If you ask Jonathan Marks or Alex Wirth which members of Congress Tweet the most about cyber security, they’ll be able to tell you with ease using technology built by their startup, Quorum. Quorum is a government tech startup whose software helps anyone (companies, nonprofits, citizens) to influence the legislative process.
We recently sat down with co-founder Jonathan Marks to talk about the challenges he and Alex faced when launching their startup, how email fits into their business, and the road ahead.
Email is a core essential of Quorum’s business, from using it to send thousands of emails to every staffer on the Hill to to mobilizing grassroots movements. As a bootstrap startup they have not raised any external capital and are not self-funded. When we asked Jonathan what makes Quorum work so well, he says that it’s the fact that he works with an incredible team of people who have been able to build a truly comprehensive product integrating federal, state, local, and grassroots community management into one system.
One unique thing about this team of 28 full-time employees is that the majority of them, including Jonathan and Alex, live together in three houses in D.C.’s Friendship Heights. Both Jonathan and Alex live in the main house, which also happens to be where the development team works. In fact, all but one or two engineers live in the provided housing. They take the term “WFH” literally. Although it may sound like an extension of college or a scene from the hit show, Silicon Valley, it actually came out of a need to find affordable housing after graduating from Harvard and moving to D.C but has grown into a central part of Quorum’s culture.
In addition to housing, Quorum also provides meals for their employees. When they first started out, Jonathan cooked dinners six nights a week. However, now other members chip in and rotate chef duties. They recruit from all over the country and their pitch of “We have a great job opportunity for you to come work in a startup environment and we’ll even provide housing to reduce the stress of moving (and meals)” is compelling to younger applicants.
What’s the one thing they didn’t see coming when launching Quorum? Sometimes a little idea can take off and develop a path of its own, which can get away from the founders. Jonathan reminisces and says,
“Where we started with Quorum was a much smaller idea and much smaller concept than what we are doing now. Originally, it was nothing more than an analytics tool to help our users figure out relationships of key members of Congress and understand how to use that data of those relationships to be more effective in targeting people to add to coalitions. It was very small, very focused. That piece now forms a minuscule portion of our overall product. It is now one tool of hundreds and not the main thing we do. From that perspective, it’s been a surprise. As we talk to our clients and learn the problems that they have and work night and day to solve those problems we constantly learn more about where this company should go and how we can improve our product.”
Initially, they talked to around 30 political advocates in D.C. to understand their day-to-day pain points when trying to organize their advocacy work. From those meetings Jonathan and Alex created a long list of features they wanted to implement. They are still working through that list, however, just recently they finally crossed off one big item from the list: the ability to get fast access to high quality transcripts of committee hearings and political events around the country. Now within 10 minutes of a significant televised political event, they get the full transcript and push out alerts to all of their clients live as it is happening, in real-time (thanks in part to SparkPost). You can read their full case study on how they use SparkPost’s relay webhooks, SMTP server and API, here.
As with any business, failure is the best way to succeed. As a bootstrap company, it’s always difficult determining when and where to spend money. Jonathan shared there have been a couple of occasions where early on they didn’t sponsor a conference or didn’t move quickly enough to close a deal. His advice now:
“If you can afford it, you should do it because you never know what’s going to come out of it and it will be more beneficial for your business in the long run.”
When we asked Jonathan what’s the best piece of advice he’s ever gotten that he’d like to pass on to other entrepreneurs, he gave us a piece his Dad shared with him:
“One of the things my Dad taught me that is fundamental to how I think about leadership is that leaders have to be willing and able to do any task that they ask their subordinates to do. Even though it’s not my job to fix every bug or build every piece of the product, why should my team respect me if I couldn’t or wouldn’t do a job that enables the whole team to be successful.”
What’s next for Quorum? Read their case study to find out.