Philadelphia Business Journal | Peter Key | December 7, 2012
When Keya Dannenbaum was an MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, she forgot to register to vote for the 2010 elections.
To some people, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but before Dannenbaum entered Wharton in the fall of 2010, politics was her life. In 2007, she dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Princeton University to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. When that ended, she moved to New Haven, Conn., where she worked on the campaigns of several local officials.
As a result, Dannenbaum was quite upset about missing the voter-registration deadline. And when she asked herself how she could have done it, she came up with an answer.
“All the information I needed to be a participatory citizen … wasn’t presented to me in a way that was relevant and actionable,” she said.
That gave her an idea.
“Let’s compile all the information you need on people, on issues, on political events that are happening in and around your world and package it in a way that’s easily accessible when you need it the most,” she said.
That’s the mission of ElectNext Inc., which Dannenbaum founded in 2011
The company got a lot of publicity for technology it developed that matched people to the presidential candidates based on their stances on various issues, much as the technology used by dating websites matches the sites’ members to each other.
ElectNext’s matching technology, however, is just a tool for accessing a mammoth database of information about people who hold, or were candidates for, federal offices.
“At the end of the day, we had roughly 100 million data points on 4,500 candidates and officials at three federal levels — the Senate, the House and the presidency,”
said Dave Zega, ElectNext’s national director of local communications.
About half the data points came from the candidates’ and officials’ websites, press releases, speeches and debates.
ElectNext also used:
- Roughly 15 million campaign-finance reports to infer the positions of candidates and officials based on their financial supporters.
- 500,000 ratings that various interest groups gave to the candidates and officials.
- Input from the candidates and officials, as well as from users of its tools and the 40 media outlets that put its tool on their websites and/or used information from its database.
ElectNext’s tool was so popular that, starting in July, the number of unique visitors to its website grew by 1,000 percent each month, finally peaking at more than 2.5 million in October.
With the presidential election over, however, interest in its matching technology has cooled off and the company has begun focusing on Dannenbaum’s initial vision for it.
To that end, it has begun compiling the same type of data on holders of and candidates for state offices that it has on their federal counterparts. It also is gathering data about politicians, organizations, legislation and issues in Philadelphia.
Ideally, Zega said, ElectNext would like to have data about all 50 states and the 100 largest metropolitan areas, but getting it might prove tricky. The company has automated its data-gathering process at the federal level, but doing that at state, and particularly local, levels isn’t as easy.
In addition, rather than just enable people to see which candidates and officials have positions that most line up with their own beliefs, ElectNext plans to develop a range of tools to keep people interested in politics.
“We are exploring and expanding our tool kit to help people engage, yes around the election, but also around all of the local activity that happens between elections,” Dannenbaum said.
ElectNext wasn’t the only website that allowed users to see which presidential candidate had the views that were most aligned with theirs. ISidewith.com, which was started by friends Taylor Peck and Nick Boutelier, did much the same thing.
“There were some days close to the election that we had over a half-million unique visitors,” Peck said.
Despite iSidewith.com’s success, Peck and Boutelier did it as a side project — Peck has his own marketing firm and Boutelier works for a startup.
“We asked for some PayPal donations to kind of cover the hosting costs,” Peck said.
They plan to add features, such as a news feed, to the site, but don’t intend to try to make money off it or seek funding to expand it.
“We don’t want to have anyone else coming in and telling us what to do,” Peck said.
Dannenbaum has been asking people what to do with ElectNext since she had the initial idea for it.
In between her first and second semesters in the Wharton MBA Program, she went to San Francisco to take a week-long class about starting web companies. Her idea for ElectNext was well received in the class, so when she got back to Wharton, she began applying to accelerator programs and got into the one for socially minded entrepreneurs run by Center City-based GoodCompany Group.
“It [had] really a specific curriculum designed to help a mission-driven company speak the language of venture capitalists,” Dannenbaum said.
It also helped her get into another accelerator program based in Philadelphia, the one run by DreamIt Ventures. That had much more of a focus on creating a product, so Dannenbaum dropped out of Wharton to attend it last fall.
Upon completing DreamIt, she got ElectNext into the Project Liberty Digital Incubator, which is housed in the headquarters of Interstate General Media LLC, the company that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, as well as philly.com.
“What was key about that was the ability to see inside of newspaper organizations and create a product for media companies,” she said.
ElectNext has since moved out of Project Liberty and now has its five employees in three places — New York, where Dannenbaum and Jake Wells, its head of product and design are based; Independents Hall, a co-working space in Old City, where Zega and Mike Toppa, its Rails engineer, work; and San Francisco, where John Mertens, its chief technology officer, is located.
ElectNext is funding its expansion with $775,000 in venture capital. Its lead investor is Brooklyn Bridge Ventures and its other investors include Comcast Corp.’s Comcast Ventures unit, DreamIt, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Comcast Ventures was a sponsor of the Minority Entrepreneur Accelerator Program, which is a program for companies led by minorities in DreamIt’s accelerator program.
DreamIt, Ben Franklin and the Knight Foundation support the Project Liberty Digital Incubator.