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Knowledge from failure
Micah Sifry and Matt Stempeck
#learnfail
“I have not failed. I’ve just found
10,000 ways that won’t work.”
- Thomas Edison
“Always make new mistakes.”
- Esther Dyson
Civic tech is full of successes
Crowdfunding: Kickstarter,
GoFundme, Ulule, Startnext
Feedback/ideation platforms:
PlaceSpeak, Neighborland
Issue reporting: FixMyStreet,
SeeClickFix, Repara Ciudad
Voter information: Democracy.works,
VoteMatch.edu
Organizing platforms:
NationBuilder, ActionNetwork
Petition platforms: Change.org
Local community forums: Front Porch
Forum, Local Circles
Event organizing: Meetup
Benefits access: mRelief, Benefit
Kitchen
Open data management: Socrata
Constituent communications:
Granicus
But failure isn’t
unusual
75%
of VC-funded tech startups in the United States fail
(out of 2000 startups with >$1M funding between 2004-10)
Top reasons start-ups give for failing
No market need: 42% Poor marketing: 14%
Out of money: 29% Bad timing: 13%
Not the right team: 23% Lack of focus: 13%
Got outcompeted: 19% Bad pivot: 10%
Pricing/cost issues: 18% Lack of passion: 9%
Product too hard to use: 17% Failed expansion: 9%
(Source: CB Insights, Feb 2018)
Patterns of
Civic tech
failure
1. Not enough
users
Even with ample funding, if
you build it,
they don’t come
(see “lean startups”)
2.pruning weaker
projects
We can’t sustain everything,
and sometimes it’s already
being done well elsewhere
3. Talent
acquisition
A promising startup, but
maybe a more valuable team
5 clusters of failure
Of 44 entities in the Field
Guide graveyard, two-thirds
were in just 5 categories:
9 were collective action via
crowdfunding/sourcing
7 were social networks for
politics/engagement
6 were opinion matching
sites
3 were local forums
3 were civic discussion hubs
1.Failed Collective action hubs
PledgeBank (2005-2015)
The Point (2007-2008)
CarrotMob (2008-2013)
Loudsauce/Louder (2009-2015)
RedBlue Voice (2011-2012)
The Spring (2013-2014)
CivicShopping (2013-2014)
If.Then.Fund (2014-2017)
Citizinvestor (2014-2017)
Lessons
The dilemma of collective action is
real
Don’t ask people to do something
really hard or out-of-the-ordinary
Other entry points (like petitions)
gather crowds more effectively
Simple as-needed solutions (like
#hashtag campaigns + GoFundMe) beat
hubs
Urgency matters
2. Failed social networks for politics
Speakout.com (1999-2001)
Voter.com (1999-2001)
HotSoup.com (2006-2007)
GovTrack Insider (2009-2010)
VoteIQ.com (2010-2012)
OpenCongress.org (2005-2016)
WashingtonWatch.com (2008-2017)
lessons
Politics is complicated
Politics is partisan
Random site visitors aren’t of
interest to representatives
Incumbent hubs serve well enough
Winning SEO isn’t enough
Nifty features may not grow a
consistent user base
3. failed opinion matching sites
GoVote.com (1997-2000)
Dnet.org (1997-2006)
Jumo.com (2010-2011)
Votizen (2010-2013)
ElectNext.com (2011-2013)
Simpolfy (2014-2017)
lessons
Politics is complicated
Politics is partisan
“Who should I vote for” is not a
“toothbrush problem”
Social sharing of personal voting
information is not commonplace
enough
4. Failed hyper-local forums
Outside/In (2006-2011, acquired by
AOL-Patch)
Everyblock (2007-2009, acquired by
MSNBC)
Blockboard (2010-2012)
lessons
No one can make hyper-local news
work
Timing? Pre-smartphones?
Timing? Now Google and Facebook are
highlighting local news
Twitter and Facebook filled the
hyper-local gap
This is one reason we are
building the civic tech field
guide
Add your data
Help organize civic tech
www.bitly.com/organizecivictech
Micah Sifry
micah@civichall.org
Matt Stempeck
stempeck@gmail.com
5. Failed civic discussion forums
DebateAmerica (1999-2002)
Essembly (2005-2006)
Civil Pursuit (2013-2017)
lessons
Americans aren’t searching for
cross-partisan debate opportunities
Culture? British debate sites
appear to be thriving

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Knowledge from failure: learnings from the Civic Tech Field Guide (Matt Stempeck and Micah L. Sifry - Civic Hall)

  • 1. Knowledge from failure Micah Sifry and Matt Stempeck #learnfail
  • 2. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas Edison
  • 3. “Always make new mistakes.” - Esther Dyson
  • 4. Civic tech is full of successes Crowdfunding: Kickstarter, GoFundme, Ulule, Startnext Feedback/ideation platforms: PlaceSpeak, Neighborland Issue reporting: FixMyStreet, SeeClickFix, Repara Ciudad Voter information: Democracy.works, VoteMatch.edu Organizing platforms: NationBuilder, ActionNetwork Petition platforms: Change.org Local community forums: Front Porch Forum, Local Circles Event organizing: Meetup Benefits access: mRelief, Benefit Kitchen Open data management: Socrata Constituent communications: Granicus
  • 6. 75% of VC-funded tech startups in the United States fail (out of 2000 startups with >$1M funding between 2004-10)
  • 7. Top reasons start-ups give for failing No market need: 42% Poor marketing: 14% Out of money: 29% Bad timing: 13% Not the right team: 23% Lack of focus: 13% Got outcompeted: 19% Bad pivot: 10% Pricing/cost issues: 18% Lack of passion: 9% Product too hard to use: 17% Failed expansion: 9% (Source: CB Insights, Feb 2018)
  • 9. 1. Not enough users Even with ample funding, if you build it, they don’t come (see “lean startups”)
  • 10. 2.pruning weaker projects We can’t sustain everything, and sometimes it’s already being done well elsewhere
  • 11. 3. Talent acquisition A promising startup, but maybe a more valuable team
  • 12. 5 clusters of failure Of 44 entities in the Field Guide graveyard, two-thirds were in just 5 categories: 9 were collective action via crowdfunding/sourcing 7 were social networks for politics/engagement 6 were opinion matching sites 3 were local forums 3 were civic discussion hubs
  • 13. 1.Failed Collective action hubs PledgeBank (2005-2015) The Point (2007-2008) CarrotMob (2008-2013) Loudsauce/Louder (2009-2015) RedBlue Voice (2011-2012) The Spring (2013-2014) CivicShopping (2013-2014) If.Then.Fund (2014-2017) Citizinvestor (2014-2017)
  • 14. Lessons The dilemma of collective action is real Don’t ask people to do something really hard or out-of-the-ordinary Other entry points (like petitions) gather crowds more effectively Simple as-needed solutions (like #hashtag campaigns + GoFundMe) beat hubs Urgency matters
  • 15. 2. Failed social networks for politics Speakout.com (1999-2001) Voter.com (1999-2001) HotSoup.com (2006-2007) GovTrack Insider (2009-2010) VoteIQ.com (2010-2012) OpenCongress.org (2005-2016) WashingtonWatch.com (2008-2017)
  • 16. lessons Politics is complicated Politics is partisan Random site visitors aren’t of interest to representatives Incumbent hubs serve well enough Winning SEO isn’t enough Nifty features may not grow a consistent user base
  • 17. 3. failed opinion matching sites GoVote.com (1997-2000) Dnet.org (1997-2006) Jumo.com (2010-2011) Votizen (2010-2013) ElectNext.com (2011-2013) Simpolfy (2014-2017)
  • 18. lessons Politics is complicated Politics is partisan “Who should I vote for” is not a “toothbrush problem” Social sharing of personal voting information is not commonplace enough
  • 19. 4. Failed hyper-local forums Outside/In (2006-2011, acquired by AOL-Patch) Everyblock (2007-2009, acquired by MSNBC) Blockboard (2010-2012)
  • 20. lessons No one can make hyper-local news work Timing? Pre-smartphones? Timing? Now Google and Facebook are highlighting local news Twitter and Facebook filled the hyper-local gap
  • 21. This is one reason we are building the civic tech field guide
  • 22. Add your data Help organize civic tech www.bitly.com/organizecivictech Micah Sifry micah@civichall.org Matt Stempeck stempeck@gmail.com
  • 23. 5. Failed civic discussion forums DebateAmerica (1999-2002) Essembly (2005-2006) Civil Pursuit (2013-2017)
  • 24. lessons Americans aren’t searching for cross-partisan debate opportunities Culture? British debate sites appear to be thriving