“Grow­ing up, I had two loves: Je­sus and the In­ter­net”

Repub­li­cans love a lib­eral’s cam­paign tech­nol­ogy “Peo­ple who are in power frankly don’t need Na­tion­builder”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - Adam Satar­i­ano

In late Jan­uary, Don­ald Trump held one of his fi­nal ral­lies be­fore the Iowa cau­cuses at the Dubuque air­port. On the tar­mac, with loud­speak­ers blast­ing the theme from the Har­ri­son Ford movie Air Force One, a crowd of shiv­er­ing sup­port­ers roared when Trump’s Boe­ing 757 made a flyby. Many of the es­ti­mated 400 peo­ple in at­ten­dance had been no­ti­fied about the event through Na­tion­builder, a dig­i­tal hub for cam­paigns that han­dles web­site de­sign, fundrais­ing, or­ga­niz­ing vol­un­teers, and so­cial me­dia.

As Trump has moved from out­sider can­di­date to Repub­li­can front-run­ner, his cam­paign has been col­lect­ing e-mail ad­dresses, cell phone num­bers, and other in­for­ma­tion from sup­port­ers and feed­ing the data into the Na­tion­builder sys­tem to au­to­mate the voter-out­reach process. The soft­ware lets cam­paign staffers tar­get in­di­vid­u­als with e-mails about is­sues in which they’ve ex­pressed an in­ter­est and no­tify them of events oc­cur­ring near their homes. It can also track so­cial me­dia so a cam­paign can see who’s lik­ing or shar­ing a post.

Na­tion­builder’s tech­nol­ogy is pretty much turnkey. It’s not as so­phis­ti­cated as a cus­tom-built plat­form, but can­di­dates who sub­scribe to the ser­vice can im­me­di­ately start track­ing vot­ers and or­ga­niz­ing vol­un­teers, for far less money. In the world of retail pol­i­tics, the com­pany has be­come a great de­moc­ra­tizer since its found­ing in 2009. It’s given a political novice like Trump ac­cess to the type of so­phis­ti­cated tools that Barack Obama and Mitt

Rom­ney had to build in 2012, help­ing Trump get his sup­port­ers to turn out for pri­maries and cau­cuses.

“This is what Obama fig­ured out, but it took $1 bil­lion and a whole host of en­gi­neers to do,” says Emily Schwartz, Na­tion­builder’s head of or­ga­niz­ing. “Now it’s com­mer­cial­ized and read­ily avail­able and can scale to dif­fer­ent sizes of cam­paigns. You don’t have to be a fundrais­ing ma­chine. You don’t have to have mil­lion-dol­lar PACS be­hind you.” (Na­tion­builder, cit­ing nondis­clo­sure agree­ments, de­clined to dis­cuss the ser­vices it pro­vides to Trump. The cam­paign didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.)

Na­tion­builder is the cre­ation of Jim Gil­liam, who worked at Ly­cos, the search en­gine, be­fore be­com­ing an an­ti­war ac­tivist in the early 2000s. “He’s al­ways been what peo­ple char­ac­ter­ize as a hero en­gi­neer,” says Pa­trick Michael Kane, a for­mer chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer of Moveon.org who now runs We Also Walk Dogs, a soft­ware com­pany that makes the or­ga­niz­ing soft­ware Ac­tionkit. “He can sit down and in 10 hours bang out an ap­pli­ca­tion that would take an­other en­gi­neer 100 hours to write.”

Na­tion­builder’s prices start at $29 a month for e-mail blast­ing and so­cial me­dia track­ing. Ver­sions of the soft­ware that sync credit data­bases and con­sumer data—vot­ers’ in­comes, what mag­a­zines or news­pa­pers they sub­scribe to, what cars they drive—with a cam­paign’s own voter lists run $5,000 a month and higher. Be­fore he came along, Gil­liam says, “it was at least $10,000 to get started for what we’re of­fer­ing for $29 per month.” Its big­gest client spends $500,000 a year.

Gil­liam ex­pected most of his cus­tomers to be state and lo­cal can­di­dates or pe­ti­tion-drive or­ga­niz­ers—such as the an­i­mal-rights ad­vo­cates push­ing to end car­riage horses in New York’s Cen­tral Park, one of Na­tion­builder’s 7,000 ac­tive cam­paigns. “The peo­ple who are in power frankly don’t need Na­tion­builder,” Gil­liam says. “They can af­ford en­gi­neers to hack things to­gether.” But Na­tion­builder’s easy-to-use plat­form has also turned out to be at­trac­tive to can­di­dates with plenty of money.

In 2014, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mccon­nell signed on for his re­elec­tion cam­paign. Vol­un­teers armed with ipads scat­tered across Ken­tucky, knock­ing on doors with mes­sages tailored specif­i­cally to how some­body re­sponded to cer­tain Face­book posts. At the end of each day, the team would re­view the data that streamed into Na­tion­builder, giv­ing them con­fi­dence about a vic­tory even as polls showed a tight race. “It held ev­ery­thing to­gether,” says Vin­cent Har­ris, a Repub­li­can con­sul­tant who over­saw Mccon­nell’s dig­i­tal strat­egy.

Last year, Jeb Bush’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was one of the com­pany’s largest cus­tomers among fed­eral can­di­dates, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign spend­ing records pulled by the non­profit Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics. Rick San­to­rum signed up, and so did Trump. Ab­sent from Na­tion­builder’s list of cus­tomers are many Democrats. The party’s can­di­dates rely on a com­pany called NGP VAN, which has for­mal ties to the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. Hil­lary Clin­ton, Bernie San­ders, and nearly ev­ery Demo­cratic can­di­date for the House or Se­nate use the sys­tem. (Grass-roots groups sup­port­ing San­ders and oth­ers op­pos­ing Trump do use Na­tion­builder.)

Gil­liam spent part of his child­hood in San Jose, where his father was a soft­ware en­gi­neer for IBM. His par­ents were Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ists and mem­bers of a lo­cal megachurch af­fil­i­ated with Jerry Fal­well’s Moral Ma­jor­ity. The fam­ily moved to North Carolina af­ter his father was trans­ferred, and by age 12, Gil­liam was lis­ten­ing to Rush Lim­baugh on the ra­dio and at­tend­ing church three days a week. His com­puter ob­ses­sion started early. When his father brought home an early IBM PC with a mo­dem, Gil­liam dis­cov­ered a new world. In a 2011 speech he said, “Grow­ing up, I had two loves: Je­sus and the In­ter­net.”

He at­tended Fal­well’s Lib­erty Univer­sity in Lynch­burg, Va., and de­signed its first web­site. “I even fixed Dr. Fal­well’s com­puter once,” he says. But over spring break of his sopho­more year, doc­tors dis­cov­ered he had

Let­ting political foes use your soft­ware? “That’s what democ­racy is about”

non-hodgkin lym­phoma. Two weeks into Gil­liam’s chemo­ther­apy treat­ment, his mother was also di­ag­nosed with can­cer. When he lived and she didn’t, Gil­liam dropped out of Lib­erty to work for a startup in Bos­ton. About six months later, he was di­ag­nosed with leukemia; even­tu­ally he un­der­went a suc­cess­ful bone mar­row trans­plant.

Gil­liam went to work for Ly­cos in 1998. Two years later he was hired by Busi­ness.com, a search com­pany. Gil­liam rewrote the com­pany’s main search code in 17 days and was named chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer. But af­ter the Sept. 11 at­tacks, his pas­sions shifted. He was en­raged by the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­va­sion of Iraq and de­cided to make a ca­reer change af­ter hear­ing that Robert Green­wald, a doc­u­men­tar­ian, needed a re­searcher for a film about the war.

Gil­liam sent Green­wald an e-mail and was hired. He im­me­di­ately demon­strated his skills at In­ter­net or­ga­niz­ing, cre­at­ing tools to let peo­ple sched­ule screen­ings at their homes and raise money for projects. In 2005, when Green­wald re­leased an in­de­pen­dent film about Wal­mart Stores’ la­bor prac­tices, the re­tailer hired a cri­sis­man­age­ment firm to re­spond. “It was re­ally in­tox­i­cat­ing,” Gil­liam says. “We were a rag­tag group of film­mak­ers and did this on vir­tu­ally no bud­get.”

Soon af­ter, he be­gan feel­ing short of breath. His ear­lier treat­ments had scarred his lungs, and he re­quired a dou­ble-lung re­place­ment. Sur­geons at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les de­cided the pro­ce­dure was too risky. His friends and fam­ily or­ga­nized an on­line cam­paign to change the doc­tors’ minds; it worked. A donor was found, and the pro­ce­dure was suc­cess­ful. Gil­liam was 29.

In late 2008, as Obama’s cam­paign was demon­strat­ing what tech­nol­ogy could do for pol­i­tics, Gil­liam started writ­ing the code for what be­came Na­tion­builder. In 2010 one of his friends, Reshma Sau­jani, ran for Congress in New York, and Gil­liam made her a data­base at no cost. A fundrais­ing tool he built sim­pli­fied the way peo­ple could con­trib­ute money on­line; one fea­ture al­lowed sup­port­ers to or­ga­nize events, and an­other made it eas­ier for cam­paigns to com­mu­ni­cate with vol­un­teers. “I agreed to be his guinea pig,” says Sau­jani, who lost the race. (She now runs the non­profit Girls Who Code.) Gil­liam came away con­vinced he had a vi­able busi­ness. Oth­ers agreed: Na­tion­builder has raised about $35 mil­lion from the likes of Sean Parker, an early backer of Face­book, and An­dreessen Horowitz. (Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Busi­ness­week, is an in­vestor in An­dreessen Horowitz.)

Gil­liam has at­tempted to broaden his com­pany’s reach out­side elec­toral pol­i­tics, with vary­ing suc­cess. Last year it laid off about a quar­ter of the staff who’d been hired to strike deals with small busi­nesses, mu­si­cians, and oth­ers in the pri­vate sec­tor. “It didn’t work try­ing to push it faster than it wanted to work,” he says. De­spite the set­backs, Gil­liam says, the com­pany re­cently be­came prof­itable. Sev­eral cor­po­ra­tions are us­ing Na­tion­builder, in­clud­ing Airbnb, which has tapped it to mo­bi­lize cus­tomers to fight reg­u­la­tions. It’s also hav­ing suc­cess out­side the U.S. Politi­cians and groups in Africa, Aus­tralia, and Europe have signed up. Bri­tain’s Labour Party uses Na­tion­builder, and Canada’s lead­ing par­ties have adopted the tech­nol­ogy.

Gil­liam’s friends ques­tion why he works with can­di­dates and or­ga­ni­za­tions whose political be­liefs he al­most cer­tainly ab­hors. “I don’t want to sell to peo­ple who I think are mak­ing the world a worse place,” says Kane, the for­mer Moveon CTO. That line of crit­i­cism makes Gil­liam an­gry. As he fre­quently points out, the right to or­ga­nize is fun­da­men­tal to Amer­i­can democ­racy. “Don­ald Trump is not the first per­son to use Na­tion­builder that I dis­agree with,” he says. “I prob­a­bly dis­agree with most of our cus­tomers. That’s what democ­racy is about.”

“We’re go­ing to lose. … It will tear the party apart, it will di­vide con­ser­vatism, and we’re gonna lose to Hil­lary Clin­ton.” Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Lindsey Gra­ham of South Carolina on the im­pact of a Trump nom­i­na­tion on the GOP, in a March 1 CBS News in­ter­view with Char­lie Rose

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