Mark Walsh has jumped off one dot-com train and onto what he thinks will be the next Internet-powered locomotive: politics. In January, the former chief executive of online industrial-trading site VerticalNet joined the Democratic National Committee as chief technology adviser.
In the full-time volunteer position, he aims to put the Democrats more on par with the Republicans when it comes to the Web, such as making it easier for voters to get information about rallies or donate online. The DNC recently launched a new Web site that makes such activities more accessible to potential supporters.
Walsh hopes to apply the lessons he learned in both consumer and business e-commerce. In his latest stint, four years at Horsham (Pa.)-based VerticalNet, he tried to transform online industrial communities such as Machinetoolsonline.com and Solidwaste.com into marketplaces in dozens of industries. It didn't work out in the big way investors had hoped, so Walsh in 2000 stepped out of a daily role to become chairman as the company began a still-in-progress shift to selling collaboration software.
Before that, he was a senior vice-president at America Online, where he earned enough money to work for free for awhile. Although he's keeping his eyes open for new opportunities in the private sector, Walsh figures to spend at least couple of years in politics -- long enough, he hopes, to make a measurable difference in campaigns this year and in 2004. BusinessWeek Senior Writer Robert D. Hof recently talked with Walsh about meshing politics and the Internet. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: How did you get involved with the Democratic Party?
A: I am a lifelong Democrat. My mother took me to a rally for then-candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960. Hubert Humphrey was a family friend. I've just always been a DNA-level Democrat and love the party.
During 1999 and toward the 2000 election, I got very involved as a supporter and a donor. The closer I got to the process, the more it seemed to me that the next sector of society that's ripe for the opportunity for the kind of change the Internet has brought to consumers and business is how we act as citizens. I got to know [DNC Chairman] Terry McAuliffe and he said, "You're full of great ideas. Why don't you come here and do it?"
Q: What's your job here?
A: Three things: Help the squad here with some of the lessons I've learned in the technology industry. Reach out to the technology industry that I know for support and knowledge and financial support. And lastly, I think this is going to be a really good way for the party to be effective in 2002, 2004, and beyond.
Much like Amazon has made the hours of a bookstore 24-7, the Internet is going to start to make the hours of the political process 24-7. So a candidate must always be fresh and robust in his communications, the voter must always know where to get information, and maybe most important, the really active members of the party must know how to help, how to take action, know what doors to knock on to get out the vote, know where to hand out the brochures, know where their candidate is appearing.
Q: Has the dot-com crash had any effect on the oft-mentioned notion that the Internet would promote democracy to a broader swath of society? That hasn't seemed to happen.
A: In politics, we keep raising more and more money, and a lot of times, that's used to buy more and more traditional media -- which is very effective. But it's my personal opinion that there's a sector of the population, between 18 and 25 years old, that has become so cynical about the process. They're really turning off to traditional media as a way to reach out to them.
So the Internet is going to be one of the only ways to reach the cynical recent college graduates who are convinced this whole political thing isn't worth their attention. We've got to reengage those voters on those special Tuesdays, or else we're just continuing to have a shrinking pool of people that turn out on Election Day.
There may be some people saying that some day we'll all be voting online. I'm not sure I'm here to see that happen. What I'm here to help execute is helping to motivate the party's base.
It's expensive to communicate with your base. Direct mail is becoming more expensive. Telephone calls and direct appeals are always challenging. The handshake and the face-to-face communication with the voter, from a party member, a candidate, or even an incumbent, is always the best way. But a lot of folks depend on the Internet for communications.
Q: Given the Democratic Party's strong support of technology development, it seems surprising that it's so far behind the Republicans in the use of that technology.
A: There's no question the Republicans found alternative ways to reach their base. You listen to call-in shows and there are Republican zealots who call in and read the script that they downloaded from the RNC Web site. You go to the RNC.org site and you type in your Zip Code and they tell you what talk shows are going on right now, and they download a talking-point script that you read when you call.
So it's management of opinion in a very direct way. I'm not saying that's our goal, but I think using the Web is important.
We'll operate a platform here at the Democratic National Committee that only candidates can use as a service to manage their data, their e-mail, and all that. In most campaigns, 90% of what's spent is the same from campaign to campaign. Any way the DNC can be a bulk purchaser of technology capacity will save campaign money, so the money they raise can go elsewhere.
Q: How do you see this platform rolling out?
A: There are three pieces. One is data and data hygiene. The states have information about their voters. We can maintain the mailing lists for them, keep the data clean, and provide tags on the list such as people who care about gun control or the environment. The second is bulk e-mail and a bulletproof Web site template. We have our new Web site, Democrats.org or DNC.org. We also can help states and candidates quickly set up their own Web sites. And last, a meaningful and affordable rich-media platform. At the end of the day, we're a bulk hosting facility.
In the new DNC headquarters, we'll have a studio where we can invite a senator or a congressman, create an audiovisual clip of that, and turn it into an online file and put it up on our site. The senator can link to it from his or her home site, essentially extending the reach of the incumbent or the voice of the challenger. All that should put us on the front edge of what tomorrow's voter is going to demand from tomorrow's candidate.
Q: What do you bring to this job?
A: I've been to this movie. Every time I sit in with the folks here and somebody tosses out something such as, "We're going to start doing bulk e-mails," I say, "Well, when we did bulk e-mails at VerticalNet, here's some of the things that went wrong." If nothing else, I'm the gray-hair at the side of the room who raises his hand and says, "Have you thought about this?"
Also, I've got a pretty good Rolodex. I haven't burned many bridges. So I know people with strong core knowledge in specific areas that the DNC will need. You'll see us announce some affiliations with other individuals I know who have agreed to help the party in forming coalitions of tech minds that will really help out.
And I think I know how communities work on the Web, both consumer and business. I was vice-president of Genie, and Genie's online community was good. AOL's communities, we did a lot of good stuff on. So my sense is that one of the ultimate values is to create a community on the Web.
A lot of people scoff and say, "There's no such thing as a political community." I would beg to differ. I think that the zealots of any political party are a community, and I think they're always looking for ways to share that passion and to invite new folks in. The Web is a natural place for that.
Q: One of the goals here is to get many more small donors of money. How realistic is that?
A: Very realistic. Direct mail is expensive. E-mail costs one-fiftieth of what direct mail costs. As a party, we tended not to ask for commitments until the end of an election. That asking only when you need something is not good.
The beauty of cyberspace is that you don't necessarily have to ask for money as long as it is obvious there is a way for them to donate. You can really flip the model, because people visit your site and volunteer to give you dough -- or time. If I can get someone to spend 15 hours walking a neighborhood and exhort people to turn out on Tuesday in addition to getting them to donate $50, that's a double wham. We can never really get them to do that on the phone or by direct mail.
Q: What has your experience been here vs. in business?
A: One of the challenges is the churn of people. There's a lot of talented people who work here at the national level for a period of time, then are asked to join individual campaigns. That's a good thing. But there's enough churn that the institutional memory here is shorter than I wish.
The difference between the DNC and private industry is that a lot of people in private industry are there because they have a paycheck, and they feel like they're competent in the job. I wish corporations had this much passion. I miss the technology industry, but I feel I've got the front-row seat at the next place that technology is going to matter.