The progressive tech ecosystem has been on something of a tear the past few years, culminating in several dozen acquisitions late last year and early this year. It’s a pretty exciting moment, and it’s clear that we have a lot of accomplishments to be proud of. But as much as we’ve done, there’s still plenty more to do, and a lot of problems which might be well-addressed by startups, but which require systematic planning. In other words, we need something like a startup studio for progressive tech.
A startup studio is a business whose goal is to create and spin off financially sustainable startups. The studio acts as housing for nascent companies, providing logistical and financial support to bring an idea to market. They are adjacent, in the startup ecosystem, to venture capitalists and accelerators - but a key difference is that they can generate ideas and teams needed to execute those ideas. Typically venture capitalists and accelerators recruit existing businesses, and as a result they are structurally limited to the entrants that already exist in a given space. Royal Montgomery has a reasonably good briefer on what a startup studio is.
There are a lot of big, difficult problems that have plagued the progressive movement for years and even decades: the on-again/off-again nature of political funding and organizing; the geographically inefficient nature of the progressive coalition, which requires “organizing everywhere”; the fact that large swaths of the progressive coalition are marginalized, and can be readily disenfranchised by malicious actors; the lack of a robust and dedicated progressive media ecosystem; and on and on. There is no shortage of hand-wringing about these problems, and there is plenty of money spent trying to remediate the felt effects of these problems. But we fail to approach the root of the problem in a systematic, rigorous way.
There really isn’t a group which is capable of doing so, either. To be sure, there are groups whose scope of activity is closely adjacent to these problems and which might, in principle, benefit from addressing them. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) would be a perfect home for these kinds of activities. Except - its goals and mission are really much more short-term, namely electing a Democratic president. Its leadership structure is driven by political cycles and turns over with some frequency; it “thinks” in terms of election cycles, and not in terms of such problems as media ecosystems or financing mechanisms. Similar comments apply in varying degrees to other large progressive national groups like the AFL-CIO - although the solution to these structural problems would benefit them greatly, their mission is a poor fit to addressing problems of this scope head-on.
Nor do these problems lend themselves to any one, “silver-bullet” solution. “Organizing everywhere” sounds simple enough, and there is a straightforward geographic model to follow: the DNC’s 50-state strategy, or a similar one at the granularity of counties, as Michigan Democrats are using for the 2022 governor’s race. But there’s only so far such efforts can go - they tend to get deprioritized as key staff depart, or they’re applied unevenly. Or simplistic approaches fail to appreciate some of the nuances of different locales: for example, in some areas, organizing by identity is more effective than organizing by geography. Other problems lend themselves still less to silver bullets: the lack of a progressive media ecosystem, for example, is a well-known problem which has been attacked numerous ways. We are in a better position now than we were 20 years ago, but we are not close to done. We need a lot more experimentation on these problems.
A progressive startup studio an begin to investigate, and attempt to solve, these problems in a systematic and financially sustainable way. Such an organization would have as its mission to uncover, explore, and solve the structural problems that hold back the progressive movement. It would bring creative, ambitious individuals together to study these problems, surface new solutions and financial models to support them - and then seek to bring these solutions to market.
Financially, such an enterprise would require significant startup funds. It could monetize off startup exits, or it might find other financial products more suitable to what might be an illiquid market - for example, commercial paper issued to its spinoffs at favorable rates in lieu of equity. Regardless, it would require a fairly long runway - on the order of five, perhaps ten, years - to become sustainable in its own right. There are other financial and organizational models worth exploring in this space; Ben Reinhardt’s description of the model of a hypothetical Private ARPA is a tantalizing if somewhat elaborate idea along these lines.
Aside from sustainability, an important challenge for an organization like this one would be to retain its ideological mission and progressive character. Independence from established organizations like the DNC would be an important asset, allowing the organization to explore opportunities that ran counter to the DNC’s mission - for example, exploring business models that are inherently bipartisan or nonpartisan. Independence would also allow the organization to work in areas that are simply not a part of the DNC’s wheelhouse - religious organizing or climate tech, for instance. (And here I’m using the DNC as but one example of many established institutions in the progressive ecosystem.) By the same token, independence from longstanding political entities is something of a risk - it’s easy to imagine a progressive startup studio drifting further and further from fits founding mission over time, eventually becoming… just a startup studio. It’s certainly not inevitable, but an important risk to forestall.
Would it be possible to address long-lived, structural problems of these forms outside the startup studio? Certainly it would be possible: there’s nothing preventing other groups from attempting such a feat, though to my knowledge none have tried so far. Are startups the natural “product” to address this particular problem space? Not necessarily, and almost certainly not in every case. There are some problems which are better addressed by a well-funded non-profit or a particularly insightful PAC. It may well be the case that a progressive “startup” studio would in fact drift over time into a studio which produces not just startups but also committees, PACs, and other entities. As long as these organizations are long-term sustainable, and working to mitigate structural challenges in the progressive movement, there’s nothing wrong with that!
We’ll return to this idea over time - startup studios are easy to write about, difficult to implement. Hopefully it’s the beginning of an important conversation.