On Higher Ground

I couldn’t be more pleased that the Higher Ground Labs team has launched a new early-stage accelerator to help founders bring new products for progressive campaigns to market.

The portfolio of apps that Higher Ground is investing in are designed to give progressive candidates an edge in upcoming elections through better software products. Some friends have criticized the initiative this morning because “apps won’t fix the Democratic Party” but I’d argue that misses the point. It’s true that better software tools for organizing will not heal anyone’s soul but they can make different sorts of campaigns possible that put person to person organizing rather than more TV ads at the center. Better software can make campaigns more efficient, allow them to scale to engage more people and squeeze out every last vote when margins of victory are slim. They can unlock movements through better connections between people that would have otherwise become diffuse and muddled.

I’m excited to see what sorts of tactical improvements and models of connection this new batch of entrants will unlock.

While I’m excited by the new and shiny entrance of HGL, it’s important to remember that New Media Ventures has been and continues to be a critical piece of infrastructure for the sector. The Higher Ground Labs approach and focus is substantively different than the work that NMV has been doing over the years. HGL is offering it’s portfolio companies mentorship & coaching in addition to capital with a YC style in-person accelerator program, whereas New Media Ventures has traditionally acted solely as an early stage investor and only engaged more deeply with companies raising later rounds. The companies being invested in are also quite different: HGL seems to be completely focused on companies that might provide an electoral edge to progressive candidate campaigns, while NMV invests in a broader range of initiatives, with a particular focus on media companies and non-profits with large digital audiences. It’s telling that there is only one New Media Ventures investee in the first Higher Ground Labs portfolio — the peer to peer outreach app VoterCircle. The two initiatives are funding different parts of the movement with different methodologies, and I think there is lots of room for both of them.

More capital for teams building new electoral products and mentorship for their success is a beautiful thing and I can’t wait to see what the portfolio firms build this year.

I’m also hopeful that some of these companies are financial successes that allow the team of investors at Higher Ground to continue to make investments into future companies over the years to come. However, I’m personally somewhat skeptical that the VC business model works when founders are aiming for impact rather than unicorn-style returns. Will HigherGround fund zebra companies and feminist businesses or just the ones that look like they might give Uber style returns? How will the math work otherwise?