Al Collins' and Will Carlin's vShift, an online marketing and strategy firm, is an evolution of a 17-year-long partnership.
Collins founded Reach Networks, a very early IT infrastructure consulting firm; Carlin, not long after leaving business school, met Collins while running an interactive development firm. Collins then joined Reach, which was acquired by the online marketing firm USWeb. When he left that project, then called March First, he was a managing partner, and over the course of about two dozen mergers, the company he was a part of grew from 30 to 600 employees, he says.
After a stint as managing director at Ogilvy Interactive, Carlin regrouped with Collins. Eventually, they started to do strategic consulting with Global Strategy Group. In 2006, that partnership became vShift, which still does consulting work for GSG. While it's a consultancy first, vShift was built up around a software company, I Stand For, which Carlin and Collins acquired. The company had a proprietary platform, which vShift completely rebuilt into a software core around which vShift builds up products for its clients.
Why did these private-sector pros move into politics?
"We felt that the political world was anywhere from five to seven years behind the corporate world in how to use the Internet effectively," says Carlin, "and we felt that sooner or later it was going to catch up."
The vShift platform is best at managing content and handling e-mail broadcasts, Carlin says. It is, at its core, a content management system. Carlin says that the platform was designed to be easy for a campaign to handle, yet despite this, campaign managers generally ask vShift to handle posting content. They're concerned about making a critical mistake or posting the wrong thing, or they're just moving too quickly to stop and get a post looking perfect before sending it live, he says.
The firm's software can collect e-mail address through a contact form on a website and use segments of that list to send out e-mail blasts, Carlin says. The company handles making sure each client is listed as compliant with the spam regulations of Internet service providers.
Carlin says he can send out millions of emails in a day.
The platform's fundraising ability is limited to collecting fundraising data and passing it along to whomever is handling the transactions — PayPal, for example, or a merchant banking system. For former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's 2006 campaign to become New York's chief executive, vShift built a house party tool akin to what President Barack Obama's campaign used in 2008, Carlin says, and has since been pulled out again for re-use by several other clients.
While working for Jon Corzine's 2009 gubernatorial re-election campaign, vShift added in a number of features, including personal fundraising pages, petitions, polls, events hosting, allowing users to submit their own events and house parties, and social network integration. In fact, says Matt Dunn, vShift's director of client services, the company built out a myBarackObama.com-like social network for the campaign.
In a phone interview, Carlin downplayed the platform as an aspect of vShift's business. He described it as more of a starting point for the clients that could make use of it. As a consulting firm first, vShift is focused more on implementation and accomplishing goals than on engineering new things. However, when vShift builds a tool for one client, it's usually added to the list of things the company can roll out for other clients down the line. (Sometimes that can't happen for contractual reasons.)
"We build a lot of technology ... [but] we're not trying to be on the cutting edge of everything. We like to use established tools. So if there's something that works off the shelf," they'll do that, Carlin says.
For example, he says, a client wanted a way to feed a new post to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Digg, etc. at the same time. This technology wasn't available when the client asked for the tool, Carlin says, so vShift built it.
- For Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts organization, vShift built MMAFacts.com, which includes a "contact your legislator" tool. The site's intended to help put pressure on the New York State Legislature to legalize UFC competitions.
- Learn New York, an organization that began to support the state-granted right of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to control the city's school system — which would otherwise be operated by a state-mandated bureaucracy previously held to be an accountability nightmare — ran its online activism efforts with the help of vShift.
For Advocates for Youth, vShift built Amplify Your Voice, a website designed to give young people an opportunity to blog and take action about reproductive rights, sexual health, and access to confidential sexual health services. It includes a form to create "action alerts," through which anyone can submit a form letter that, if approved, will go out for that person's list or the Amplify Your Voice lists to sign on to and distribute; a page where people can download information on issue talking points and how to lobby elected officials; links to contact those officials; and access to user accounts to run a blog on the site. The site also pushes blog updates, comments and actions to Facebook and Twitter.
A set-up fee and monthly fees, ranging from pro-bono work to six-figure bills for elected officials; company declined to give specifics.
Christine Gregoire (D-Gov Wa.), Corzine '09 (D-Gov - NJ), National Education Association, Learn New York, Ultimate Fighting Championship, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D), Assemblyman Jonathan Bing (D - NY), New York City Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D)