Ron Howard (not that one) sits on a straight-backed, black, uncomfortable-looking chair pulled up to a sleek glass table in his office. He is surrounded by artwork, most of which once covered the walls of a Manhattan loft but did not seem to quite fit the decor of his suburban Maryland home when he moved there five years ago.
On one wall hangs a Mark Kostabi print portraying black human figures gathered together talking, titled simply "Merger." According to Kostabi, "communication is the theme of the piece," making it a fitting decoration for Howard's company, SpeakOut.com.
SpeakOut, described by Howard with the wide-eyed breathlessness common among passionate, sleep-deprived netpreneurs, is the latest political activism site to make itself heard on the Web. It allows visitors to gather information on politicians and issues and then voice their opinions about each.
Only in Washington could the inexact science of polling research and the inexact commercialism of the Internet meld with such ease, though many experts are baffled by the firm's business plan and its controversial method of collecting opinions.
But such concerns haven't kept venture funds from pumping $8 million into the fledgling company or well-known politicos and researchers from signing on, nor have they dimmed Howard's giddiness about SpeakOut's purpose.
He calls the nonpartisan site, which is scheduled to be fully operational in January, "a place where America can go and really, meaningfully, get involved."
Of course, he also plans to make money. He will do this in part by selling advertising on his site and by selling information gathered through a controversial method.
In addition to the information SpeakOut collects from people who simply write in, the site will conduct Internet polls -- more formalized, anonymous issue surveys -- and sell the results to special interest groups, campaigns and other organizations or individuals.
SpeakOut has created a quiet but growing buzz in Washington, especially because of the names attached to it. Although Howard is a techie, he has managed to lure political bigwigs such as former Reagan White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver to a board of advisers. Last week, the company announced that Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Susan Eisenhower would serve as co-chairwomen of its board of governors, a group SpeakOut will use to represent the company at various events. The board will consist of famous people who have been known for their outspokenness on controversial topics.
Projections for revenue in the first year exceed $5 million, although SpeakOut will not be profitable in the first year, according to its chief financial officer and chief operating officer, Barbara Dreyer.
Dreyer is a longtime friend of Howard's and a veteran technology executive. Howard met her while she was working at New Enterprise Associates, a venture company. When he decided to form SpeakOut, he needed a detail person and called her.
"I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that Barbara was a Republican and had been very [politically] active," Howard, a Democrat, recalls. Dreyer, who has spent much of her career organizing people in the technology industry, could not resist joining Howard. One of her most frustrating memories is waiting for 3 1/2 hours outside a state senate committee room to testify on a computer-related issue, only to go in with her colleagues and be told they would have 60 seconds each to speak.
Despite its financing and connections, success will come only if SpeakOut is able to deal with some dicey issues, including a strong aversion to Internet polling by many who view it as unscientific if not worthless.
A Background in High Tech
Howard, a native of New York City, considers himself "very politically thoughtful," but during his 43 years, that thoughtfulness has rarely translated into action. He estimates he has given perhaps $5,000 to political causes and groups over his lifetime. He is a registered Democrat but identifies with the techie demographic group more than any political persuasion.
Before starting SpeakOut, Howard helped found a company called Zabacom Inc., which was based on technology from the Hayes Corp. Howard became chief executive of Hayes in 1997 when it merged with his former company, Access Beyond Inc. But Howard, who was charged with turning around the ailing modem company, could not save Hayes from stiff competition and the lingering effects of the Asian economic crisis.
He salvaged a Hayes remote access server product -- and his career as a technology entrepreneur -- from the bankruptcy, and started Zabacom earlier this year with a Hayes colleague, Steven Fischer. Fischer remained at Zabacom and has a minority investment in SpeakOut.
While at Zabacom, Howard began thinking about starting an Internet-related company. With no other specifics in mind, an idea came to him one day as he was reading a newspaper article.
The topic, he said, "was something that struck me as so ridiculous . . . and I wanted to tell these people that they were crazy."
Problem was, he wasn't sure exactly whom to call, or whether calling was the best action to take, or just whom he should be angry at in the first place.
Instead of calling someone, he wrote a two-page outline for a business idea and landed a meeting with family friend and former Democratic congressman Thomas J. Downey. Downey liked the idea and helped arrange a meeting with a bipartisan group of "advisers" to whom Howard presented his vision. He pictured people coming to his Web portal to read about current events and then, when they were most emotional and most inspired to act, clicking on links that would give them information to help them get involved -- phone numbers, addresses, activist organizations, meetings and other listings.
Or, if someone wanted to simply fire off a quick note, he or she could send an e-mail to the SpeakOut staff, which would then provide regular updates to elected officials, distilling the various positions and demographics into reports for legislators and then keeping track of how those politicians voted. In addition, the site would conduct regular, more formalized surveys, the results of which it would sell to anyone interested. Howard stressed that SpeakOut will sell only statistical results, not personal information such as names and e-mail addresses. Even SpeakOut staff members will have no way of identifying individual respondents, he said.
Survey Plans Questioned
The activist nature of the site appeals to Greg Flemming of Princeton Survey Research Associates in Washington. SpeakOut has requested meetings with Flemming on several occasions, seeking his advice on public opinion.
"I think what they're trying to do in terms of political activism on the Web is fascinating and fills a gap," Flemming said.
On the other hand, he is skeptical about Internet surveys.
"Internet polling is in a very formative stage," Flemming said, "and not at the point where it's a tool."
The problem primarily lies in sampling. First, the entire country is not on the Internet, and the demographics are heavily skewed toward a young, upper-class group. Second, posting a survey on, say, guns and inviting people to respond, say most polling experts, is a little like posting a phone number on television after running a story on school shootings and inviting people to give their opinion -- most likely only the most vocal people will call, leaving out the more silent but no less important sector of the population.
"We call it pseudo polls," said Murray Edelman, editorial director of Voter News Service, a service that conducts exit polls, and president-elect of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. "You're getting people that like to fill out surveys and have a lot of time on their hands."
Edelman does add that some companies, such as polling pioneer Harris Interactive, are finding ways to make Internet surveys more valuable. Some do this by weighting results to make up for skewed demographics, or for the fact that well-organized interest groups may send people to the surveys, as the Alan Keyes presidential campaign site did. Not surprisingly, Keyes is emerging as the winner in many online polls.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based InterSurvey (which has a business relationship with The Washington Post Co.) uses digital dialing to gather a random sample of households and then sends them free Internet hardware so that they can respond to surveys.
The Web is a great interviewing tool, said Douglas Rivers, co-founder of InterSurvey, "but there is no way to randomly sample people on the Web."
When it comes to straight Internet surveying, "it's very important to realize that this [information] isn't representative of anything," Edelman said. "Who would buy it, who would want it?"
Rivers puts it more bluntly: "Their polling information is worthless."
Howard and the other folks at SpeakOut disagree.
"It is valuable information," Howard said, although he admits "it is not traditional scientific" polling.
Will Feltus, director of SpeakOut Decisions (the division responsible for packaging the polling data) is one of the people working on ways to give the surveys credibility.
Although Feltus is squeamish about giving too many technical specifics, he said the site has ways to filter e-mail, for example, to make sure 10, or even 1,000, responses are not all coming from one computer. He also said that the surveys will not be posted for all SpeakOut visitors to complete. For the presidential debate today, for example, SpeakOut has recruited people, based on their pre-debate preferences and other characteristics, who will fill out a post-debate survey.
But Rivers said that method is simply "quota sampling," and has been proved not to work. "What they're doing is a methodology that failed 50 years ago," he said, alluding to the 1948 presidential polls that predicted Harry Truman would lose to Thomas Dewey.
SpeakOut announced last week that it has a deal to feed the results of that information to MSNBC. No money is involved in the deal, but SpeakOut wants to start attracting attention to its site.
Feltus doesn't claim that the information SpeakOut is gathering is representative of the whole population, but that doesn't mean it's worthless.
"Some researchers now say that they can do surveys on the Internet that are projectable to the general population," Feltus said. "We're not trying to do that."
Instead, SpeakOut will most likely offer information on specific subgroups -- for example, "people who buy or sell stocks on the Internet."
One critic of SpeakOut is the outspoken Dick Morris. The former Clinton adviser is the man behind Vote.com, one of the first and most publicized political Web portals.
"We're a competitor [to SpeakOut] and it is not useful for me to talk about the competition," said Morris, who then proceeded to do just that.
According to Morris, SpeakOut won't really help voters communicate with elected officials.
"I don't think SpeakOut is competitive in that regard," he said.
He also said SpeakOut's idea of conducting surveys tarnishes its activist mission and that Vote.com does not want to "provide the elite with a polling tool," but rather to "stimulate dialogue" between politicians and their constituents.
Vote.com allows users to vote on various political issues and also forwards visitor e-mail to politicians (SpeakOut forwards only selected responses, citing the need to help pols handle e-mail, not hit them with thousands of messages). Morris, who said his capitalization is in the millions of dollars, has not made any money with his site yet. Unlike SpeakOut, he initially plans to make money through advertising only.
Hopeful on the Hill
At least one Hill veteran is excited about SpeakOut's potential.
"We would love someone to take our e-mail and sort of categorize it and make sense of it," said Tony Bullock, chief of staff for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Bullock said Moynihan gets anywhere from a hundred to thousands of e-mails a week and does not have the staff to answer it. Instead, the e-mails are printed out and responded to as though they were regular letters -- and only if the e-mailer includes a mailing address.
Bullock said he has been talking with other people on Capitol Hill about SpeakOut, but cannot tell yet how valuable the site will be for his office. In terms of SpeakOut's plans to sell survey information, Bullock said Moynihan -- a vocal critic of politicians who rely on polls -- will most likely not be a customer.
But others most likely will, he said. The survey aspect of the site "sounds like a cyber focus group, and I don't see why there's less validity in that approach than to the standard `round them up and throw them in a room with a video [camera]' approach."
"I think what's going to drive this thing is the sort of inherent desire by most people to be heard," he said. "Somebody had a great line once about how they'd run out of shoes to throw at the television, so they wrote a letter."