Bringing New Voice to Policy Change with Dr. Ximena Hartsock
Conversation with Dr. Ximena Hartsock, Founder, Phone2Action
Bringing New Voice to Policy Change
October 23, 2019
1. What is your business?
Phone2Action is a software company, based in Virginia, that powers grassroots advocacy and public affairs. We enable organizations and companies, and their supporters, to take action on issues that matter to them.
Take, for example, the American Libraries Association. Let’s say they are trying to mobilize people to support a reading initiative. The association can use Phone2Action to mobilize constituents all around the country to reach out to federal, state and local lawmakers and officials, asking them to support key policies.
Hundred of nonprofits, trade associations and companies that are interested in issue advocacy use Phone2Action. This is how it works: we make it easy for organizations to reach out to their supporters, and these supporters then contact lawmakers in many different ways. It could be via Twitter, phone or through a private email conversation. Our technology enables direct communication between constituents and the legislators who represent them, with the Phone2Action platform matching them up so that the right message goes to the right lawmaker. People often share personal stories, which are incredibly impactful.
One of those stories that made a difference came from a New York mother, whose five-year-old daughter passed away in her kindergarten classroom because no one knew how to provide CPR. The American Heart Association campaign featured her story and explained how CPR training can save lives. The story embedded in Phone2Action tools motivated others to contact their lawmakers and eventually CPR legislation was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. The ability to connect and tell these stories is very powerful but as constituents, we don’t always take advantage of it.
Among other things our platform allows this one-to-one communication to take place. Constituents do not need to know the name of their legislators or have contact information. The platform makes a match and delivers the messages to the right officials. Other tools include email marketing, reporting, CRM capabilities, phone calls, text messaging and GOTV.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I had the idea in 2012 when I was the head of grassroots advocacy for a national education nonprofit. When I was organizing and mobilizing people, I saw how badly they wanted to connect with lawmakers. They just didn’t know how. Lawmakers wanted the same thing. They need to know how their constituents feel about policies and issues before casting votes. In my conversations with lawmakers, I saw that they genuinely wanted to take the pulse of their constituency before making policy. Not only do they want constituent support on issues, but they also sometimes need political cover when they cast a vote.
When I had the idea to create Phone2Action, I was not trying to become an entrepreneur. I was genuinely obsessed with creating a solution. Many people expressed their doubts, but my gut told me I was onto something and I did not give up. I started looking for a developer to help me build the technology and found my co-founder, Jeb Ory who had experience creating mobile apps, he was able to give the idea legs. The people I talked to prior to that dismissed the idea. But when Jeb got involved, we were able to create a clear vision of the product. I knew what the solution was, and together we figured out how to turn it into a product and a business.
In 2013, we built the first iteration of the platform and brought that idea to the SXSW Conference. We won the prestigious interactive accelerator competition, the same one that Siri won in that category a few years prior. This recognition helped us get some buzz and later acquire seed funding to hire our first engineer. We launched the platform in 2014. Now, we have an 82-person company based in Rosslyn, Virginia, in the Washington DC metropolitan area.
We chose Washington because it is where our clients are located. Washington is home to the largest nonprofit organizations and it is America’s hub for legislative and regulatory action. Washington also attracts many young professionals and has a growing tech sector, which is great for recruiting.
3. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
Everyone has been very helpful and supportive. I actually have personal friends who I met several jobs ago, who have followed me from job to job and who work with me now. They have been an amazing help in growing the company and creating a network. People always say, “don’t hire your friends” but I think the opposite. When you work with people you trust and you have developed a relationship, those people can be extremely helpful in growing the company—they are a tremendous support in every way. They were employees first, then friends, now the relationship is richer when we work together.
I also could not ask for a better husband. Being an entrepreneur is not always glamorous. In the first few months, when I had no income, my husband was the only provider for us. He never complains about my long hours, he listens, he supports where he can (he set up our first wifi and Internet network) . When we were going through due diligence in our latest transaction and were working non-stop, he was both mom and dad to our then 5-month-old. You can’t build a business alone. Success is the result of a supportive network.
4. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
I belong to the Consumer Technology Association which brings together about 2,000 tech and electronics companies from across the United States. The CEO, Gary Shapiro, has been incredible to us, providing the advice, access and exposure we needed, especially when we were small.
The Consumer Technology Association has a startup membership that is very inexpensive and allowed us to connect with successful entrepreneurs, find mentors, attend the massive CES electronics show in Las Vegas and other excellent events, where we expanded our network and met clients.
Gary also endorsed me to be a member of the exclusive Economic Club of Washington. The Economic Club is run by Mary Brady, who is a trailblazer and has been tremendously supportive of women. The exposure the Economic Club has given me is invaluable.
More recently, I helped start Women in Civic Tech, a community of women who are passionate about the power of technology to transform the relationship between people and government. Our mission is to support, amplify and lift up the efforts of women in our industry. Hopefully, I can give others the type of help that I received.
5. How have you been able to grow professionally? What tools have you used?
Being a member of the Consumer Technology Association, CTA, has been great. We joined CTA startup program which is especially designed for young companies with many benefits but very affordable. Through Gary Shapiro, who is the head of CTA I became a member of the Washington Economic Club. The Economic Club is a robust network of entrepreneurs in Washington that you get to meet in the many events they organize. Both organizations have been very supportive and I am now a board member of each.
I also learn a lot just working a Phone2Action. I manage the engineering, operations and customer success teams. They are all so different and enable learning in very different areas. I have learned about setting up secure technologies, working with H1B visas for engineers, talking to customers, conducting due diligence for venture fundraising and a great deal more. I was in government education and then in advocacy, so it was a big leap to work in technology. Some skills transfer, but some don’t, so learning by doing has been very helpful.
6. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?
Our first customers were our first investors. They believed in our product and many of them are still with us today. I didn’t take a salary for months because we used our revenue to hire engineers and buy the basic things. Later on, we did a round of seed funding first, followed by a Series A financing in 2017, and recently this year we exited some of our stock and completed a growth round.
Getting outside funding is always hard, especially for women. Last year, only about two percent of venture capital was directed to women-led companies. That is in part because investors give their money to those they believe can multiply it for them. The more traction women-led businesses get, the more investment will go to women. It’s hard because is like the chicken and the egg but those like me who get funding and some level of success have the responsibility to share it to build that path for others.
7. Who did you speak to for support as you were working on the idea/launch?
The idea came to me when I was a director of grassroots advocacy at a nonprofit, so I shared the idea with my colleagues first to see if we could get our vendor to build it. I didn’t have buy-in from the organization, but I was pretty determined to create the technology. I believed fervently in the idea. I spoke to my husband (then my boyfriend) and he introduced me to friends who were engineers, whom I tried to convince to partner with me. I heard “no” a lot, until I met Jeb Ory, my co-founder.
Once we partnered, I invited Jeb to come to DC for a couple of days and meet with some of my mentors, friends and people I knew. Those meetings were crucial as they provided clarification on some basic things. For example, we had lunch with one of my mentors who looked us in the eye and said, “Did you guys assign equity to each other? Do you have a Cap table?” That was a great question that pushed us to have a conversation around equity, get organized, divide our roles and ownership, and clarify structure.
8. What are your biggest sources of inspiration?
I get inspiration from many sources. Watching the teams at Phone2Action bring a feature to market; listening to other women executives overcome their challenges; and watching the number of young, passionate people who join our company inspire me.
Almost five years ago, we created the Civic Tech Fellowship to help young people in technology gain experience. That program brings 30 students to Washington every summer to work as apprentices at Phone2Action. Watching the youth grow so much in just a summer from the day they arrive to the day they graduate is a huge inspiration.
It’s also extremely inspiring to see our clients conduct their work. For example, one organization joined us last year and went on to conduct 30 advocacy campaigns. Their efforts generated more than 100,000 connections between constituents and public officials in Congress and the administration, all to protect federal parkland. Knowing that Phone2Action can facilitate that kind of participation in the civic process is inspiring. It’s the vision that we started with, come to life.
Finally, getting up everyday to the smile of my 9 months old baby is not only inspiring but my reason to exist. Being a mom has been a gift and life has become happier, fuller, more amazing with him in my life.
9. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
Humility is important but also is to take credit for your work and to know how to self advocate. Women can have a hard time doing this in the workplace. We don’t like to take too much credit or boast. Surround yourself by champions of your work.
10. What was the best and worst piece of advice you have received as you were starting your business?
Many people told me that my initial idea for Phone2Action was a bad one, and that I shouldn’t quit my job to pursue it. I had never been without a “real job” before but my first boss, Susan Williams, who is a very wise woman gave me the best advice. When I told her that I no longer had a job, but I was working on a company idea I had, she said, “No, you do have a job. You’re an entrepreneur now.” That was the validation I needed to hear.
Conversation Date: May 16, 2019
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