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After more than a year of 20-hour work days, weeks on the road, and countless productive but unfruitful pitches, Dirk Gadsden (my fantastic cofounder) and I had an epiphany: Govtech is broken, and our startup, TallyVoting, is dead.
We built the best product in our market and developed a vision of empowering citizens to hold their government accountable on election day. In just a few months, we had reversed decades of friction and distrust that keep most people from engaging with democracy. But the glacial nature of government, the apprehension of investors, and our own idealistic naiveté doomed us.
Why we built it
Tally solved three problems: security, cost, and accessibility.
We have thousands of pages of research from some of the top forensic experts and computers scientists at the best universities in the world. We’ve spent countless hours doing our own testing and investigation. All of this research points to the terrifying vulnerability of the United States’ voting infrastructure. If you can believe it, most DRE (direct-recording election) touch screen voting machines and optical scanners store vote records unencrypted on compact flash cards or similar media. These machines don’t receive regular software updates, and a great number are actually physically falling apart. Bottom line: It’s surprisingly easy to manipulate the outcome of an election and leave virtually zero fingerprints.
When Dirk and I were first exploring the idea of building Tally, we started collecting product catalogs from the top voting machine makers in the country — ES&S (formerly Diebold), HartIntercivic, and Dominion. Our jaws hit the floor when we realized that, in the USA, DRE/Optical Scanning combination units were approaching $14,000 per voting booth. And voter check-in devices, effectively glorified netbooks, were being sold for over $1,500 apiece. With so little competition, incumbent tech companies were and are robbing taxpayers blind.
To add insult to penury, the actual experience of voting sucks. In technology, we call that friction. There are long lines, voter ID complications, even more long lines, poorly designed software and miscalibrated touch screens, just to name a few. This friction is part of the reason most US states are making a push back to paper-based voting: Paper doesn’t break down constantly.
We built a SaaS-based product and rethought the entire system from the ground up. Instead of paying a vendor for expensive and proprietary hardware that is obsolete before the first vote is cast, governments could source third-party Android and iOS tablets that run our software inside a secure universal enclosure with a backup receipt printer and backup battery. This modern technology also enabled us to push regular updates to the devices as needed.
We raised a pre-seed round, including our own money, to build out the product. Despite having made many technical accomplishments and great progress towards a much larger round, we eventually realized we would have to wind down the business.
So what went wrong?
Governments move slowly compared to regular industry. Compared to the tech sector, government moves at a glacial pace. Selling stuff — not just technology — to government requires sourcing leads, submitting proposals and counter-proposals, securing external certification, periods for official and public comments, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of process.
This is wholly incompatible with the rapid pace of development, deployment, and validation in the tech sector. Traction is measured in days, weeks, and months in tech. The process of selling to government takes years and requires large up-front and over-time expenditures of capital and personnel.
That long sales cycle doesn’t give a small bootstrapped startup a chance to demonstrate the potential of its concept and technology. (Unsurprisingly, the already-giant vendors with a stronghold on the market are more than able to handle this long cycle. They’re also more interested in profits than improvements and innovation.) It also doesn’t give the little startups the opportunity to show traction and product-market fit.
Making the situation more difficult, every investor we met had no experience with a govtech company. The closest a handful of them got were civic tech investments, which are very different in that they deal with citizens, not government. We thought this could be offset by education and the incredibly large contracts we had in the pipeline, both national and international. We created a solid deck and impressive prototypes and found many allies in governments around the country. However, when we got to partner meetings, long sales cycles killed us every single time. From an investment perspective, startups in almost any space need demonstrated sales to get funded. No matter how well you communicate the market potential and demonstrate your product, the long, uncertain process of working with and selling to government is just too great a risk for most investors.
Govtech needs an ecosystem not bound by geography but by mission. Through the process, my cofounder and I realized just how alone we were in this space. There was remarkably little guidance, support or even examples to be found from companies, investors, and founders who had navigated these waters successfully. Very few have tried to innovative in this sector, even fewer have gotten close to success, and virtually no one cares enough to put their time or money into it.
But the tech space is just one half of this problem; government needs to change too. The openness, review, and accountability in the process of selling to government is a worthwhile thing. It allows the public to review what the government is doing on their behalf (and with their tax dollars). However, that process is also — to a degree — an obstruction to innovation.
Technology moves much, much faster than government, and if government wants to take advantage of the all the potential and innovation happening in technology, then it needs to find a new middle ground between the Wild West of the market in the tech sector and the sluggish, innovation-stifling ways of old.
Without Silicon Valley and startups, it’s unlikely government will get far on its own. What’s unclear is how much of an appetite venture capital has for seed stage companies trying to take on clumsy government contracting incumbents selling outdated products and services.
Harlan Hill is the CEO of now-shuttering Washington D.C.-based TallyVoting. He’s a former political consultant on issue-based campaigns for labor unions, including AFT, SEIU and FEA, and more than 27 US Congressional campaigns, six US Senate campaigns, eight constitutional statewide campaigns and dozens of local campaigns, and he previously advised issue advocacy campaigns for several Fortune 500 companies, including American Airlines, AT&T, and Cisco.
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