Web Entrepreneur Tries to Bridge K Street and Grass-Roots Advocacy

BlastRoots aims to let small donors pool resources online for a seat at the lobbying table in Washington

Posted February 26, 2013 at 5:20pm

Chris Hull, a former partner with DCI Group who has spent the past several years building a free grass-roots lobbying website called BlastRoots.com, is turning to his former K Street clients and colleagues as he attempts to turn a profit.

He’s hunting for strategic investors from the more traditional lobbying scene, hoping they can use new tools to stir up grass-roots efforts. Hull, who previously worked at Hill & Knowlton, also wants to be a link for activists who could pool their resources to possibly hire lobbyists and launch ad campaigns.

And thanks to one investor, a former BlastRoots employee who helped spearhead a gun control campaign using the site, BlastRoots has picked up its first large-scale campaign. Hull said he’s also examining several ways of adding paid services to the site, which he said has the potential to revolutionize the advocacy business.

“It is the inverse of the super PAC — that’s what we’re building here,” said Hull, referring to political action committees that can raise unlimited sums from wealthy donors. “We’re creating a tool that allows an individual activist with no money to start a campaign and to have policy impact.”

He said he wants to tap the enthusiasm that led individual donors to make at least $6 billion in online contributions to candidates and causes during the 2012 elections.

Many BlastRoots campaigns, such as those titled “Lobbying for Field Time at American University” or “Fix Early School Start Times in Texas,” have only a small number of members. The AU effort has 46, and the Texas school one has 27.

But the gun safety cause, called “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America,” started in December after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre and has reached more than 15,000 followers.

Jennifer Fiore spent a few months at BlastRoots before departing last year to start the Moms campaign, where she is a volunteer vice president for public affairs.

“I personally was so shaken by what happened in Newtown,” she explained. She is still an investor in BlastRoots, she said.

She said the BlastRoots site has helped the Moms campaign get the attention of members of Congress, with whom many of her activists have now been in touch.

BlastRoots offers free services for campaign organizers to email or tweet its followers, as well as for those activists to send tweets, letters and emails to the Hill. It also keeps track of those stats.

“Our members have sent 45,000 emails to members of Congress,” Fiore said.

Hull noted that BlastRoots doesn’t take a position on the gun debate and that competing causes are welcome to use the tools. However, the company does vet the messaging and would not, for example, allow inappropriate causes such as racist efforts on its site.

“We are a tool to tap public opinion, not to manipulate it,” Hull said.

(CQ Roll Call also sells advocacy and engagement tools for grass-roots organizations.)

Hull said that in addition to looking at K Street investors, his business plan includes plus-ups, paid services that might include a function that for $1 could generate a phone call directly to a member’s office.

“We need to make money in order to allow us to offer that service. And we can mark it up,” Hull said.

BlastRoots, working with the law firm WilmerHale, also has filed to patent its technology, which could offer revenue, he said. “If anybody tries to replicate what we’re doing, we can charge them,” he said.

He acknowledged that organizations, companies and unions already have grass-roots tools that are “very effective.” But, he said, “Nobody who doesn’t have the money to do it can do it now.

“We want to allow people to pool resources themselves to spend money on lobbying, advertising and grass-roots organization,” he said. “We want to give people the capacity to pool their resources and generate the same kind of activity that an interest group would generate using the resources directly.”