Combo of Trump, venture capitalist could spell success for Philly political start-up

Paul Martino (center) with Dan Siegel (left) and TJ Hurst, managing partners of Jefferson's List, a Philadelphia start-up that wants to shake up how political campaigns find staff members. Martino is mentoring the company.

If Philadelphia’s new political start-up, Jefferson’s List, takes off, its founders just might have President Trump to thank. And entrepreneurial guru and venture capitalist Paul Martino.

Applying their insider knowledge as veteran political operatives, Dan Siegel and TJ Hurst are developing a kind of Yelp for politics.

With data and analytics, they are out to replace the time-honored method — “I know a guy” — by which political candidates so often find staff and consultants to work on their campaigns.

When it is complete, their platform of campaign data, largely derived from campaign-finance reports, will contain information on all 536 federal races, every state legislative race (about 7,200 every other year), and the roughly 500,000 municipal races typically going on in a campaign season, as well as specifics on 450,000 vendors (campaign consultants, operatives, etc.).

The launch of an alpha product is expected in late May or early June, with a full roll-out of the subscription-based service planned for the 2018 campaign season — one that 's expected to be robust, said a gleeful Hurst.

“Fortunately for us … Donald Trump won and everyone who thought they understood politics doesn’t, and now all of a sudden there are all these people interested in running,” said Hurst, 32, of South Philadelphia, a cofounder of local political disrupter Philadelphia 3.0.

Jefferson’s List wants to help those would-be candidates answer the next critical question: “What do I do now?”

Usually, that question “is answered by folks who happen to exist in a candidate’s personal network,” said Siegel, 28, also of South Philadelphia. “That means that the quality of a candidate’s staff is often determined by the quality of that person’s political network, or their friends’ political network. As a result, a lot of really good candidates get stuck with subpar staff, consultants, and advice because that’s who happened to show up.”

Jefferson’s List will provide candidates with “the first comprehensive listing of the political industry ever done.” In Silicon Valley, Crowdpac is also a politics-oriented platform, but its focus is on helping guide donors and voters in selecting candidates to support and enabling crowd-funding of campaigns.

Siegel’s political resume includes service as a regional field director for the 2012 Obama campaign in Bucks and Montgomery Counties and as manager of the unsuccessful campaign of Brett Mandel for Philadelphia city controller in 2013. Since then, he has consulted for a couple dozen clients in four states.

He and Hurst met in 2015, when Philadelphia 3.0 endorsed one of Siegel’s clients, Tom Wyatt, a lawyer whose election bid for City Council failed. After the election, they met for drinks.

“Pretty soon, we had this thought about how we could change the political process by making it more efficient and legitimize it a bit,” Hurst said. “Think about how many less people lie on their resume because of LinkedIn.”

They wanted to use a tech platform to bring that same accountability to political consultants in a $14 billion industry where truth is often hard to discern.

“I probably know 50 people who claimed they were the guy who helped get Ed Rendell elected for mayor of Philadelphia,” Hurst said. “The truth is there were a couple.”

Recognizing their limitations – “we are political people, we are not start-up people,” Hurst said – they reached out to seasoned entrepreneurs for guidance. Among the first was Martino, a founder of San Francisco-based Bullpen Capital and, as a Doylestown resident, the venture fund’s East Coast representative. Bullpen, however, invests only in start-ups that have raised seed funding but haven’t established a track record for the next round, Series A. Jefferson’s List is halfway toward reaching its seed goal of $600,000.

Though not an investor, Martino is serving as an adviser, convinced of Jefferson’s List’s potential: “Everything in that business [of politics] is ‘I know a guy’ … rather than, did a campaign manager, for instance, ever actually win a campaign?” he said.

With an impressive entrepreneurial record and now leading a venture fund known for its unique focus on far-from-obvious winners, Martino has lent an invaluable endorsement, Hurst said.

“Paul is one of the best people … about picking things that don’t look sexy at the moment or being ahead of the curve because he’s seeing trends,” he said. Martino warned that “every venture capitalist you’re going to talk to is going to hate it. Almost to the 'T,' he’s been correct.”

Until Trump was elected and the public outcry started. “Now all of these VCs are calling us back and saying, ‘We get it now,’ ” Hurst said. “Paul predicted every bit of this.”

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