Why Silicon Valley Should Create a 'Smart' Political Party

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If tech can make toilets smart, why can’t it create a political party sensible people can love? If Silicon Valley created the iParty, lobbyists and donors and interest groups wouldn't set the agenda—the data would. Mark Makela/Getty

Dear Silicon Valley:

Please disrupt the ever-lovin' crap out of America's political parties.

This is the moment. You'll never have more pent-up demand. Come out with a new mobile-social-cloud data-driven customer-focused centrist political party right now, and you'll get sign-ups faster than when Uber sucked all those customers out of the taxi industry the past few years. It'll be like unveiling the iPhone in 2007. People will line up down the block, wondering why it took so long for something so craved by so many to arrive.

Name the party something that will appeal to the digital demographic. Call it the Jedi Party, or Hogwarts Party or iParty. Or take your cue from Iceland and form a Pirate Party. Name it whatever gets the biggest young generation in history aboard and convinces them to drag their politically paralyzed parents with them, the way they now try to get us on Snapchat.

You say starting a viable party would be too hard? That the parties are so entrenched that disruption is almost impossible? You gotta be kidding. Back in the 1990s, Microsoft controlled almost everything that mattered in the technology of that era—the PC operating system, the applications, the distribution network. It had all the money and put up barriers to entry that would make a Trumpian wall look like a baby gate. You neutered Microsoft at its Bill Gates–run best with new technology.

And maybe five years ago, when you were mostly funding food delivery apps, you wouldn't have touched a sector as complex as politics. But now you're starting companies trying to dismantle health care and banking and energy. Tesla is challenging the auto industry. You've come to believe that "software eats the world" and every old institution will get remade by data, code and networks. So stop whining, and make the GOP and Democrats look even more creaky. They're already down, so now's the perfect time to kick them.

I've heard some of you say, Well, there's no money in that venture. Dear God. First of all, saying there's no money in politics is like convincing yourself there are no calories in that bottle of wine. Second, all of your companies will make a lot more money if the republic is stable and sane, which it's not right now. And third, since when do you shrink from disrupting first and worrying about the business model later—maybe much later? Just run Twitter's playbook.

Anyway, if you can get Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff, Bill Gates and Tim Cook behind this, there's no question you could rally tens of millions of iPhone-clutching people in a flash. Adele got to 100 million views of "Hello" on YouTube after four days, and there are a lot of people who'd rather sign up for a new political party than watch an Adele video. Facebook has 190 million users in the U.S.—almost two-thirds of the population. Never in history could such a small cabal influence that many people without the use of secret police.

Between Facebook, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, Microsoft and Apple, you'd also have data on every movement, click, purchase, desire, taste trend, business deal and bad habit in America. You'd have the data to know exactly what issues to address to get any individual to vote for a candidate, along with the reach to hammer home your message over all the nontraditional media—your WhatsApps and Instagrams and LinkedIns.

Some in your industry are already talking about all this. Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Patrick Grady has been meeting with important players in California tech and politics to work through how to either start a modern party or invest in the Libertarian Party and inject it with tech thinking and money. Another serial entrepreneur, Dave Maney (aka my brother), organized a November 18 meeting in Denver of venture capitalists, legal scholars and former political candidates. Something's clearly bubbling.

And yet, too much of the talk is still, "Yeah, wouldn't that be cool" chatter over craft cocktails at Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco. It's time to get serious.

How would you do it? Yes this is a daunting situation in which the rules for elections and for how government works are set up to ensure that the two current major parties can't be meaningfully challenged by a startup party. Worse, the people who would have to change the rules to open things up to a new party are members of the two old parties.

But, as Grady says, the Silicon Valley mentality would dictate an under-the-radar, Lean Startup –style approach. First, aim for a small, focused, achievable goal. Let the big parties think you're a toy party. Iterate until you get it right and participation spikes. Expand to larger markets—a state race, then the Senate. All the while, keep believing in a bigger purpose. "It's imperative that the BHAG [Big, Hairy Audacious Goal in tech-speak] marketing message of the third party be clear from the onset—to become the most important and relevant party to the vast majority of Americans," Grady adds.

Starting with the goal of winning the presidency would be the same kind of mistake legendary failure Webvan made when it built around $800 million worth of grocery-delivery infrastructure before even launching and then went bankrupt waiting for the business to catch up. Brother Dave puts it another way: "In my experience, most Valleyites and political professionals will, on being invited to discuss the possibility of disrupting the political system, first say something like, 'A new party? Well, whom would you run for president?' Which is like asking Howard Schultz where he planned to put his 24,000th Starbucks store when he was pitching for seed funding to open his first one."

The most successful startups, as my co-authors and I describe in our book Play Bigger, avoid confronting the existing players head-on and instead try to redefine the space. Uber never pitched itself as a better taxi service—it pitched itself as a new category of on-demand transportation. Airbnb never tried to compete against Marriott—it created a new category of more personalized hospitality. The iParty must do the same. It needs to become a new category of politics, founded in social networks and built on massive amounts of data. It has to be something the other two parties can't be, no matter how hard they try.

What's the platform? The data will tell you. That might be the defining element of the new political category. Lobbyists and donors and interest groups don't set the agenda—the data does. And since the data comes directly from the party members, the party would actually represent their wants and needs.

No sustainable political party has ever been created around a person, no matter the star power. Ross Perot, John Anderson, Teddy Roosevelt—they all tried to establish a third party based on their presidential runs, but all fizzled. The only startup party in history that turned into a political force was the Republicans, founded in 1854 by Alvan Bovay in Ripon, Wisconsin. You don't need a name brand like Marco Rubio or Martin O'Malley to lead a new tech party—although, if you prove you can mobilize enough people to get someone elected, the Rubios and O'Malleys will come a-knockin'.

Anyway, Donald Trump's victory in the just-completed presidential race to the bottom should be enough to motivate you to move on this now. But in case it's not, keep in mind that Peter Thiel backed Trump and thus just became the new political powerhouse in technology. Thiel always has a multiple-chess-move plan. You really want to sit back and watch a new party get started by him?

Why Silicon Valley Should Create a 'Smart' Political Party