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The California tech sector has long been wary of the campaign industry, even though they increasingly share commonalities.
To wit, many tech entrepreneurs have a desire to influence electoral and policy changes. At the same time, the campaign industry is recruiting talent from Silicon Valley as it grows more reliant on data and digital advertising to reach voters.
But investment in the campaign industry, and market penetration by Silicon Valley-based firms, has been limited. That’s partly because venture capitalists see the campaign market as stymied by partisanship. They’ve made exceptions for non-partisan firms, like in the case of financially backing NationBuilder. Though it hasn’t been enough to fundamentally disrupt a marketplace where partisan technology firms remain dominant.
Consider one of the more recent entrants to this market – RevUp, a Silicon Valley data analytics startup that counts top tech executives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce, NetSuite and eBay as investors. The company has also seen some buy-in from the campaign industry – firms ranging from Blue State Digital, Bully Pulpit Interactive and 270 Strategies on the left to CDMI, Red Curve Solutions, Targeted Victory and Jamestown Associates on the right have invested in RevUp.
“For the first time ever in political tech, both sides have not just chosen to partner with one entity, but also chosen to invest,” said Steve Spinner, founder and CEO of RevUp.
In addition to attracting investors from both sides of the aisle, RevUp (not to be confused with the GOP donation platform Revv) has also avoided the partisan backbiting that comes with a straddled market position, at least to this point.
Consider the outcry on the left over NationBuilder and L2’s work for the Trump campaign that boiled over after November 2016. Now, even Republican consultants shrug at the prospect of working with Spinner, a former Obama fundraiser linked to the Solyndra debacle. If it benefits their clients in the long run, these GOP consultants says, there’s no reason not to do it.
“You have a fiduciary responsibility to treat everyone the same way and provide the same level of support, and have them have the same level of positive experience leveraging the software you’ve developed,” said Spinner, who credits his “20 years of frustration” as a fundraiser for the inspiration to build the platform.
“It’s about the type of data,” he told C&E. “If you have data that’s sensitive, that’s super private, strategic, it makes all the sense for providers to be partisan – even though it makes it harder for them to scale a business.”
He continued: “For us, we don’t touch the money, we’re data analytics. We partner with all the providers, whether it be on the left [NGP VAN] or on the right, CMDI, and the Aristotles and the NationBuilders, who work on both.
On a personal level, Spinner’s a Democrat. Professionally, he emphasizes, “I’m a software provider.”
“I’m Google, Facebook, Twitter or Salesforce. None of those companies are partisan,” he said.
RevUp isn’t the only one following this model. Consider Stripe, the San Francisco-based payment processing startup, which worked with all sides during the 2016 presidential election. And while working for Trump has caused blowback for some non-partisan firms, Stripe now boasts the president’s campaign and groups like EMILY’s List as users, according to FEC filings.
By and large, partisan consultants told C&E they don’t think RevUp's early success foreshadows a shift in the marketplace toward their non-partisan competitors.
“They’ve found a particular niche,” said Betsy Hoover, a Democratic consultant who recently helped launch Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for tech firms operating on the left. “I don’t think this is fundamentally shifting the space. I think broadly the same rules of engagement apply.”
Hoover believes that the non-partisan business model is “a tougher road to haul and sustain,” but she praised the way RevUp has diversified its business into higher education and non-profit fundraising.
“I like what they’re doing, we’re learning from it," she said. “I see RevUp as an important additional voice in this space, we don’t see them as a competitor."
RevUp and Stripe are unique because they offer purity of service — software and payment processing, respectively, according to Tracy Dietz, a veteran of the non-partisan technology world. She maintains that partisan shops aren’t sweating the Silicon Valley foray into the campaign market.
Where technology companies run into trouble is when they offer a strategic service, she said. “When you’re dealing with very personal data that’s being manipulated, it’s going to be hard to pull that non-partisan thing — especially on the money side.”
After leaving L2, Dietz now works for DonorBureau, a behavioral analytics company that’s staking out the Republican market, and she doesn’t think Silicon Valley is anywhere close to a takeover of campaign fundraising.
“There’s a lot of software companies that pop up every cycle. They have backing from Silicon Valley, and they are going to be the next big thing. Then four years later no one’s talking about them,” she said.
“I don’t predict [RevUp is] just going to disappear in the next four years,” she said. “But it’s tough to be non-partisan in this environment. Everyone has a little bit of partisanship in them in some capacity, even if they consider themselves a moderate.”