Want To Build A Movement, Not A Company?

My vision for you, my readers, has never been to help you build just a startup or just a company. My mission is to help you build a movement. That’s why I did this interview with Clay Johnson, co-founder of Blue State Digital.

Clay helped politicians like Barack Obama and Howard Dean build massive movements and raise millions of dollars. In this interview you’ll learn the tactics he used to grow their campaigns, and how you can use them right now.

Clay Johnson

Clay Johnson

Blue State Digital

Clay Johnson is the Co-Founder of Blue State Digital, the company that helped Barack Obama win the election. Blue State Digital leads in online fundraising, advocacy, social networking, and other development programs for nonprofits, political candidates, causes, and corporations. To see what they’re working on now, go here or check out Clay Johnson’s blog, where he writes about “healthy information diets.”



Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey, before we get started, tell me if you’re having this problem: your business is getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and congratulations on that, but at the same time, your email inbox is getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. How do you manage it all? Well, here’s a solution. It comes from UserVoice. Watch this. It’s a form that pops up that’s familiar to users. They can type in the subject of their message, and look at what happens: right here, if their issue was already addressed before, it’s right there. They get the answer because UserVoice finds it in their system. UserVoice is a one-stop solution for all your help desk needs. It’s easy to add to your website. You don’t have to use Gmail, or whatever email program you’re using. You can use UserVoice to manage customer feedback, and it’s easy to add. UserVoice.com.

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Here’s your program

Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, the place where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. I’ve got a new mic position, here. Let’s see if this picks up my audio a little bit better.

So, joining me today is Clay Johnson. He is the co-founder of Blue State Digital, the company that helped Barack Obama become president. Blue State Digital was founded in 2004 [loud music] 250 clients fundraise, grow their memberships and raise over [loud music] in contributions. In 2010, it was sold to WPP Digital. Clay, welcome.

Clay: Hey, there.

Andrew: [loud music drowns out dialog]

Clay: Oh, no, no, no. All of it’s right. I mean, the thing is, I sort of [loud music] For me, I left the firm in 2008. I think that Barack Obama [loud music] and not about some technologies and tools that got used [loud music].

Andrew: No. Everyone was talking about how MyBarackObama was a social network on the level of Facebook, created by you guys, but grown by one of the Facebook founders, right?

Clay: No, MyVote was created by Blue State Digital.

Andrew: Right, and then taken over by [inaudible].

Clay: The campaign used it, but what’s interesting about MyBarackObama is it was a tool set that Blue State Digital owns. It’s a proprietary tool set, and then the Obama campaign ran it. What’s interesting about it is that that technology, that tool set, was used by a variety of campaigns in 2008. It was just that Barack Obama was the first group that got noticed for using it, and also, I think, one of the first campaigns to really get it right.

The technology in politics really revolves around sort of the skill of organizing, which I think a lot of tech people don’t get. There’s this concept of organizing, and it is a science in and of itself. Just like Ruby on Rails is a programming language, there’s a way to do organizing right and there’s a way to do organizing wrong, and you have to really study it. It’s kind of like marketing, it’s kind of like using technology.

But really, whereas Facebook wants to get people to stay behind a screen and keep clicking on things in Facebook, the technology behind MyBarackObama, the technology that oftentimes we develop in politics, is about getting people to leave the screen and get out from behind the screen and to knock on a neighbor’s door or to write a letter to somebody in Iowa or to make a phone call to somebody so that you can convince them to cast the right vote, or something like that.

Andrew: You know, I’m really glad you said that, because you’re right. We in tech don’t know about the organization strategies and the techniques and the mindsets that allow politicians to organize. I’m so fascinated by it, and I’ll tell you why. I know for me, to get thousands of people to watch this interview takes a lot of work. To get hundreds of thousand to join my mailing list hasn’t been done yet, you know? I’m still in the thousands, not in the hundreds of thousands, and I’m offering people things that will, I believe, impact them more directly than any politician will, and that will allow them to do much more . . . I’m allowing them to have more personal gain. Meanwhile, politicians are raising millions of memberships, millions of dollars from people, for not giving them anything in return.

Clay: Yeah.

Andrew: I want to learn from you guys. I don’t know that I articulated that well, but I do know that you articulated the point that I’m most curious about: what are they doing right that I can learn from?

Clay: There was a start-up that came to us early on in the Dean campaign and said, “We really want to help out. We’re excellent internet marketers, and we think we can really help fine-tune your products if you just buy our software, and learn from us in Silicon Valley.” And we sort of looked at them and said, ‘We just sent out an email that convinced people to give us $5 million for zero in return, so maybe we could teach you a thing or two.’

Andrew: Yeah. You know what, though? The problem is that we don’t really pay attention to what’s going on with technology in the political world or in political campaigns because we feel like it’s not for us, it’s for them. They’re just arguing among each other while we’re really getting stuff done. But I want to stop, I want to bring my pencil and my paper, and learn from you guys and bring those ideas back to my business and to my audience’s businesses.

Clay: Yeah, sure.

Andrew: So what are we missing?

Clay: Well, the thing that we have to sell here in Washington, D.C., I’m going to be a little bit cynical, here, but it’s hope, right? It’s change, it’s hope, it’s something that . . . . you know, a lot more people care about the direction of our country than, say, whether or not BackPack is the best tool for organizational management.

Andrew: But I’ll tell you, BackPack being picked is going to have much more impact on the person who picks it, on their life, than who becomes president. Who becomes president is great for all of us, but this is great for me, personally.

Clay: That’s it.

Andrew: So what do we learn? Should we think more about messages that inspire hope instead of creating good descriptions of feature sets?

Clay: I think so. I think that’s one thing. I think another thing is this concept of getting people to form local communities where people actually know each other is also a really big, important thing. The people who get this, you’ll find, use Meetup a lot, or EventRight.

I’ve often thought, and I feel strongly, that actually some of the best organizers on the internet are programmers. If you look at Ruby Users groups across the country, for instance, Dan Melton, who is the CTO of Code for America, gave this great talk at RailsConf a couple of weeks ago, and likened the Ruby developers to the Tea Party. He got into a little bit of a controversy about that, but pragmatically, what he’s trying to say is, ‘Look, here you have a group of people organizing, meeting each other, and their community is stronger as a result of them actually getting face-to-face, and they’re more bought-in.’

You know, I had never voted before 2004, and I’d never been involved in politics before 2004, but through a variety of circumstances, I got really involved and wanted to make a difference in that election. I went to a meetup from Meetup.com in Atlanta about this guy, Howard Dean, who was running for president. It was that meetup, and seeing that — I was in South Georgia — oh my gosh, there were these other people like me who shared my interests, that’s what got me bought off on spending, now, a decade almost, on politics. I think there’s something really powerful, there. If you can get people connected . . .

Andrew: Connected, and in person? That’s important?

Clay: Yeah.

Andrew: It’s not enough to get them connected online on message boards?

Clay: No. I think if you can see somebody face-to-face, that kind of social connection I think is really important. Mixergy ought to be having local Mixergy meetups, getting people connected and excited about . . .

Andrew: What do you do at these meetups? I’ve got to tell you, my personal background, or my connection to Howard Dean is I just loved the campaign so much. I’m not into politics except that I like to watch it the way that football fans like to watch the Super Bowl.

Clay: Yeah, it’s sports.

Andrew: But Howard Dean’s campaign moved me so much, I couldn’t stop reading about it. I actually went to the events before the election, but more than that, I went after the election and just stuck around to see what is it that’s making this big group and this big, passionate community happen? So, part of it is [loud music] happened. What has to happen in these readouts to be helpful for [inaudible].

Clay: People like social confirmation, right? So, [inaudible] you have a world that’s crazy to a lot of people. You had the war in Iraq going on. [inaudible] September 11. You have this guy Howard Dean, that was like hippy [inaudible] in my state, right? And I think I lot of people [inaudible] made them feel like they had a community they could go to in a time of real craziness. Now I’m not sure how that applies to a business. And what’s really interesting is, now that I’m ten years down the road in politics and in Washington, D.C. It’s also not as simple as what happened in 2003 and 2004. It turns out that politics is a lot more nuanced than a political campaign. And if there’s one thing I could stress to your viewers, it’s that being in politics is also an expertise like being a programmer has an expertise. Knowing how to move in Washington and how to move things around is a skill, and it’s not something you can just arm-chair, which is why I think you don’t see a lot of people in politics on sites like Quora, and stuff like that. It’s because, I think, most Americans don’t respect that skill or they think they already have it. So I’ll go and talk with my Uncle Warren and he’ll tell me, “You know what Barack Obama should do?” And it’s like, “No, I don’t.” But I’m fairly certain that you in your profession also don’t know how to do that, because you don’t have the in-depth knowledge that people inside of our government have in order to make government move. And it’s a lot more complicated than the politicians make it look like.

Andrew: Okay. To be honest, that the feels so out of reach to me, that I would even leave it out of this conversation, because . . .

Clay: Yeah, you should. Sorry.

Andrew: I’m not just interested in how to run a government as I am in . . . How can certain politicians get people passionate enough that they’re going to come out of their homes and meet in person and take money out of their pockets, and get their friends to join these movements? And one thing you said is, “Leaving the home is critical. Having those in-person meet-ups.” They take a lot of time and they feel very old fashioned, and non-digital, but those are important. The next thing that I’m thinking of from you is the importance of the message, that Howard Dean, you said, had this message that resonated with people at the time. What is the message? Because I actually remember in that election that there were other politicians who said, “Hey, Howard Dean’s getting all this attention for being the outsider. I’ll find a way to be the outsider.” And other politicians have done that since then. What is it that the people who have it, who hit, and get these groups of people around them? What do they have that the others don’t have?

Clay: Well, you know, there is one really interesting thing and that’s that Facebook, Apple, and Google have are enemies. Right? They have each other, I mean. Howard Dean had an enemy and it was George W. Bush, right? Barack Obama had an enemy and it was John McCain. Or it was the status quo, in the case of Barack Obama, to an extent, right? And I think that’s really important for marketing and messaging–having something to run against. And in the case of 37 signals, it was like, they had an enemy and it was Microsoft Project, to an extent. It was like this big, clumsy piece of software that was feature full, but sort of non-sensical. And everything that they’ve done to an extent, their enemy is complexity, right? And you can tell that in all of their messaging, right? I think you see the same thing in a lot of different startups coming out of Silicon Valley, as well, having an enemy, whether it is a company, like Apple versus Google, or Facebook versus Google, or Microsoft versus Mac. Google’s got a lot of enemies, or an idea, like Apple versus computing complexity, right?

Andrew: Okay. All right. I can see that. I can see now if I wanted to go out and create a group of people, I would find an enemy, maybe the enemy would be the government. And we’d say, hey, maybe it’s not about the government helping us, we’re going to help ourselves.

Clay: Sure.

Andrew: Maybe it’s against employers, you know? You’re going to be an entrepreneur and it’s you against the world, and not your boss who’s going to take care of you.

Okay, you find an enemy in whatever space you’re in. What else is it about their messages, that the politicians who really gather crowds, what do they have that the others don’t have?

Clay: What’s interesting is I think that politicians have (this is a really simple answer) but they have an incredible, that political campaigns have an incredible respect for e-mail, and I don’t think that companies or startups actually care nearly as much about their e-mails as the Obama campaign, or the Dean campaign did. Blue State Digital has an army of people who write e-mails for candidates and for the Obama campaign and they still do. Lauren Miller runs that team. She’s great.

Writing an e-mail is a craft. If you go to the, sort of the political equivalents of bar camps, they’re called roots camps, you’ll find, you know, 20 to 30 percent of the sessions there are about e-mail and how to write a good e-mail, how to send out an e-mail and measure the response to the e-mail, how to test the e-mail, how to get every last dollar out of that e-mail. You’ll find an incredible amount of respect for e-mail marketing.

A lot of people attribute the success of the Barack Obama campaign to my.barackobama.com, when really he raised most of his money online through e-mail.

Andrew: E-mail more powerful even than the social network that he built.

Clay: Oh yeah, by far.

Andrew: By the way, Clay, we haven’t talked even 20 minutes yet and you’re already becoming one of my best guests. I love this stuff!

Clay: All right, cool. I appreciate it.

Andrew: You know why? Because you’re in our space. You’re a guy who was a production engineer at Ask Jeeves. You’re a techie, you know the world that we all live in as tech entrepreneurs. And at the same time you’re brining these new ideas from politics into our world in a way that’s meaningful, in a way that’s measurable and actionable. All right — e-mail, what else do they have? And I’m going to come back and ask you more questions about e-mail.

Clay: I think they have temporalness. This is probably the last thing that they have. They know that if they don’t succeed on November the whatever-it-is, the first Tuesday in November, it’s over, right? So they have a staff. If you think that you as a supporter believe in Howard Dean or Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan or Mitt Romney, you ought to think about what their staff believes, because they’re information diet is all candidate, all the time. What they’re thinking about is how to get their candidate elected, and people in Washington are merciless. They have a ruthless desire to win, right?

When John Kerry was 20 points behind Howard Dean a month before the Iowa caucuses, John Kerry loaned his campaign $2 million, rented a helicopter and visited every caucus site in the state of Iowa so that he could make sure to win.

Why? Because, you know, he was talking about winning the, if he didn’t win Iowa he wasn’t going to, it was going to be game over for him. And eventually he went on to beat us in Iowa. And you heard the big [cawing sound] scream as a result.

I think that our projects, our campaigns are finite in that there is a drop-dead date of either, you know, the Iowa Caucuses, the New Hampshire Primary, or election day — helps really focus what your priorities are. If I don’t get more votes than the other guy does on this date then it’s game over.

I don’t know how you apply that into start-up world, although I think part of that is, you know, you can apply that to agile methodology: if we can’t get five customers by this day, then we’ve got to pivot. We’ve got to change our direction because it’s clearly not working. Campaigns have to pivot. If it’s not working you’re not going anywhere.

Andrew: I see that drop-dead date with incubator-backed companies.

Clay: Oh, sure.

Andrew: That they have their demo day, and if they can’t get it done [loud music] I said I was going to come back and ask [loud music] You say that there are certain things that you need to know do. Do it well. What are some of those things [loud music].

Clay: [loud music] testing, testing, testing. People keep talking about optimizing their [loud music] That’s the same thing that good political campaigns do for email programs. For instance, I don’t know whether it’s true now, when I used to be a [loud music] I’d see it all the time, an 18-point Verdana font that was white on top of a red ‘contribute’ button was way better, about 2% to 3% better than Arial. Arial was not nearly as good of a fundraising font.

Knowing how to test and what to test in an email. When you send it out to the Democratic National Committee or MoveOn.org or the Obama campaign, they’re talking about millions, if not tens of millions, of people. They test those emails a lot because 2 or 3% can mean the difference of a few hundred thousand dollars sometimes.

The other thing, I think I read. This isn’t first-hand information, but they do things like test the ask amount. So, for instance, they found that if — I think this is right — they asked someone who had already donated to give money, and the dollar amount that they asked for was double what they had given prior, they were far more inclined to give than if they asked for the same amount.

Andrew: Interesting

Clay: So, if you had given me $25.00, and I sent you an email saying, Andrew, give me $50.00, I need $50.00, then you’re more inclined to donate even $25.00 that if I’d just asked you for $25.00. Stuff like that.

Andrew: By the way, my email program, I use AWeber, sometimes MailChimp. Neither one of them gives me the ability to do that. Is that what Blue State Digital’s software allowed politicians to do?

Clay: Blue State makes a strong investment in their email tool, for sure. A lot of the larger campaigns have their own, in-house research teams, so they’ll create their own data models. I know one organization here in Washington, D.C. that’s actually using the Google Prediction API for fundraising emails to try and predict how much money an email will raise before they even click the ‘send’ button so they can actually fine-tune the language and what’s being said. So they can pre-test it before they test it.

Andrew: You know, what I found from doing these interviews is that big companies test, test, test, test, test. Small companies copy, copy, copy. They copy from the best results of the big companies and they bring them in. If I were to copy the best results of all your AB tests, what would I learn about, say, the tone of an email? What’s a good way to write an email?

Clay: You know, I don’t know the answer to that. I’m an engineer, but I can tell you that there are some great artists out there. Joe Rospars, who was my former business partner at Blue State, he was a master. There is an art form to this stuff. I think, if I recall Joe telling me correctly, because, again, he’s really the master of this stuff, it’s about having a natural voice and developing the natural voice of the campaign.

Every campaign, every organization, is different to an extent. I think Barack Obama has a different voice than Bill Clinton, who has a different voice than Newt Gingrich, and it’s about finding that voice and sort of carrying it to supporters that is really the best and sort of truest way. But that gets into art, and I’m not much of an artist. But that would be my number one piece of advice.

Andrew: Interesting. So what you’re saying is that there’s a voice of the campaign and then, if one person writes the email and another person writes the webpage and a third person writes the tweets, for example, all of them have an understanding of what that voice is and they all send out different messages with that one voice in mind. Kind of like Groupon has writers all over the country, but they all have that funny and fun tone to them.

Clay: That’s right. I think Groupon and campaigns are probably learning a lot from one another, because they both take writing very seriously, and they both take standards of writing very seriously. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t some sharing going on between those two organizations. And Living Social is a local business here in Washington, D.C. that is think Groupon’s largest competitor. And I know those guys in the Politicos in Washington, D.C. often intermingle.

Andrew: Is there someone that I should be interviewing? Someone who maybe speaks at political conferences and trains people on emails, or someone like that I should be interviewing here?

Clay: Maybe. I can probably rattle off some names for you, Joseph Goodwin, although he’s probably inaccessible, between now and elections. He went back on the Obama campaign. But I’m sure there are a ton of people. One that you might want to think of is Lola Elfman [SP], who is the online organizer of the New Organizing Institute. Their job is to train operatives on the Progressive side, like learn how to do the stuff, and what the techniques are. She’d be pretty interesting. I’m happy to introduce you offline.

Andrew: I’d love it. What else do I have that I wanted to . . . oh, what do you do at the end. I know you handle more than text stuff, but you’ve been to the events. What is it about the events themselves? What has to happen to make them effective?

Clay: Well, I think the real interesting thing about events is you have to really center everybody on what the mission and purpose are, like, why are we together? It can’t just be a cocktail hour. The political events need to be about something, whether it be a cocktail hour and you paid $2,500 to get in. You have now maxed out your campaign. Thank you very much, and enjoy your access to a candidate. If it’s a field event, that’s one thing that I think political organizations have that Silicon Valley startups don’t, right, is they have a field program. In 2005 when Howard Dean was not the president, and became the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee instead, he created this thing called 50 States Strategy. He said, “Look, we’re going to collect people in every district in the country, and in every state in the country. I’m canvassing and knocking on doors for the Democratic Party.’ A lot of people in Washington, D.C. attribute that to Barack Obama’s success in 2008, that that infrastructure got built. If you look at organizations like Groupon, or Living Social, I would bet that out of those two the ones that are going to win the most are going to be the ones that have the best of what I would call field programs, people who can knock on doors in Des Moines, Iowa, and say, ‘Hey, would you like to do a Living Social deal. Now, a lot of this whole web 20 stuff has been sort of the anti-salesman, right? The stuff ought to sell itself, and should sell virally. And what I think Living Social and Groupon are doing are showing that if you can create a sales organization that goes far, then, oh, gosh. You have something really powerful. You have the fastest growing revenue operation in the country now. We can go back and forth as to whether Groupon is a sham, or not a sham. That’s not for me to decide. That’s for Wall Street to decide.

Andrew: Right.

Clay: But it makes you wonder. Could Living Social, who’s built what I would call a really good field program, what they would call a really good sales network, partner up with someone like Square and charge Square $10 for every business that they got to sign up for their little wallet-like program that they’ve got, right? Because I think Groupon and Living Social are two of the only companies that have people in Arkansas knocking on doors. And I think their assets are those sales platforms that they’ve built for themselves.

Andrew: I talked to a founder who couldn’t get his product to local merchants so he partnered up with AT&T’s Yellow Pages business, and AT&T sales people pitched his product for him. And I guess, once you have those sales people out there you’ve got a channel you can pipe other products through.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: And it’s interesting that you say, “Go door to door.” And I was wondering why door to door. Why is it so important? Then I was thinking of my conversation with Tim Ferris, who said that when he wanted to make a connection with someone, he’d go meet them in person because in person he said is the least crowded channel. There are people who are emailing the people you want to connect with. They’re Tweeting at them, Facebooking at them. They’re calling them, even. But very few [inaudible] space. What about this? That a large part of the meetings are about [inaudible] that it’s a machine that’s designed to perpetuate itself. How do we get the word out and the next question is how do we [inaudible]

Clay: Great, well I mean, here in Washington D.C. we have two measurements very campaign, dollars and votes. Basically dollars buy votes. So when it comes to a field strategy it is [inaudible] political operations here are really drawn to social media. You’ll find there’s not many [inaudible] part of that is because they can easily connect with people who aren’t their constituents, but are just supporters that can help them get the word out. They can it bypassing the mainstream media, but what that really means is the ability to spend for themselves without having the media actually fact check them sometimes. So yeah, I think those kinds of things are really important at the political level. I would say though, again, what a campaign manager is most worried about up until about two months before an election is dollars and votes.

Andrew: Dollars and votes. I guess for us it might be dollars and emails, or dollars and members.

Clay: Dollars and dollars.

Andrew: Dollars and dollars. Everything that a person with the site seems to involve an email registration, whether you’re signing a petition, whether you’re joining a social network, it’s about how we get those emails in the system so that we can keep that person engaged.

Clay: Right. So I got in trouble with my colleagues because now that I’m sort of out of the political space and more in the sort of Gov 2.0 open government space, I sort of came out and told the truth that these online petitions are kind of a sham. What they’re for is to convince you to give up your email address so that later on we can ask you for money. So we say, “If you don’t sign this petition children will die.” And you hand over your email address. As a result about a week later you’ll get an email saying, “Can we get $50 because we need to make sure that these children don’t die.”

Andrew: What else is there like that? There’ petitions and moveon.org was really a leader in that.

Clay: There’s also you member of congress. You can write letters to the editor.

Andrew: I see. So you go to a site, you write a letter to your member of congress or to the editor, you of course have to include your email address so the congressman can email you back, but what you’re doing also is opting into a system. I see. What else is there?

Clay: When you’re doing it through a campaign website, sure.

Andrew: All right, I see.

Clay: I believe that people should write their members of congress, but they ought to go to house.gov and find their congressional office and write them that way.

What’s really interesting, as an aside, it turns out that members of congress don’t really read their email. So it’s better to actually send them a handwritten letter than just about anything else.

Andrew: What else? Again, that goes back to the least crowed channel, the mailbox is less crowded. What else is there to get people to join an email list, since email is so valuable?

Clay: Well there’s also stores. The Obama campaign sold a heck of a lot of merchandise. They sold coffee mugs and fleeces, and hoodies. You folks out west, you Silicon Valley types you already have the store, it’s everything else that we tend to be good at. The thing is though I don’t know that anybody’s going to go door to door for getsatisfaction.com. No one’s going to hop up and knock on their neighbors door and say, ‘Hey, I really want to improve tech support for my company, will also use Get Satisfaction. But I do think that if Get Satisfaction provides a product that is good enough that – Full discloser, I know that the founders are good people – I think they are running against poor customer service. Their frame is perfect they’re running against poor customer service and they’re pro people can help themselves, and if you just connect customers they win. At least that’s what they’re doing on the consumer side.

On the business side, what they’re doing is they’re saying, “Hey, your customers can help themselves a little bit, and probably some costs,” so on the consumer side we’re running against really expensive customer support call centers and those kinds of things.

The other thing is the sort of opportunity, the difference between Washington, D.C. and the rest of the world at least in politics is the opportunities here for businesses are really significant. We’re not as, we do not have the kinds of tools and the exposure to the kinds of tools that Silicon Valley does, right? So, you know, GMMB is probably the largest media consultancy in Washington, D.C. on the Democratic side. They did half-a-billion dollars worth of revenue in the last election cycle. That’s a huge amount of money. The political space is wide open. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be 10 or 15 different kinds of different Blue State Digitals doing different kinds of things.

The product selection isn’t as significant or diverse as it is in the rest of the world. And, you know, I think, as much as I can shell out the juicy facts that we’ve learned from campaigns and from politics, there’s a lot of room the other way around for the kinds of tools and methodologies that the outside the bubble, outside the Beltway world is learning on how to recruit stuff. So you tell me, what is it that the political campaigns don’t have that . . .

Andrew: I do see that there’s a lot, because I feel that we’re so disconnected from politics, that it’s not part of our day-to-day lives, and so we’re not thinking about ways to solve the problems. We’re mostly thinking about the problems in our own lives and in our friends lives and how can we solve those, and how could we get more of our friends to love our products. This is a world that we’re not in enough for me to, I’m not in it enough to know what you guys are using yet. But I’m starting to see that there’s a lot of people in tech who are saying we want to get into this market somehow, and we’re going to at least move to D.C., or come to D.C. and have conversations.

Clay: Code for America is a perfect example of that. I’m on their advisory board.

Andrew: What is Code for America?

Clay: They’re modeled on Teach for America, and what they do is they recruit fellows, and cities apply to be part of the Code for America program. Cities basically come to Code for America and they say we have this problem. Like, we’ve just developed this universal I.D. for students, and we can’t figure out quite what to do with it but it’s got an RFID chip so we ought to be doing something interesting with it.

Code for America goes out and recruits fellows, manages those fellows, puts them through a one-month long training program with people like Stamen Design [SP], and Tim O’Reilly going and talking to them about not only how to develop products, but also how to do business. And they then go out into the cities and develop the best kinds of software.

There’s all kinds of opportunities for developers to get involved. I’m personally involved with a contest called the DonorsChoose.org Hacking Data Contest [SP], where DonorsChoose.org released all of their data online. You know, hundreds of thousands of projects and donations that hackers can play with. And they said look, whoever can come up with the best application built on this idea — check this out: they get four tickets to the Colbert Report where Steven Colbert will present them with a trophy and do a photo-op with them, right?

There’s the FCC’s Apps for Communities Contest, where they said look, there are lots of tiny towns that aren’t getting the benefits of new technologies or new technologists paying attention to them. But there’s a lot of data out there, so who can build the best app to serve under-served communities? And someone can win up to $60,000 in that contest. I mean, if you’ve got a great team and you’re looking to apply to Y Combinator, why not just go and win both of those contests? You’ll get three times the money that Paul Graham will get you, and way more national exposure than Y Combinator can if, you know, you hop on Colbert. Those are the kinds of things that right now, because this market is so young and nascent, the access that you can get to success, look, I’m functionally illiterate, and yet at some point I became successful in this space. And it’s because the town and the space is really welcoming to people like me who are functionally illiterate. But also relatively bright and smart people.

Andrew: What did Blue State Digital know in the early days that it’s competitors weren’t aware of, and couldn’t do?

Clay: Well I think the stuff goes in cycles. I think Blue State Digital knew was that connectivity meant a lot. And that the point wasn’t just getting people to donate, but that getting people connected with one another and getting them out from behind their screens, to meeting one another was really, really important. It’s the most significant thing, that I think, that we brought to the table. Also we were in the political market and we were competing against organizations like Conterra and Convio, who are built for non profits. There were some mildly different needs between non profits and campaigns. Campaigns need to move a lot faster. They need to put up a micro site, just a small three or four page site that maybe hits their opponent in a matter of hours, not days. Non profits can usually spend a little bit more time developing like an email calendar. Say like, we’re going to send out our annual fundraiser email on this day. Political campaigns can’t really afford to do that.

Turns out now days non profits don’t do that either. Our focus was really on the political candidates. The one really interesting thing that we did that I don’t think anybody else did was we developed a software platform that was sort of a scalable business. And along side it we also built a consulting business. We did both at the same time, because we figured people in Washington DC really didn’t know how to use the tools yet. So we helped them by building a strategy arm that helped use them.

Andrew: I wrote down a few things as you were talking so I can come back and dig into them. Starting with getting people to leave their computers and get out from behind their screens. How did you guys do it well? What are some tactics that worked?

Clay: I mean, we made it really easy for people to find venues that they could get to. We made it so that people could find other people. So that’s the whole point of the social network, right. Even in 2004, before my.barakobama.com, I wrote a piece of software on the dean campaign called Deanlink. And it was really awful, but we did it. And even people in the campaign were like, oh I need to find people to hang out with in Memphis Tennessee, when I go with Governor Dean to Memphis Tennessee. Let me search for people in Memphis Tennessee, and send them a message saying hey you know, will you come out and meet a campaign staffer. People used to love it, and they would get connected and that kind of thing. I don’t know any founder of any start up that has users, is being completely irresponsible when they travel, and they’re not meeting with the users of their software in whatever city they’re in.

Andrew: You know what, David Hauser of Grasshopper Group did that. He was telling me that the first thing he does when he goes to a new city is he goes into his customer list, and he says who is a customer or somehow in our database that happens to be in the city, I’m going to go have drinks for them. Did I just lose your audio?

Clay: Yeah, just for a second.

Andrew: Oh, okay. So I was saying, before he goes to a city and says which of our customers, or anyone in our potential customer base, is in that city, I’m going to organize drinks for them. So you would do that, and you would enable the campaign to collect location, zip codes in addition to email?

Clay: Yep.

Andrew: You would. Okay.

Clay: I mean, to be honest with you, I have, this year I’ve got three start ups that I’m involved in here in Washington. And although I’m not full time on any of them, and I still do that. Even though I’m sort of primarily focused on writing a book, I’m going to Boston next month. I’m organizing an event in honor of myself. To keep in touch with the people who care about the things that I am doing.

Andrew: How do you have your own personal list?

Clay: How do I have my own personal list?

Andrew: Do you have your own personal list in every city? How did you put that together?

Clay: I’m really diligent about using Facebook.

Andrew: So you go on Facebook and you say, based on, sort by cities, and then you end up with people by each city?

Clay: Yep. It’s actually pretty difficult by each city.

Clay: Yup.

Andrew: Oh, okay.

Clay: It’s actually pretty difficult, because what Facebook doesn’t allow you to do is search by zip code radius. What I don’t want to do is type in, “I want to meet with all of my friends in Boston, Massachusetts.” That’ll only get me about a fifth of who’s in the area. I want to meet with people that are in Boston and in Cambridge and in Summerville and in Arlington and then Jamaica Plain or whatever.

That piece of software needs to get written, if anybody knows where I can get that. Let me know.

I do think that Facebook is part . . . the reason why [inaudible] using Facebook is because of that, because they can get a lot more detail about users. If you look at, for instance, Obama put out an “I’m In.” They have this “I’m In” Facebook app–that maybe your friends have got on it or something like that who’re activists. You just basically get to put something on your Wall that says, “I’m In.”

That app also harvests a lot of your information and then appends it to your email profile inside of the Obama campaign servers. I think that is a really clever use of technology. Kind of scary, but clever.

Andrew: The other thing you said earlier was, help them find venues. It’s so interesting, if I hadn’t organized my own events, I wouldn’t have recognized the value of that little point.

But when you’re organizing an event, finding a venue can be just mind-numbing. It could be phone calls over and over . . . I remember driving around looking for venues. There was no basic list of potential venues. I guess the Howard Dean campaign had that for their people, and so you built it into your system at Blue State Digital.

You also said connectivity. One way to help connectivity was . . . actually, how did you do it? How did you enable connectivity for supporters, among supporters?

Clay: Well, again, we allowed them to search for each other on a map. The context where you’re dealing with people on Facebook is, the people you’re dealing with on Facebook are already your friends. You very rarely browse Facebook and find some stranger to be friends with.

If you do that too much, turns out you get called a spammer and you get thrown off of Facebook, right? Or you just go to MySpace.

Andrew: Not lately.

Clay: In the political world, we want to make it so that you can go and say, “Let me find somebody else in my political context that I can ally with.” As a supporter of Barack Obama, you already have something in common. You both are likely Democrats, you’re both likely Internet users, since you’re using the Internet to find it.

There you have something in common. My partners used to yell at me, because I always said that we ought to allow people to browse my.barackobama.com by age and gender, but . . . they didn’t appreciate that.

Andrew: People trolling for dates.

Clay: I still stick by it. If you can help people date, then you win, right? Look at the Plenty of Fish guy.

Andrew: Look at the Facebook guy.

Clay: Right, or the Facebook guy. Right. You win.

Andrew: What about microsites? Beyond making a specific message, what’s the benefit of having a microsite?

Clay: I think a lot of it is SEO. The best victim of SEO that exists right now, Santorum, you can go and Google Santorum right now and see what’s happened to that guy. Now he’s running for President, right? So people type in ‘Santorum,’ they get something entirely different than the campaign.

Andrew: I remember Jon Stewart told his audience to just go Google it for themselves. I’m going to say the same thing, because that’s how I discovered it.

Clay: Just go Google it. Between the Hillary and Barack Obama fight of 2008, you saw a lot of microsites get created. Hillary would create a ‘Hillary speaks for me’ website that basically goes and says, ‘Hey, this is a website for people that are signing up to contribute these stories to the Hillary Clinton campaign.’

A lot of what campaigns do, it’s a little nefarious, is try and disguise their own identity from what people are saying. They have to be so ruthless and so they’ll do the Obama campaign, I forget what the Obama campaign did, but I’m sure one of the campaigns came out with something like Hillaryfacts.com that may have said in fine print at the very bottom, you know, paid for by blah, blah, blah. But in actuality, it was just a hit sight. Now big companies do this stuff all the time, between AT&T, T-Mobile, and Google, and Apple, and Microsoft, and Facebook. They all spend millions of dollars in Washington, D.C. trying to spin the opinion of politicians, and also spin the opinion of the American people. You’ll notice, for instance, if you go through the filings on the FCC of the AT&T Mobile merger, you’ll see the NAACP spending a lot of time concerned about the AT&T Mobile merger. Part of the reason why is because AT&T has supported the NAACP for a long time because of the amount of money that is spent in Washington, D.C. So, it’s stuff like that, the sort of seedy underbelly of politics, that probably starts with the micro site.

Andrew: And how does it help SEO? I see how it helps make a statement and galvanize people around that statement, but what does it do for SEO? Are people linking to that site? What are they doing?

Clay: I think people are often times more inclined to link to . . .

Andrew: Right. I’m going to link to one of these micro sites much more than I might link to the official campaign site, which is more boring. I see.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: I got it. Okay.

Clay: And the campaign wants to be more distant from the harsh . . . part of the reason why Howard Dean lost in Iowa is because he ran this television advertisement that was Howard Dean on a white background, and it was a really negative ad about John Kerry. When you run a negative ad, basically what happens is you’re opponent goes down, but you go down in the polls, as well, right? On the web you can sort of distance yourself from that, and if you run a negative campaign on the web through a micro site you’re a little bit more insulated from the negative effects of running a negative campaign.

Andrew: I see. You might still go down, but not as much.

Clay: Right.

Andrew: You said a few times that I was in California. I’m not in California right now. I happen to be in D.C., same city as you.

Clay: Oh, my Gosh.

Andrew: Yeah. And tomorrow I will be at Mixology, the tech cocktail event there. Actually, it won’t be tomorrow for our audience. I’ll be posting this after I come back from there. Tell me about the community of yours. As someone relatively new here it does seem like there’s a robust tech community here.

Clay: There are actually two, and you’re going to visit one of them. And I sort of straddle both of those lines. So, there’s the D.C. tech scene, and they’re really interested in creating a true blood technology scene in Washington, D.C. that creates startups. Living Social is there, their baby. It’s their flagship, like, “Hey, we’ve got one here in Washington, D.C.” Or, GoPower is another one of them. They do energy stuff. These are sort of the D.C. tech scenes. But then there’s this other scene, which is the sort of political scene that you and I have been talking about for an hour or so. And what’s interesting is even in Washington, D.C. these two scenes don’t overlap that much, even though these people are right next to each other. So I’ll go to one party for the D. C. tech people, and then another party for a candidate, or political technology people. And maybe two or three people overlap, but that’s about it. And it’s usually me and the representatives from Twitter and Facebook. I’ve always found that fascinating. And I wish that more people from the D.C. tech scene would take a hard look at the political space, because there’s so much money to be made and so much change that can be made. For instance, I was telling you earlier that my wife has this product called, Attentively, which helps non-profits mine social media and learn more about what their email list is saying about whatever on social media. Moms Rising.org, helps moms. It is an advocacy group for moms. And what Attentively does is make it so that Moms Rising.org can say, “Show me the moms in Philadelphia that are talking about healthcare, because we want to have a fundraiser there. And let me send out an email to all of them.” That’s really cool, and I think really useful to a lot of non-profits. I’ve got a product coming out called Traceful that catalogs all the email that political organizations put out so that you can analyze them. So I can say like, Republicans sent out an email and they generally send out emails between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays. And Democrats do it between 2:00 and 6:00. Or we can do things like see that the Republican National Committee rented its list out to Mitt Romney. We can track that kind of stuff, and we sell it as an intelligence gathering tool to various news organizations and other campaigns.

These are products that require a little bit of capital investment, but the market potential, you know, are they going to be the next Facebook or are they going to be the next Google? Probably not, but are they going to be multi-million dollar companies that generate a lot of revenue for their founders? Yeah. And the opportunity for that in Washington, D.C. is humongous. You know, a company like Blue State Digital went from, I think their last public revenue number was around the time I left, went from 0 to $10 million in revenue in a few years, like three or four years. And it was an incredibly profitable business.

Andrew: This is four years later. You left in 2008 and you’re saying $10 million in revenue in four years.

Clay: Yeah. In 2008 they think got up to about $10 million worth of revenue. I think INK Magazine had them cited at $10 million, which is what I’m going off of, because I don’t want to use their internal numbers. And I don’t think I know any for 2008 anyway, because I left a little early in 2008. I think the opportunity in Washington, D.C. is remarkable. Now you notice the one thing that I haven’t talked about, when I talk about opportunities in Washington, D.C., is government. I haven’t talked at all about government, which is really funny, because government is not the Fortune 1000, it’s not the Fortune 500, and it’s not the Fortune 50. Government is the Fortune 1, the largest pender of money in the U.S. I’ve been trying to find a way to work with government and improve government’s technology in a lot of different ways. And I think Washington, D.C. actually has a third scene, a third technology scene, and that is the government IT world that I spent a little bit of time in. Palantir is a great start-up. They’re growing like hot cakes. They’re part of the PayPal mafia, founded by PayPal founders, and insiders. The last time I met them in 2009 they had ten employees. And in 2010 I think they had 500. What they do is they help defense agencies and journalists. They helped me when I was at the Sunlight Foundation mine and monitor social networks and map out social graphs. They took what I think PayPal does a lot of, which is fraud protection, and applied the systems for fraud protection and fraud analysis to other things, like sniffing out terrorists, and sniffing out terrorist networks, sniffing out Medicare fraud, and that kind of thing.

And then you’ve got the Buzzell & Hamilton and the Lockheed Martins, and stuff like that, and there are tons of technologists that work over there, too.

Andrew: You left Blue State Digital about two years before the sale. Did you still have shares in the business when the company sold?

Clay: Sort of. It’s not something I want to get into in public, or on record. But I did OK.

Andrew: You did okay from the sale?

Clay: Yeah.

Andrew: Okay. All right. [inaudible] He’s got a big smile on his face. And your wife was actually a past Mixergy interviewee.

Clay: Yeah. Rosalyn was part of the [inaudible].

Andrew: I didn’t know because of the last name.

Clay: She’s right over there. There she is. There you go.

Andrew: She was one of my best interviewees. She was great.

Clay Johnson: Yeah. She’s a smart lady. That’s why I married her. She’s really good, except she has no taste in men.

Andrew: So the company that she’s still running, Fission Strategy, and the product that she’s got is Attentively, and that’s coming out from the company, from Fission. And the product you mentioned that you’re working on is Traceful. Is it Traceful.com?

Clay: Yeah. You can just see it at Traceful.com. It’s still in test mode, but for your viewers, go check it out, and tell me what you think. You might see a little [inaudible] on there, but you might see a little lorem ipsum dolor on there, but just please forgive me.

Andrew: And don’t you have a blog on vegan?

Clay: InfoVegan.

Andrew: InfoVegan, that’s what it is. InfoVegan. What’s InfoVegan about?

Clay: This will be the first time I say it publicly. I’m writing a book for O’Reilly about healthy information diets. InfoVegan was sort of the blog where I used to discuss those topics.

The theory is, you know, I got involved in politics because of health care. I was a health care advocate, and I strongly believe that we’ve got to do something to fix health care in the country. I left the Democratic Party and I left Blue state because I didn’t think that electing more Democrats was going to help solve our health care problem, and that what I really needed to do was start focusing on money’s influence on politics to do that.

I did that for a couple of years at the Sunlight Foundation as the director of Sunlight Labs and figured out that actually you can’t really change a lot there. And even if you sort of put all the data in front of everybody, which is, I think, the noble and great mission of the Sunlight Foundation, if you put all that information in front of everybody, then it’s like giving everyone a free pass to the gym membership without telling them that they need to exercise. So sort of continually, for me, professionally, working upstream, now what I have to do is sort of write the ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma’ for information, which is how do we go on healthy information diets and basically spread critical thinking, and how to tell fact from fiction.

Andrew: I could use that.

Clay: There’s no better place than Washington, D.C. to cut through the cruft and to give some examples as to how we do that and how we don’t. It’s going to be a good book. It should come out next year.

Andrew: By O’Reilly. Just like in my office, here, we have junk food in the kitchen all the time, and it’s so easy to pick it up, but if I want something healthy, I have to call up Chops and have them deliver. I feel like the same thing is true for information.

Clay: That’s right.

Andrew: If I want unhealthy, quick food, you know, to kill some time, I can find it quickly, but the good stuff is harder, and the good stuff needs a little bit of effort on my part, where the junk food is easier.

All right. So that’s InfoVegan.com. Clay, thanks for doing the interview.

Clay: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks very much, Andrew.

Andrew: And let me thank the person who introduced us, the person who said, ‘Andrew, you should be doing more interviews with people outside of just the techs [sounds like] base,’ and he was absolutely right. This is Steve Ressler.

Clay: Steve Ressler. He’s a great guy. Great guy.

Andrew: He is a great guy. Thanks, Steve.

Clay: Have you interviewed him?

Andrew: No, I haven’t. I don’t know him very well. I know him via email.

Clay: You need to interview Steve Ressler. He’s amazing.

Andrew: What should I ask Steve Ressler? I want to also ask you for Lola’s contact info.

Clay: If you think that organizing people around politics is hard, what Steve Ressler is doing is he’s the founder of GovLoop, and GovLoop is the social network for govies, for people who work inside of the federal government. When we had the Rally to Restore Sanity that was done by The Daily Show and The Colbert Report …

Andrew: I was there. That was fun, one of the fun things about being here.

Clay: Yeah, it’s awesome. He had, like, a March of the Bureaucrats on Washington, D.C., and was, like, “We’re not your average bureaucrats. We’re actually cool people.”

Andrew: That’s a great idea. I didn’t know he did that.

Clay: He’s a fascinating guy, yeah. Check out GovLoop.com. It’s really awesome. And yeah, I’ll email you an intro to Lola.

Andrew: Thanks. I’d appreciate that intro, and Steve, let’s talk.

Clay: So, you live in Washington?

Andrew: My office is on 23rd and M Street. We’re still in the interview, so don’t say anything that you don’t want people to hear. But my office is right on 23rd and M Street Northwest. I live in China Town. Yeah, I’m not here forever, but I’m here as long as I can stay. I love it.

Clay: You’ll go to the valley, eventually, I’m sure.

Andrew: I don’t know where we’ll go, actually.

Clay: Just like everyone else does.

Andrew: We [inaudible] talking Northern California again. I love it here. Cool.

Clay: Thanks, Andrew

Andrew: All right. Thank you. Thanks, Clay. Bye.

  • Clay is an egotistical jerk with incorrect and negative assumptions about entrepreneurs. This interview was painful to listen to. Keep up the good work Andrew. Please put up another interview soon so that I can get the terrible memory of this jerk out of my head.

    His comments: Clay: There was a start-up that came to us early on in the Dean campaign
    and said, “We really want to help out. We’re excellent internet
    marketers, and we think we can really help fine-tune your products if
    you just buy our software, and learn from us in Silicon Valley.” And we
    sort of looked at them and said, ‘We just sent out an email that
    convinced people to give us $5 million for zero in return, so maybe we
    could teach you a thing or two.’

    my comment: they got zero in return? I guess that’s the value he places on political decisions. Perhaps not untrue but it makes him sound like a con artist. He then goes on to contradict himself saying that they are selling hope and other stuff.

    His Comments: “And if there’s one thing I could stress to your viewers, it’s that being
    in politics is also an expertise like being a programmer has an
    expertise. Knowing how to move in Washington and how to move things
    around is a skill, and it’s not something you can just arm-chair, which
    is why I think you don’t see a lot of people in politics on sites like
    Quora, and stuff like that. It’s because, I think, most Americans don’t
    respect that skill or they think they already have it. So I’ll go and
    talk with my Uncle Warren and he’ll tell me, “You know what Barack Obama
    should do?” And it’s like, “No, I don’t.” But I’m fairly certain that
    you in your profession also don’t know how to do that, because you don’t
    have the in-depth knowledge that people inside of our government have
    in order to make government move. And it’s a lot more complicated than
    the politicians make it look like.”

    my comment: politicians today are not particularly bright. I would estimate that most of them are in the 70-80% bracket of people as grouped by intelligence. That’s just my view. But Clay seems to think that they make a very complex task look easy and that there is great intelligence behind what they do. Hogwash. Anyone familiar with how DC works knows that the bright folks are not those being voted for (or against). The bright ones are communicating beyond soundbytes and considering issues in all their complexity. His lack of respect for “most Americans” is disgusting.

    I hope that the next time you have such a jerk on your program who has so little respect for Entrepreneurs, you will push them harder and perhaps explain that without Entrepreneurs, these idiots wouldn’t have taxpayer money to waste on their pet projects and bailouts for unprofitable companies.

  • I keep a text file called “read every sunday” – this interview added a tonne to it.

    re: enemies, Chris Guillebeau does a particularly good job of positioning himself against conformity, and Ramit Sethi makes it very clear that he isn’t a personal finance writer that writes about saving money lattes, etc.

  • Gerald

    Andrew,  can we lose the tweetbacks from the comment stream?   Or at least put them somewhere else?  It’s become clutter.  

  • Good question. I killed them after reading your comment. Let’s try it for a week, and if people scream to have them return, I’ll add them.

    Otherwise, I agree with you. They’re distracting.

    Thanks for asking for it Gerals.

  • Great points on enemies. I need to find an enemy for Mixergy. After years of working at Dale Carnegie, it’s hard to pick fights and find enemies. ;-)

  • Shmags

    Long time listener, 1st time commenter.  I actually only came back to this posting to see the reaction to the comments made yesterday by a listener – regarding how Clay was egotistical and had no sense of what entrepreneurs do.

    Andrew, in the spirit of opinions and feedback, why was that comment removed?

    Thank you,

  • I think that book is called Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Too bad he isn’t
    available for an interview…

    Mixergy’s got all kinds of little enemies: stagnating, passivity, the
    word “can’t”, fear, uninspired business/life, “doing the easy thing”…
    and it’s definitely not “the home of inhibitions”.

  • Farrell

    This was a great interview. My profession is in tech, but my passion is politics or more specifically health care. I never thought tech and government could mix, but this interview proved otherwise.

    Thanks Andrew and Clay!

Who should we feature on Mixergy? Let us know who you think would make a great interviewee.