Former Obama campaign staffers parlay innovations into start-ups
WASHINGTON — As chief technology officer for President Obama’s reelection effort, Harper Reed oversaw the development of projects such as Narwhal, an intricate platform that linked the campaign’s myriad databases and allowed officials to plot strategy with new precision.
The heady and exhausting 19-month gig convinced Reed, former technology officer for the online T-shirt retailer Threadless, that he should launch his own venture.
“When you go from building T-shirts to software for a presidential campaign used by a cast of millions, it’s pretty easy to think, ‘OK, we can build something pretty big,’” Reed said.
He and his business partner, Dylan Richard, the campaign’s former director of engineering, now are “looking to do something large” with their new business software start-up, he said. They’re not the only ones.
Obama’s 50,000-square-foot campaign headquarters on the sixth floor of a Chicago office tower also served during the campaign as a business incubator, which now is generating new ventures that seek to parlay its innovations into private-sector enterprises.
Some are classically political. Last month, senior field staffers Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird launched 270 Strategies, a political consulting shop offering clients the kind of data-driven organizing model that helped Obama win.
And Katie Ingebretson and Karine Jean-Pierre, who helped run campaign operations in battleground states, opened a communications and government relations firm in Los Angeles last year.
But the new ventures go beyond political consulting firms. Some of the Obama team’s top technologists and data crunchers, including former chief analytics officer Daniel Wagner and product developer Mari Huertas, are contemplating their own tech start-ups.
Their business projects are still in the planning stages, but the new entrepreneurs already have a receptive audience in Silicon Valley.
“The credibility earned by being part of the core Obama campaign team couldn’t be higher,” said Chris Sacca, a venture investor and Obama fundraiser who has backed companies such as Twitter Inc., Uber Technologies Inc. and Bitly Inc.
“Point to another company that goes from zero to $525 million raised digitally in less than two years,” he wrote in an email.
The initial products that Obama campaign veterans pitch may be less important than their pedigree, said Scott Weiss, a partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. He already has had informal talks with some former staffers.
Weiss, who co-founded the Internet security firm IronPort Systems Inc. in San Bruno, Calif., noted that the campaign offered a rare opportunity to build “a system that had to hold so much load and be so bulletproof in a short amount of time.”
“If you think about the pressure cooker of putting the smartest people together to fix a hard problem like that, it’s almost like going through Navy SEAL training together,” he said. “Of course they are going to come up with a lot of innovative, creative things.”
The keen interest in the nascent start-ups speaks to how a presidential campaign functions as a testing ground for new ideas — as well as a potentially lucrative calling card for political operatives.
“There is something inherently entrepreneurial about a presidential campaign, if you’re doing it right,” said Joe Rospars, a founding partner of Blue State Digital, the go-to Democratic digital consulting firm that emerged from Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid.
“It’s such an interesting challenge to build an organization from scratch that you know is going to go out of business,” Rospars said.
Obama’s two presidential bids offered particularly ripe environments for out-of-the-box thinking, starting in 2007 when he was running as an underdog first-term U.S. senator.
“We just had to be innovative,” said Stewart, who started out as the campaign’s Iowa caucus director.
Dan Siroker, a Google Inc. product manager who took a leave to volunteer on Obama’s first bid, had the idea to run what are called A/B tests on the campaign website, a tactic that measures the effectiveness of different design elements. The resulting product led to a surge of email sign-ups on the homepage and got him hired to run the analytics team.
His experience inspired Optimizely, a website optimization company he co-founded in 2010. The company now has 3,500 clients, including Starbucks Corp. and Walt Disney Co.
In Obama’s second bid, a premium on innovation was built into the campaign, which attracted more than 50 engineers from companies including Google and Twitter to create in-house technology and analytics departments.
The heavy presence of Silicon Valley veterans at the Chicago headquarters contributed to an atmosphere that resembled that of dot-coms, complete with the requisite office pingpong table.
“I don’t know that we created a start-up environment; I think we embraced a start-up culture,” said Michael Slaby, the campaign’s chief integration and innovation officer.
Key to that was Reed, an accomplished hacker and tech guru with hipster credibility who had helped make Threadless a vibrant social hub. Slaby recruited him with an easy pitch: “Let’s build some kick-ass technology for the leader of the free world.”
Along with Narwhal, Obama’s tech and digital teams developed several significant innovations, including Dashboard, an organizing platform for volunteers, and Quick Donate, which enabled contributors to authorize donations via text.
Those applications remain the property of the campaign, but former staffers said they held onto an even more valuable asset: how to use technology in service of a purpose.
“The kind of myth after the campaign was that if you had a piece of technology and the right data, that was the secret sauce,” said Bird, the campaign’s national field director. “The real secret sauce was the integration of all those things. You can have the best data in the world and if you don’t develop relationships on the ground, you’re not going to accomplish your goals.”
It’s an approach he and Stewart are now applying to a project in Texas, which aims to make the state competitive for Democrats within a decade by organizing around voter registration drives, redistricting efforts and local political races.
But it may not just be Democrats who gain an advantage from enterprises started by Obama campaign veterans. In the last election, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s campaign hired Optimizely, the company co-founded by Siroker. The move caused no small amount of angst within the Obama organization.
“They were not pleased,” Siroker conceded. “At the end of the day, I have personal political beliefs, but our company is apolitical.”
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