Votizen is a startup website that automatically scans a user’s social networks for friends who are registered voters and allows users to collaborate with those friends on virtual campaigns for real political candidates. But it ultimately aims to be the “Napster,” of politics — disrupting the political process in the same way that old file-sharing website rocked the music industry.
So it helps that Votizen just received a $450,000 round of funding from Napster founder Sean Parker, as well as celebrity investors including Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter, among others, as All Things D first reported Thursday night.
“The big names believe in our goals and mission, and they have good resources to back it up,” said Votizen CEO David Binetti, in a phone interview with TPM on Friday.
Parker, for his part, is famed not just for Napster but for his early involvement in Facebook and Spotify. He initially invested in Votizen through his Founders Fund in 2010, part of a $1.5 million round of venture capital funding. He also sits on Votizen’s Board of Directors.
Parker is “intimately involved” with the design and engineering of Votizen, said Binetti.
“He’s constantly asking how do we make it [Votizen] more impactful and useful,” Binetti explained, “He has this incredible insight on product and how it can be tuned for social engagement and social use.”
But as Binetti pointed out, he’s just one of a group of investors that the Mountain View, California-based company selected due to their varied experiences in different industries and unwavering commitment to the project.
“Part of why we chose these investors is that they are all highly supportive,” Binetti elaborated. “Ron Conway” a famed Angel investor, “will walk through brick wall for you.”
As for what Votizen intends to do with its latest infusion of cash, Binetti waved off any thoughts of the startup acquiring other companies, saying that the latest round of funding will go toward helping the company hire programming talent in the fiercely competitive labor market in Silicon Valley.
“The point is to accelerate our hiring,” said Binetti, “Good engineers cost money. We’re going to continue our aggressive hiring and find super exceptional people.”
Votizen’s team currently comprises only 11 people, but Binetti said that the new funding could help the team nearly double in size, but that there wasn’t a target number of staff.
What Votizen’s engineers will be and have been working on since the Web company was founded in 2009 is creating the first online database of all registered voters and allowing those voters to connect and interact on political campaigns via the social networks of their choosing.
Users can sign up for the website using their preferred social network — the website currently supports sign-ins using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Then, Votizen’s software searches through a user’s friends list to find other users who are registered voters, based on their names and other information available on their profiles.
Getting the registered voter data of the 200 million registered voters into Votizen’s database was no easy feat to begin with, as every state keeps its own disparate voting records.
“We received one file of voters that came in on magnetic tape,” Binetti told TPM. “It was a giant 18 inch roll, like a James Bond movie from 1965.”
Even more ambitiously, the site — which currently allows voters to virtually canvas for and endorse national candidates for President and Congress by flooding people’s social networks with campaign material — aims to eventually have updated, real-time data on all the policial races around the country, down to the local government level.
“Half a million people run for office of one form or another in this country,” Binetti said, “But there’s no place where that data is collected or maintained — yet.”
As for how Votizen intends to make money, that too is tightly interwoven with its plan to change political gamesmanship, perhaps controversially so.
As All Things D’s Liz Gannes reported:
Eventually, Votizen hopes politicians and activists will pay to reach people in certain regions or interest groups, similar to the way LinkedIn makes money by charging users to contact people they don’t know.
Binetti explained to TPM that this idea was still being mulled over, along with many other monetization strategies, countering the suggestion that his website could become overrun with special interest funding or fall into the same old “politics as usual” pattern.
“If someone pays you to push something to a friend, I don’t think that’s likely going to be a viable strategy,” Binetti said. “I don’t think you’d do it if you didn’t belive it and your friend wouldn’t like it. But theres value in brokering relationships, helping connect people to voters they need to mobilize, and investigating and exploring different ways to give value to voters.”
Binetti said that thanks to the funding from investors, his team had time to concentrate on thinking of its product and users first, rather than earning money.
“Our users will show us the way,” Binetti said.
And as for whether the company plans to expand it’s support to other social networks, such as the current craze, Pinterest, Binetti said that Votizen was working to ensure it would be available for wherever its users chose to share their political sentiments. (It currently has a Pinterest page.)
“Describing this as a ‘new social network for voters,’ or the ‘Facebook of politics,’ is a bit misleading,” Binetti said of Votizen. “There already is a Facebook for politics. It’s called Facebook. You have to provide something of value above and beyond that.”