Since 2008, the US has seen the emergence of politically oriented tech startups, including Optimizely, Rally, and NationBuilder, which have been helping political candidates across the spectrum fundraise, organize, and optimize their digital efforts. So far, however, the political tech community has remained a world far apart from the mainstream startup world, which has been busily engaged in “disrupting” less red-tapey industries. Politics has remained a boutique industry for tech startups, to put it mildly.
Today, that community evolved just a little with one of the sector’s first and few acquisitions. National Field, a four-person startup based in Washington DC that is most known for building a Yammer-like tool for President Obama’s 2008 election campaign, is being acquired by NGP VAN, owner of the leading technology platform for Democratic and progressive causes. The two parties aren’t disclosing the terms of the deal.
NGP VAN has been credited with giving Democrats a digital edge in campaigns against Republicans, most recently in the election of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe last week. With the acquisition of National Field, NGP VAN beefs up its product suite by picking up not only National Field’s volunteer-monitoring data dashboard, but also its new social network for campaign staff and volunteers, Seeds.
The union makes NGP VAN a one-stop shop for Democratic political campaigns, matching campaign data with tools and social connections. Users will be able to log-in with one ID and get access to most of the digital tools necessary for political organizing in a campaign setting.
National Field co-founder and CEO Edward Saatchi (pictured above left, with his co-founders) says the acquisition is an indication that meaningful tech startups can be spun out of campaigns. “Here what you’re seeing is traction to the idea that campaigns are tech incubators,” he says, “and that there is a maturing political technology market.”
The only previous well-known acquisition of a political software company came when advertising group WPP bought Blue State Digital, the agency the led Obama’s fundraising and social network, in 2010. NGP VAN was formed in the same year, when the Voter Activation Network merged with NGP Software. Other political organizing software firms include Civis Analytics, Salsa Labs, Amicus, Democracy.com, and VoteRockIt.
NGP VAN’s acquisition might have provided an easy way out for National Field, which launched Seeds in July after raising $1.5 million in seed money the year before, with an eye towards the 2016 Presidential election. On its own, National Field would have faced a difficult time in commercializing its campaign tools.
For instance, ActBlue, a similar Democratic initiative that sprung from Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, failed. (Update: I was wrong about ActBlue. It has been a successful fundraising platform for candidates on the left. Sorry, ActBlue people.) At the time of Seeds’ launch, too, Rally CEO Tom Serres suggested that startups need a broader view than just a political context, because shifting attention from politicians to average consumers is a very tough ask – an experience Rally had gone through itself.
Given those circumstances, it would be difficult to frame this as a big win for either National Field or NGP VAN. But the acquisition is at least an indicator that there is some activity in the tech political ecosystem. As software startups become increasingly emboldened in taking on the political space, expect to see more such action in the years ahead.