(Photo by Flickr user BKL, used under a Creative Commons license)
In a city of acronym-laden nonprofits and government institutions, PopVox co-founder Rachna Choudhry runs an unconventional operation.
Working in a small coffee shop near Dupont Circle, she’s often asking customers to test a new feature on the free lobbying website.
Since its beta launch in November 2010, PopVox has snowballed. “Our first two users that we tested it on were our moms,” said Choudhry, the company’s chief marketing officer. “We now have close to 400,000 users.”
PopVox provides a platform for constituents to share their thoughts on specific bills in Congress. Each comment is emailed to the Capitol’s 535 offices, allowing staffers to receive real-time feedback on legislation.
When CEO Marci Harris and Choudhry first met, they were on opposite sides of a typical Washington divide. Harris, a staffer for former Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), was bristling about “being bombarded with information — but not the information she needed,” said Choudhry.
As a lobbyist for the National Partnership for Women & Families and other nonprofits, Choudhry knew how hard it was to find real constituents to voice their concerns. “The stories [that] people had to share were not getting through.”
By 2010, they had both quit their job to start a website that could bridge the communication gap.
As in any good startup fairy tale, PopVox initially faced a healthy dose of skepticism. “Congress works in very slow and mysterious ways,” explained Choudhry. “The mindset is far away“ from the daredevil culture of Silicon Valley investors.
But they soon enlisted Joshua Tauberer, the self-styled open government activist who created GovTrack and some technologically-inclined advisers like Paul Martino, managing director at Bullpen Capital. When Gov 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly jumped on board as their first angel investor, they knew the ball was rolling.
The website is now operated by a staff of seven, including a team of developers in Jackson, Tenn., plus a few enthusiastic interns. The company also has 20 to 25 paying customers — organizations ranging from the Children’s Tumor Foundation to Heritage Action for America — that purchase a PopVox widget tailored to their site.
Nathanael Yellis, Heritage Action’s digital director, said the PopVox widget — which typically costs upwards of $500 a month — is not only cheaper than other similar products. “It’s extensible,” he said, lauding its “higher conversion rates” for supporters on the site and ability to tackle “an entrenched non-tech” environment. Specifically, PopVox painstakingly emails each user comment to the Congressional offices.
He also appreciated the publicly available data on commenters’ geographical location and positions on specific legislation.
PopVox users have weighed in on more than 1.7 million bills. And they’re not necessarily your run-of-the mill tech savvy millenial. In 2013, the most commented legislation was a Democrat-backed bill to expand background checks. It drew opposition from over 14,000 PopVox users, or 98 percent of commenters.
PopVox is helping modernize the government one small step at a time. In July 2012, DemCom, the intranet of House Democrats, integrated the platform into its servers. In February 2014, PopVox launched a partnership with Regulations.gov. And in June 2014, the Library of Congress began scraping PopVox to archive each comment published on the site.
“People just feel so disconnected, they don’t feel that their voice has been heard by the decision makers in Washington,” said Choudhry. “Someone had to do this.”
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