SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY -- July 31, 2012 at 8:43 AM ET
Civic Startups Introduce New Technology to Government
Former congressional aide Marci Harris was frustrated with the way information and messages flooded into the office of Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., and got lost. In 2010, she left to solve government's biggest problems.
"The way information is processed is breaking. There has to be a new way," said Harris, who went on to found PopVox, a tech startup that works to improve the communication between Congress and its constituents.
Earlier this week, more than 600 entrepreneurs and government and technology leaders came together at the Next Generation of Government Summit to hear speakers, attend presentations and participate in workshops about how to improve government. The workshops included "Tech Tips: 50 ways to be more effective," "Problem Solving: Improving Technology" and "How to Drive Big Changes in Government."
With technology advancing at a rapid pace and billions of people receiving information on the Internet and their mobile phones, entrepreneurs and developers are trying to bridge the gap between new technology and old government habits. These civically focused startups are building products that they hope will change the way things are done on Capitol Hill. But their odds for success are tough, as many of them navigate uncharted waters and face competition from thousands of other startups for users and funds.
In 2011, Harris partnered with lobbyist Rachna Choudhly and programmer Joshua Tauberer to launch PopVox.com. On the website, users search for bills they're interested in supporting or opposing. PopVox delivers the message as well as the count of people who support and oppose the message.
"It is public and transparent. We're an independent metric of what people are telling Congress," said Harris. "There's never been an insight to what information Congress is receiving."
PopVox has five full-time employees, one part-timer and four interns who meet every morning on Google Plus.
Many civic startups are staffed similarly, employing between two to 10 people, with some joining as college volunteers. They meet in coffee shops, living rooms on Google Plus and Skype. They have small budgets and big ideas.
In the last two years, Washington, D.C., has developed a vibrant startup community. Michael Mayernick, founder of the social startup website, Proudly Made in DC, said that tech meet-ups in the nation's capital have grown to rival those of New York City. His website has grown to feature more than 300 startups in the area that come together to share ideas about how to re-vamp government services.
Among these young companies are GovLoop, an online community for government workers to share insights and best practices, TechChange, a social enterprise that offers online courses in technology for social change and international development, and Votifi, an online polling company.
"What we're doing is solving the problem that polling industry is facing: declining penetration of land phones," said Aasil Ahmad, co-founder of Votifi. "We're building an engine that runs real-time polling and analytics."
Votifi sends political surveys to mobile and online platforms and allows users to engage with each other on political issues of the day. Their clients are organizations interested in public opinion, such as political campaigns, advocacy groups and media companies.
With the success of companies like Facebook, Twitter and Groupon, it's not surprising that many entrepreneurs see the potential in conducting business and communication online. But this industry has its share of challenges.
"User acquisition is a challenge all startups face given the number of concepts competing for their attention," said Ahmad. These startups not only compete for attention. They also compete for funding. According to Ahmad, startups focused on government and policy have trouble attracting investors because the there is a perceived small market for these products. Thus, the majority of these startups will fail.
Andrew Wright shut down his company Grasshop.com, a site for people to start their own grass root campaigns, after founding it in 2007.
"I fell into every pitfall you could fall into," Wright said.
Without any training in programming, Wright found that his biggest mistake was an inability to grasp the technical aspects of his product development. His challenges included competing for users with dominant online social spaces like Facebook and Twitter, introducing new technology to reluctant congressional offices and acquiring users.
"Any technology startup needs to innovate and stay ahead of the trend to be relevant and useful," said Wright. "That's where we fell down."
While failure is a common story, there are startups that have transformed into established companies that now play an integral role in government.
FedBid is an online marketplace for government organizations to buy products and services. After procuring its first client in 2001, its client list has grown to include the Departments of Defense, State, Labor, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. FedBid employs 243 people and serves 15,000 buyers and 53,000 sellers.
Startup founders all said they oscillate between success and failure on a weekly basis.
"It's like manic depression. You have elated highs and points of despair. You have this mindset that everything is riding on this and that can leave you vulnerable," Wright said.
Lou Aronson, founder of Votifi, echoes the sentiment.
"I was talking to one of the guys at Start-up America and he asked me, 'Is today a week you feel like the king of the world or a week that you wish you were in an office pushing paper around?'" said Aronson, who left his law practice behind in 2011 to pursue his startup full-time.
While all these startups deal with the ups and downs of venturing into a new frontier, they're all enthusiastic about their product. With Americans getting rid of 700,000 landlines a month, Aronson has confidence that a mobile platform is the best way to engage people about the important issues of the day.
Votifi has engaged 100,000 people in its surveys, resulting in 1.6 million answered questions, and GovLoop hosts 59,000 government workers. TechChange has built 50 to 60 online courses, with 30 to 70 students enrolled in each one. And PopVox has gained 130,000 users since its launch in 2011.
While Harris can't say whether PopVox is going to be the next Facebook for Congress, she has full confidence in its concept.
"Whether we're doing it in the way that's going to be 'the way' or be 'the team,' we have to prove every day. But we never doubted our product will exist," said Harris.