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3 Startup Lessons from a Political Campaign

3 Startup Lessons from a Political Campaign

By: Emily O’Neill

10530842_725681330830390_6815411386141727431_nIn June of 2014, I filed with my town office in New Hampshire to run for state representative. With a paltry stipend of 100 dollars per session, and a State House composed of nearly as many seats as British Parliament, I didn’t expect very many willing candidates who wanted to serve as much as I did.

I was wrong. A few days after filing, there were 12 declared candidates within my party competing for 6 seats to represent the town, 3 of which were held by incumbents. To add to the challenge, work and National Guard obligations prevented me from campaigning until one month before the primary.

After attending a campaign breakfast at a country club late in the summer, I was confronted with how far behind I was in the process. Nearly all the candidates were at the event. They wore stickers with their campaign logos and handed out colorful pieces of literature with bios and where they stood on state issues.

They were picking up votes left and right, and I didn’t even have my yard signs up.

“Are you still running?” a friend in town asked me as the event concluded. “I am, I’m just getting a very late start,” I reassured her. She kept pressing though. “You’re running out of time, Emily. No one knows who you are.”

The words stung. But she was right. As a PR and marketing consultant, I knew how to promote clients. Yet I was failing to market myself. “I can do better,” I thought to myself.

I drew from my experiences working with startups to think through how I could make the most impact, with limited resources, in the shortest amount of time. In three weeks, I raised nearly $5,000, found a trustworthy inner circle of advisors and friends, and established a reputation in town.

Beyond employing business 101 (discovering the target market, refining the message, etc.), here are a few important lessons I learned running for office that can be applied to running a startup.

Make a Plan, But Don’t Marry It

421886_175656699216750_1675182022_nThe best laid plans don’t survive first contact. It’s true on the battlefield, in business, and along the campaign trail. A plan is necessary for progress—but being overly committed to a plan, business or campaign, can be just as dangerous as no plan at all.

My first plan was to raise only $2,000, put my yard signs up early, and knock on hundreds of doors.

I ended up having to raise 2.5x that amount, was the last candidate to get yard signs up, and due to a hip injury, knocked on very few doors.

I had to adapt to changing scenarios and decide on key milestones for success.

My advisor suggested I find another few thousand to launch a direct mail campaign- so I did. By the end of the week, the campaign was delivered to a over one thousand households, and I was getting emails and phone calls from people in town. This was far from my original plan, but I executed it with the same fervor as if it was.

The important lesson here is that the only constant variable is change.

Whether it’s a political seat you’re fighting for, or the successful launch of your business, don’t allow the obstacles to make you lose sight of victory.

Know How to Get Honest Support

10420044_10203705719515056_8701555812750743384_nHint: It’s not about money.

In the business world, the purpose of a meeting can be ambiguous. But when a politician requests a meeting with a known donor, it’s obvious. This is perhaps why the questions I encountered during my meetings on the campaign trail were more direct than I anticipated.

I heard, “So, what can I do for you?” on more occasions than I can remember from donors and brilliant advisors whose only limited resource was time. This led me to my next lesson.

If someone is willing to meet in person, they either want to help you or be convinced as to why they should believe in you. It’s not just about the money either. Money and support are not the same thing. Money is money. Support can be a combination of access to powerful contacts and networks, game-changing advice, and funding coupled with a trusting relationship.

The folks who donated to my campaign made it clear that they were investing in my success beyond the political campaign. They serve as mentors when I need direction and coach me when called upon.

If someone offered to donate, but didn’t care about my ambitions, I wouldn’t have allowed them to. Money and trust should go hand-in-hand, in both business and in politics.


10616653_725661167499073_3163396951608060216_nDon’t allow form to trump personality.

We all call, email, tweet, and post constantly. The other candidates knew how to communicate too. For months the town’s newspapers were flooded with candidates’ op-eds and letters to the editor from their supporters. Hundreds of yard signs littered the town. Mailboxes and newspaper tubes were stuffed with their literature. All had websites and Facebook pages.

The question remained: where’s the edge?

This prompted a journey of self-discovery that will always be a work in progress. I believe the answer is far simpler than it seems.

The real edge you possess is your own unique brand. But in order to reveal your personal brand, you need to be authentic.

In a hyper-connected world that is becoming less personal and more robotic with communication, people are craving bold, open dialogue. Appearing overly manicured makes people uncomfortable. This is the reason why politicians are more likable when they’re approachable.

In business, it’s ordinary to be stiff and committed to formality. It’s extraordinary to tell beautiful stories, have fun, and be real. We’re headed toward a communication revolution, and I’m not talking about the medium. I’m talking about how we speak to each other.

I’ll never forget chatting with one mentor about the campaign, who innocently asked, “Are you having fun?”

I wasn’t. I wasn’t being me because I was allowing form to trump personality. I finally struck a balance between having fun and being professional, and it was liberating. I responded to people’s questions quickly and thoughtfully, and ditched the canned answers. People greatly underestimate the power of being open and honest with each other, and the respect earned from it. Freeing yourself from the burden of being ordinary will unlock more than you can imagine.

And that was the greatest lesson of all.

If you can open up someone’s mind by being real, you’ll be rewarded with their loyalty. This is important for your personal brand, whether you’re earning votes or winning over customers.

Primary Conclusion

State RepMore than 3,000 people turned out to vote on Primary Day. When the votes were tallied that night, I was 6 votes behind a popular former town councilman for the 6th seat.

After a recount a week later, the results were finalized. Just shy of 1100 votes, I lost by 4. Regardless of the results, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I met outstanding people who taught me a great deal about life and business.

In summary, what I learned from campaigning that can be applied to business is to have a vision with an adaptable plan, get support you can trust, and be unapologetically real.

I’m Emily O’Neill, and I approve this message.

  • Joe Cunningham
    Posted at 12:23 am, February 27, 2015

    Wow, great story and many great lessons there. Thank you!

  • Posted at 3:37 pm, June 18, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your campaign experiences. My husband and I were interested in how the process works. It’s interesting how the campaign process has changed on all fronts. I’ll make sure to pay attention to the issues next time I receive a phone call from a candidate.

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