Ever since the Obama campaign, former AOL executive Jascha Franklin-Hodge has been using the Web to improve political campaigning
Jascha Franklin-Hodge isn’t a politician or a government official, and he’s just 33 years old, but he’s already placed his stamp on U.S. politics. He helped design the hugely successful online campaign for Barack Obama’s 2008 U.S. presidential run, and before that he worked on the groundbreaking Web strategy for Howard Dean’s presidential bid in 2004. Now as cofounder and chief technology officer of Blue State Digital, he’s at the forefront of using computers and social media to enliven the political process, helping to bring funds and attention to underdog candidates and social issues.
On a sunny day this past October at Blue State Digital’s offices in a converted Boston factory, “The Daily Show” emanates from a laptop in the kitchen, and everyone, including Franklin-Hodge, is dressed in basketball shorts and an undershirt—a birthday homage to a coworker’s fashion choices. Plenty of work is also getting done on Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign and other projects for a growing list of political and nonprofit clients.
What He Does
Heads up the technology team for a company that builds websites for politicians, nonprofits, and businesses to get their messages out.
Blue State Digital
Where He Does It
A converted factory in Boston
Uses technology to advocate political ideas he believes in and maintains an office culture where “The Daily Show” is on during lunch.
Franklin-Hodge’s desire to get involved in politics started in 2003, when he saw the Dean campaign using the Web to appeal directly to voters and raise funds. He recognized the potential for online networks to transform the electoral process, and he knew he had the technical chops to help make that happen.
He’d started working with computers back in middle school, transcribing programs published in PC Magazine into his parents’ IBM XT so he could cheat at computer games. As a freshman at MIT in 1998, Franklin-Hodge spent most of his time building a distributed MP3 encoding system—a virtual library for his fraternity brothers to share music. It worked so well that a year later, at age 19, he took what was supposed to be a one-year break from college to head out to California and join the digital music revolution. (He never did get back to MIT.)
Franklin-Hodge went to work for Spinner, a company that ran an early online radio service. Months later, AOL acquired the start-up, and suddenly he was part of a huge company. “My boss said I could have as much responsibility as I wanted—up until the point where it made him look bad,” he says. Within four years, Franklin-Hodge was back in the Boston area, as director of software development for an R&D group at AOL. But he had a feeling that the gaming products he was working on were never going to make it into production.
In September 2003 a friend who was a technology journalist for The Wall Street Journal said he wanted to introduce Franklin-Hodge to the webmaster for Dean’s presidential campaign. Franklin-Hodge was already a Dean supporter and had heard interesting things about the candidate’s online strategy. After a weekend of e-mail exchanges, he was on his way to Vermont for a Monday interview. That day, the campaign offered him a job as systems administrator.
Though it meant taking a nearly six-figure pay cut, Franklin-Hodge accepted immediately and left his spacious suburban office to join a handful of developers in a crowded rental space behind a supermarket in Burlington, Vt.
That the Dean campaign was one of the first to embrace digital communication meant unlimited opportunity for Franklin-Hodge and his team to define how the technology developed. But it also meant that they had to write their own software for most of the things they wanted to do. Their do-it-yourself attitude had always been a hallmark of grassroots politics, but instead of the door-to-door canvassing of campaigns past, the Dean team pursued a potentially much more powerful approach: late-night coding sessions. Among other things, the staff created and maintained a content management system that could host user-generated submissions and also survive the heavy traffic associated with fundraising drives. Franklin-Hodge also started a discussion forum, because people were writing so many comments on blog posts that they frequently crashed the site.
One of the most popular features on the campaign website was a red baseball bat that would fill up with color as the campaign met fundraising goals. “The problem was that the process was manual—someone had to sit at a computer from early morning to late at night, updating the bat on the hour,” Franklin-Hodge recalls. He automated the bat graphic.
A couple of months later, in late 2003, before Dean was scheduled to give a speech in New York City, a blog commenter suggested he come out on stage waving a red bat. Dean knew the bat was an important symbol for his Internet supporters, so that’s just what he did. “It was a big deal,” Franklin-Hodge says. “People who followed the online campaign felt like it was their campaign.”
When Dean dropped out of the race in February 2004, Franklin-Hodge was disappointed. But he and a few other team members saw the bigger picture: Their online platform had helped an obscure candidate become a leading contender. Thanks in large part to the website and the hundreds of thousands of small contributions it drew in, Dean raised more money than any other Democratic presidential hopeful before him. “For the first time, it was easy for anyone, anywhere, to be politically engaged,” Franklin-Hodge says. “It was a new sense of kinship. Suddenly someone in the Texas Panhandle could be closely involved with a [national] Democratic candidate.”
Franklin-Hodge and three other campaign staffers began trying to figure out how they could keep their dream jobs—developing digital tools and software for the world of politics. They decided their best bet was to create a company, and in 2004 they incorporated Blue State Digital, each investing US $2500 in the venture. In the beginning, all the founders were in different locations, and no one had any money to speak of. Franklin-Hodge moved back to Boston, but it felt like a long way from his comfortable days with AOL.
While his partners were pounding the pavement in Washington, D.C., to drum up business, he worked on the technology behind Blue State Digital’s fund-raising applications and advocacy tools. In 2005 and 2006, the company began working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and an organization called America Coming Together, which rallied voters for Democratic political candidates. But the start-up didn’t get its big break until 2007.
One evening early that year, Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Obama met to talk shop. Obama, who was just about to announce his presidential bid, was looking for a company to create and manage his digital campaign, and Kennedy suggested Blue State Digital. In early February, Obama’s team signed the start-up to build a website that could help get the candidate’s message out and raise funds—and gave it a week to get the site launched. “We didn’t sleep much, but we got it up,” Franklin-Hodge recalls.
The campaign gained momentum much faster than Dean’s had. “We went from an e-mail list of 250 000 to 13 million over the course of the campaign,” he says. “Dealing with that kind of growth required several complete redesigns of the underlying systems that managed user data and e-mail delivery.” Franklin-Hodge says working on the campaign put Blue State Digital on a new playing field for Web and software development.
These days, he’s focused on the company’s work for Obama’s 2012 campaign. Blue State Digital, acquired in 2010 by advertising behemoth WPP Digital, now has more than 130 employees in its offices in D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and London. Franklin-Hodge runs the technology arm of the company from Boston.
The social impact of his work makes it rewarding, he says. “So much engineering effort goes to things that don’t necessarily add a lot of value in the grand scheme of things, and I’m very fortunate that I’m not just helping a bank make money or chasing after Internet riches,” he explains. “We’ve managed to build a profitable business that’s a great place to work and that helps people do good in the world.”