Rocking the vote

Can Voting Be Fun? This Startup Thinks So

This startup founder wants voting to be fun and accessible—for everyone.

If you dream of starting a company and wonder what it’s like running the day-to-day of a business, you've come to the right place. In our series Startup Diaries, we ask new founders to take us to work for a day, and reflect on what they discovered during the process.

Today, we go to work with Jess Riegel, the CEO and co-founder of Motivote, a platform that helps causes, campaigns, and companies mobilize their networks, starting with voting.

Motivote has the power to turn any social network—from a book club to a sports league—into a voting team. For Jess and her co-founder Rachel, it’s all about making the process of getting civically active fun, easy, and social—with accountability for following through. In the face of this global health crisis, many of us have a heightened awareness of how governments and policy affect our lives. Here, Jess gives us a glimpse at what it’s like to run a startup that’s moving the needle on democratic participation.


8:50am -- I intentionally wake up with no time for anything but brushing teeth and making coffee before my 9am call because I’m working from home today.

9:02am -- I am a couple minutes behind from making my coffee. I open up my laptop for a call with our lead engineer and tech advisor to touch base on the new phase of product development we kicked off yesterday.

9:57am -- We wrap up the call and I get ready to hop on with another female founder who I recently met at an event. She knows an investor who she thought would love what we are doing, and said she would try to get it in front of him. She helped me craft an intro blurb. This morning he responded, so we are strategizing about what I write back.

10:31am -- I now have a follow-up call with the CEO of a Millennial-focused employee engagement platform, and he’s pulled in his Head of Product, too.

11:00am -- Next call is with the Chief of Staff and Research Manager at a political research firm that is focused on measuring impact of political programming. I requested the call after meeting the Chief of Staff at an event a few weeks back.

11:41am -- The last call wrapped up in less time than we allotted. I make a sandwich while hitting send on the follow-up email from before.

12:00pm -- While I eat, I take care of a few follow-ups from our tech call this morning and then flesh out notes and next steps from the past few calls. We track everything in a “call-and-meeting notes” channel Slack, with a bolded “next steps” that gets a checkmark emoji reaction when completed.

12:15pm -- I remember that I need to call back a potential investor who left a voicemail yesterday. He said he wants to set up a meeting with a potential corporate customer in his network and use that sales pitch to better understand our process.

12:30pm -- I finish up a kind of meh sales call. This organization (a PAC that funds local groups) was so pumped about our model back in the fall when we first connected and said they definitely wanted to use it. This time, there is a new decision-maker in the mix and they kept saying they were way too early in their decision-making process.

12:46pm -- I round out notes and next steps from the last call.

"It just gradually progressed from, 'Well let’s just see what happens if we do this for the summer after graduation' to 'Let’s see what we can do this this fall' to now, 'Hey, we’re actually doing this!'"

12:56pm -- I get a glass of orange juice, since having breakfast at 11:45am messes up lunchtime. I have until 2pm before my next call, so am following up on next steps from this morning’s calls. I feel like I’m not being good at concentrating because there are so many little to-do’s.

1:10pm -- I realize I didn’t do my daily Humbledot check-in. My co-founder and I started trying to use this tool a few weeks ago because we recognized it was tough for us to stay on top of each other’s daily updates—especially since I spend most of my days in external meetings or traveling between NYC and DC.

2:00pm -- I have a call with a Political Science professor who runs a civic engagement center at her university. This turned out to be a really fruitful call. We’re looking for higher education partners to add to our pilot roster for 2020, so this would be a great fit.

2:30pm -- About to hop on another call. I move from desk to sitting on my bed for a change of scenery, which I tell myself is OK because it’s an internal call. This is another tech-focused call with our project manager and contract-based designer to review wireframes for a new onboarding flow.

3:32pm -- I move into the kitchen and eat some cottage cheese with blueberries while responding to a few quick emails.

4:01pm -- I hop on a call with an editor from Impact Alpha. He explains he is writing on civic and election tech because they focus on impact investing and thinks right now democracy is “probably the most important investment” (agreed!). The call runs long.

5:15pm -- I move back to the kitchen. I have two and a half glorious hours until my next call.

5:35pm -- I make microwave popcorn.

6:06pm -- I decide to actually go to a gym class I scheduled on Sunday when I was feeling aspirational.

7:21pm -- I leave class, feel glad I went. Open back up phone to see email rejection from a startup residency program. I thought we at least had a good chance for a first conversation with them because we were referred by a current participant.

7:29pm -- I get back on my computer for the last call of the day. This is with a very new angel investor who saw me pitch at the accelerator’s Demo Day back in October.

8:40pm -- Off the call! I eat a delivery salad and finally start on the follow-ups from this morning and a few outstanding to-do’s from yesterday.

10:17pm -- I take a break to shower and do a very basic skincare routine that I’m trying on my sister’s recommendation. Because it comes with three simple steps and a matching set of bottles, I feel more beholden to sticking with it.

10:29pm -- I catch myself working on my laptop laying down in bed. I had been good about not doing this for the past few months, and am now slipping back into what I think is a really bad habit since it destroys any illusion of work-life separation.

12:30am -- I was technically working up until this point but hit a wall where I wasn’t doing anything urgent and reading random articles in between. So it was time to put my laptop down. I scroll through Twitter for a few minutes on my phone and then go to sleep.

What was it like keeping track of your day?

Tracking made me more conscious of how I was spending each block of time and how many times I told myself, “You have 10 minutes to do this!” only for that same to-do item to carry over to the next open block of time. It also made me think about the difference between being occupied and being productive—like, I was busy for this past hour, but what actually came of it?

How did this day compare to a normal or ideal day?

This was pretty normal for a work-from-home day in that I had a bunch of calls and a couple scattered blocks to work in between them. It was also normal in that I had a mix of meetings that were more internal-facing and external-facing and those both have different feels—basically, how “on” do I have to be?

How do you normally stay organized and on task?

If it’s not tracked, it doesn’t exist. We’re working on too many things across too many functional areas to not have meaningful tracking systems. My co-founder and I have “official” tasks with due dates on a task list on AirTable, broken down by week, and when I select the “done” status it is filtered to disappear. I also have a running brain dump on Notes to capture things that aren’t must do for any particular time that I don’t want to forget.

Is there anything you’d like to change or do differently?

I spend a lot of time tending to everything to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. I would like there to be a more integrated way to manage processes (suggestions warmly welcomed for anyone who has cracked this!). Overall, I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a world in which I can focus on just one functional area for the whole day—like Mondays and Thursdays are fundraising, Tuesdays and Fridays are sales, for instance. This would reduce the amount of cognitive shifting back-and-forth between meetings and allow me to stay in just one mindset.

How does your life as a founder compare to what you thought it was going to be?

I never really had a window where I thought about what life as a founder would be, like if I had been doing this as a side hustle while at another job and dreaming about the day when I could do it full-time. We started the business pretty much accidentally as a grad school capstone project. It just gradually progressed from, “Well let’s just see what happens if we do this for the summer after graduation” to “Let’s see what we can do this this fall” to now, “Hey, we’re actually doing this!”

Creating each day from scratch as a founder is a stark contrast to how I’ve spent most of my career, which was teaching first grade. It’s freeing to be able to chart our own course and work from wherever I want, but there are definitely moments where I crave for someone else to tell me the right things to be doing and whether we’re on the right path.

What are your current business goals and how did this day tie into that?

I have goals that I’m focused on in every functional area, and this day had pieces of each. For fundraising, we’re raising our pre-seed round—I didn’t have any formal investor meetings today but a few email touchpoints. For tech, we’re executing on an aggressive product roadmap that incorporates tons of feedback from beta testing last fall and sets us up to be operational at a national scale—the two internal calls today supported that. For sales, we have internal goals for new partnerships this year that encompass working directly with organizations and also through channel and distribution partners—the rest of today’s calls supported those goals.

What is your hope?

I want voting in elections to not be a big deal at all. I want to get us to a place as a country where voting in your local school board election is something you fit into your day, like going to the gym. Sometimes you don't want to, but you go anyway. I want less-likely voters to be brought into the fold by making voting something that is fun and accessible.

Do you have any words of advice for new founders?

My biggest piece of advice would be structuring your time and then respecting it. You want to meet with everyone you can and keep things moving forward, so you want to bend over backward to fit other people’s scheduling needs. But you’re already going to be stressed about so many things, why add to it by stacking six meetings back-to-back without enough time to get yourself from one to the other?

Also, protect those blank spots on your calendar instead of always seeing it as an invitation to schedule one more thing. At the end of the day, you need to leave yourself time to actually do the work that goes into and comes out of the meetings you have.

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