Shop Talk: A view of the valley

Shop Talk: A view of the valley
Three D.C. politicos, who now work for California-based tech companies, on what makes Silicon Valley so different from the Washington political world.

This issue’s shoptalkers: Chad Barth, politics and government manager at the online ticketing service Eventbrite; Carolyn Weyforth Glanville, communications and marketing manager at the social news app Flipboard; and Faryl Ury, spokesperson at Square, Inc.  

C&E: Given that you’re all working at companies that are very un-D.C. like in many ways, what do you find is the biggest cultural difference?

Chad Barth: It’s certainly less stodgy. On campaigns, people always want their corner office. They ask, “Where’s my cube?” But you come out here and everybody’s sitting together. To me, it’s very inspiring and very energetic to come back here and see the enthusiasm people have when they’re sitting in an open area like this. I don’t always get that when I go back to D.C., because it’s just me in an office there. But coming back to California carries me every time.

Carolyn Weyforth Glanville: It’s also less hierarchical. I started as a contractor at Flipboard, and the CEO was just two computers away from me. As someone who was just starting to learn the business, I could just go up to him and talk to him on a regular basis, and he expected that. That’s a culture they try to foster, but that’s the case at most tech start-ups.

C&E: But it’s more than just open floor plans. It goes deeper than that, right?

Barth: It does from my perspective. I came to Eventbrite more than two years ago now to be the D.C. marketing manager. Politics wasn’t even a focus at that time. But I think we all have probably seen the ability for our products to be more useful in the political and government space, so why not try to tap into it? In this business, as we all know, you can encounter a lot of resistance. People say, “You’ve got to use this vendor, in this way, because that’s the way we’ve been doing it for 20 years.” When I worked at the RNC, or even back at the Republican Party of Iowa, that was the response a lot of the time when trying to introduce new technology. So I think it’s this entrepreneurial spirit that I’ve been allowed the fortune to go after the political market six months into my job. There was never a road map. No one said, "In 2012, we’re going to focus on politics." And had I not been here, that may have never happened. We just made a space for ourselves and we went after it.

Faryl Ury: Things just move very quickly here. In the past year, we’ve basically doubled our staff. We now have more than 600 employees. It’s exciting to feel that fast pace and in terms of changing quickly, it’s not as though we say, “We’ve been doing this since 2010 so we better stick with it.” We’re a new company. As we see the demand for politicians to accept payments on the go or do something different in terms of donations, we can adapt quickly to that need.

Barth: We can adapt in 10 days; not in 10 months.

Glanville: One similarity for me: I was always shocked at the decisions that young people were able to make on campaigns. If you prove yourself on a campaign, you’re typically given more and more responsibility, and more work. It’s similar in the start-up world. If you have a good idea, talk to the right people, and get others on board, you can implement a new idea within days. You can change the course of a company.

Ury: I think the buzz you feel on a campaign is the same type of buzz you feel every day at a place like Square or Eventbrite.

C&E: There’s also not a terrible fear of failure in Silicon Valley. The Washington, D.C. campaign world often seems so reluctant to try something new.

Glanville: Well, on campaigns it’s a bit different, because that one failure can cost your candidate the election. But one failure in terms of these companies that have raised millions of dollars is much different. That’s probably not a colossal mistake that will take down the company; it’s something to learn from and will help you make better decisions.

Barth: We still have to convince a campaign or campaign organization that using a platform like Eventbrite is really not a failure type of a move. It’s okay to spend an hour or two learning how to use this product to better increase your proficiency in a campaign or organization. You do still run into people who want to use their PayPal donation form to have people buy a ticket.

Glanville: It’s different with us, because Flipboard is a new way of thinking. People have their social strategy outlined, so we have to make the case for how Flipboard fits into that social strategy, and how we can help you think outside the box. How do you change that thinking and get involved in that process? That’s the real challenge.

Ury: One thing we talk a lot about at Square is transparency. We talk about that in terms of pricing for our merchants. For the first time, a business or a campaign will know what they’re going to pay when they swipe a card. We also have that internally. All of our conference rooms are glass, so if there’s a meeting you know exactly who is meeting. We also have this thing, which sounds crazy at first, but actually works well: If you have a meeting of more than two people, you send your notes about what was discussed to the whole company. It’s a whole new way of thinking about doing business that gets the whole company involved.

C&E: Could you imagine that at a political committee?

Glanville: A new form of journalism would be invented.

Barth: Right. And this is exactly why the silos still exist. People think that if anything they are responsible for gets out to another department, then their leverage goes away. It doesn’t need to be that way.

C&E: So how much adoption have you all seen with your platforms?

Glanville: For us at Flipboard, it sort of ebbs and flows. Part of that is our resource: I am the only one at the company who is focusing on thought leader/celebrity outreach. Politicians fall into that category. During campaign season, I think we’ll see a different swing in the amount of interest, and it has a snowball effect. The more that people are willing to take the time to learn about it, the more they see their colleagues doing it, the more they have the interest in doing it themselves.

Ury: When it comes to fundraising, that’s not a choice campaigns have— that’s crucial to any campaign. They may have thought that mobile payments were too expensive or too complicated, but I think there’s definitely an appetite for people to take payments at events, and to accept credit cards. For the first time, they now have an affordable solution—the hardware is free and it uses tools they already have. If their volunteers have smartphones, they can just plug in the free reader. These are also tools they already know how to use, so instead of working with volunteers for days, the volunteers will be able to use the app on the iPad or the Smartphone pretty quickly.

Barth: We had a really great 2012 for a first year focus on campaigns. The Romney campaign issued 1.1 million tickets in 97 days for their events. There’s a bit of a hockey stick up curve that we’re doing on the Democratic side this year, too. They even want to learn what the Romney campaign did to amass all of that information, because before it was information no one was collecting. But when you try to bring that down to a state party level, or a lower ballot congressional level, people ask, “Why do I need this?” Now, I can smack people upside the head and say, “You do need it. These are lists of data that you don’t have, and in most cases you can be amassing for free.” But it does become an educational challenge.

Glanville: I put myself in my campaign shoes every so often, because I can only imagine how annoyed I would be with all of this new technology on any given day. Everybody would be constantly contacting me. If I was on a campaign, I probably wouldn’t give anyone the time of day. I can only imagine how much worse that is now with all sorts of new technology out there. It all comes down to resources, and not everyone is going to be willing to spend them.

Barth: I also think campaigns are still looking at their general consultant and asking, “What’s the valid product we should be using in this campaign cycle?” Even as much as you can get around this and say you don’t need the GC to sign of on Eventbrite, they still sign of on Eventbrite for whatever reason. Some consultants still have the playbook they’ve been using for the past six election cycles, and that’s still the way they want to do it. They may still want to RSVP to an event through an email address. It’s just silly. So you even have to work through the campaign consultants and explain that we’re not the enemy—we’re just trying to make their lives easier and help them collect more data or money or content and information to distribute. A lot of them still have what’s-in-it-for-me mentality.

Ury: We talk to businesses and campaigns about how we want the technology to fade into the background so that you’re not using Square just because it’s a cool technology. Square is just a tool so that campaigns and politicians can easily raise money, and then spend their time focusing on other things. It’s the same thing we see with a bakery—they want to focus on baking their muffins, not on their point-of-sale system. Both presidential campaigns did use Square in 2012, so that created a lot of awareness. We’re hearing from politicians at the local level who don’t have a tech team, but still want to know if they can use the technology. And of course the answer is yes.

C&E: What did you all learn from the 2012 cycle from the campaigns that utilized your platforms?

Ury: For one thing, people want to use one system that works for everything. So with Square, if they are selling merchandise at the DNC or the RNC, they can use Square to take payments so that people can buy t-shirts. If they want to go to a fundraiser and accept donations via credit card, they can do that. We realize people want to take payments in person and online, so we recently launched Square Market. If you’re selling tickets to an event or accepting donations online, you can use that too. Another thing we learned is the importance of data to campaigns and businesses. We provide analytic reports for free, so if you have staff members who are working, you can see what time of day they’re collecting the most donations, which staff members are collecting the most donations, and you can use that to make efficient decisions about how to run your campaign.

Barth: Data collection was the biggest thing we saw in 2012, and we continue to try to tell that story. The Romney campaign, just in the first 10 events that they were using to test the platform, found 70 percent of the people on their lists were new. These people had never been in their database. Also, 95 percent of the people coming to the campaign events were actually bringing their print-at-home tickets. That was eye opening to them. Originally, they were going to test this for a month and see how it went, but they immediately decided to ramp it up. Going a step further, one thing they were able to do that no campaign has been able to do before is take that information and flip it into campaign contributions with attendee data. The campaign was able to send out timely emails to people who thought the events were great, and then the campaign would ask for donations. They were actually able to find new donors because of that. It brought in real value to the campaign.

I do agree that campaigns are still looking for that one stop shop solution. But no single group has that right now. Even if you look at the players in campaign finance reporting platforms, they all have a good back end for their FEC reporting, but they don’t have the means to go out and build out platforms for events, mobile payment processing, or communications. Campaigns are looking to find ways to hook into those databases with these newer tools, or just start using other tools that are out there. I actually see more campaigns starting to use Salesforce, as opposed to one of the old proprietary software platforms, because they can have these hooks into something like Square or Eventbrite, or a hundred different apps out there that campaigns may want to be using.

C&E: Where do you see the biggest potential for growth on the political side? Are you convincing folks further down the ballot for 2014?

Barth: For us, yes. We’ll have a strong focus on that for 2014. We’ve essentially laid out a four-year plan that takes us all the way through the inauguration. But you have to start somewhere with a team of two. Do you start at the state party level or do you try to go after 535 other individuals? That becomes a bit of a challenge, so we’re trying to focus on the larger committees and the state parties in the hopes that adoption will spread within the state.

Ury: Very often for us, politicians find out about Square from businesses. They tour businesses and see that they happen to be using Square. So the merchants are actually selling Square to the politicians, and then the politicians realize they can use it for fundraising. One thing we’ve been doing recently is a series called “Let’s Talk.” We travel to different cities to bring business owners together to discuss the challenges of running a business and growing a business. We then invite government officials to attend and listen to the business owners.

Barth: You see Yelp doing something similar. They go and meet with members of Congress, and they’re delivering a fact sheet about how many small business owners are using Yelp in their district. It helps for them to have some knowledge, because sometimes these small business owners will call their member of Congress and say, “These people over at Yelp are screwing me over, because I’m getting all of these negative reviews.” But Yelp can actually meet with members and say, “You have 500 small business owners in your district who use our platform.” They actually get great results because of that.

C&E: How do you go about convincing campaigns there is value in a content-based platform like Flipboard. It seems like more sitting lawmakers would utilize it.

Glanville: I think it’s both. We’ve seen a lot of early success based on the type of politicians who have used it—House Speaker John Boehner, [New Jersey] Gov. Chris Christie, [California] Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and [Florida] Sen. Marco Rubio. We have seen it used more by sitting members, but I think there are opportunities to talk about the issues you’re running on and raise awareness in a campaign context. We found this mayor from Shakopee, Minnesota who created a magazine about his town. He did it on his own. In a campaign environment, it can be personal interest. You can sell yourself or your family, and talk about what the candidate is like as a human being. You can also involve voters in a particular issue. So the opportunity for a quick sell for campaigns is there.

Barth: One thing we’re trying to do for sitting members of Congress is educate them on using Eventbrite for their town halls. How many times do lawmakers go to a town hall and they don’t know anyone who’s there? They just show up. This could be a good way to collect information, in advance, about constituents who are coming to the event. This isn’t for screening purposes, but it would just let them know what constituents want to talk about at a particular event. They would have the ability to ask a survey question before the event, for example. Realistically, chances are the paper sign-in sheet at these events never goes anywhere once the town hall is over. Oddly enough, we’ve run into some pushback on this, because some people say, “We don’t always want people to know our town hall is happening.” Really?  It’s a town hall. Isn’t that what it’s meant for? It’s supposed to be open to the public. But we actually got that answer a couple of times in the Senate in the past year.

C&E: But overall, it should be getting easier to make the case for technology given the greater adoption we’re seeing in campaigns, right?

Barth: I think it really depends on the state and the level of the campaign you’re dealing with. It depends on what the track record is. What are the tools they’ve used in the past? Who are the consultants they’ve used in the past? There are ways around some of the resistance. You have to start working with the consultants who are running these efforts, and you have to start working with some of the larger technology platforms. But the new breed of campaign consultants and technologists out there really do understand the value of this. They also understand the value of amassing data. But there’s still this barrier to entry for some reason. We had a conversation with a Senate campaign in a rural state and the campaign manager said, “I think using iPads to check people in and have people sign up would just be a little too much for this state.” I was just silent on the other end of the phone, and he had to ask me if I was still on the line. I said, “Yes. I’m just trying to process what you said to me.” They never ended up using our platform. The flipside of that is a campaign like Greg Abbott in Texas. They use the platform in seven cities and collect thousands of names for nothing.

Ury: This is something we try to talk a lot about. Our technology isn’t for people who are great at technology. It’s not just for people who live in New York or San Francisco. We make it so easy that businesses or campaigns across the country, whatever level they’re at, don’t need a dedicated digital team to use the tools. We want people to understand that they can use technology to make their operations more efficient with little lift from them.

Glanville: It’s different for us, because we’re so new. We just recently launched the ability to create magazines around specific topics of interest. Flipboard also isn’t a kn0wn entity to a lot of these people. And if they do know us, they know us as a news aggregator, not as a platform with the ability to create magazines. So a lot of what I do with the political world is just education. We want people to know and understand the product, and I expect that growth to continue on the political side.

Barth: The great part about platforms like Flipboard, or even Square, is the ability for all of them to be socially integrated with each other and allow users to share content with people. The old platforms can’t do this for you. They don’t give you the ability to socially share the things that your volunteers or supporters may be doing. But that’s really the new driving economic force. Previously, you couldn’t easily share the fact that you just knocked on a door. It’s that sort of buzz that’s driving more people to attend events and driving more people to donate.

C&E: Silicon Valley clearly has a new interest in the political world. How do you all expect that to shake out over the next couple of cycles?

Glanville: This doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I think it’s a relevant point: Companies aren’t afraid to have an opinion on something anymore. I remember during the gay marriage debate last summer, there was a major retailer that did an entire Facebook campaign on the topic. I personally like to see companies not being afraid to get involved in that way, but then I think back to the last political campaign I did. At that time, there was no way any corporation would have gotten that involved in such a politically charged issue. So I think you’ve seen that change take place, and I think that will continue. Our CEO has hosted an Obama fundraiser at his home, and he’s very involved personally in politics. That’s not brought into the office, and I don’t know that our company would ever take a stand on a political issue as a company, but I do think it’s good to see people involved in issues they may want their company to care about.

Barth: I’m probably among the one percent of known conservatives within Eventbrite. That’s fun though, because we brought a lot of great attention to Eventbrite early in 2012. But we still needed to balance our story out a little bit. That’s why we brought on David Glasgow to focus on the Democratic side of things. If you look back at how campaign organizations have traditionally run, the technology has all been self-built. Campaigns don’t have the resources to continue to do that and to keep that going. When I was at the RNC, we funded that for as long as we could with platforms like Voter Vault, but we’re not a technology shop. There are people trying to replicate the old ways of doing it, and you see this intraparty strife with technology platforms—NGP VAN versus Nation builder, for example. I don’t know who wins that argument to be honest with you. The Valley is like the shiny object. People want to come and do the tour and visit Google and Facebook, but there really are a lot of productive things companies here are doing that are providing great benefit to campaigns and government institutions that might otherwise never have been done from that perspective.

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