Advocate: A Tech Startup
Advocate is a tech startup. It is in round one. It is in for both the voter and the people running for office. It is impressive that it already has clients in Kenya and New Zealand, among other places. It is pursuing the "enterprise model," as in get the political party not the solo candidate.
From Senators in ancient Rome to parliamentarians in the 1200s UK to the revolutionaries of the American revolution to the chaos in Cleveland, democracy has evolved, but apparently not enough. "Driving an always-on political atmosphere where supporters and candidates are more thoroughly engaged throughout the total political cycle, not just during elections."
"Campaign finance will change when less TV ad spend allows the decoupling of the crippling money needs.....There will be location independent, mobile and secure voting as barriers will be removed in favor of rising voter turnout/engagement in the processes."
Chris Bystrom is the CEO and one of the three Cofounders.
But how will Advocate do what it wants to do? What is the product roadmap? What are its chances? Who are the other players in the space? When he came back from Cleveland I met up with him in his office near Union Square.
When Chris emailed me suggesting I write up about his tech startup, I called him up. One of the first things I asked was, how did you find me?
Oh, I was just looking online for people in the New York area who were writing about politics.
I was standing on the sidewalk in front of Baruch College near Little India smooching off the city's free gigabit WiFi from stands that used to be payphones but now look like pins on a Google map, only in 3D. He was in Williamsburg, getting ready to go to Cleveland.
"No. To distribute flyers about the company, to onboard people."
We got disconnected a few times. Was the WiFi really gigabit, as promised, or more like a Trump University course, high on promise, low on delivery?
I just spent an hour with Chris, holed up at WeWork on 33 Irving Place near Union Square, right before lunch. It was an intense experience of a conversation. Technology is going to eat up politics but, just like with health, there have been many false starts by people who, just like with health, came to politics from the technology not politics angle and failed. Hello Google.
When you are at a WeWork, you feel incubated. WeWork itself has been an Uber size startup. It feels like it was launched only yesterday and is now in the billions. WeWork has revolutionized the work space concept.
What is in your background that got you to do this, I asked. Unless you have a burning passion, you can't do a startup.
His great grandfather was Governor of Nebraska. His mother is political. He grew up in a political family. He learned politics like he learned English. Kind of like me, both sides of my family is political. You get infected early.
"How do you end up in Kenya?"
Nobody does mobile money quite like the Kenyans. I am talking m-Pesa. The digital democracy tools are going to have to be redesigned with SMS only in mind.
"What about for countries with authoritarian regimes? Will you go into those?"
I was not happy with the answer. There are 120 democracies. That's a big enough market.
Maybe so, but that's not the entire market. That's not the market segment with the greatest need. Oracle only became a serious company after it won a contract with the CIA. Maybe the State Department would like to become a client. Maybe George Soros might wish for a much better ROI on his liberally sprinkled money.
What about the competition? He listed a few: Nationbuilder, Brigade, ChangePolitics. I was not impressed with any of them. It felt like Advocate had a first mover advantage, which is surprising. Politics is one of the oldest professions, some might say the very oldest. And technology has been around for a while. But will Advocate deliver on the promise? Will it do what it is promising to do? 2016 will see $4.4 billion spent on political TV ads. It is not possible to talk to someone in 30 seconds without insulting their intelligence. Craig's List killed the newspaper classifieds. Will Advocate kill the 30 second politics ads? That is the question. It has a nine month runway based on money in the bank. That is plenty of time to prove it just might. Having already onboarded 100 American politicians before even launching is not a bad start for this eight person team, a few in San Francisco, one in Chicago, most of them in New York.