Focus is a difficult thing as a start-up. By definition you’re exploring a space: trying to find what you can build quickly that enough people will pay enough for. So you’re jumping around all the time. We’ll do A which will lead to B which will… No too long or too expensive, instead we’ll do C which requires an agreement with D.
For me it was who is the best customer for the value created in StickyVote. State legislators; no, federal legislators; no, newspapers; big advocacy organizations; small ones. Maybe users through this new Facebook thing?
The problem is that these shifts, while important, can confuse and wear down staff and pilot customers. Since focus and enthusiasm is going to shift, what would I do different next time?
Set more criteria for judging whether something is successful. How can we prove whether this is the next right step? Or what would demonstrate that this is the wrong early adopter? It’s easy for some time to go by, attention to shift and to say, “This isn’t working.” Which is an easy excuse to switch to whatever is exciting and new that week.
Ok, money isn’t pouring in; there are a million theories for why not. Before getting too far into those, lets look at why we thought it would work. Have we put the new idea/software/pitch in front of enough of the target customers? Is it just one first impression that we’re operating off of or is it really enough opinions to mean something.
Good things come from setting criteria. First, if I don’t have some initial criteria for measuring a new direction, then I shouldn’t talk to my staff about potentially shifting course. Second, refining the criteria with staff means they can hold me accountable when I next want to shift. Just as a good agile process adds transparency to development and priorities, a good “direction process” should do the same for big questions. Where are we going? Why? How do we know if this is a step on the right path?
In the absence of InnoVoter / StickyVote, you may be wondering, “how can I best manage my Government?” I’m happy to report that this area is still a hotbed of startup activity. Although several contemporary projects have shut down, some have morphed and new ones have started.
One of the new, Votizen.com, raised $1.5 million just over a year ago and has quite the who’s who of advisers and investors. Interestingly they have chosen to focus on voter registration records; one of the big early decisions I made was just to prototype that piece and to leave full implementation for later. Before too long we should see whether that will form a strong foundation for Votizen to build on or a crushing weight of software and data maintenance.
Next on the list is PopVox.com, co-founded by the guy behind govtrack.us, which is still a great source of Federal legislative data. To communicate with Congress this is the best tool I’ve seen, they have great widgets and do a good job of grouping similar bills together. The one other I recommend is OpenCongress.org, a non-profit with a strong community of users commenting on bills as well as any easy place to find general information on Congress.
Long ago in 2007, I started a company. It was more of a wild idea than most as it was going to not only make myself and many others rich but also change how politics work in America. Simple mom n’ pop sort of business. Along with a few other crazy folks and with lots of help we launched stickyvote.com and part-time for two years tried to figure out how it should all work. Politicians, citizens, interest groups; making money, raising money; building software. It was a fairly good idea but I didn’t figure it all out.
Now that it’s been a few years it’s time to write down the lessons learned that were the main yield of the company. Perhaps they’ll save someone else some heartburn, and most importantly keep me from making the same mistakes next time.
But first, thanks to everyone who helped. Thank you for your support, whether that was business advice, political advice, coming to early hacking sessions, being interviewed, donating through paypal or using the alpha product. Thanks especially to those who put in cold hard cash and to the awesome employees and contractors who sweated away on the product.
Where are these rock stars now you may ask?
Georgia Lindsay, VP, her forthcoming PhD will change the way we relate to buildings.
Jeff Hull, Biz Dev, tells power plants how to run their software.
Luke Hamilton, programmer, writes powerful Android apps (don’t push that button).
And Parwaiz Yahya, early investor, is taking over the retail world with me at skuloop.com
Thanks most of all to my wonderful wife Erica for all the encouragement and putting up with all the craziness. Especially the next project…