It’s not every day you meet someone who gets ultra excited by the legislative process, but Yemi Adewunmi finds it inspiring: “Why be an innovator if you’re not going to be optimistic?” It’s one of the reasons she founded Civic Eagle, a startup that helps policy professionals and lobbyists track and collaborate on bills as they wind through Congress or state legislatures on their way to becoming laws…or dying in committee. Either way, Civic Eagle wants to make that journey more transparent, make it easier for advocates to collaborate, and improve democracy in the process.
Here’s Yemi Adewunmi on Crafted, Artium’s new podcast.
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Dan Blumberg: Happy New Year Crafted listeners. This week in Washington DC and at state capitals all around the country, newly elected lawmakers are taking their seats and setting their legislative agendas.
Yemi Adewunmi: We live in a country that allows you to really shape a policy, shape the way you live. You can introduce a bill, you can revise it, you can see it actually go through the process and become a law in a relatively open way. Now our vision really is just to make it more accessible and more transparent.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Yemi Adewunmi, 10 years ago she was working as a policy analyst at the New York State legislature and seeing firsthand how murky the lawmaking process can be. Today, Yemi is the co-founder and chief operating officer at Civic Eagle, a startup that makes software to help policy professionals and lobbyists track and collaborate on bills as they wind through Congress or state legislatures on their way to becoming laws or perhaps to dying in committee. On this episode of Crafted We’ll hear how Yemi and her team turn their idea for a civic engagement app into a big, bold vision for improving democracy. Welcome to Crafted, a show about great products and the people who make them. I’m your host, Dan Blumberg. I’m a product and engagement leader at Artium where my colleagues and I help companies build fantastic software and recruit dynamic teams.
School House Rock: I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well-
Dan Blumberg: Ah, that poor beleaguered bill. Schoolhouse Rock really captured his plight and Yemi gets it.
Yemi Adewunmi: I love that touchpoint, that touchstone, because a lot of people identify with that video and that song, and it generally is pretty accurate in the bill process. There are additional steps in that process of things like going back and forth from one committee to another or the bill going through revisions. There’s just lots and lots of legislation that gets introduced into legislatures across the country and only a small percentage of them actually get passed each session. A lot of those bills are just repeating and reoccurring from previous sessions and people just continue to reintroduce them.
Yemi Adewunmi: I think the thing that surprised me is just the volume of political activity that happens in our country and the amount of influence that organizations can have to intervene once they have the access to it.
Dan Blumberg: I want to go back to the beginning, maybe actually further back. What led you to identify this opportunity and build a company around it?
Yemi Adewunmi: I love that question because it presumes that we knew what we were building at the time. You know what? Hindsight is amazing because I can see that we are building a tool essentially that I would’ve used in my previous career. I used to work at the New York State legislature and I was doing policy research and it would’ve been very convenient if I had identified the problem back then about 10 years ago or so, and then was able to just build out Civic Eagle.
But the problem that we saw initially was the lack of clear information about how policies impact our communities or us as individuals. For example, around the time that we had been ideating around Eagle App, the Affordable Care Act had recently been signed into law, but if you remember, there was just a lot of confusion or rumors or talk around what the law would actually do for people. So the impetus was really a desire to try something new as far as political discourse. So we approached the problem from a standpoint of how do we use technology to inform the public and get their opinions about public policy so that legislators or the people “in charge” can take action and do things that better represent the people.
Dan Blumberg: So Yemi and her co-founders built Eagle app to help people be more civically engaged.
Yemi Adewunmi: The vision was that you’d be able to put in your address, your age, certain things about yourself, and you’d be able to see specifically how a piece of law would impact you, but also subjectively, we wanted to capture sentiment and capture what people’s true opinions about policies are once they are informed. I think a lot of the times it’s easy for folks to jump onto social media and read a headline and then jump to a conclusion about something. And so we wanted to be the opposite of that. We wanted to provide objective information about bills, as well as a space for folks to share their opinions and views based on real facts and real information.
Dan Blumberg: But Eagle App didn’t really catch on. One reason, the target audience was too broad.
Yemi Adewunmi: We had a lot of interest from a standpoint of this is a cool idea. I really want to be civically engaged, but there was a gap between people downloading our app and people actually using the app regularly.
Dan Blumberg: So tell us about the conversation that you had with your founders when you said this app is not working, but there’s something else here, and how did you figure out what that something else is and then decide to build the next thing?
Yemi Adewunmi: It wasn’t one conversation. I think actually it may have been a whole year of us really trying to figure out what the issue was. Part of it was just us not knowing which North Star metrics to identify and then pursue. We also didn’t really have the muscle of product development of the cycle of research and experimentation. And that cycle didn’t really pick up because we didn’t have the resources, right? We were doing it nights and weekends. Me and my teammates were all across the country. We never lived in the same city, so we’re always meeting on Google Hangouts. And so the conversations were starting to happen around what does growth look like and how do we get users engaged and using the app actively. But at a certain point we all took a step back and realized that something was missing. We needed a new direction, but also in each of our individual lives and our individual careers, we were evolving as well.
Dan Blumberg: As they reconsidered the app, Yemi made some big changes. She left the state legislature, moved to New York City and went deep on product design, working at design agencies and startups.
Yemi Adewunmi: I learned a bunch about tech, product development, go-to-market, all those things, just by observing and working at companies that had already launched. So taking all that knowledge was when we decided, “Okay, we need to pursue this design thinking thing. We need to actually go back to true solution building, starting with our why, starting with the objective, starting with the end users.” So that really just got us thinking about what would it take for us to really build up a daily active usership.
Dan Blumberg: Yemi and her team needed to narrow their target audience and focus on people with a more acute need for legislative updates. So they focused on policy professionals.
Yemi Adewunmi: We actually landed on power users who are in the industry that are working in public policy, who research policy to understand what’s going on and translate that information into actual community action. So we started talking to people like that. These folks typically had a job title of policy analyst or policy researcher or advocate lobbyists, government relations professional, and really talk to them about what tools they use for keeping up with all the fast moving legislation across the country. And the idea is that every organization, any entity, is impacted by what governments decide. And so everyone has a stake essentially in public policy. And so what we’ve decided to do is approach it from the center of how that expands into communities, which is it’s the folks that we entrust to be our mediator between government and community, which are advocacy folks, people who run nonprofits, people who run trade associations and membership associations. And so we are helping those folks and empowering them to do their jobs even more effectively.
Dan Blumberg: Can you describe what’s the work that we’re talking about here?
Yemi Adewunmi: So the work that our end users have to do is not only to discover and identify which bills impact their organization or business, but also to find the intervening points. So they may see that a bill is moving, they may identify who the stakeholders are, the appropriate stakeholders, legislators or interest groups or community groups, and then have a hand and be able to shape some of that policy. So we have some customers that are using it for community-based impact issues like education or healthcare. But we also have customers who use our tool to track labor laws or changes to anything that might impact the company or the business’ bottom line. And so they’re tracking all of these legislation, typically in multiple jurisdictions. So if a company or an organization or association operates in multiple states, they have to keep up with all of those different moving bills. And that’s dozens of bills, potentially hundreds of bills that they have to keep up with.
So the work that they’re doing on our tool is not only being able to find those bills, but then share them with their team, make notes on those bills, and be able to work on them from the standpoint of what is their organization’s stance on them or what kind of impact they want to have on that piece of legislation.
Dan Blumberg: And how do they interact with Civic Eagle? I imagine they’re getting alerts and notifications when a bill that they are interested in as action happens on that bill. And what other ways are they interacting with Civic Eagle?
Yemi Adewunmi: Our customers have a subscription to our software. They have an interface that allows them to easily and intuitively pull up legislation. Once they start to track a bill, the system notifies them automatically, whether it’s in real time or as a digest, daily digest or weekly digest. It’s mobile responsive. It’s mobile friendly, so often it’s a case that they are on the go, they’re going to the state house or the legislature, they may hear about something that’s happening and they’re able then to pull up on their phone the tool and look up the bill and see what’s being talked about or what’s being discussed. So we really focus on accessibility of the tool, making sure that it actually fits the workflow and the work style of our end users.
Dan Blumberg: Those notifications are hugely valuable to Civic Eagle’s users. And there’s another opportunity that Yemi and her co-founders identified, helping teams collaborate.
Yemi Adewunmi: Government relations teams don’t operate in a silo often. Sometimes they do, but oftentimes in order to move policy, you have to do it with coalitions or you have to do it with multiple stakeholders and inputs. So some of the North Star metrics that we’re tracking are things like external imitations into the tool. We also generally track number of bills searched and tracked. The amount of bills that are being tracked is one of our North Star metrics and that tells us that people are finding value and they’re finding bills that are impacting them. And then if they’re sharing the bill, that means that they are seeing the collaboration value of what we’re building.
Dan Blumberg: There’s project management tools that are so specific. Like for filmmakers, there’s a very specific workflow that they have. And you’re talking about for people in policy, and it’s interesting if this… Asana is Vanilla, but there’s so many different unique needs. Is that something you’ve found along the way?
Yemi Adewunmi: Yeah, product management is a good way of thinking about it. That’s how I would describe it. But the reality is we have to speak the language of our users. And sometimes they don’t think see it as project management. Sometimes they are using project management tools, but often one of the challenges we have is really empowering our users or our potential users to feel like they can trust a new tool, trust something more modern, a little bit more sleeker. They’re so familiar with forwarding an email along versus using some sort of chat experience. But everyone needs better tools to get their work done. And that’s what I love about technology. It can be applied in any context. And so we’ve identified this niche and it serves our customers because it has the bills also in it, right? So it’s like Asana plus the bills itself. And that’s super powerful.
Dan Blumberg: And so is the new features and products that you’re building now, is it more on the collaboration stuff we were just talking about?
Yemi Adewunmi:From a data standpoint, we also have opportunities to expand our data sets into other jurisdictions. We’ve seen an interest in capturing more information about the legislators themselves, capturing regulatory data, capturing other types of policy related data. From the experience side of things, yes, collaboration is definitely something that we’re tripling down on. We’re just seeing that there’s an interest in being able to give access to information to people within an organization. And we see that as a growth model as well. So it’ll help spread the app, spread the tool to other organizations, and also help us identify other values that teams will see from using it. So collaboration is the area that we find exciting from a standpoint of where can this go? Can this help us grow the company? And we see what’s happening with product led growth across multiple industries and how tools are using the product itself to go to market and use the product itself to market to new audiences. And so we’re excited about experimenting with that.
Dan Blumberg: I was just about to ask about product led growth because you mentioned reaching new users is and always will be a challenge go-to-market. And so I’m curious how you’re using the product to drive growth.
Yemi Adewunmi: We have seen organizations build coalitions. We have had a cluster of organizations based in Atlanta, Georgia who spend a lot of time working on voting rights. And last year we saw them use a tool to be able to bring in new organizations that they were partnering with. And from there, we had hundreds of users come in because they were affiliated with our core user, our core customer. The goal is to continue to observe what our customers are doing, and we observed that coalitions are a natural part of their work. And so we just decided to lean into that and help assist them with getting in more users.
So one of our value propositions is that we have unlimited seats. So once you have an account, we allow you to invite as many users as you want into your team account. And then we create something called workspaces, which allows you to create working teams or create environments where stakeholders from different organizations or teams can come together and work on a set of bills. So we’ve seen how the product then spreads within an organization or outside of an organization into partnerships or other groups.
Dan Blumberg: What about on the technical or on the product front? I mean, if you’re triggering alerts and people really rely on Civic Eagle to never miss when a bill is becoming a law, how do you get the data from every single state legislature? Are there challenges there or are those largely solved problems now?
Yemi Adewunmi: Oh yeah, no, there’s definitely still challenges there. That’s a big challenge for our tech team. And in the beginning years, the first couple of years when we launched a product, the first challenge was ingesting every legislature’s data. So we plug into the state legislatures and get that data and bring it into our tool and it happens automatically. There’s some tech stuff that happens right in the background.
Dan Blumberg: I bet the state legislatures have the most modern APIs you’ve ever seen.
Yemi Adewunmi: Right. And they’re super fast and they’re right on time and they never break.
Dan Blumberg: And they never change things without telling you ever.
Yemi Adewunmi: Right. So that’s definitely one of the challenges. We built all those bridges and now we maintain the bridges and that’s one of the areas where we’ve built the team up as well is on our data side, as well as infrastructure. It’s a challenge that we will always have to address, but I think over time, hopefully, we’ll be able to build more sustainable ways to make sure that the data’s protected and coming through consistently.
Dan Blumberg: Yemi and her co-founders have learned the startup game on the fly and the learning curve has sometimes been steep.
Yemi Adewunmi: How do you grow a team? Oh, you have to pay them salary. How do you pay them salary? You have to have money. You have to have revenue. And there’s this thing called venture capital and investors will invest in big ideas and big visions and that’s what we have. We have a really big vision, and so we’re going down the venture capital route and able to really scale our growth because we have the backing of some cool investors who see the vision as well of having a future where public policy isn’t so opaque and isn’t so convoluted and is more transparent and accessible to businesses, to everyday people, to community groups across the world. That’s the vision. And because of that, we’ve been able to align with some strategic financial partners.
Dan Blumberg: Can you describe what it was that caused you to take venture capital? Because there’s very different ways to grow a company and when you take venture capital, that’s a sign that you’re looking for a 10X or more. And I’m curious, when did you have that relation that we can do this and we should do it and this is the route to do it?
Yemi Adewunmi: When we pivoted, it must have been 2018. Yeah, we had pivoted and decided to be working on this B2B SaaS solution and knowing that there was such a big opportunity to change the industry, the government relations software industry. So when we think about what our users currently use, most of them, the majority of them, are using emails and spreadsheets. And so the opportunity is just so ripe. Every entity, every organization and individual entity is impacted by policy. So we saw that the market also is this huge opportunity.
And when you see a vision that is so big, you really need a lot of capital to pursue it quickly. When you really think about technology and building technology, most of your resources are going to research and development, as well as people, the team. Technologists are highly skilled and their salaries are pretty high. And we were very clear from the outset that we were not building a non-profit organization. We were going to be an impact-driven, mission-driven tech company, but in order to scale and hire the team that we need, do all the R&D, research and development, that we need, we needed capital, we needed a lot at the out front.
And also, the venture capital route has provided us a lot of important resources that has helped us scale this company at the enterprise level. But we knew pretty early that the route that we were going, the vision that we have for ourselves and the company, required more capital and more support from experienced partners
Dan Blumberg: At Civic Eagle you have a unique view into the legislative process. What is something that working on Civic Eagle and seeing all the data coming through from all the different legislatures that has taught you or that has surprised you?
Yemi Adewunmi: Just the idea that we live in a country that allows you to really shape a policy, shape the way you live. You can introduce a bill, you can work on it, you can revise it, you can see it actually go through the process and become a law in a relatively open way. Now, our vision really is just to make it more accessible and more transparent and let there be more conversation around what goes into a bill versus the sneakiness that can happen where because there’s so much volume, things can slip right past an organization that’s really working on an important cause or an important issue. But for the most part, I’m just always in awe of just the thousands of bills that we see. If you put in a search for a keyword, you can see that it’s a topic that is being talked about across the country in every legislature. So I think that’s pretty exciting and cool.
Dan Blumberg: You sound like you’re optimistic. I mean, founding a company is a very optimistic act in and of itself.
Yemi Adewunmi: I was just going to say that. Why be an innovator if you’re not going to be optimistic?
Dan Blumberg: Thank you so much. This has been a lot of fun.
Yemi Adewunmi: Thank you, Dan. This has been great.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Yemi Adewunmi, co-founder and chief operating officer at Civic Eagle. And this is Crafted from Artium. At Artium, we build incredible products, recruit high-performing teams, and help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone. We artisans love partnering with creative people to build their visions of the future. If you’ve got an opportunity you’d like to discuss or just want to learn more about us, check us out at thisisartium.com or drop us a line at email@example.com. This podcast is new and we’d love your support. If you like today’s episode and hey, you’ve made it this far, maybe text a few craft-minded friends a link to the show, and please subscribe and join us as we highlight more great products and the people who make them. I’m Dan Blumberg, this is Crafted. See you next time.