The entrepreneur

In 2008, Lou Aronson had a “lightening bolt moment” while he was waiting at his children’s bus stop with other neighborhood parents.

“We were standing around complaining about the robo-calls during the upcoming presidential election and I noticed that one of my neighbors wasn’t complaining. Turns out, no one ever called his house because he didn’t have a land line. He held up his BlackBerry.”

In that moment, Aronson realized that polling companies would soon need another way to reach the American voters, so he created Votifi. This week, Aronson is at the South By Southwest Accelerator and the TechCocktail StartUp Showcase in Austin to present his company.

The pitch


“Votifi is a peer-to-peer recommendation engine for political discovery. We deliver mobile polls and use the results to help simplify your access to political content, quantify where you fit on the political map and amplify your voice through discussions with people who share your views and debates with people who are on the other side of an issue. Votifi is a one-stop shop for political engagement and exploration.

“In addition, Votifi is a way for polling companies to reach Americans who no longer use their land lines. Right now, you’ve got an industry where you have to robo-dial approximately 40,000 people in order to get 1,200 respondents. That costs approximately $40,000. If you’re a local politician, you can’t do that and capture that data in real time. Votifi is a way to tap into this $3.6 billion industry and a way to solve the problem of the disappearing land line for polling companies.

“Our technology recognizes that the strength of the American political system lies in diversity of opinion, and that voters’ views are multidimensional and evolve over time. Online competitors tend to reinforce party lines or attempt to create consensus without necessary debate, and traditional political pollsters are finding it increasingly difficult to capture voters’ views in a mobile world. Votifi’s mobile polls and platform capture political views in real-time and make political content more accessible, particularly to those groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in the political process.”

“What we currently need help with is building our user base. What is the most efficient and cost-effective way to build a large and demographically diverse user base that is representative of the American population?”

The advice

Andrew J. Sherman, adjunct professor for entrepreneurship, Robert H. Smith School of Business; partner, Jones Day

“South By Southwest is a tremendous opportunity to drive people to your site and attract investors so you definitely want to make the most of this opportunity.

“As far as growing your user base, you get big by getting small. Most of the companies I’ve worked with that are successful have really understood the micro communities. They basically stitched together micro communities one by one to get a large community of interested users. The companies that go out there with big messages that are too broad to relate to anyone, they are the ones that never hit critical mass. The more micro groups you can find that find the content useful, the faster you’ll be able to reach a critical mass for Votifi. That’s the way Facebook and LinkedIn began — before long, they blinked their eyes and realized that they had millions of people coming to their site each day.

“If you look at LinkedIn and Facebook, they got critical mass and woke up to figure out their business model. With Votifi, you need to do just the opposite. Spend time with the people who will be paying you and the people who will be using Votifi and build your company around their needs right off the bat. This will help you figure out how to build a profitable business model.

“Along those lines, once you figure out your business and revenue model, make sure you present them right up front to interested investors. It is key for them to understand that the polling industry is a multibillion dollar industry.

“One last idea: When you present your polls, throw in a fun question or two. It will show off your polling skills and demonstrate your sense of humor. People will enjoy being polled about lighthearted things every once in a while, especially when paired with hot political topics.”

The reaction


“You’ve given me a lot of great ideas. We’ve started rethinking our minority and campus outreach strategy to try to capture the voters in these communities — that should help us start small to grow big like you suggested. I also really like your idea of adding in fun poll questions. One of our board members, who is a pollster, always reminds us that we have to ask some fun questions and not take it too seriously. If we can be serious and lighthearted at the same time, that will be attractive to a large portion of our audience. We’ll certainly be trying this idea out at [South By Southwest] this week.”