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ENTREPRENEUR PROFILES

8.12.99  
Step into Our Lobby
Like everything else, political outreach has gone electronic. These two have made a business of it

In the summer of 1991, when he was 20, Jonah D. Seiger knocked on doors all over Ann Arbor, Mich., pitching auto insurance reform on behalf of the Michigan Citizens Lobby. He took the job, he recalls, mainly because "it sure beat working at McDonald's." To his surprise, he found political advocacy exciting. Now 28, Seiger is still at it. But instead of going door to door, he helps interest groups do their grassroots lobbying screen to screen. Mindshare Internet Campaigns, the Washington (D.C.) company he co-founded in December, 1997, develops Internet-based political outreach strategies for companies, trade groups, and nonprofit organizations.

Seiger and co-founder Shabbir J. Safdar, 31, are in the vanguard of the online activism used by candidates and causes to get out the message and mobilize supporters. "As the Net becomes more mainstream," says Seiger, Internet-oriented campaigns "will become as essential as TV, print, or radio."

Mindshare designs Web sites and uses customized online techniques on behalf of a growing roster of clients, now 19-strong, which range from the Business Software Alliance to Amnesty International USA. One of their hottest clients is the openNET Coalition, a group of 200-plus Internet service providers (ISPs) that are battling cable operators and AT&T for the right to offer their services over cable's super-fast pipelines. Mindshare designed a Web site for the coalition and generated "join the fight" E-mail letters to ISP customers. More than 35,000 signed up. Mindshare then mobilizes these cyber-supporters when key decisions are pending.

Safdar and Seiger have solid cyberspace credentials and a knack for eye-catching activism. Seiger co-founded the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology. Safdar headed a grassroots Net advocacy group while he was a vice-president for information security at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York. Since 1994, the pair have collaborated on digital lobbying campaigns in defense of Internet freedom. In 1996, they led the Black Thursday protest against the Communications Decency Act's curbs on Net speech, in which thousands of Web sites, including Yahoo! Inc. and Netscape Communications Corp., went black for 48 hours. Their reputation for politically savvy cyber rabble-rousing made it relatively easy for Seiger and Safdar to attract clients when they launched Mindshare with $50,000 in savings. They took in $500,000 in revenue their first year and turned a profit, and expect revenues of at least $1.5 million this year using a staff of seven, plus a stable of freelance designers. Campaigns cost anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000.

Finding people with the right skills in a growing but still specialized field remains the most daunting challenge. And the political Establishment is catching on to the Internet's lobbying potential. For now, though, Seiger and Safdar are still several mouse-clicks ahead of the pack.

By Amy Borrus in Washington, D.C
amy_borrus@businessweek.com

This article was originally published in the August 16, 1999 print edition of Business Week's Frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.

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