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A Democratic startup wants to use the Republican triumph in 2016 as a catalyst for shaking up the partisan software market.
“Clearly we Democrats have to do a better job, top to bottom,” said Dan Johnson, co-founder of Campaign Filer. “We don’t think of ourselves as going after the incumbents — they’re great companies, and have done a lot for the party. But we just have to do a better job and software is no exception.”
When Johnson, an Illinois lobbyist, partnered with DC-based programmer Tom Adkins to launch their compliance and online fundraising platform in August 2016, the landscape for startups looking to challenge the party’s favored vendors looked different.
“There wasn’t as much of a sense that it was time for change,” recalled Johnson. “But now clearly that’s here.”
He noted that NGP VAN and ActBlue, the incumbents in the Democratic compliance and online fundraising spaces, are “great companies,” but added: “Results speak for themselves.”
In response, Lou Levine, NGP VAN's general manager of fundraising and compliance, touted the platform’s ability to integrate with "over 200" software products.
“It’s exciting to see all the energy going into developing new tools for Democrats, from the over 200 products that have integrated with our Innovation Platform, to our own new Action Platform products like NGP 8," Levine told C&E.
NGP VAN unveiled the eighth edition of its namesake NGP software in August. The update is meant to help streamline one of the most hated parts of campaigning — dialing for dollars. The fundraising software includes a host of other updates designed to enhance reporting and improve campaigns’ and groups' ability to access their own data. For instance, it allows a fundraiser to track a candidate’s performance.
ActBlue did not respond to a request for comment on Campaign Filer’s potential impact on the Democratic tech ecosystem.
There are signs the Democratic side of the industry is ripe for a shakeup. Some innovative firms have launched in wake of 2016, and startups are finding investors eager to back new ideas emerging from the anti-Trump Resist movement.
“There isn’t this sense of, ‘How dare you.’ It’s a sense of, ‘I’m glad somebody’s doing it. There’s plenty of room,’” said Johnson. “We’re not getting a lot of raised eyebrows when we say we built a compliance tool and now we’ve just launched an online fundraising tool to compete in the space where ActBlue and NGP VAN have traditionally been.”
The partners met through LinkedIn and bonded over their dislike of the current party-preferred vendor system. After deciding to launch a firm, they raised money from friends and family, and formed a 50-50 partnership.
Johnson argued that the advantage of smaller startups is that they’re more amenable to plugins and quicker to adopt innovations. “We like to think of ourselves as building Android where NGP VAN is a little bit like a walled garden. There is a demand for seamless integrations with innovations applications that are coming out for team blue, and that’s what we’re hoping to sell.”
Despite the allure of a non-partisan market position, Johnson said he plans to offer services only to Democratic campaigns. “God bless NationBuilder, but there’s a need for more software vendors on team blue,” he said.
His compliance offerings include the federal and state level, although only Illinois state filings are currently available through the company. As they look to expand, Johnson concedes there are obstacles to the firm’s growth.
“We’re an SAS company, but political software doesn’t sell like a traditional SAS. It’s not like Slack. It’s not even like G Suite. The sales cycle is longer, and it’s a lot of personal referrals from a campaign manger or an operative who has come across it and taken the time to compare it to NGP VAN or ActBlue,” he said. “We’ve got a great product, a great price, but it takes time to percolate among party folks.”