Passion is an authentic emotion. That’s why it’s the first trait Pete Martin looks for in Votem Corp. employees.
“You can teach people just about anything,” says the founder and CEO of the mobile voting company. “At the end of the day, if they have their own attitude, they don’t fit with the culture and they’re not passionate about what they’re doing, it doesn’t matter how skilled they are. It won’t work.”
Five years ago, Martin attended a conference where he was asked to write down an idea that would positively impact a billion people. He wrote two words: mobile voting. Since that day, he’s worked tirelessly to create a safe, trusted platform to enable people to vote via their mobile device.
The pressure to get it right is immense. To succeed, Martin needs people who feel just as strongly about Votem’s mission to make mobile voting the norm for all elections, including U.S. political races. “If anyone of us screws this up, if there is a hack, we’ll set this industry back 10 years,” he says.
In this week’s Dealmaker Startup, we talk to Martin about building on market opportunities, the role of resilience and going all in on your vision.
The first steps
I spent six to eight months listening to anybody who would talk to me. I did tons of research, talked to people who won elections, secretaries of state, my competitors. I talked to everybody just to understand the market opportunity. What’s the competitive landscape look like? What are the obstacles to making this happen?
We offered a quarter-million dollars to anybody in the world who could come up with a technical architecture or an online voting system that couldn’t be hacked. We said, ‘Look, nobody is doing this in a significant fashion, certainly in North America. We don’t have any designs on what the solution should be. So, let’s go to the crowd.’ We had about 200 people from 30 different countries make submissions. We were blown away.
When you build a company, you want to build it for the future, not the past. About one-third of the solutions revolved around blockchain technology. I had a guy on my board who was from Microsoft and he said they plan to invest $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years in blockchain. They never do that unless they have vetted the technology. We decided that’s the direction we need to go.
The No. 1 thing that drives any successful entrepreneurial venture is grit, or resilience. This embodies a bunch of things. If you’re out selling into the market and the market is not buying, you have to figure out what to do. Are you failing from a sales perspective? Is it just a product people aren’t going to buy? Is it a price point that somebody is not going to buy? It’s constantly adjusting to figure out how you can grow and sustain the business. In our case, if you talk to people who run elections, they will tell you it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when we’re going to do online voting.
A big part of our strategy was to make sure we could support and grow the business. We started in the private elections market, where online voting is much more acceptable. We realized we could grow the business without doing any online voting in the public sector. But that’s still the long-term vision of where we want to be.
So we picked up an established company in San Diego, Everyone Counts, which was in the voter registration market and brought us decades of experience running elections. That ability to be honest and adjust as you need to through resilience, flexibility, pivoting, whatever it is — that is key. The folks who don’t survive either don’t have the honesty to adapt or don’t recognize what the problem is.
Every once in a while, I’ll wake up and say, ‘What are we doing?’ Can we really make an unhackable online voting system? I’ll get on the phone with my engineers, and they’ll say, ‘Yes, we can do this.’ But we have to continue to prove ourselves every day. We have to be one step ahead of the bad guys every single day. I’m confident we have the right people and the right technology and architecture to do that. It can be a challenge, but I also find it intellectually stimulating.
In most cases, given enough time and enough focus, you can create anything out of something. You need to have the financial backing to do it, so you can pay the bills without stressing out too much. But most importantly, you need to be really committed to it. Lots of people want to be an entrepreneur. Very few people can actually be successful because you have to be all in. If you’re not all in, you’re probably not going to make it.