Living near Boulder, Colorado is great for our family for so many reasons. The weather, the friendly people, and the abundance of outdoor activities all create a great quality of life. For me though, the most exciting part of living here has been the access to dozens of amazing startup companies. Take a walk down Pearl Street and you’ll find brick buildings packed with growing tech companies and coffee shops packed with emerging startups. I’ve learned a lot from the these brilliant entrepreneurs and developers, but my mind always comes back to, “How does this apply to politics?”
If a campaign were to be run like a startup, what would it look like?
Technology startups go through four stages: Concept, Seed, Early, and Growth. While the lines from one to another are not often starkly defined, this phased approach helps teams adapt, plan, and execute with a focus on priorities for that specific moment in time. For a startup to pretend they are at the Growth stage when they are really still developing their product often leads to disaster. Likewise, we’ve all seen candidates try to get the jump on others and end up overextending themselves. Both campaigns and startups have a vested interest in scaling up as quickly as possible — and they put in long hours to get there. But having been close to both startups and campaigns, good startups definitely have a better feel for how to focus on priorities with discipline, building momentum and catapulting their project to the next level.
So with those two paradigms in mind, this is how I think a tech startup would run a campaign:
Also known as the stealth stage, this is the startup before the startup. Before the LLC, the pitches, the long nights cursing at bugs, there is The Idea. The belief that the entrepreneur has come up with a new, better way to solve an age old problem. They’ve found a way to do something new, either incrementally or entirely.
Likewise, a candidate opens his paper and reads about the incumbent, or an open seat. Or her phone rings with someone important encouraging her to run for office. In this moment, there is also The Idea — they can do a better job, they can make a difference.
For a startup, this is the moment when the founder must define the basic value proposition. Will The Idea impact the marketplace? For the potential candidate, this is the moment when they must look at himself or herself, their beliefs, their resources, their position, and make a similar determination: Will my candidacy impact the marketplace of ideas?
This stage needs to involve a lot of research. Who has won this district in the past? How many votes did they need to win? How much money did they need to raise? What were the circumstances around their success (Mid-term or presidential cycle? Open seat or challenger? National right track/wrong track numbers? Strength of the economy?) Can I get that number of votes? What is the competitive environment? Who else is likely to run? What issues are important to me? What issues are important in the district? How would I be different than the incumbent? Who could I hire to fill key staff roles on the campaign?
This is a very quiet process, known only to a small handful of people. Just as with cutting edge tech, candidate intentions need to be guarded at all costs.
With a startup, this is the point when the founders determine if the idea has enough merit to pursue, knowing it will completely consume them for the next three to five years. Likewise, this is the moment when a citizen decides to become a candidate, knowing it will change their lives forever. At the end of this process, the candidate should have a good idea of the potential outcome. If X, Y, and Z happen, will we win, and what is the likelihood of X, Y, and Z happening?
Once the concept is refined and the decision to move forward is made, the startup will start developing the product itself. Testing, researching, adding features. Often this is when a Beta splash page appears on a new, catchy URL, with a web form inviting visitors to join their exclusive beta program.
So a candidate, now having committed himself to the race, begins a similar process of talking with people in his network, looking for potential donors and volunteers. He or she might hire a campaign coordinator to help with the day-to-day work. They will begin the process of talking with potential vendors to provide campaign services. Funding is critical, so hiring a good finance consultant is a priority. A website goes up with simple functionality to volunteer and donate. Facebook and Twitter accounts appear as well.
Traditionally for a campaign, this time has been decidedly non-marketing focused with few activities other than fundraisers. Social media has changed that. The early buzz is more critical than ever, and a few choice conversations with the right lobbyists or reporters cannot control it. Bloggers and social media influencers can make or break the candidate’s reputation before they ever get out of the gates. It is important to engage on social media at this point for candidates and startups alike. Highlight early successes and schedule lots of one-on-one time or small meetings with influencers. The candidate is now making their pitch. Startups know that early buzz and momentum leads to financial success and funding. The two — buzz and funding — need to be ratcheted up together, not one at the exclusion of the other.
Smart startups also take this time to start putting policies and systems in place. What questions will customers ask, and how will we respond? What is the channel for response? Who does task B in situation C? This is a valuable planning process that is absolutely necessary to realizing a successful Growth Stage.
Here comes the campaign kickoff! Tshirts, bumper stickers and yard signs appear. The team starts to grow with an experienced campaign manager (just like bringing in an experienced startup CEO) and other key personnel (finance, communications, political). The political team can best be equated to the tech team for a startup. They are the practitioners of the craft, who have experience making the product work and scale. And just as a great startup needs to hire great developers, a campaign has to have a great political team.
How does a campaign hire great political people? Startups look for great developers based on their measurable skills. Can you code to solve this problem? Does your code have bugs? What have you built in the past? Did it work? Did it scale? How do you work in teams? Do you keep track of emerging technologies and languages? Startups challenge developers to demonstrate their programming, communications, and learning skills.
Campaigns hiring political staff need to do the same thing. Challenge applicants. What constituencies do we need to reach to win? Where do we find those voters? What is your approach to field organizing? How well do you work with communications and finance professionals? What are successful campaigns you have worked on? What did you do for them? What did you learn from campaigns that lost? How would you pull a list of target voters? How would you integrate that data?
By the end of the Early Stage the campaign office is open, the candidate is often speaking publicly, and surrogates are also speaking up around the district. Political teams and volunteers are organizing and contacting voters. Facebook is being updated multiple times a day and the website has expanded with a section to generate real news content.
The product developed and market tested, this is the scary/thrilling part of a startup when things really take off. Startups experience growth in multiples on a monthly basis. Systems and processes must be in place as new personnel are added to ensure quality control and consistency. Scalability is everything.
For a campaign, a similar process happens anywhere from three to six months before the primary or general election, albeit frequently with far less planning and preparation. The voting public starts to dial in and the campaign absolutely, positively, without a hitch must be able to scale. New field staff, volunteer teams, and donors are added regularly. People begin walking in on a daily basis asking “How can I help?” and processes need to be in place to absorb this growing universe of supporters in such a way that they come back and tell their friends.
This is where a successfully experienced campaign manager and general consultant are so valuable, just as having a successfully experienced CEO and COO are to a tech startup. “Successfully experienced” meaning not just “been around for a while” but “know how to respond to a rapidly changing environment and needs.”
Paid advertising is ramped up. In the tech world, the startup selects an ad agency of record who pitches a multichannel campaign designed to reach the right audience with the right message at the right time. The concept is developed broadly, then implemented in channel-specific and audience-specific creative via the website, online advertising, TV, mail, and phones. Everything — from t-shirts to TV and the website to event signage — reflects the same message, branding, and call to action.
In campaigns, advertising is typically chopped into silos, creating disconnected themes, messages, and branding. Insomuch as there are unified messages, they are often crude and rarely connect with audiences at an emotional level. One of the most innovative changes a campaign could make would be to assign a lead agency responsible for message and multichannel communications, then hold that agency accountable to implement a common message across all paid channels including digital, broadcast, mail, and print.
Metrics become hugely important for a startup at this point because they have real significance. Page load times, unique visitors, conversion ratio, usage patterns, and social media sentiment all take on serious implications to continuously ratchet up the scale of the operation. Whether to hire new sales staff or developers is largely determined directly from the metrics.
A campaign run like a startup would also rely heavily on data to drive decision making. Traditionally, polling is considered the #1 metric for a campaign, but as fewer and fewer Americans have a landline, polling becomes more expensive and potentially less accurate. Embracing a broader set of metrics might include voter contacts, issue IDs, donations below $200 (indicating grassroots support), and number of voters identified who have indicated they are very likely to vote. This campaign would hire someone in-house whose sole responsibility would be managing data.
A very few leading-edge campaigns have begun tracking the number of impressions made on any given voter, whether those are generated by paid advertising, volunteer canvassing, media coverage, or event attendance. Some campaigns are also generating scores for individual voters based on their likelihood to turnout, to vote for their candidate, or even to switch their vote. These scores can give campaigns broad ability to make decisions about focusing resources or adjusting message. For large campaigns, social media sentiment can even become a metric for tracking success, but more likely it will be used as an early warning system for potentially alarming issues.
This focused approach continues to build exponentially until Election Day arrives, bringing with it a very black and white determination of success — did the candidate win, or did they lose? Startups often face a similar crucible moment, although without such a rigid timeline, by being acquired. For both campaigns and startups though, even such an absolute moment of success or failure is not the end.
If a startup is acquired, something considered by most to be the desired outcome, they are not done — but they must adjust to new realities. Being acquired means learning to work with new teams on new goals and integrating the work you have done with the work of others.
Likewise, the successful candidate must now become a successful elected official. This does not mean abandoning all of the work done in the past, but learning to adapt that work and that team to integrate with other teams and their objectives. Too often, when a campaign ends, the staff and data are abandoned. A campaign run like a startup though would respect the customer base that got them there and leverage those users to build momentum for the new purpose.
In the tech world, startup failure is a way of life. The ebb and flow of people from one company to another is commonplace. Shutting down a startup is difficult, especially for the founders who have invested everything into it. But they often turn that failure into success down the road, taking the lessons learned and finding new and creative ways to apply them to The New Idea.
After losing an election, candidates often feel the same raw, personal defeat and withdraw from public life. But having been through that experience, their perspective is more valuable than ever. Whether they find themselves running for office again someday, becoming involved with an advocacy organization, or simply supporting candidates and causes, their voice is very much needed to help the next potential candidate entering their own Concept Stage.
Has this ever been done before? Yes. In a lot of ways, the Obama campaign was run like a startup. Decisions were driven by metrics, in-house tech was a huge priority, and all eyes were focused with professional discipline with the goal of reaching a target market share by a certain date. The model is there for the right candidate with the right vision ready to pursue a new way to approach politics.
After all, that’s what a startup is all about.