The fifth team that we will be interviewing this week, in our series of interviews exclusively with female founders, is with Marci Harris and Rachna Choudhry the Founding team of POPVOX
POPVOX is an online advocacy platform that meshes real-time legislative data with users’ personal stories and sentiment. POPVOX curates and delivers public input in a format tailored to actionable policy decisions and empowers users to leverage their expertise and numbers. Serving individuals, Congress, and advocacy professionals, POPVOX is akin to a “Legislative LinkedIn” – bringing transparency, efficiency, and accountability to the world of policymaking.
Marci Harris began public service work as Tornado Recovery Coordinator for Jackson, Tenn., working with private and public organizations and state, local and federal agencies to marshall resources and rebuild. In 2007, she became Tax, Trade, and Health Counsel to Pete Stark, then-Chairman of the Health Subcommittee of Ways and Means, and was Committee lead for Medicare Program Integrity and Physician Payments Sunshine provisions of the House health reform bill. She left the Hill in February 2010 to build POPVOX. She holds a J.D. from the University of Memphis and an LL.M from American University’s Washington College of Law.
Rachna Choudhry has a background in federal lobbying, issue advocacy and social media strategy for a variety of national issue-based and advocacy organizations. She earned a Master of Public Policy from Georgetown University and a Political Science degree from UCLA.
As a side note, POPVOX was the winner of the 2011 Microsoft Biz Spark accelerator.
Could you tell us what POPVOX is all about?
RACHNA: POPVOX.com is a transformative advocacy platform that meshes legislative data with personal stories and public sentiment. It’s the only site of its kind to do so. People can easily find information about pending bills in Congress and see what advocacy groups, trade associations and other issue organizations have to say about the issues they are most passionate about. They can then write a more informed message to Congress, which we deliver to the appropriate Congressional office (electronically; we do not fax) — and provides message delivery confirmation. POPVOX verifies each individual’s home address with the US Postal Service so the Congressional office is assured that the message is coming from a constituent.
POPVOX also offers a collection of professional advocacy tools for organizations and trade associations of any size that allow them to mount a significant legislative campaign with the power of targeted grassroots action. With POPVOX’s ”Write Congress widget”, organizations can direct their membership or employee base to send a message to Congress seamlessly from their branded website — rather than direct them to a third-party platform. Organizations that use POPVOX’s Pro tools find the transparency and analytics to track the success of their campaigns in real time to be especially helpful.
How did you come up with the idea for POPVOX?
MARCI: With our combined careers in Congress and advocacy, we both deeply understood what was and wasn’t working. Rachna and I started POPVOX to solve our own problems. As a staffer, I had been on the receiving end of constituent and policy input to Congress — and technology was making it impossible to distinguish the signal from the noise. I also was hearing amazing stories from constituents and thought that others should hear what Congress hears. When you know more about the real people or businesses that are affected by legislation, it changes the way you look at that policy.
What were some of the challenges that you have faced starting a company?
RACHNA: Marci and I knew the problems we wanted to solve (and that is important when you’re going to start a company). We had lived and breathed them, and spent months thinking about viable solutions — but actually starting the company was a different experience. We learned as we went along.
One of the biggest challenges for a startup like ours is not unique: how do we bring in money? We’ve relied on the help of friends and our families, and angel investments. And we continue to look for additional investments. But the question of money also is about becoming a sustainable business. To that end, we’ve been growing our client base of advocacy organizations and trade associations that use the POPVOX Pro tools. Securing the first clients was probably the most challenging, since we were so new on the scene. But it’s certainly gotten easier, and the early relationships we built are coming around as paid clients.
You have a really interesting background that has lined you up perfectly for what you are doing now, but you don’t have a tech background. What advice would you give to non-technical founders looking to build a company that relies heavily on technology?
MARCI: Our third co-founder, Joshua Tauberer, brought the tech chops. He understood legislative data like few on this planet, and we were very fortunate to work with him.
But not all internet businesses require new technology. Except in rare cases (like POPVOX), the technology is becoming commoditized, barriers are falling — anyone can start with a WordPress page to test a concept. Increasingly, the true differentiator among new businesses is a deep understanding of the problem to be solved and empathy with the user.
With POPVOX, we began with a huge advantage in our personal understanding of the problem. We were then blessed with a second huge advantage — introduction to the concept of “Lean User Experience” from our advisor, Janice Fraser, at LUXr.
In many ways, understanding the problem and adopting a “lean” philosophy are two ends of a spectrum. Rachna and I started off with a very detailed idea of where we thought POPVOX was going, and our team has traveled in that direction, making corrections along the way based on input from our clients and users.
What advice would you like to give to an entrepreneur thinking about writing their first business plan?
RACHNA: Write everything down. Write down your wildest, dreamiest concept of your business. This will serve as your best-case scenario. When things get muddled as you plan ahead—say six months or even a year later—you can always look back at what your original intention was in starting your company. If you and your partners disagree about a business decision, you can always go back and read the business plan to clarify things. Your business plan will also show phases or steps on how to get to your final concept. Use it as a guide on what to prioritize and when.
The process of writing down our business plan for POPVOX took us months to do. We wrote and rewrote until we understood our vision. And we had fun too: we spend every weekend one summer sitting on the roofdeck of Marci’s apartment with our laptops. We even went out to the Bay Area, where my parents live, and did a big re-write sitting in their backyard. It’s not quite a Bay Area garage startup story, but we were able to enjoy the California sunshine!
Once you do have your business plan written down, don’t be afraid to change it as you go along. Sometimes plans change. An even better idea may come along — or you might have to pivot because one concept didn’t work. That’s okay too. Just make sure you put it on paper.
A massive thank you to Marci and Rachna for taking the time out of their busy schedule to put down some awesome answers to our questions. Don’t forget to check them out on twitter!