A Farewell to Phone2Action, but the Work on Tech for Social Good Continues…

It is with both pride and tears that I am announcing today that 2020 will be my last year at Phone2Action. This moment is bittersweet because, while I am very excited about starting a new venture, I will miss my interactions with you and our work to increase civic participation. The past 8 years have been an incredible journey and I am very grateful for the opportunity to start a company that has been so successful in giving people a voice.

Phone2Action was a startup, launched from our kitchens in 2012, and its path is what most founders dream about. We had a vision for a product that had no direct competitor at the time and that has grown to serve every industry. In 2013, we raised seed funds; in 2016, we completed a multimillion dollar Series A round; and in May of 2019, Frontier Growth from North Carolina saw the value of Phone2Action and made a strategic growth investment. This is even more humbling knowing that, according to Startup Genome, 9 out of 10 startups fail.

We just completed the acquisition of two great companies, GovPredict and KnowWho, which are expected to further advance our ability to connect people and serve organizations. The completion of this merger is an appropriate time for me to leave Phone2Action to start a new venture. But as I leave, I want to share some parting thoughts:

  1. Never dismiss your customer ideas. I had the idea of Phone2Action when I was the Director of Advocacy at an education nonprofit. The first people I pitched the idea of building a tool that would connect people with their representatives were the vendors we used for our tech needs. But they dismissed it and told me this tool was unnecessary and would never work, especially because poor people would never own a smartphone. In a way, it was good for me. Without that jolt, I may not have gone on to build Phone2Action. The bottom line is that customers are an untapped resource for innovation. Value their ideas, ask them questions and get their feedback. There is no better product feedback than the information you get from customers, and you should use that to improve your product and innovate.
  2. Diversity by design. Many could say that our team was diverse from the start. My co-founder, Jeb Ory, was half Jewish and half Southern Baptist, from Texas; Patrick, who joined us in 2013, was a 19-year-old from Kansas city; and I was a Latina immigrant. But diversity is not just about gender and race, but about people with a wider range of views and experiences. We were very deliberate about recruiting in unorthodox ways and, once we were a diverse company, that attracted more diversity to join. Our fellowship/apprenticeship program helped us build a talent pipeline, as did our willingness to sponsor STEM visas. For a startup, this was a difficult decision, because we didn’t have the robust HR and legal departments that large corporations have, nor the financial resources to pay fees and lawyers. Over the years, we hired 10 employees under some kind of sponsorship: OPT, CPT, or H1B, who had just graduated from U.S. universities. All of these efforts together made our company rich in culture and opinions, which translated into a better product and a vibrant mix of people who came from 20 countries and all corners of the U.S.
  3. Nobody can deny hard work, but startups fail. I was born in Santiago, Chile, but my parents are from the indigenous “Región de la Araucanía” in the south of Chile. I was raised in the philosophy of merit. My parents knew that things would not be easy for us, so to prepare us, they inspired us to work hard and stay focused. That served me well in the U.S. because, removed from connections, family and resources like other immigrants, I tend to always operate in “survival mode”. That also helped me as a startup founder, which required hustle and resilience. But startups, by nature, are in a race against themselves. This because the minute we accept venture capital, every year becomes a complicated race: you have to beat your competitors but you also have to beat your previous numbers. It is very hard work and most startups do not make it. So yes, I think it’s appropriate to feel fortunate about our accomplishments at Phone2Action, but there is also a lesson: There is much that we can learn from every stage of a startup and we need to spend more time learning how startups move from inception to other stages (hopefully to exit), because there is no one playbook that applies the same way to every company in every industry. This is especially true for minority founders and diverse leadership teams. The formula that worked for PEs and VCs in the past will not work for the America of the next 100 years.
  4. Customers were our first investors. We only raised minimal outside capital through the first year of the company’s existence; we would not have survived without the revenue from early clients and champions like  the Kansas Bio, Consumer Technology Association, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Georgia Charter Schools Association, Parents for Educational Freedom in NC and the National Mining Association. Not only were they paying customers and gave us the needed “traction” that investors love, but they were also validators of our technology. I give a lot of credit to those early customers for having a vision—this type of technology was not available in the mainstream yet—and for taking a chance with new tactics and a new company with no brand recognition. Without them we would have not been able to survive.
  5. Triple bottom line: profit, people, and the planet. Yes, you can have a successful business and be kind to the environment and good to your people. We were very ambitious and tenacious to win business, but we did so by keeping our team motivated through a great culture. We are not perfect, but we believe that treating our team members well and keeping them happy is the right thing to do. We thought it  would also impact productivity and it did. Working at Phone2Action was a lot of fun. It was a running joke that we would hustle to finish a project and then celebrate with a great party. But this culture translated into productivity. In fact, it became a concern for me that, at times, I had to “kindly kick people out of the office in the evenings.” When they did not listen, we would just turn on the music, order food, break out the Margaritas, piscolas or the LaCroix and dance to some old-school R&B (Hello, Return of the Mack) or some salsa music. Our operations team was committed to recycling, limiting the use of plastic and using a compost company owned by veterans. We also paid lots of attention to caring for the many company plants and we tried to use vendors who were small businesses or startups like us. The band Gogo Gadjet, an entertainment startup in Pennsylvania, became a recurring source of joy in our parties, which were catered by local chefs and family owned businesses like Rango’s, Copper Kitchen and Hungry.
  6. Be an incubator of talent. Phone2Action created a fellowship/apprenticeship program in 2013 that, over the years, hosted more than 100 young people from different backgrounds and all corners of the U.S. About 55 percent of the fellows were women and we tried to recruit outside the typical university networks. We had high schoolers, college students, people without college degrees, and individuals without exposure to tech who wanted to enter the field. The Washington Economic Club, CTA Apprenticeship Coalition, Urban Institute, the Department of Labor, Stanford University, Rochester University, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and Cultural Vistas were some of the organizations instrumental in creating and expanding our apprenticeship program. Fifteen of the fellows eventually worked part time or full time at Phone2Action.
  7. All businesses start small. One of our first offices in the DMV was a 20-by-20 room at We Work in Chinatown. We were only 12 employees when we got the call from the team at Arlington Economic Development inviting us to move to Virginia. It was not an easy sell for our employees, who were all young and single and wanted to be in the middle of the action in DC. But Victor Hoskins and his team at AED were relentless and we moved to Rosslyn in 2016. Governor Terry McCauliffe drove 3 hours from Richmond to come attend our party and welcome us to the state. The Governor was later chided by a local newspaper for “wasting his time” coming to our welcome celebration, since our office was only 3,586 square feet and we were small and irrelevant. Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Technology Association, wrote an op ed in response, applauding the governor for his vision, titled “All Business Start Small.” A year later, we outgrew that space and moved to a 13,000-square-foot facility. This year we acquired two companies, creating hundreds of jobs along the way. Startups are incubators of innovation, but also of economic mobility and economic power that benefit communities. Government authorities need to have vision to recognize the potential of startups.
  8. Civic Technology strengthens Democracy. In 2012, public policy conversations were not mainstream. That has changed a lot in recent years. Today, civic engagement is perceived as instrumental to making our democracy work. We tried to document some of this journey. In 2016, just days after the election, we hosted a memorable panel at the National Press Club. In 2017 we hosted the Good Tech Summit, the finest tech conference done in DC to this day. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Congressman Joaquin Castro, MSNBC contributor Greta Van Susteren and clients such as Patagonia and Lyft shared the power of technology for social good. This year, Sage Publications, an entity that sells only to the academic market, published a case study about Phone2Action’s impact on civic engagement and in October of 2020 we launched our most robust quantitative study yet on the State of Advocacy in the U.S., which describes the unprecedented energy that we see today.
  9. Work hard, play hard. As I mentioned, we would often hustle to finish a project and celebrate with a party. In our first party in 2013 we had so much fun the co-working space administrators kicked us out and people kept cheering in the elevator as we left. We took a lot of pride in our parties, which were mostly for our customers and employees to have fun. We threw parties aligned to a product launch so there were big motivators for us to finish and celebrate. We built traditions like our annual halloween contest, our Thanksgiving potluck, our super fun secret snowflake, bloody mary’s on the day after elections, and more. Our Slack channels reflected the many things we celebrated: the parent channel, the meow channel, the woof channel, the ladiesofp2a channel and more.
  10. Innovate or Die. The infamous words of Gary Shapiro, “Innovate or die,” have been on Phone2Action’s wall of every space we have had. They serve as a reminder to not be complacent, to stay curious and to be humble. This sentiment has never been more important than in 2020, when our lives depend on the innovation of our scientists working on a COVID-19 vaccine. In 2012, when I had the idea of Phone2Action, the environment in the U.S. and around the world for civic participation was very mellow. But today the situation is very different and democracies around the world are being questioned by their citizens. Civic participation is not a “nice to have,”, it is a “must have” if we want peace and progress. Citizens do not want to replace their governments with anarchy, they want governments that work for everyone. Innovating in civic- and open-government technologies is crucial and investors must know that there is both a social good and a business case for it. Technology has changed every industry but lawmaking largely remains antiquated. Innovate or die is a message that citizens around the world are sending their authorities. Right now is the time to modernize.

It has been a tremendous privilege to work with you and I want to thank every team member, past and present, for your contributions. I am deeply grateful for your dedication, hard work and the many sacrifices you have made. To our customers, investors and partners, thank you for your trust. To my co-founder Jeb, thank you for taking me seriously when I shared the idea of Phone2Action. To Patrick and Jeb: building and growing Phone2Action was a blast! 

I will remain Phone2Action’s biggest fan and will watch you grow, evolve, innovate and continue the mighty job of modernizing Democracy in the U.S. and abroad.

 

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