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.
If you ask your CMO or VP of Engineering what growth hacking means to them, they’ll both probably have different answers. The fact of the matter is that growth hacking means different things to different people. According to Wikipedia:
Growth hacking is a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business. Growth hackers are marketers, engineers and product managers that specifically focus on building and engaging the user base of a business.
When I hear “growth hacking” I feel I’ve been doing it for years, it just never had an official name until Sean Ellis coined the phrase in 2010. According to Sean, a growth hacker is someone whose strategies, tactics and innovations are all based on growing the business. But wait, you might be thinking, isn’t that marketing’s sole job?
According to Aaron Ginn, co-founder of the Lincoln Initiative, the difference between a growth hacker and a marketer are the tactics. He answers this question on Quora:
“Both growth hackers and marketers have similar goals, but growth hackers have a different method to their madness. Growth hackers focus on core product. When they are working on acquisition and engagement, they start at the product to move the needle. Growth hackers, in almost every form and shape, live in the product team.
Marketers [however] are often ostracized to working on “campaigns” and external measures to move the needle. Most of the time, a marketer’s interaction with product stops at the landing page.”
When looking at examples of growth hacking a lot of folks cite the case study of AirBnB. The brilliance of how they used growth hacking by cleverly integrating their product (via reverse engineering) with Craigslist and allowing users to also share their abode for rent on the popular site. However, further research indicates that it was also a combination of this, a stellar UX, some bootstrapping techniques, plus, a focused PR strategy which targeted events that would sell out, such as SXSW and subsequently the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
The truth is, anyone can be a growth hacker. You don’t necessarily need to be an engineer, a marketer, or a PR strategist. As marketers become more data-driven, You just need to be solely focused on one goal: growth, and constantly be iterating. Florian Mettetal, a growth hacker at Indiegogo shared a definition he believes in, which says:
A growth hacker finds a strategy within the parameters of a scalable and repeatable method for growth, driven by product and inspired by data.
Some key characteristics of growth hackers are:
- Constantly learning
- Aggressively and constantly iterating
- Obsessed with data
- Innovates at a rapid pace
- Pushes the needle
How have you growthhacked your business? Let us know in the comments below or email me your story at firstname.lastname@example.org and maybe we’ll feature your start-up in an upcoming blog.