Sunday Sitdown: Ex-Obama aide now heads politics-minded startup

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Michael Slaby, who was one of the tech gurus working on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, is founder of the Chicago startup Timshel. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Michael Slaby was among the key tech gurus for Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns. For the past three years, the Chicago native and Old Town resident has been running the Chicago startup Timshel, equipping non-profits, activist groups and other organizations with digital tools to boost their analytical capabilities — an idea that sprung from his work for Obama. This is an edited transcript of his interview with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sandra Guy.

Question: Where did the name Timshel come from?

Answer: It’s a reference to East of Eden — the Hebrew word for “Thou mayest” from the Bible [in the story of Cain and Abel, when God tells Cain he has the freedom to choose to overcome sin]. Our goodness is being determined by the choices we make.

Humanity has the innovation and technology and capacity to solve our biggest challenges. We just need to make better choices about how we leverage those things.

Q: What’s your company selling?

A: A digital platform that makes functions like tracking data, donations, email messages and website interactions super easy. The software lets people set up flexible petitions, pledges and signups, collect and store information from supporters, use email and social authentication to give followers access to data and create profiles that let supporters see website information personalized for them.

By doing this, community activists can focus on the big picture — like fighting for public housing or advocating for refugees.

The GOP and the Koch brothers’ network have done a remarkable job of centralizing innovation. [Democrats] haven’t made parallel investments.

We’re powering the technology for progressive projects Resistbot and March for Science; Fabretto, which helps underserved Nicaraguan children; the marine-wildlife advocate Lonely Whale Foundation; the United Nations Refugee Agency; and nearly 200 other such campaigns.

Groups pay for the services they use, which typically amounts to $30 to $40 a month. Unlike other platforms that take a big rake off of donations, Timshel takes no percentage.

People can sign up for free to review the software tools and pricing options.

Q: Give an example of what Timshel has done.

A: The UN Refugee Agency — a big, complicated organization — wanted to create a team of employees to engage a United States-based audience for the first time. They built and deployed, with our toolset, “Rainbow Refugees” — to help persecuted LGBTQ refugees seeking asylum. They were able to grow their digital community, with 350,000 new email signups over nine months. That started a path to send the new followers direct mail and fund-raise.

We’re also partnering with a couple of new super-PACs to focus on independent-expenditure campaigns for state legislatures and with Democracy Builders to increase voter participation, such as implementing automatic voter registration.

Q: Timshel started as a for-profit business. But you pivoted to become a not-for-profit. How did that come about?

A: We’ve reorganized to be the infrastructure for the left. We’ve gone from 44 employees to about 20 now.

I’ve never seen more people invested in change and in social progress. There is a clarity of purpose we lacked in 2009, when we got into the White House and into power.

Now, the most essential skill for change is storytelling — being able to write in such a way as to motivate people. Without a story and a way to engage, without a goal or a mission that inspires people to participate, none of the software techniques will save you.

Michael Slaby in 2007 at Barack Obama’s national presidential campaign headquarters in Chicago. | Sun-Times files

Michael Slaby in 2007 at Barack Obama’s national presidential campaign headquarters in Chicago. | Sun-Times files

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