Jim Gilliam of NationBuilder says his software will "democratize democracy." So why do many of his progressive friends consider him a traitor?
The American Prospect | October 9, 2013
TWO YEARS AGO on a summer morning, Jim Gilliam stood offstage at New York University’s Skirball Center. It was the second day of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual gathering of civic-minded coders, hackers, and online organizers. Many in the crowd knew Gilliam as much for his appearance—he’s six-foot-nine, bald, ivory-pale, and impossibly thin—as for his brilliance as a programmer and his passion for progressive causes. Gilliam, who was 33 years old, had never spoken before such a large audience, and as he strode across the stage and looked out on all the people, he was terrified.
“Growing up,” he began, “I had two loves: Jesus and the Internet.” He had titled his speech “The Internet Is My Religion,” and he was surprised the conference’s organizers had agreed to let him give a talk steeped in God and faith. Even though he’d rehearsed for weeks, he expected to bomb. Still, he had to do this. His entire life, he believed, had led him to this point. “I was born again when I was eight,” Gilliam told the audience. Wandering the stage TED-talk style, he wore thick-lensed Oakley glasses, a T-shirt depicting Abraham Lincoln, and skinny jeans cinched tight at the waist. He had grown up in Silicon Valley, he continued, where he was “quite the precocious young conservative,” who went to church three times a week, called in to talk radio, and listened to Rush Limbaugh. Gilliam’s mother homeschooled him and his two sisters, shielding him from the secular world.
One day, his father brought home a weird-looking phone and plugged it into the household computer. “It made a bizarre screeching noise like it was trying to mate with a rhinoceros or something. Instead, it attracted me, and that’s when I found out that computers could talk to each other.”
The story that followed was improbable, and few people in the audience, including many who were friends of Gilliam, were aware of its outlines. In 1994, his family moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he attended the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. In his first year, Gilliam was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Two weeks into chemotherapy, Gilliam learned that his mother had cancer. “I survived, my mom didn’t, our family fell apart, and my faith in God was shattered.”
Gilliam dropped out of Liberty and fled to Boston to join an Internet start-up. Within months, the cancer returned; he had leukemia. Near death, lying in the intensive care unit, he would hit a button at his bedside that injected him with dilaudid (otherwise known as “hospital heroin”) to blunt the pain. “Every time I pressed it, I felt defeated and broken,” he said. “I just wanted it to end. God had forsaken me.”
The doctors had not. A bone-marrow transplant saved Gilliam’s life. “I couldn’t waste another second of my life, so I gave myself to the Internet, what I loved most.” He established himself as a wunderkind coder during the first dot-com boom. Then September 11 happened, and he gave up his tech career for liberal activism. “I had no illusions at all that I could change anything,” he said, “but knew … that if I didn’t at least try, I would look back in ten years and regret it.” He volunteered first for the anti-war group MoveOn and then went on to co-found Brave New Films with left-wing documentary director Robert Greenwald, where he pioneered online fundraising and distribution. Then, just shy of his 28th birthday, Gilliam found himself struggling to breathe. Doctors told him he needed a double-lung transplant. The chemo that had saved his life had destroyed his lungs.
On a cloudy February morning in 2007, he received the lungs of a recently deceased 22-year-old man. As he headed into surgery, he had a revelation. When he awoke—if he awoke—he would have the DNA of three different people: The marrow donor’s, the lung donor’s, and his own. “And that’s when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected.”
He would be dead, he said, if not for the people who had sacrificed to save his life. “We are all connected. We are all in debt to each other. We all owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet. The Internet gives us the opportunity to pay back a small part of that debt.” Raising his hands to the ceiling, looking down at his feet, pausing for emphasis, Gilliam could have been a preacher offering a prayer. “What the people in this room do is spiritual. It is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world.”
When he finished speaking, Gilliam ran off the stage to a standing ovation. Audience members mobbed him in the hall. “Not a dry eye in the house,” tweeted the tech writer Cory Doctorow. The website Business Insider called the talk “a modern epic.” The video became a YouTube sensation, with eventually more than 500,000 views. Capital New York declared it “the best video on the Internet.”
What most people heard in Gilliam’s speech was the story of a man who had beaten death three times and who had lost his faith in God, only to find it in the Internet. Most didn’t realize that when Gilliam spoke of repaying a “debt” and creating a “new world,” it wasn’t a rhetorical flourish. A few months earlier, he had unveiled a piece of software called NationBuilder. He fervently believed that NationBuilder, which he had written from scratch in his apartment, would, in his words, “democratize democracy.” If the Internet’s power came from connecting humanity, then NationBuilder would give ordinary people the means to harness that power to make change. Run for Congress. Build a bridge. Topple a dictator. Get new lungs.
Gilliam’s idealism took him one step further. Although he had devoted his late twenties to progressive causes, he planned to offer NationBuilder to everyone: liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, war hawks, peaceniks, beauty queens, beer brewers, Tea Partiers, feminists, white supremacists. Everyone. That decision—which his critics would say had nothing to do with idealism but everything to do with making money—would help NationBuilder attract nearly $15 million from some of Silicon Valley’s savviest investors. It would also alienate Gilliam from people who had once considered him an ally. In their eyes, he wasn’t an evangelist for the Internet but a traitor.
"LIKE, MOSES WAS the original community organizer, at least as far as I can tell, right? He stands up to the Pharaoh. He organizes his people. He gets the waters parted, the whole thing.” Sitting in a conference room in downtown Los Angeles, Gilliam is telling, by way of the Bible, the story of his company. NationBuilder is a set of digital tools bundled like Microsoft Office that lets people organize, take action, stand up to their own Pharaohs. With NationBuilder, you can start a website, write blog posts, plan events, raise money online, blast out e-mails to groups of people, and manage your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media accounts.
None of this is revolutionary. Dozens of companies specialize in mass e-mails or online fundraising or social media. NationBuilder is distinctive because it weaves all these features in a smart, intuitive way so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re a political candidate, NationBuilder helps convert Twitter followers into donors, donors into volunteers, Facebook friends into block captains and precinct leaders, and so on. Play in a band? NationBuilder can track your biggest supporters and help you mobilize those fans to go to your next show or to donate so you can record your next CD.
Gilliam took inspiration from Barack Obama’s 2008 run, which was the first presidential campaign to marry cutting-edge technologies with old-school community organizing. “Obama applied the principles of community organizing, and it was explosive. It was unstoppable,” Gilliam says. “We’re taking those principles and actually baking them into software.” The tech geeks who spearheaded Obama’s strategy have taken notice. “People want to say there isn’t a division between organizers and technology people, but there is,” says Harper Reed, who served as chief technology officer on Obama’s 2012 campaign. “The trick is getting organizers and technology types to work together. What Jim says is, ‘Actually, just use my product.’”
What makes NationBuilder groundbreaking is not just what its software does but how cheap it is. For the renters’ rights activist running for city council in Nashville, the Boston native starting a “Celtics Fans in Los Angeles” club, or the mother in Omaha creating her own conservation group, $30 or $50 a month offers the same tools used by political candidates, labor unions, best-selling authors, and nonprofits, not to mention access to a free voter-registration file. The price climbs as your “nation,” NationBuilder’s term for its customers, grows its database and e-mails more people. For Gilliam, this was always the core of his vision: Make NationBuilder available to those of modest means who want to spur their fellow citizens.
When seated, Gilliam is all shoulder blades and legs, his long limbs folding into one another as if he were squeezed into the backseat of a car. NationBuilder’s corporate color is robin’s-egg blue, and his wardrobe leans toward the same hue: robin’s-egg hoodie (“I get cold easily,” he says), company T-shirt, navy blue knit scarf, and dark blue jeans. He still has the shy, unassuming air of someone who has spent much of his life in front of a computer screen, but colleagues say that since his appearance at the Personal Democracy Forum, he has grown more confident as a public speaker. He talks in quick-fire bursts, his hands dancing through the air.
Outside the conference room, several dozen employees peck at their Macs. Developers and engineers gaze at lines of code. Salespeople and customer-service reps, internally called “organizers,” talk into their headsets while sitting on brightly colored ball chairs or on tufted red leather couches. The company’s mascot, a four-foot stuffed giraffe named Sally, dressed in a NationBuilder T-shirt and leg warmers, welcomes visitors at the front door. On white, glossy, erasable wallpaper, employees have scribbled lists, equations, and diagrams. Will Hunting got a day job.
Gilliam has no desk, preferring to roam the office. When he needs to code or send an e-mail, he splays out with a laptop on a couch under a bank of windows with a view of Pershing Square. He deliberately chose not to open NationBuilder’s office in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., or even L.A.’s own tech corridor in Santa Monica. He liked downtown Los Angeles because, he says, it was far away from the Beltway bubble, where all anyone cares about is winning the next election and cashing in, and far away from the Bay Area bubble, where all anyone cares about is building the next Twitter and cashing in. NationBuilder, he believed, needed to exist outside those insular cultures.
Pershing Square is surrounded by blocks of diamond stores and jewelry wholesalers (¡Compramos oro y plata!), corporate office towers for Wells Fargo and Bank of America, and the odd hipster bar and restaurant. Within five minutes of each other are the Jazz Age opulence of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel and the multitudes of Skid Row. Gilliam rents a studio apartment nearby, and he points out that, in the year and a half since NationBuilder moved into its offices, Pershing Square has gone from a grungy backwater to an up-and-coming neighborhood. “There’s this whole resurgence within this area of people taking the old and creating something new,” he says. “That really felt right.”
Before NationBuilder came along, online organizing was the province of political campaigns, labor unions, and advocacy groups. It was split along partisan lines, with Republicans and Democrats and conservatives and liberals developing their own software and databases. For the longest time, unions and large nonprofits tended to rely on big, slow-moving companies like Convio and Blackbaud (now one company) to build their websites and manage their e-mail lists. Many now use younger firms like Blue State Digital and Salsa. These tools are not cheap. ActionKit, the software developed by MoveOn.org, starts at $2,200 a month. When NationBuilder launched, it announced a $19-a-month starter package. “It was a little bit of a bombshell,” says Nicco Mele, the webmaster for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign.
Blowing things up was Gilliam’s plan. Although he worked to elect Obama, belonged to MoveOn, and played a key role in the progressive netroots movement, he voices equal disgust with Democrats and Republicans. Both are culpable for the vast sums of money flowing in and out of the political system. “You don’t even have to explain how screwed up the political system is anymore,” Gilliam says. In an ideal world, there would be no need for political parties, he says. Citizens would be able to bypass elections and directly participate, via the Internet, in their own governance.
One of Gilliam’s heroes is Buckminster Fuller, and he’s fond of quoting the iconoclastic architect: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Gilliam believes NationBuilder can be the new model. “The technology community is really good at replacing inefficient industries,” he told an interviewer in 2009. “We’ve done it to the music industry. Sort of one after another, they’re toppling down from technologists. What if we do that to government?”
GILLIAM'S STRONGEST CHILDHOOD memories are of Los Gatos, California, a suburb of San Jose in what was then firmly middle-class Silicon Valley. His parents moved there in 1982, five years after he was born. His father was a software engineer for IBM, at the time the dominant computer company in the world. The family’s life revolved around Los Gatos Christian, the megachurch that was a Western outpost of Falwell’s Moral Majority movement. Gilliam attended Los Gatos Christian’s school and played in the church’s baseball, basketball, and soccer leagues.
When Gilliam was 10, his father was transferred to an IBM office in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, and the family moved to a leafy neighborhood in nearby Chapel Hill. His closest friend was Jesse Haff, who would go on to become the second employee at NationBuilder. The two boys couldn’t have been more different—Jesse listened to heavy metal and came from a secular household—but they bonded over their love of computers. Gilliam’s dad had brought home one of the first IBM PCs; the Haffs had a Mac.
What attracted Gilliam to computers wasn’t hardware and motherboards; it was the ability to escape his cloistered life. He was an avid user of the bulletin board system, or BBS, an early version of the Internet. Users coded their own BBS site—Jim called his “Gilligan’s Island”—and then, using their modems, dialed into other people’s BBSs to read news, leave messages, and download files. BBSs were so popular among middle-aged hobbyists in the 1980s and 1990s that they had their own trade magazines, Boardwatch and BBS Magazine. Gilliam loved BBS because everyone treated him as a peer. No one knew he was a gawky 12-year-old homeschooled Christian kid with flaming red hair.
The Gilliams searched for but never found in North Carolina the Christian community they’d left behind in Northern California. At the end of Jim’s last year of high school, his father left IBM to take a job with the Swedish tech firm Ericsson. The reason for the move was that the company had offices in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Falwell’s congregation was located. Gilliam’s two sisters enrolled in Falwell’s Liberty Christian Academy. Although Jim had lobbied for the University of North Carolina, his parents insisted that he attend Liberty University.
One day, Will Samson, the head of academic computing at Liberty, received a call from a campus librarian. “I think some kid hacked past your firewall,” the librarian told him. What kid? Samson asked. “He’s got red hair,” came the reply, “and he’s really, really, really tall.” When Samson caught up with Gilliam, he hired him on the spot. Gilliam brought the Internet to Liberty, built the school’s first website, and fixed Falwell’s IBM ThinkPad when it broke down.
In the spring of his first year, Gilliam came down with a severe cold, which he ignored until his mother insisted he see a doctor, who told him he was suffering from bronchitis. The symptoms never went away, and he agreed to get another opinion. This time, X-rays revealed that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the immune system. Two weeks after learning of her son’s illness, Gilliam’s mother was told she had adrenal cancer, an even rarer disease for which there was no treatment. After nine rounds of chemotherapy, Gilliam’s cancer went into remission. His mother died within five months; Falwell spoke at her funeral and helped lower her casket into the ground.
Years later in a blog post, Gilliam recalled the last time he talked with his mother:
Today is mother’s day. … This holiday is difficult, not in that I never knew her, or can only reconstruct a memory of her from old pictures. … No, this is tough for me because I remember vividly so many things. I remember the things she hated: cooking, being lied to, and Hillary Clinton. I remember the things she loved: sewing, houses, and my Dad. …
The most vivid memory was the last conversation we ever had. It was the middle of the night. Everyone was asleep except for the two of us. She was on so much pain medication and the cancer was ravaging her mind so terribly that she was becoming delusional. And this is what she said to me:
“We’re going to beat this! Grandma and Grandpa don’t want us to, but we’re going to beat it, Jimmy! No one else can help us. Just you and me.”
“Yes, mom, we’re gonna beat it.” My mom didn’t have any chance of surviving, but at that point, it looked like my chances were pretty good. My last words to her that I knew she understood, were a lie. To the woman who hated being lied to
I went upstairs and sobbed the rest of the night.
Gilliam was 19 years old when he left Liberty and took a tech job in Boston. On his own for the first time, he loved the work and his newfound freedom. At first, he’d feel guilty on Sunday mornings for not going to church. The regret didn’t last. Six months after arriving in Boston, his idyll came to a sudden end: Cancer had reappeared in the form of leukemia. By the time he’d recovered from the bone-marrow transplant, Gilliam had shed the last of his faith. When people asked if he still believed in God, he’d reply, “Yeah, he’s an asshole.”
Gilliam landed a job with Lycos, the dominant search engine in the pre-Google era, and established himself as one of the company’s top coders. Tucked away in a dark corner of the office nicknamed the “man cave,” dancing in his chair to whatever song piped through his headphones, Gilliam had found his home. Sangam Pant, who was Lycos’s vice president of engineering, describes Gilliam as one of the most talented programmers he’s ever met. “Stuff that takes weeks or months to do, he’d do it in an all-night session,” Pant says. “There are people who are 10 times or 100 times more productive than others. Jim falls into that category.”
In 1999, Gilliam followed Pant to Santa Monica to join an Internet incubator called eCompanies. The following spring, eCompanies was preparing to launch an online business directory called Business.com, a domain name for which it had paid $7.5 million. The outside contractor hired to construct Business.com’s operating system had taken six months and done such a shoddy job that the launch was in jeopardy. Gilliam offered to fix it. To everyone’s astonishment, he rebuilt Business.com, top to bottom, in 17 days. (In 2007, eCompanies sold Business.com for $345 million.)
In the days after the September 11 attacks, he watched Falwell, his former mentor, blame the attacks on pagans, abortion providers, feminists, gays, lesbians, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Gilliam was still programming at eCompanies, but he was burned out, sick of Silicon Valley. The bottom had fallen out of the tech boom. Now he wanted to do something more important than making other people rich. His political views had been shifting to the left, but President George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq was the turning point. Gilliam had made some money from Lycos stock, so he decided to quit his job, help MoveOn publicize its anti-war efforts, and start blogging about politics. Seizing on every nugget of news to question the administration’s case for war, quoting liberal stalwarts like Paul Krugman and Markos Moulitsas, full of indignation and snark and frenzy, his posts captured the outrage of the anti-war movement: “I wonder if people will ever realize that Bush exceeded bin Laden’s wildest dreams by invading Iraq. Osama wanted a war—jihad—and not only did Bush oblige, he made it damn convenient too ... just down the street from bin Laden’s cave. 9/11 was the greatest PR stunt since the crucifixion. The only way to win is simply not to play. Terrorism doesn’t work if you’re not afraid.”
Through MoveOn, Gilliam met Robert Greenwald, the producer of some 50 made-for-TV movies, who needed a researcher for a documentary he was making about how the Bush administration had sold the Iraq War to the American people. When the director offered him the job in the summer of 2003, Gilliam accepted with one condition: “I don’t want to fix anybody’s computer.” The documentary, Uncovered, was released on DVD later that year and became a touchstone for the anti-war movement. Greenwald’s next documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, an exposé of Fox News released in 2004, was so popular that the company website would occasionally crash when too many people tried to buy a poster or a DVD. Gilliam knew he couldn’t hide his computer prowess any longer. He rebuilt Greenwald’s website in a day and constructed a platform to organize the thousands of house parties Greenwald had dreamed up to screen Outfoxed.
In 2005, Greenwald and Gilliam launched Brave New Films, the first Internet-based film company. Its mission, according to Gilliam, was to make movies that were so powerful “there was no way this country could ever go to war again under false pretenses.” Gilliam promoted the company’s films through YouTube, then in its infancy, and created one of the earliest crowdsourcing platforms to fund projects. For Iraq for Sale, a documentary about war profiteering, Gilliam asked for $15, $20, or $25 donations; he ended up raising $260,000 online, enough to make the movie. Every donor got his or her name in the credits. “It’ll be longer than Lord of the Rings,” Gilliam joked.
Gilliam started Brave New Films not knowing how much longer he had to live. His breathing had gotten so bad he couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs or take a shower without collapsing from exhaustion. When he finally visited a pulmonologist—he hadn’t bothered with a referral from a primary-care physician, instead calling up the closest specialist in Culver City and asking for an appointment—he learned that the chemo he’d undergone as a teenager had charred his lungs. He needed a new pair right away.
Double-lung transplants are one of the most complicated procedures in medicine. To get on a transplant list, a hospital had to review his case and medical history, decide if he was a good candidate, and sponsor him. He sent his file to the best hospitals in Los Angeles—Cedars-Sinai; University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles. In September 2005, UCLA, home to one of the best cardiothoracic surgery departments in the world, rejected him, saying he was too much of a risk. Because lung-transplant recipients are on immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives, they’re more vulnerable to sickness; in Gilliam’s case, doctors feared his cancer might return. Because he was so tall, finding a suitable pair of lungs also would be difficult. He relayed the news on his blog and said he planned to register the domain name uclasurgeonsarepussies.com.
After hearing of UCLA’s rejection, a friend wrote an angry e-mail and sent it to a generic address at UCLA. Gilliam’s sister followed with her own e-mail. So did other friends and co-workers. Two weeks later, the phone rang. When could he come in for an appointment, a scheduler from UCLA asked. Many months and appointments later, the lung-transplant committee voted to put him on the list. When Gilliam asked what had changed, his doctor, the head of the cardiothoracic surgery department, replied, “I never saw your file the first time. But I did get the e-mails.”
THE ORIGINS OF NationBuilder can be traced back to September 18, 1998, when Joan Blades and Wes Boyd started a website. A married couple who had struck it rich in Silicon Valley (they invented the “flying toasters” screensaver), Blades and Boyd were sick of the excessive outrage and wall-to-wall coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Their website asked people to sign a petition telling Congress to censure Clinton and “move on” to more pressing issues. The site collected 100,000 signatures within a week, eventually amassing a half million. News stories treated MoveOn.org as a freak occurrence, but a new era in politics and organizing had begun.
By 2003, MoveOn’s e-mail list had grown to some 1.4 million people, and the site had emerged as a leading voice of opposition to the Iraq War. That summer, MoveOn conducted its own Democratic presidential “primary.” Few were surprised that Vermont Governor Howard Dean won the most votes. He was strongly opposed to the war, and his campaign was the first to leverage the Internet, rallying supporters through Meetup.com and raising money by e-mail—so much money that for a brief moment, until he self-destructed after the Iowa caucuses, the liberal politician from a tiny Northeastern state was the party’s front-runner. Direct mail was dead; e-mail was the future.
The early 2000s also saw the rise of the progressive blogosphere, specifically Daily Kos, the online community started by Markos Moulitsas. Kos was the rowdy voice of what soon came to be called the netroots, endorsing candidates, bashing Republicans, seeking funds, and generating petitions to pressure members of Congress. It was a testament to Kos’s growing clout that when the site’s bloggers gathered in Chicago in 2007 for the second YearlyKos conference, later renamed Netroots Nation, the guest list featured seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was the first to hire staff who were as immersed in social media and open-source coding as they were in door-to-door canvassing. The Obama techies saw the Internet as more than a means to bombard supporters with pitches and petitions. In their view, the Internet was a way to interact with voters and learn which issues they were passionate about. Knowing your supporters makes it a lot easier to ask them for time and money.
By constantly testing the efficacy of fundraising e-mails, the campaign boosted its haul by $100 million. Every week, call centers conducted between 5,000 and 10,000 interviews with voters in battleground states. By combining the results of those interviews with data like voting history and credit-card purchases, the campaign could assign two scores to each voter. One measured the likelihood he or she would vote; the other gauged support for Obama. The campaign used those scores to know whom to target and where to spend finite resources. Obama’s staffers had so much information streaming into their databases that they adjusted their voter scores weekly. John McCain’s campaign calculated a similar voter score once in the entire campaign.
Gilliam marveled at the Obama campaign’s technological prowess, but he knew how expensive and intricate it was to pull off. What if online organizing were user-friendly and affordable? On Halloween night 2009, he wrote the first line of code that would become NationBuilder, and for the next year, he spent 16 hours a day coding in his Los Angeles apartment.
In late 2010, Gilliam met with a well-connected entrepreneur named Joe Green, who was perhaps best known as Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate who didn’t quit Harvard and join Facebook. Instead, Green had worked as an organizer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Green, too, saw the potential of the Internet to mobilize ordinary people around issues. He once tried to recruit Gilliam to his company Causes, which had created a Facebook app that encouraged volunteerism and philanthropy. Sitting in Green’s Berkeley office, Gilliam described his vision for NationBuilder. Green was knocked out. “This is the thing,” he told him. “This is it.” (Green went on to become NationBuilder’s first president, serving for almost a year. He remains on the board of directors.)
NationBuilder launched in April 2011. Although it had only 20 paying customers, the early results were encouraging. Alex Torpey, an independent candidate for mayor of South Orange, New Jersey, squeaked out a 14-vote win—votes, he says, he can link directly to NationBuilder saving him time and money. The Scottish National Party used NationBuilder and retook the majority in the Scottish Parliament. Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a rising star in the GOP, signed up with NationBuilder for his re-election campaign.
Before he’d written a single line of code, Gilliam had decided that NationBuilder would be nonpartisan. Aaron Straus Garcia, a field organizer on Obama’s 2008 campaign who briefly worked at NationBuilder, recalls a conversation he had with Gilliam early on. “What happens when the Tea Party comes knocking on our door?” Garcia asked. Gilliam’s response was immediate: “There’s no way we close doors, or we start picking or choosing. This is what will set us apart.”
It was always going to be a controversial strategy. Gilliam’s activist friends saw him as both a leader and a product of the netroots; the liberal Campaign for America’s Future had even given him an award for being an unsung progressive hero. Now he was courting Republicans, trying to persuade them to use his product to defeat Democrats. In June 2012, NationBuilder announced that it had signed “probably the largest deal ever struck in political technology” with the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), whose primary mission is to elect GOP candidates at the state level. His competitors scoffed at the claim, but the agreement potentially put NationBuilder into the hands of several thousand Republican politicians.
The backlash was fierce. Jason Rosenbaum, at the time a senior staffer at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, accused Gilliam of being a mercenary. “Progressives should think carefully about who they’re helping when they use NationBuilder,” Rosenbaum told a reporter for the website TechPresident. “Every dollar you spend directly aids your opponents.” The candidates benefiting from the RSLC’s help, he said, “are the folks who helped pass Scott Walker’s agenda, who want to give transvaginal ultrasounds to women, who want to disenfranchise the minorities, who want to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Helping them win elections is pretty evil.”
In the same article, Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots Nation, called for a boycott of NationBuilder. How do we know, he asked, that NationBuilder won’t share with conservatives data it gathers for progressives? The boycott never came about, and Brooks no longer brings up NationBuilder’s integrity, but his view of the company hasn’t budged. “Just the idea,” he says, “that you would do anything to help this group of people is offensive, really.” (Robert Greenwald, perhaps out of loyalty to his former partner, has refused to weigh in on the controversy.)
In the wake of the RSLC deal, Gilliam was defiant. In a response to TechPresident, he called Brooks a hypocrite, pointing out that Rally.org, an online fundraising tool used by Mitt Romney’s campaign, had sponsored Netroots Nation in 2012. But it was the questions about the safety of customer data that upset him the most. He accused Brooks of lying and blasted out a mass e-mail claiming that NGP VAN, a prominent technology firm that only serves Democrats, had told customers that their data wasn’t secure with NationBuilder. “This is appalling,” he wrote, “and we want to make sure our customers know the truth. … We will never give [your data] to someone else. Ever.”
Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN’s president and CEO, denies his firm ever tried to sabotage NationBuilder. But like Brooks, he does not believe in helping the other side. The Democratic Party at the state and national level, he says, has invested millions of dollars to establish an advantage in data and technology. When Democratic candidates use Democratic-only tools and the party voter file, they improve that data with information gleaned during canvasses and phone calls. By continually updating their in-house data, Democrats better know whom to target with ads and whom to turn out on Election Day. The more Democrats use NationBuilder, Trevelyan says, the less they improve the party’s data, which only helps the GOP. “I think Jim comes from, frankly, a sadly uneducated place,” he says. “Out of the box, I think he thought NationBuilder was going to disrupt politics. At the end of the day, it hasn’t.”
IN JUNE, NATIONBUILDER raised $8 million in Series B funding, with most of it coming from the Omidyar Network, the venture capital firm started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The company’s other big investor is Andreessen Horowitz, the highly regarded Silicon Valley venture capital firm, which led an earlier $6.25 million round of funding. Gilliam acknowledges that NationBuilder will require substantial investment as it fine-tunes its low-cost, high-volume business model. “The only way to bust through,” he says, “is to have a long enough runway so that you can build the right product and get it to the right price point where you can get to customers and where it can be profitable.”
By any measure, the company is growing. The number of employees has increased from 42 to 73 since February. The customer base has more than doubled in the same period, expanding from 1,598 to 4,000. Early this year, NationBuilder unveiled three new editions, or “verticals,” aimed at nonprofits, businesses, and government. Although the company is now focused on the U.S.—a Washington, D.C., sales office is about to open—it plans to expand internationally. Perhaps the most significant indication of NationBuilder’s impact is that its competitors have begun to lower their prices.
Still, the challenges Gilliam faces are not those of a typical start-up. The next Tumblr or Instagram doesn’t have to worry about partisan warfare or the ideologies of its founder. NationBuilder does, and it has hindered the company’s ability to break into the limited but lucrative field of high-profile campaigns. In the last election cycle, few congressional or senatorial candidates—Democratic or Republican—used the software. Earlier this year, NationBuilder’s best-known customer, Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, switched to using NGP VAN in the middle of his U.S. Senate campaign. It was a public blow to NationBuilder, though according to a campaign consultant, the decision had nothing to do with the company’s policies but with needing a more established technology.
“NationBuilder pretends to be nonpartisan,” Andy Barkett, the CTO of the Republican National Committee, said this summer. “It’s just not true.”
Even Gilliam’s admirers have their reservations. “As the CTO of the Obama campaign, I would never have used a nonpartisan start-up,” Harper Reed says. “Because how could we trust them? What are they sharing? What combined intelligence are they giving? What are we doing that they’re giving to our enemies?”
Although the word “profitable”—as in the need to make NationBuilder profitable—has now crept into his speech, Gilliam still talks with the fervor of an evangelist. “NationBuilder,” he says, “is about changing the culture and helping people to understand that you have this amazing opportunity to be whatever you want to be. We’ve got the software to help you manage the whole thing. But what you’ve got to get in your head is that you’re not about waiting around for somebody else to tell you what to do. You’ve got to find that thing that you and only you were meant to uniquely contribute to the world.”
When Gilliam speaks this way, the idealism that has fueled his entire life comes to the fore. As a born-again Christian, he put his faith in God and Jesus Christ to protect and guide him. As a progressive activist, he believed he could make movies that would prevent the United States from ever entering an unjust war. Now, as a technologist, he believes the Internet can transform democracy so radically that it will render the Democratic and Republican parties obsolete and usher in a new era of direct, participatory democracy. Critics like Trevelyan and Brooks believe his idealism is naïve and therefore dangerous. His admirers believe that his idealism is what sets him apart. “I’ve been around for 20 years,” says Todor Tashev of Omidyar Network, “and you rarely see a CEO who is as maniacally focused on the vision and purpose of the company and delivering on that vision as Jim is.”
In its two-and-a-half-year existence, NationBuilder hasn’t transformed politics. Billionaires still pour money into elections. The two parties still exert control over who runs for office. Gilliam’s dream of putting sophisticated, Obama-style organizing software into the hands of ordinary citizens may not democratize democracy. Still, his software does provide a powerful tool for citizens who want to take action. That’s no small accomplishment. For all his concerns about NationBuilder, Harper Reed says he can’t wait for what comes next. “Companies like NGP VAN are what NationBuilder could’ve become if they chose the partisan path,” Reed says. “We don’t know what NationBuilder will become because they didn’t choose that route. And that’s really fucking exciting.”