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During a recent meeting with an executive from a Silicon Valley fintech company, Chris Stewart found himself fielding basic questions for an hour about how campaigns process donations.
They were familiar queries for Stewart, who runs Raise The Money, a fundraising platform for campaigns and causes. As he’s sought to build bridges in Silicon Valley, one challenge Stewart has faced is getting major online payment processors to create APIs for his platform to allow users to gather the payor data required by the FEC.
“They just don’t have anyone on it,” he said, adding that it’s been difficult “getting to the right person at the company who’s going to stay, ‘I’m going to make the political industry a priority.’ We're still trying to build a bridge.”
Even though campaigns are a growing market, raising and spending billions each cycle, the industry is still an afterthought for major technology companies.
At the same time, that hasn’t stopped the campaign industry from borrowing heavily from Silicon Valley. Consider the new incubators channeling VC investment into startups, and a growing appetite for the West Coast’s data and computer science talent.
Despite any similarities, there remains a gulf between the two industries and that’s unlikely to shrink anytime soon, according to practitioners who operate in both.
"There is a ginormous divide between Silicon Valley and DC, and it's not for lack of trying,” said Steve Spinner, founder of RevUp, a fundraising software provider.
Spinner, who has been a Silicon Valley investor and helped fundraise for President Obama, notes that part of the divide is based on how poli-tech startups are structured.
In fact, most of these nascent companies are LLCs built around a single service, which in many cases is only offered to 50 percent of the campaign market.
"Every four years, you have these really interesting widgets that get started, but most fail to prove themselves as real businesses," he said.
When it comes to recruiting talent, there’s a similar hurdle.
Poli-tech startups structured as LLCs don’t allow for top talent to get equity in the company. That kind of compensation of what keeps top engineers in Silicon Valley motivated.
While those kinds of professionals might be attracted to the salaries and prestige of a presidential, they’re unlikely to work on down-ballot races, or want to get in on the ground floor of a poli-tech startup.
"If you don't have a start-up properly structured like a tech company, which offers stock options, then it's hard to get the best, best people to work there for a long time," said Spinner, whose company is structured as a C corporation.
Now, some technologists are willing to take a pay cut to work on campaigns. In fact, those working on behalf of Tech for Campaigns are doing it gratis.
Frustration over the 2016 presidential results prompted Jessica Alter to co-found the nonprofit, which pairs volunteer technologists with down-ballot Democratic campaigns in need of their services.
“We don’t need to rebuild email or Facebook, we need to teach” down-ballot campaigns how to use them, Alter recently told C&E. “We get on the phone with every campaign who contacts us to understand what their needs are, and we develop a project or projects with them.”
Some digital consultants who work with down-ballot campaigns on a paid basis wondered how that could ever be effective.
“What’s the expectation for all these people to volunteer to work for these campaigns instead of getting paid for expertise?” asked Beth Becker, a digital consultant who works with down-ballot Democrats.
She foresaw down-ballot campaigns’ needs going unmet by a busy Silicon Valley professional who could brush off volunteer-gig deadlines, or ignore inevitable late-night questions.
Aaron Ginn, the San Francisco-based co-founder of Lincoln Network, noted that the campaign receiving the service may be equally nonplussed by its offering.
Offering something for free means they won’t be valued, Ginn said, adding that Tech for Campaigns sounded like “the typical naiveté of Silicon Valley.”
“Politics is not a product questions,” he said. “It’s a services question, it’s a trust question.
“Coming in with just a better widget, the [campaign] lens of evaluating buying things doesn’t go in that spectrum. It’s more of like, ‘who do you work with? Who do you know? Who do you trust?’ Because no one fundamentally knows what’s going to work so they’re going to go [with products] based on relationships.”
The tech problems of campaigns below president, Ginn added, “are not particularly large, and not particularly interesting for people in technology.”
“When a local candidate emails me, or asks me a question about what they should do with technology, I’m like get a Facebook page and some emails,” he said.
“Even data analysis, if you’re running a House race and above, maybe you can run an A/B test on your list. State Assembly, state Senate, I highly doubt you can even run statistic modeling that will be that effective or that accurate.”
Stewart, of Raise The Money, is more optimistic about the future of Silicon Valley’s relationship with the campaign industry. "I see them coming around and providing these services,” he said. “It's a moneymaker.”