From Ballots To Term Sheets: The Startups Born Out Of The Obama Campaign

At 2 p.m. on November 6, 2012, Dan Wagner, the chief analytics officer of Barack Obama’s campaign, was sweating. The results were starting to come in.

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Wagner bet $25 million, or about 2.5 percent of the campaign’s entire budget, on his approach to polling, targeted advertising, and community research.

We know how that day ended for Obama, but for Wagner, Obama’s re-election ended with a conversation between him and Eric Schmidt, then-executive chairman of Alphabet and previous CEO of Google, for plans to start a new company: Civis Analytics.

Wagner is not alone in transitioning from government to entrepreneurship. Take Dan Siroker, founder of Optimizely, and former director of analytics during Obama’s 2008 campaign. Or Todd Park, co-founder of DevotedHealth, and former U.S. Chief Technology officer. Other founders and entrepreneurs have blossomed out of Obama’s team, tackling a mix of issues from modernized notaries to web experimentation.

The transition from the political field to a startup makes sense, Civis Analytics’ Wagner said, because campaigns are a “hard exercise that requires a lot of willingness to be wrong, and willingness to face reasonable amounts of humiliation.”

To rewind, Obama’s campaign is regarded as one of the most advanced campaigns of all time. The campaign’s efforts mobilized 10 million supporters and brought in half a billion dollars in online donations (more on its early days here). Barack Obama’s office did not respond to press inquiries.

For Siroker, the founding of Optimizely was a result of his time as director of analytics during Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The two photos that Dan Siroker, then director of analytics for the Obama campaign, tested to see different trends in voter engagement.

The company, which helps companies experiment with their digital web presence, just raised a $50 million Series D and employs over 500 people.

Another company born from the campaign trail is Blue State Digital, led by Joe Rospars. It focuses on digital strategy and company campaigns. Rospars was previously the principal digital strategist within Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and is currently unavailable for comment due to his involvement within the Elizabeth Warren campaign.

“People don’t just vote on Election Day—they vote every day with their wallets, with their time, with their clicks and posts and tweets. By reimagining organizations’ relationships with their most important supporters and customers, we help our clients transform their businesses and scale their impact,” Blue State Digital’s website reads.

In an interview with The Drum, Rospars said that campaigns have a “focus on getting ordinary people involved and giving them as much responsibility and ownership of the campaign as possible.”

Every campaign is a startup

Moving from the nerdy back room of an analytics campaign to a 500-person company raising venture capital is, I imagine, quite a learning curve. However, Michael Chodos, who helped kickstart Notarize after working in the Obama administration, said it helps founders “really understand system-based change.”

“If somebody were to ask you or anybody how do governments actually change—it’s a total black box for most folks,” said Chodos, who worked for the Small Business Administration. “So the first thing that government service does is show you how things actually work.”

Chodos said time within government helps individuals answer hard questions. How do you build a coalition? How do you move technology forward? How does government regulate and influence things you’re working on?

“Every campaign is a startup, they basically move fast, break things, get stuff done,” said Chodos “Figure out the goal, with constant, constant iteration.”

For Wagner, moving fast brought him a winning campaign, and the chance to lead a company that’s raised nearly as much as his initial $25 million bet. As far as return on investment goes, that’s some speedy, sweaty success.

Featured Image: Dom Guzman

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