Super PACs and campaign contributions from corporations seem to be overtaking political action, drowning out the voices of normal people. To understand what can be done to fix that, and to hear about one startup’s interesting solution, we spoke with Chris Tavlarides, co-founder of Prytany.
ABERMAN: It’s not every day I learn about a business named Prytany, and I’m like, OK, what is it?
TAVLARIDES: The name Prytany comes from the original Athenian Senate, which elected a rotating body of ten presidents annually. So, every part of the Athenian electorate got representation at the highest levels of government.
ABERMAN: What I find interesting is, you go back to Athenian times, and then you run through you know, the history of democracies, particularly thinking about, say, all the tiny republics, for example. You know the phenomenon of having an overruling group of people that were elected by guilds or different subsets, that really is very much a democratic principle all the way through. How does that tie into today?
TAVLARIDES: When you look at the Athenian model it’s really a true democracy. And part of the reason why we started Prytany, which is a social media network for politics that crowd funds for candidates and constituents alike, is because there’s three of us. There’s an independent, there is a Republican, and there is a Democrat that are the founders of Prytany, and we were unbelievably frustrated with how Washington has been working, where you’ve basically got fiefdoms on both sides of the ledger that are essentially funding themselves for their missiles to annihilate each other.
And part of that is a concentration of power with both parties. And what we felt was, we needed to have more transparency, and more dialogue, and more grassroots involvement. And we felt that a tech play, in order to open up some of the dialogue between Democrats and Republicans, was really necessary.
ABERMAN: I’m inundated every day, and I bet a lot of our listeners are. Once you get on one mailing list, you’re on a thousand, it seems, with campaigns, everything’s a crisis. If we don’t get money from you by midnight tonight, I need your $13 75. It’s always an odd number, it seems. So there seems to be a lot of grassroot fundraising, certainly we’re seeing that with the Democratic primary, the way things are unfolding. With all the effort to do grassroots fundraising, how does this relate to that? I mean, I assume this is a reaction against people writing $2800 checks on their own, or lobby groups and dark money. How does it interrelate?
TAVLARIDES: Yes. So, we’re fundamentally a small donor platform. And part of our frustration with small donors being anonymous is, if you are a small donor, and let’s say you can only afford forty dollars to give a candidate, you should not be excluded from the candidate knowing who you are, and understanding what your concerns are, because there’s somebody who has more money than you that can actually donate 2,800 dollars to a campaign. So, part of what we decided to do, and the reason why you’re getting inundated with emails is, because each side has decided to create their own SuperPAC. There’s ActBlue on the left, and there’s WinRed on the right. So when you give to ActBlue, it’s essentially a file sharing system.
So, the Democrats can share donor information with you. But the reality is that they don’t have to disclose, to the candidate, donations under 50 dollars. So, you give to a Democratic candidate, or a Republican candidate, and it’s under 50 dollars, they get to register it with the campaign as a donation from the super PAC, which is ActBlue or WinRed.
So, we’re a little frustrated with that, and we decided we needed to unveil who the donors are. Especially people below 50 dollars, and what Prytany enables those donors to do, is to create a grassroots coalition by going into your contact list, by going out on mass e-mail, by taking your group that you formed on Prytany, and promoting it on other social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and essentially getting a large bucket of smaller donors to contribute to whatever issues that you see fit, and essentially weigh yourself against the larger donors who essentially get most of the candidate’s time and energy.
ABERMAN: A lot of conversation, certainly since Citizens United, has been around how our political system has become choked with money. Or to put it another way, political entrepreneurship is rewarded. I’m often struck these days having seen a number of people that I know begin to run for public office, how much it’s become like a startup. And I know you have an entrepreneurial background, and we’ll talk about that more in a moment. But is this basically sort of the end state? If we never get rid of Citizens United, which I think we may never, dependent on how things unfold, is this the end state for how you turn democracy back? I mean, in other words, are you leveling the playing field with money, or is this a transitory phase until the future?
TAVLARIDES: The ultimate goal of the app is all things politics, all on your phone. So what it’ll essentially do, if you want to run for office, is, you can form an exploratory committee, and go out to your friends and family, and have them pledge money to your ultimate goal. Which might be you know, 500,000, or a million dollars, so you can determine whether you can actually run for Senate, or run for Congress. You’ll be able to do that all from your couch. So, what we’re trying to do is open up the playing field to more candidates that aren’t institutionalized candidates, that aren’t just being blessed by the two parties.
So we’ve seen in the last election that there were several fringe candidates that actually were very successful. But you know if you look at the documentaries that were done about them, you will see that they actually really had to run this thing as an entrepreneurial startup. What we’re trying to do is cut the time for people and cut the intimidation for people to get into the political process
ABERMAN: Before we move on, I want to talk a little bit about your background, because I was really interested in a lot of it. If I want to know more about this, is this something I find in the App Store?
TAVLARIDES: We’re in the App Store right now. We’re in both app stores, Google and Apple. We’re online at prytany.com. We just launched. We’ve got several thousand users, and we haven’t literally lifted a finger, which has been amazing. And we’ve got reporters, average constituents, we’ve got Andrew Shue from 90210, we’ve got people that have just found the platform, and organically are inviting their friends, which is what we want. And what we’re finding is that people are actually forming groups around certain candidates and issues, and trying to recruit their friends into the groups, which is ultimately what the app is about.
ABERMAN: What I love about it is that it’s an entrepreneurial solution to a social problem, which is, I think, what D.C. does better than just about any place in the world, or certainly in the country. With all the discussion here in the region around entrepreneurship, I’ve been thinking recently that a better way to think about us is as intrapreneurs. You know, that we’re in organizations, and find an entrepreneurial opportunity. You know, like Steve Case for example started I think at Procter and Gamble, was a consumer guy. Do you think that’s a better way for us to think about ourselves regionally than as an entrepreneurial hotbed?
TAVLARIDES: Prytany is actually an intrapreneurial concept, because we believe that micro social networks are the wave of the future. So what we’re trying to do is essentially take the LinkedIn model, which was a social media network for business, and we’re trying to do the same thing for politics. We have other incarnations of the app that we’re developing right now, but we do believe that the era of Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, while obviously clearly massively powerful entities, we do think there’s a there’s too much of a saturation of not only just politics there, there are just too many things going on.
And people don’t have enough time to read everybody’s critique of a candidate, or of the president, or of Nancy Pelosi. So what we’re trying to do is, off board some of that chatter, and on board it onto Prytany. So in that regard, I think that if you see that intrapreneurship space, there’s plenty of companies that are essentially being created to serve as small niches, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.
ABERMAN: Well Chris Tavlarides, it was great having you in the studio today. I wish you all the best with Prytany, and thanks for getting your hands dirty trying to help democracy.