Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Winning as outsiders


How did they build it? By bootstrapping?

This week many in the blogosphere were lamenting our inability to instill passion or install spines in Senate Democrats opposing the elevation of Justice Alito. More than once I dropped something like this on a comment thread:

Folks are going to have to get really used to understanding that we are outsiders. That isn't the end of the world. When the country was founded, a majority were outsiders -- not white, male property owners. The outsiders have progressively forced their way inside. The current Right wants to shove a lot of us back out. So we have to organize like outsiders, expecting very little from the Democrats except when we make them behave.

Sure, it is awful. But there really is no choice.

Guy Kawasaki was one of the "evangelists" who sold the creative, antic appeal of the original Macintosh to a world that had believed computers were for geeks or bean counters. He is now a venture capitalist whose blog Let the Good Times Roll serves as an amusing marketing experiment for his current ventures. Recently he put up a post aimed at start-up entrepreneurs about what he calls The Art of Bootstrapping. I find it interesting to think about what Kawasaki's advice to fledgling businesses might mean to outsider advocacy or candidate campaigns. In the following material, Kawasaki's advice is in italics.

1) Focus on cash flow, not profitability. The theory is that profits are the key to survival. If you could pay the bills with theories, this would be fine. The reality is that you pay bills with cash, so focus on cash flow. For outsiders this means: don't plan on raising the money you need from the big guys, at least at first. Don't make your campaign plan on the assumption that you'll get the big grant or hit with the big donor. Instead, try to project simply how you can make payroll. As long as you can do that, you can move forward and create the momentum that might lead to bigger money.

2) Forecast from the bottom up. Because big media, especially TV, have big impact, it is easy to get fixated on what you could do if you could buy enough gross rating points to saturate your intended market with your message. But that route to influence is not for outsiders. Instead you need to multiply the number of ways you deliver message rather than trying first to overwhelm your audience. On a city size campaign, this can imply that given the choice of one really glossy, classy brochure or 15 literature tables in popular locations for a weekend with ugly but serviceable paper flyers, go for those tables.

3) Ship, then test. Outsiders get their propaganda out the door, then refine the message based on the feedback. Because we are outsiders, we really don't know what will work when we try it out. We write letters, set up and frequent blogs, make flyers, put up stickers and hammer at our points. In a political campaign, the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

4) Forget the "proven" team. Proven teams are over-rated -- especially when most people define proven teams as people who worked for a billion dollar company for the past ten years. These folks are accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and it's not the bootstrapping lifestyle. Hire young, cheap, and hungry people. You don't need the most experienced political consultant or pollster. In fact, because the ones with reputations have usually gotten to be insiders and organize like insiders, you don't want them even if you could get them. And you can't. You need people who care about your issue or candidate, who will work, and learn.

5) Start as a service business. Build a base by giving the people you want to recruit something they want. For a great story about working this way, read Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights by Jennifer Gordon. Advocates offered legal assistance to exploited immigrant workers by training them about their legal rights and eventually won major wage raises and a domestic workers bill of rights from New York State legislators. With imagination, most campaigns can use this advice. For those trying to replace incumbents, think candidate training workshops!

6) Focus on function, not form. Design great stuff, but buy cheap stuff. Outsiders don't need the best of everything, just good enough. Used copiers and borrowed office space is okay. (Don't apply this advice to databases or accounting though.)

7) Bootstrappers pick their battles. They don't fight on all fronts because they cannot afford to fight on all fronts. Yes, you have lots of battles. For political outsiders, this means that you have to look around for people who are already in the field who might be your friends. This can be made difficult by the fact that advocacy financing and political office are finite competitive resources, so there will be pressure on you to go it alone, to pretend you have the only solution to the problem you are working on. Try not to do this if you can help it. Work with others as much as you can, even if they resist your presence in the field.

8) Understaff. Self-exploitation is the only way to get started without money. Accept this and recruit others who can live with it.

9) Go direct. The optimal number of mouths (or hands) between a bootstrapper and her customer is zero. In a campaign, your best and cheapest resource is the candidate's time. An outsider candidate has to be open to grotesque, non-stop, self-exploitation for the duration -- that means being willing to go to every meeting, meet every voter, shake every hand, answer every question, over and over. In an advocacy campaign, this means, though you try to play well with others, being at every possible event with your own materials, never depending on friendly organizations to get the nuts and bolts organizing done, never thinking organizational or celebrity endorsements will carry the day without your shoe leather.

10) Position against the leader. Don't have the money to explain your story starting from scratch? Then don't try. Instead position against the leader. This bit of business advice is about how to break into a Microsoft world. Political outsiders are trying to break into a Republicrat world. I don't mean to imply we need a third party; I'm writing for outsiders who aim to move the Democrats. You need to promise through your actions and propaganda that you recognize how establishment Dems do it -- and promise to fill the niche for those who want it done better. You can. Their results are not that good these days.

11) Take the "red pill." This refers to the choice that Neo made in The Matrix. The red pill led to learning the whole truth. The blue pill meant waking up wondering if you had a bad dream. Bootstrappers don't have the luxury to take the blue pill. They take the red pill -- everyday -- to find out how deep the rabbit hole really is. Stay real. The beginning of political wisdom is understanding what forces you have and what you can really do. As you have a few minor successes (and a lot of failures), don't believe your own endorsement interviews or grant applications. Hang on to your vision -- and know what force you really have. Use it. Build it. Win.

2 comments:

Hudson said...

For someone who has just come off a six-year (winning) campaign as an outsider/underdog grassroots group against a giant corporation, this post is right on the money on almost every topic.

It is actually stunning how closely Kawasaki's advice mirrors the strategies and tactics that we used when the odds were 100-1 against our winning. Jan makes a very insightful connection by bringing these two subjects together (grassroots organizing and business startups).

Nell said...

Jan, this is outstanding and inspiring. Thanks so much.

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