Published by Shoestring Ventures
Andrea Torkelson loves the thrill of connecting. Even more so, she loves the thrill of helping other people connect. Most of all, she loves helping and seeing people from different backgrounds, belief systems and communities connect.
It’s been her professional calling for the past decade as an operations and database manager at one of Florida’s most successful political consulting firms. And now, helping people connect with each other is the inspiration behind her new company, VoterBuzz LLC, and its product, the VoterBuzz smartphone app.
VoterBuzz (www.voter-buzz.com) harnesses the power of smartphones to empower both sides of the political equation: voters, and the candidates and organizations seeking those voters’ support. It’s intended to make politics more accessible to voters and more interactive, while also making campaigning more efficient.
“I am really trying to provide the political world with something that is equally as useful to the ‘little guys’ as it is the ‘big dogs,’ “ says Andrea, who first birthed the idea while scouring the Internet last year searching in vain for an app that does what VoterBuzz promises to do. “And I’m trying to simplify the whole process of grass-roots campaigning. I’m empowering candidates with the high-tech, virtual version of walking neighborhoods, knocking on doors and making phone calls.”
VoterBuzz is brand new; the company was founded last fall and the fully-equipped version of the VoterBuzz app just become available within the past month. Updates are added to the app almost monthly. An alternative version of the app, called MemberTalk, is soon to be released and will focus entirely on nonprofit groups.
Andrea’s motivation for creating VoterBuzz came from several passions: her avid participation in Facebook, her fascination with the mechanics of grass-roots campaigning, and her fondness for small business entrepeneurship, which started when she was a child and was instilled in her by a family that has for decades run its own business.
As a voracious Facebook user, Andrea relishes sharing her views whenever the spirit moves her and keeping an eye on what’s happening in the lives of her “friends.” She gets a charge out of envisioning the same kind of interactivity occurring through VoterBuzz about political happenings and issues.
Her years of counseling candidates on how to assemble grass-roots campaigns have equipped her with an innate understanding of what it takes to effectively reach voters. She used that knowledge to build VoterBuzz. And the political consulting firm where she’s worked for the past decade is owned by her family and grew out of an advertising firm founded almost seven decades ago by her great-grandfather. In fact, Andrea’s main benefactor is her grandmother Frances, who helped build the entrepreneurial spirit in Andrea as a toddler by playing “store” with her.
“When she told me about this, I immediately thought it was a great idea,” says Frances, a seven-decade veteran of the advertising industry. “I’m all for anything that’s new in technology and excited when I see what can be done with it. I’m thrilled with how VoterBuzz provides people the ability to interact with their political representatives and be part of their campaigns.”
VoterBuzz is rooted in the same philosophy of Facebook and the now-outdated MySpace: voters can sign up for free and can “follow” an unlimited number of political candidates as well as other voters. Like Facebook, VoterBuzz can link directly into the voters’ email servers, Twitter accounts and other social media. But Andrea has tried to make VoterBuzz even more appealing to the average voter: unlike Facebook, VoterBuzz doesn’t showcase who or what a voter is following. It doesn’t even require voters to use their full or real names.
For candidates, VoterBuzz makes outreach simple and multi-faceted. It empowers them to post videos, photos or any other kind of news. Candidates and groups can send push notifications about upcoming events. And they can accept reservations, financial contributions and volunteers for campaign needs.
Though only a handful of candidates and groups have subscribed to VoterBuzz so far, the VoterBuzz Facebook page boasts 4,000 followers. Andrea uses both FaceBook and Twitter to publicize updates in the VoterBuzz app and will soon begin using the company’s YouTube channel to post how-to videos and showcase how some subscribers are using VoterBuzz’s video and photo capabilities. But Andrea acknowledges that integrating all of the various social media for VoterBuzz’s benefit has been one of her biggest challenges and learning curves.
Her greatest asset in creating and building VoterBuzz has been her 10 years as a political consultant with The Nolan Group in Bradenton, Fl., a company that has led more than 30 successful referendum campaigns throughout the state. “A big piece of advice I’d give to anyone is to be sure you have some background, or connections or experience, in the industry of your start-up. There’s no way I could have come up with so many aspects of VoterBuzz without having worked in politics for as long as I have.”
The biggest challenge for VoterBuzz is reaching a “critical mass” of candidates and voters: candidates and groups need to see a pool of voters worth pursuing through the app, and voters need to have a plethora of groups and candidates from which to choose to experience VoterBuzz’s real power. To market VoterBuzz, Andrea is recruiting followers to the company’s Facebook page and has taken out ads on Facebook. She is also zapping out the occasional tweet and just this week started a blog on the www.voter-buzz.com website.
The app has earned substantial coverage in about 10 mainstream newspapers and their websites; Andrea’s future plans include targeted outreach to specific geographic areas; online forums designed to inspire discussions of how technology is changing the way political campaigns are conducted; and highlight features about politicians and groups that have already subscribed to VoterBuzz, which is available to them for as little as $10 a month.
The app’s potential is limitless: there are 150 million registered voters nationwide who could benefit from VoterBuzz. Andrea’s goal is to attract at least 10,000 organizations and candidates as subscribers within the next five years. She also doesn’t rule out international outreach in the future, especially given the recent explosive growth of smartphone usage in countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany. Mid-term plans also call for a desktop version of VoterBuzz.