren’t taking a paycheck yet, make sure those paychecks are on the books as an expense so you can take them later.
Relentlessly track your accounts receivable. Send invoices to your clients, and don’t shy away from asking them to pay when they are late. Give your clients options to make it easy to pay, like accepting credit cards or ACH transfers. Asking a client to pay before you render services does not mean you are less committed to the cause.
You take a short-term view of your staff.
The best managers are inspirational leaders. You inspire your staff to pull all-nighters and achieve seemingly impossible goals. But that only lasts for a limited time. On Election Day, the tank is empty. Being the leader of a permanent team is much different.
If you expect your team to work hard one election cycle after the next, you cannot burn them out. If you burn every last drop of fuel in the tank you will quickly see your most talented people walk out the door and you’ll work twice as hard to replace them. Make sure your staff is spending time with their family and friends, finding meaning in their work, and learning new skills.
“Fit” matters more than skill or experience. Let’s face it, campaigns are full of talented (and not-so-talented) jerks, and we suck it up and deal because there’s an end in sight. Most people can put up with almost anything for a short time.
In a permanent political business your team will not be so kind. One bad apple will quickly sap the motivation and excellence from your organization. Find great people and train them to do great things.
You only sell what’s hot today.
Like Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
When I started my business in 1999, I carried around a Palm Pilot with the names and phone numbers of the top 500 Republican donors in Iowa.
Because I was young and inexperienced compared to my competitors, I’d whip out that Palm Pilot during my pitch and ask my prospective client, “Would you like the name and phone number of three donors who can max out to you?” I closed 100 percent of the sales where I asked that question.
In 2019, that seems completely ridiculous. Any candidate from the county courthouse to the White House can Google that information in two seconds. So needless to say, I no longer use this pitch.
Two years ago, none of my clients were begging us to send text messages to their donors. We were rolling a boulder uphill just explaining that P2P texting was an option for them. One by one, we convinced them to try it, and now they can’t get enough. In fact, today people are crawling out of the woodwork claiming to be the “Next Big Thing” in peer-to-peer texting.
If you want your company to stand the test of time, you will not just chase what’s hot today. You’ll anticipate what your client needs tomorrow, and give it to them.
Making the leap from manager to business owner is harder than it looks. Those who succeed understand that running a political campaign and running a political business are two fundamentally different things.
Best of luck on your journey.
Nicole Schlinger is the founder and president of CampaignHQ. Since 1999, CampaignHQ has delivered millions of effective P2P text messages, voter ID, persuasion, advocacy, patch through, and GOTV calls for winning campaigns and conservative organizations.