AP NEWS

Startup seeks to link small groups to big lobbyists

February 25, 2019

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — EchoRidge, a Concord startup company, wants to do something that might strike a lot of people as a terrible idea: Make it easier for people to hire political lobbyists.

Hold your criticism, says Jeff Allan, the company’s CEO and founder.

“Lobbying is associated with the bad side of politics, but it’s only a tool — it’s not good or bad,” said Allan, speaking in the offices of the tiny software startup in the Ralph Pill Marketplace tower. “If you want to accomplish something, lobbying can make it happen.”

EchoRidge is designed to make it possible for individuals and small groups to do what large companies and advocacy groups do all the time: Find a cause, develop legislation to help that cause, then hire lobbyists to get it passed.

Allen calls it “Facebook meets Kickstarter meets Upwork, except it’s all politics.”

EchoRidge, with four full-time and three contracted employees, is about to move out of beta mode but has already drawn attention. It is one of 13 New Hampshire startups chosen by the New Hampshire Tech Alliance to be part of this year’s AccelerateNH, a three-month program that provides support, workspace, cloud computer storage and other services, concluding with company presentations on May 30 at the Startup Shindig.

Allan, 45, says the idea for the company came to him when he worked for Lottery.com, the firm that brought to New Hampshire the AutoLotto system allowing lottery tickets to be bought through smartphones. As a vice president of strategy in an industry that faces different regulations in every state, he spent a lot of time dealing with politicians.

“It was weird that I could walk into any politician’s office and say, look, this is what we want. ... I could gain such an audience with the political elite. I wondered, how come I don’t have this same level of sway with politics as a private citizen?” he said.

EchoRidge wants to provide that level of sway by doing three things, in this order:

First, it helps you find people with similar opinions who want to band together around an idea (e.g., “clean water is good”). This is the Facebookish part.

Second, after the band of people develop a coherent proposal (e.g., “outlaw the release of XYZ into waterways”) they can try to crowdfund it. This is the Kickstarterish part.

Third, once they’ve hit their funding goal, EchoRidge gives help in hiring a lobbyist to create actual legislation and try to get it passed through some legislative body, at the state or federal level. This is the Upworkish part, echoing the website that connects people with contractors for short-term jobs.

The business model is like a hybrid of Kickstarter and Upwork, Allan said: EchoRidge will take a 7 percent fee from crowdfunding and an 8 percent fee on the crowdsourcing platform.

Allan says EchoRidge has been running a pilot in California where a group of churches is pushing for state money to help 18-year-olds who were living in foster homes but have become too old to stay in the system. They are in the fundraising phase but already have placeholder legislation being drawn up.

“This has shown us that it’s not only individuals who feel out of the fray of politics. It’s nonprofits, other institutions like that, who feel their voice is drowned out by big-money interests,” he said.

Founders started working on EchoRidge back in 2016. It took a long time to get going, he says, because spending on lobbyists is covered by a lot of legal questions and regulatory compliance issues. Allan, who grew up in Boston and moved to New Hampshire after a stint in the Marine Corps, credits the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network for supporting those early efforts.

The Dartmouth connection has helped with money, too. EchoRidge raised $150,000 in pre-seed funding from people met through Dartmouth and is approaching a $450,000 seed round, with plans to seek Series A funding this summer.

EchoRidge — the name means nothing in particular, Allan says — moved into the iconic Ralph Pill Marketplace building in July. If funding comes through it will outgrow its one small office but Allan says he plans to stay in Concord, for obvious political reasons. He’d like to stay in the Ralph Pill building because of its long history. “It’s an interesting place,” he notes.

Allan says he has no plans to “censor” applicants at EchoRidge, aside from rules against on-site harassment or bullying.

“We’ll be the provider of a platform and let the channels run their content,” he said.

Recent experience with social media sites, however, has shown that hands-off policies can lead to problems if bad actors work to take advantage of the openness. For example, what happens if a repellent group such as the Ku Klux Klan launches a campaign through EchoRidge?

The current thinking, Allan said, is that as long as the group or proposal isn’t illegal it can launch. That doesn’t mean it will get far, however.

The difficulty of raising money will be one obstacle to groups trying to be deliberately provocative. As with most crowdfunding sites, no money will be funneled until an entire pledge level is reached, and everybody who pledges money must have their identity verified.

The real block to bad actors, he said, comes at the final level.

“The most difficult part is to get lobbyists and other professionals onboard with your cause. Somebody whose reputation and livelihood depends on trust and livelihood isn’t going to take on anything that’s career-destroying for a $5,000 retainer,” he said.

Allan has a secondary goal in running EchoRidge: Gathering analytics to help understand people’s political motivations and feelings, beyond quick surveys or political polling. He thinks this can help elected officials understand what their constituents want and need.

EchoRidge plans to make family leave its first federal project, since that is a topic which draws bipartisan support at the abstract level but gets bogged down in sharp disagreements about how to implement and pay for it. But how it will proceed will depend on who participates.

“We will open to the public in the next couple of weeks,” he said. “And then we’ll see.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2tD3bmH

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Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com