Civic-Minded Flock to Columbia-Based StartupApr 03, 2017 07:48PM ● By Makayla Gay
By John McCurry
Photography Supplied By Voterheads
Voterheads (www.voterheads.com), the Columbia-based startup that seeks to make keeping up with the meanderings of local government a more user-friendly experience, is projecting rapid growth in 2017, and is starting to get some welcome national attention. The web-based service has about 5,000 users, with most joining in the past few months.
“Our overall goal is to get to 10,000 in the next couple of months,” says Karl McCollester, Voterheads’ CEO and one of its founders.
Some national notoriety came in February when Startup Grind, the national Silicon Valley-based independent startup community, named Voterheads as one of 100 companies inducted into the 2017 Class of Startup Exhibitioners at its annual event. The company was selected from among 6,000 startups from 80 countries.
McCollester says the benefit from achieving that distinction will be to draw more attention to Voterheads and help build a network with potential funders in Silicon Valley.
McCollester and co-founders Matt Hudson and Mike Switzer came up with the company’s name after a brainstorming session. The three figured Voterheads sounded more fun than the typical government service.
Voterheads launched in Columbia three years ago, and soon added Greenville. Opportunities began to grow and Charlotte, N.C. and Jacksonville, Fla., were added. McCollester describes most users as average citizens who like to monitor local government.
The fledgling company went national last summer. It now has a presence in 43 states and includes information for more than 1,500 cities and counties. The largest concentrations are still in the Columbia and Greenville areas, but the number of members is growing in several larger cities such as Philadelphia, Boston and Oakland.
McCollester says the idea for Voterheads came from his experience working with local governments as a consultant. He discovered there were typically two types of meetings and neither offered the public much of an opportunity to voice opinions.
“One type is what you see most of the time where about five regulars are in the audience. They often like to come up and say something to the council every meeting, and as a result there’s not much discussion. The meetings go quickly with not a whole lot of public input.”
The other type, says McCollester, is when a controversial topic results in a packed meeting room with 300 people wanting to have their say, which he believes is a good thing, but these types of meeting run into the wee hours with many attendees leaving in a huff.
McCollester, whose background is in IT, mostly from the consulting side working with local governments, believed there had to be a better way for the public to find out what’s happening, but not have to peruse through several websites. He wanted to find a mechanism for the public to stay informed and be alerted to topics they are passionate about.
Users can access information about what’s on the agendas of their local governments by typing in their zip code and then designating their areas of interest to follow. Last September, Voterheads began an email alert service for users, who can design a customized weekly report on the meeting agendas of the agencies they want to follow. Users can monitor up to five government organizations for free. There is a small fee for following more than five.
The need for a similar legislative service is not as great since there are other options, so McCollester says Voterheads will continue to focus on city and county governments and school boards.
“We’re trying to be where the competition isn’t yet,” he explains.
McCollester notes that the number of advocacy and social actions groups that sprung up as a result of last November’s election has driven a lot of Voterheads’ recent membership growth. Overall, the response to the service has been great.
“Every place we have talked to has been positive. From the citizens’ side, it’s a no-cost way for them to get more information. We’ve also had resolutions of support from a number of local governments, including the City of Columbia and Richland County.”
McCollester, who runs the startup along with Hudson, the creative director, says Voterheads will continue to add new capabilities. A mechanism to post messages that will be sent to governing bodies is undergoing beta testing.