Here’s another story about an entrepreneur who never thought he would be one until the opportunity slapped him in the face. Then a few years later another opportunity made him jump from his company to a new startup.
Company #1: John was 24 when he and Joe Kuklis conceived of GSP Consulting. The company emerged from John’s work in government and the void that he saw in government relations with early stage ventures: “Joe and I saw an opportunity to build a business around supporting early stage companies that were cash strapped at the same time as the federal and local governments were stepping up to support technology-based startups. The two sides couldn’t connect. We found a way of connecting them.”
Originally named for Government Service Providers, GSP took off pretty fast. It became profitable within four months. While the two founders made personal sacrifices to grow the business, they needed no outside capital.
John never intended to be an entrepreneur. Prior to GSP, he was on track to go to law school which would further his career in government. “But when the opportunity smacked me, that was it,” he tells me. Like many entrepreneurs, once he did it, he was hooked. “There is no substitute for working for yourself. The successes and failures were on my shoulders. It’s both scary and exhilarating. You can’t walk away from that.”
GSP is still successful, but in November, 2007, John sold his shares to his partner and others in the firm in order to start CivicScience which he viewed as a bigger and more challenging opportunity. He was 31.
Company #2: John’s proceeds from GSP made his second foray into entrepreneurship a bit less risky except that by then he was married with a mortgage and two kids.
CivicScience’s origins started from a realization: “The polling and public opinion research industry was in disarray with the demise of the landline telephone.”
John had spent the summer of 2007 studying the industry and realized that consumer marketing research had the same troubles as polling in public policy: “The consumer research market is much bigger. It was fragmented and still is. There were [and are] lots of acquisitions in the space. As I got to understand the technology prospects and the potential, I realized that we had a compelling business opportunity. I got smacked again,” he chuckles.
CivicScience today. Initially, CivicScience was a destination website, designed to attract people who would vote on particular causes. If you visit the website today, you still get to vote. But, over time, the idea became a more distributed model across websites and products.
Attracting customers to the CivicScience site was hard. So John came up with the concept of polling apps that lived on others’ sites. That’s when the business began to grow. The company has cataloged over 120 million polls since mid-2010 and is expanding rapidly.
“I think we found a way to engage people in sharing their opinions without burdening them. We show the results immediately and allow people to come to our website to see every answer they’ve given, change the ones they don’t like, or delete their profile altogether. We tell them that we’re conveying their opinions anonymously to the decision-makers they want to influence. It’s amazing what you can accomplish without fleecing or fooling people.”
CivicScience leverages its proprietary technology to harness and mine data from polling applications found on third-party content websites and social networks. By optimizing the way polls are delivered, the company gives web publishers valuable insights into their audience, which they use to target content and ads more effectively. Websites use the technology for free and, in return, allow CivicScience to aggregate their poll data with other sites to produce market measurement and prediction products.
Market. The survey research market in the US is a $5B market. It is plagued by high fixed costs and low margins. John elaborates, “The number of people who participate in traditional survey research is declining dramatically, which means that data collection costs are going up while quality goes down. Our technology and business model allow us to measure consumer opinions much faster, cheaper, and more accurately. And, because public opinion is changing more quickly than ever before, decision-makers need insights in real-time.”
Since its earliest days, CivicScience shifted from a core business that was 80% public opinion research and 20% consumer research to the exact reverse today. CivicScience sells reports and insight tools into three core markets – brand research, political research, and investment research. Clients include marquee names in retail, media, technology, political groups, investment banks, and hedge funds. The company also makes millions of poll responses available to consumers and researchers.
Among its recent successes include helping a well-known investment bank predict the level of attrition among Netflix subscribers, after that company’s recent price increase, to inform the bank’s trading strategy. Most recently, CivicScience predicted a local election outcome to within 1% of the final tally.
The marketing research industry has taken notice of CivicScience and its growth. The leading industry publication Green Book, cited CivicScience, calling the company “nothing short of revolutionary” and “light years ahead of what anyone else in the [marketing research] industry is doing.”
Funding. To date, CivicScience has raised $2.9M from angels, the region’s largest economic development group, Innovation Works, and strategic investors including AnzaloneLiszt Research, a prominent political polling firm whose clients include President Barack Obama, and The NPD Group, a consumer market research company in NY.
Challenges. CivicScience is not without its challenges. The company has struggled to find a product strategy that suits a broad array of customers, many of whom have varying levels of technical acumen. “We’ve tried to build tools that are highly sophisticated for professional researchers but also approachable for marketers or C-level execs. Instead, we don’t do either of those things as well as we could. Fortunately, we have some great early customers and strategic partners who are helping us to refine our products.”
Time off for music. In a twist that resonates with me, the ex-artist entrepreneur, and some of my other blog posts about entrepreneurs whose roots lie in the arts (Nathan Martin of Deeplocal and Ty Morse of Songwhale), John regularly sings in a band – Moscow Mule.
Singing is a diversion and a break from the stress of entrepreneurship. John tells me how this came about, “It came out of nowhere. I had no idea that I could sing. One night I had a few drinks and started singing at a party. Then I got asked to join this band… “
John sees a lot of parallels between entrepreneurship and music. “Not everyone can stomach the level of exposure and humility that come with entrepreneurship,” he says. “Singing in front of a bar full of strangers is the same way. All eyes are on you, from your investors to your employees to your competitors, to the drunk guy yelling ‘Free Bird.’ You have to be prepared to make an ass of yourself. The great entrepreneurs I’ve met would rather fall flat on their face in front of the world than be the dude in the back of the bar, watching all the hot girls dancing, wondering ‘if only.’”
All of the guys in Moscow Mule are entrepreneurs or business leaders. They play only for charity (usually one or two a month). They all have kids and families. They practice late at night and other times that don’t interfere with kids and family. In fact, the band is inclusive of family: “My wife and kids see me perform all the time. And you should see my daughter Maddie sing. I am ok, but she – she is the real deal. She has the voice of an angel.” And Maddie is a little angel at age 7!
John is riding the roller coaster, but he is doing it in style. Go CivicScience! Go Moscow Mule!