Five Things Your Startup Can Learn From David Plouffe

[caption id=”” align=”aligncenter” width=”427” caption=”David Plouffe - Obama for America”]
[/caption] I am now making my way through the fascinating account of the historic election of President Obama, as written by the architect of the campaign David Plouffe. While I am only a few chapters in (4 1/2 actually), I couldn’t help but notice many of the parallels between the success of the campaign and the success theories preached by many in the startup community, so I decided to share them (in no particular order):
  1. Minimum Viable Product - MVP - popularized by Eric Ries, jumps out to me in the first chapter ‘Yes or No’. While Plouffe doesn’t specifically say that’s what was done, he explains that even before Obama decided to run (he actually details the constant back and forth the Obama family took before deciding to run) they started laying the ‘groundwork’ in the event that he decided to run. That included talking to people, getting feedback on how disenchanted they were with the current political environment, and most importantly discussing - relatively candidly - Obama’s positions on a host of issues. Some of which he captured in his two books - Dreams from my father & The Audacity of Hope. Although many of Barack’s speaking engagements during this time, were centered around either his book tour or his Senatorial duties, he used it as a gauge to see what his ‘customers’ really wanted. People were constantly encouraging him to run. When they did, he picked their brains. ¬†While this isn’t as explicit as building an actual product, the promotion of his ideas and policies that he would use to govern, is in effect a form of MVP for running the country.
  2. Agility - also known as rapid prototyping - During a discussion in Chapter 1, between Obama and Plouffe (Plouffe was initially just consulting Obama on a potential Presidential bid), Obama was so impressed by the work Plouffe had done to date that he asked him to manage his campaign for him, should he decide to run (much to Plouffes’ expectation that this would happen, and also consternation, Plouffe was not particularly thrilled about the idea of building an entire campaign from scratch for a fairly obscure candidate). Plouffe gave two reasons for why he might not want to do it: 1) Being that he just had a baby and was looking forward to starting a fairly stable life with his wife and growing family, and 2) he was concerned that he was ‘rusty’ because he hadn’t run a campaign in approximately 10 years (1996). The exchange then goes as follows:
    Obama: “Well I understand the hesitation on both fronts. They are valid and you need to wrestle with them. On your last point, I know there will be some rust, but I have faith you’ll shake it off quickly. You’ve never managed a presidential campaign either. But I can see you understand the rhythm and contours of a race like this. I’ve never been a presidential candidate. Hell, I’ve never had a negative ad run against me. So I think we’ll be a good team, in some ways much more so than people who have been around the track a bunch of times in their current roles. We can look at everything through a fresh set of eyes and be more agile.” Plouffe responds: “Just making it up as we go along.” Obama: “I prefer the way I put it. It sounds more appealing.”
    While this doesn’t scream ‘agile prototyping’ it speaks to the fact that, arguably, the most successful political campaign in American history (if not modern democratic - with a little ‘d’ - history), fully embraced the notion that in order to achieve their goals they have to be able to ‘make it up as they go along’ - i.e. develop, release, review, repeat. As a side note, the title of chapter 2 actually perfectly captures this ethos - ‘Taking Off While Affixing the Wings’.
  3. They were never afraid to embrace convention. I know this might sound counter-intuitive to a post about startups, and the traditional notion with startups is ‘always break convention’, but that isn’t necessarily true about all aspects of a startup life. Yes, an entrepreneur must find creative ways to survive - e.g. find creative ways to bootstrap or raise funds when traditional capital markets/funding sources are unavailable - but there is something to be said about the wisdom of not wasting your time finding ‘creative solutions’ just for the sake of it. Even though they eventually morphed into a financial behemoth due to a bajillion micro-donations ($5 - $100 each), they started off by going the regular route. That is, focussing on larger donors with dinners and events held where each attendee maxed out the amount they could contribute - $2,300 per person. So for some things, even one of the most important aspects of a startup like financing - sometimes going a more conventional route can work - e.g. bank loan, line of credit/equity, etc - even if it is for a period of time. You don’t always have to be pitching to that ’star VC or angel’. Yes it would be nice if they funded you, but it often takes a lot of time away from product development. Sometimes, it is good to do what works and leverage what you have access to in the short-term, then evolve as needed.
  4. Keep good people around you. Paul Graham, a famous angel investor, often talks about the importance of having a good founding team in the early days. Drew Houston, of Dropbox fame, also stressed how important it is to surround yourself with good people early, in his talk at Startup Bootcamp at MIT. He repeatedly emphasized how early hires, even outside of picking a good cofounder, is important. Similarly, Plouffe explains how Obama - in the early days - insisted on the ‘No Asshole’ policy. He also acknowledges that while they were the ‘fledgling campaign that could’, many of the staid/’qualified’ people were already committed to the Clinton campaign and other more well-known candidates. As a result of that, they were forced to look outside of Washington for talent - which he credits for contributing to the rigorous discipline of the campaign that produced no media leaks earning the campaign moniker ’No Drama Obama’.
  5. Last, but definitely not least, Plouffe routinely breaks down the quantitative elements of the campaign. Metrics, metrics, metrics. Plouffe famously sent out an email to reporters, early in the campaign, trying to shift the focus from the amount of money raised to more important metrics - like the growing number of donors, the percentage of their donor base that is nowhere near exceeding their maximum donation limit, the number of activist supporters they can mobilize at a moments notice, etc. All of these metrics, now in retrospect, clearly show how the movement was growing and that the election was going to be historic. Traditional candidates ignored many of these important metrics to their peril. Plouffe also details how the Clinton camp mistakenly ignored Iowa, the first state to hold elections - which were caucuses, and as a result of a poor depth of metrics they (the Clintonites) weren’t able to realize the significant advantage the Obama camp was gaining by being on the ground many months in advance. Plouffe also conducted rigorous focus groups often, to gauge the response of the electorate not just to his candidate, Obama, but to all his opponents - thereby providing more metrics on their relative performance. Plouffe’s ability to sift through all this data, and make meaning of everything, provided a significant advantage to the campaign when deciding on specific policy initiatives they need to focus on (whether it was detecting growing unease from the electorate about Obama not having a health care policy fleshed out early) and deciding the tone of the message. Based on what I have read so far, of everything that Plouffe constantly goes back to, he emphasizes how important his various metrics and measurements were to the entire campaign. Paul Graham argues that is the same approach all startups should take - ’You make what you measure’, as does Andrew Chen argue the importance of metrics - ’If you’re not going to do something about it, it may not be worth measuring’ and many others.
While these topics are often discussed in many forums, and many thinkers in the startup space are now formalizing them and proposing frameworks around these concepts, it’s interesting to see how successful enterprises (in this case a presidential campaign) use some of these principles that significantly contributed to success.