“These are the golden days, Muhan.” — Andrew Yang, Fall 2017
In my first introduction piece, How to Run for President (of the United States,) I introduced my experience with the Andrew Yang for President 2020 campaign and my goals with these writings. This piece will be the first of five to cover the starting of the campaign, what Yang called “The Golden Days,” covering September 2017 to June 2018. The structure will be covering what developments our campaign had, month by month, as well as the very human experiences and people behind it all. At the end of each major segment, I’ll try to include a keystone takeaway covering such as fundraising, launching, cash flow management, and technology. On each deep dive, I provide my interpretation of how our actions got us from point A to point B.
Finishing The War on Normal People
In the summer of 2017, I was de-facto personal assistant to Andrew Yang. Although Yang had floated the idea for me to join the campaign first in March 2017, we didn’t confirm details until May. By that time, Yang had received wise counsel that it was in his best interest to start campaigning as soon as possible. We set September 2017 as my personal start date. It wouldn’t be until he finished all edits for The War on Normal People two months later, in November, that I filed the paperwork to start our campaign. Up until September 2017, Yang would send me early, unedited versions of the War on Normal People which I read while resting up and traveling. After I left my previous job, I spent the summer working on side projects, relaxing in my hometown of Boston, and devouring chapters of The War on Normal People in Argentina and Colombia as he wrote chapter after chapter, like a machine. His mother told me he was this way as well, as he wrote Smart People Should Build Things, all while his wife was pregnant with his first child. After a summer break and graduation from Venture for America, I joined Yang in New York to start work.
Upon my arrival, I remember fondly Yang calling me his “accountabili-buddy.” Here I was, a real human being who just showed up in New York City, living in his mother’s apartment, ready to run for president. For the record: yes, just to be clear — our first office was not only his mother’s apartment, but also where I lived until April 2018. Yang had mentioned that numerous Venture for America colleagues had slept in his mother’s apartment when they needed intermittent housing, so that made it feel less weird. In addition, he once remarked to me that this type of behavior was a key characteristic in entrepreneurs: men and women who are willing to use every resource at their advantage are more likely to achieve difficult things.
Telling people you’re running for President of the United States is one thing, but having your first full-time employee, sitting across the room on your mother’s couch, definitely adds a massive magnitude of accountability. Now, aspiring to solve the problem of technological unemployment was no longer something Yang could just talk about. Concretely, from September to October, he focused primarily on finishing the War on Normal People, and attending conferences as an author on automation. At that time, his immediate community knew of his intention to run, but we kept it mainly a secret to not spoil a formal launch. I remember driving with him to Pittsburgh where he spoke at the Thrival festival and we launched the first version of ubi2020.org. It was a Squarespace site with an email submission field that would automatically send early drafts of the book upon signup.
Between coordinating his schedule with Hachette, Yang’s publisher, and other admin work, I also got to meet early members of the team. Katie Bloom was a colleague of Yang’s from Venture for America, and a talented writer who helped us draft out many of Yang’s early policies and website content as a contractor. Zach Graumann took me to Bibble and Sip to stay posted on the campaign as he stayed on at UBS as a philanthropy advisor. Andrew Frawley was the face of abundance, having written and gotten the Guardian to feature some pieces he wrote about his crazy year living in San Francisco in a coliving situation. I met Andy Stern, author of Raising the Floor, whom we based the Freedom Dividend plan off of, and any other early enthusiasts who came to check in with Andrew.
During this time, I also met many of Yang’s friends who were running for other offices: I was beginning to get a sense for political peers and the friendly competition that served as benchmarking for evaluating campaigns. Though in retrospect obvious, it was surprising to realize that campaigns and candidates could be compared using objective criteria. None of us knew what a candidate’s “job description” was, so looking at comparables was the next best thing. First there was John Delaney, who had beat us to the punch as the first candidate to announce his run for President, the day after Trump was sworn in office. Although Delaney ultimately failed to gain traction, at the time of his announcement, we admired his legitimacy as an established public servant from Maryland, in addition to his significant monetary resources having taken two companies public. Then there was Quentin Palfrey, a friend of Yang’s from Exeter, running for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts. I attended a fundraising event for Palfrey, to which Yang was a co-host, and brought several friends with Massachusetts roots to make a modest contribution. Dan Koh was an upstart “wonder kid” who had raised an astonishing amount of money to run for the house of representatives in MA-3, with an action-filled launch video to boot. Finally, there was Alec Ross, author of New York Times bestseller Industries of the Future, gave us advice on how to market a best seller, and had announced his run for governor of Maryland.
Yang would often share with us the anxieties of how public a political campaign wipeout would be. In the beginning, many people would ask Yang if he was “running for President as a full-time job.” In retrospect the answer seems obvious and clear, but at the time this was a legitimate, if not infuriating, possibly dismissive, question we got all the time. We as a campaign, and Yang as a candidate, were mostly clueless: fumbling blindly in the dark trying to figure out what we were doing. Later on, I will describe my understanding of a candidate’s key responsibilities, and how you can both empower them and hold them accountable.
The beginning of the campaign was extremely intimate and human. Every time we had one of Yang’s friends come to visit, or met up with a potential teammate, we’d often take them to a local Yang restaurant favorite. Real Kungfu Steamed Buns and Dumplings on 49th and 9th was a classic, as Yang reminded us that it was “Michelin Star” on an affordable budget. The order was more or less the same, every time: soup dumplings, scallion pancakes with beef, and house fried noodles for everyone to share. Other go-to food spots from the Golden Days, when we’d go out to lunch as a team 3–4 times a week, include Schmackary’s in Hell’s Kitchen, Totto Ramen, Ippudo Ramen, Otto’s Tacos, City Kitchen’s Ramen, and Lucky Burger. Yang has always been a foodie and set the precedent for our collective fattening on the Yang2020 campaign.
Is Our Love Good Enough: Conversations Between Two Asian-Americans on Family, Race, and the Bamboo Ceiling
I didn’t join Venture for America because the founder was an Asian guy. Nor was that why I then subsequently joined his insurgent presidential campaign. But working for Andrew Yang, especially in the early days, became a formative experience in my understanding of race as an Asian-American. If you think about it, from a MATH standpoint, the odds of two Asian-Americans meeting as candidate and first employee for a national political campaign, when Asian-Americans are only 6% of the U.S. population, is pretty unlikely.
Although I had studied the Chinese Exclusion Act — the first law ever to explicitly ban immigrants on the basis of ethnicity and nationality — the demographic reality of it all was always more abstract. The Civil Rights Movement and its historic legacy had paved the way for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 only five decades ago. Unless they had arrived in the 19th century (when the U.S. was only roughly one fifth of its modern population) Asian-Americans realistically only had one adult generation and at max would be in their fifties. Yang was born in 1975, ten years after the Immigration and Nationality Act. The fact that I knew little-to-no older Asian-Americans was not a coincidence — it was a demographic reality of growing up in a country that had banned people who looked like me for nearly a century.
This greater historical understanding only came later though.
Before Katie Bloom joined the campaign as a contractor, Yang and I were just two Asian guys spending a lot of time together. As a younger Chinese-American and Asian-American man, seeing an elder Asian ‘unicorn’ up close — one who seemed to have it all — was a deeply personal experience that to this day means a lot. Before moving to New York, where the density of Asians (immigrants, Chinese-Americans, Asian-Americans at large,) was inexhaustible compared to my previous environments, I had mainly thought of myself as having two separate, distinct identities: there was my Chinese identity, mainly inherited from my mainland Chinese mother and grandparents, later bolstered by intermittent stays spent in China, and my American identity, subtly but incontrovertibly formed by New England roots.
Moving to New York, hearing Andrew Yang talk about his friends and peers, then later meeting them, it subtly dawned on me that I was connecting to something I never knew existed. I had joined a community of Asian-Americans: many of whom understood the very specific combination of aspirations, experiences, and challenges that I faced. This was a new category for me.
A quick recap on Yang’s career: after graduating from Brown at 22 and Columbia Law at 25, Yang worked for a few months at Davis Polk & Wardwell. Growing up with his nerdy brother and immigrant parents, he used to relate that he had always dreamed of being “one of the warriors who entered the forest” instead of someone who sold the sword to the warriors. Despite having gained zero understanding or support from his parents for his spiritual frustration, he quit his secure lawyer job and cofounded a philanthropic dotcom: Stargiving. That company failed in the 2001 when the bubble burst, and for the next four years or so, Yang worked in tech startups in New York, while also throwing paid parties and tutoring students for the GMAT on the side. By age 30 (2005,) he had (self-proclaimed) little-to-no professional wins, in addition to law school debt for a degree that he never used. Compounding on the individual lack of success, Yang’s parents continued to lie to friends, saying he was still a lawyer, while his brother continued down a prestigious track in academia.
Eventually, Yang ended up taking a corporate role on the GMAT prep company he tutored for, ending up as its CEO, skyrocketed its growth, and sold the company right before 35 to become a millionaire. Fighting this tension between economic security and prestige versus following your values and dreams, a common theme among Asian immigrant households, was a theme that resonated deeply with me.
Early in the campaign, at his insistence, I remember visiting Yang and his family in late September 2017. I was visiting his family for the first time in New Paltz, a cute college town in upstate New York, known for the Gunks (a rock climbing heaven) and where Yang had gone with his brother for the latter’s bachelor party. Walking into the large suburban home, having had burgers and fries with him and his family in a local establishment nearby, I remember sharing my uncontainable shock with Evelyn and his family: “I don’t think I’ve ever met a functional Chinese-American family like this.”
Here was a grown Asian-American man, aligned and integrated between his work and values, with evident career success, and a seemingly dream family. In short, he seemed to have it all. Yang was the unicorn. The Chinese immigrant families I knew were generally much more isolated, hanging out only with other immigrant families, at best, and with significantly less economic security. Here, in this cute college town in upstate New York filled with all the trappings of the American dream, was an unmistakably Asian man who would break through the bamboo ceiling at the highest levels of American politics to become a household name and iconic Asian-American politician of the 21st century.
That next day before leaving, I remember seeing their white babysitter (a grad student from the nearby SUNY New Paltz,) their Chinese nanny, and Evelyn speaking to the boys in Mandarin, and Yang then commenting to me “It’s funny, Muhan, you really are in a unique position to understand both sides of this situation.”
I have benefited from great opportunity and privilege. Yang’s non-profit, Venture for America (VFA,) had introduced us VFA fellows directly to high-growth startups, guiding us from the artificial bubble of college through the messy, gritty world of entrepreneurship. Friends of mine from VFA, many of them in their twenties, have gone to start their own businesses, raise millions of dollars, and create jobs in cities all across America. For me, not only had VFA’s work helped me break into a profession that I loved, sparing me the circuitous route of an advanced degree, mountain of debt, and years still of professional ambiguity, I now literally got to work with and learn directly from the founder of VFA as he did it all over again.
And yet, despite all this, at that moment in his house, with his family, thinking back on mine, and my upbringing, I still felt like our lives were worlds apart. It seemed impossible then to me to make it in life in the same way Yang had.
“Muhan,” he once said, “you need to watch Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”
In addition to being a foodie, Yang was absolutely a kid of the 70’s and 80’s. He enjoyed movies, and music, (Depeche Mode, especially) and often referenced movies. When talking about romantic comedies, he would lament a popular theory that romantic comedies have mostly died as economic devastation eviscerated the middle class that used to identify with and constitute the primary market for that type of film. Despite my ignorance, Yang insisted that Dragon was a popular movie that was not only a cultural cornerstone but also a commercial success, implying its widespread societal impact. A quick google search showed that the film was made in 1993, and only available on DVD from the New York Public Library. Thankfully, Yang’s mother still had a DVD player in the house, so a few days later I was in action.
From a state of initial curiosity, I suddenly embarked on a rollercoaster of emotion, finishing Dragon overwhelmed and confused.
I was overwhelmed by how deeply the themes of the movie resonated to my internal struggles: grappling with ethnic vs racial vs national identity, assimilation, interracial dating, masculinity and emasculation. I was also confused as to why, if this film was commercially viable in 1993, there had not been more since. In my upbringing, I had seldom encountered literature and personal histories like this, and thus, this genre and its resonance shocked me. If films like Dragon could be relevant two decades ago, how I had been left to believe all these problems were fresh, and mine only to solve?
Throughout its plot, Dragon features a set of martial arts fights between Bruce Lee and various opponents, but the final and most iconic fight in Dragon is a spiritual spar instead of a physical one. It is where a Chinese director is trying to convince Lee to stay in Hong Kong to continue developing his acting career. Protesting, Lee wants to return to America, where his wife and kids had left early because Hong Kong was not their home. Spitefully, the director yells “Our love’s not good enough for you. You always want their love.” Watching this the first time was like getting hit by a chest shattering cannonball. Why does that line still cut so deep? Why was our love not good enough? And even still, for all those who study and abide, contort and bend, all for gaining America’s love and acceptance, would that ever satisfy those who ask “but where are you actually from?”
Months later, Yang would write an op-ed to young Asians on Nextshark.com, a piece which, to me, was one of his best pieces. After reflecting on his motivations to run, his experience growing up, and finding himself at an intersection to save his home country while also representing a people often ignored, Yang concluded the piece with the aforementioned Dragon quote, appending: “Our love is as good as their love. It means just as much. We love our country too. And we are willing to fight for it.” As the campaign grew and scaled, and Yang had less time to write these deeply reflective pieces, rereading his writing became my personal way of remembering the man before he became a national figure.
Building the Website, Launch Video, and Writing the Policies
By November, Yang had submitted his final manuscript for the War on Normal People. At that time, Katie was a writer on the campaign, and I was the “Tech Guy.” I registered the campaign as “Friends of Andrew Yang,” intuiting that a barbell strategy of orthodoxy would be best: if we were going to be the outside campaign advocating for the radical idea of a universal basic income (UBI,) we should keep everything else as boring and conventional as possible. During this time I also registered us for an EIN and bank account for campaign funds, an ActBlue page to accept donations, and a customer/constituent relationship manager (CRM) software with Blue State Digital.
We intuited the basic funnel for our campaign would be:
- People hear of the campaign through traditional press or word of mouth
- Hit the WordPress website, learn about our candidate
- Either give us their email to stay subscribed and learn more before hopefully supporting our candidate
- Alternately, love our campaign immediately, and make a donation
- The email and/or donation information would all go out CRM and be the basis of us engaging our supporters
When I designed the first version of the website, I followed an online tutorial that demonstrated how to convert any website theme into a WordPress theme. At the time I chose a couple screenshots of websites and asked Yang what he liked. Among the pages I chose from different non-profits and politicians, Yang ended up liking Mayday PAC’s website the best, a coincidence that I thought befitting of our organization’s similarities. Mayday PAC’s founder, esteemed law professor Larry Lessig from Harvard Law, had raised $11 million in 2014 to fund a presidential run to reform the campaign finance system and be a bridge for electing a new president under that system.
By December, I had set up our payroll, and Andrew Frawley and I became the campaign’s first full-time employees. In addition to Mayday’s general website design, our flagship content would be an introduction video made by Cheryl Houser and Brian Egan. Creative Breed was one half of the Emmy award winning team that produced Generation Startup, the documentary made about Venture for America and the film that gave Yang his first IMDB entry. One of the highlights of this project was traveling to Ansonia, CT to see if it’d make a good back drop for a video. Although we ultimately chose to film elsewhere, walking around a massive abandoned factory in Ansonia, CT, was an iconic and memorable experience for me.
The campaign launch video ended up being filmed in an unfinished floor in the Hudson Yards, and loaned to us for free through one of Yang’s connections. Through his non-profit work, Yang constantly emphasized the opportunity/obligation of non-profits to pay little-to-no-money for services as frequently possible, especially in the startup phases. Our first treasurer was an old friend of Yang’s and handled all our reporting to the Federal Election Commission for months. New organizations are birthed by friends and favors and we were no exception. Watching Yang practice his stump speech for the campaign launch video made it all the more real what Katie, Frawley, and me were witnessing. By the end of year, before going public, Yang had fundraised $120k from friends and family, so roughly 45 donors giving $2700 each, with some couples.
Takeaway #1: Fundraising
Fundraising Comes First and is Not Fun
Make no mistake, as an insurgent political campaign, you are a startup.
This means, nine times out of ten, that means your candidate’s only job is to fundraise. How much, you ask? For comparison: In the startup world, for a company raising a “seed round”, often the earliest form of funding from friends and family, the target amount can be anywhere from $250k to $500k on a $5 million valuation to $10 million valuation. In layman’s terms, this means that Uber, which raised $200k seed capital to start the business, had more money than our campaign to start.
If there’s anything you take away from this article, you need money to run for office. It sounds simple to theoretically fundraise $120,000 from friends and family. The reality is much more brutal and existential.
I remember sitting on the couch in Yang’s mother’s apartment in 2017, watching him hunched over a MacBook Air on the circular table in front of the kitchen, dialing friends and favors he thought he could count on. For every friend who proved themselves true, there were countless that wouldn’t. Most would listen with interest, express polite interest and support, then politely defer, forever. Some would find excuses and objections to Yang’s platform and mission. (Pro-tip: it’s fine not to understand or even agree with what your friend is working on. But character means you can offer constructive criticism while still shelling out cash.) Most were cowardly and stopped answering his phone calls. Although Yang put on a front for me, and later, the campaign team, the humanity of constant and personal rejection has seared a brand on my soul. Unless you’ve found something that you’re willing to personally fund, ask your personal friends and family money for, and possibly risk those relationships being over, being a founder/candidate is probably not your path.
In addition to and before raising money, founders and candidates should be ready to put up the starting capital for their campaigns. At the beginning, Yang loaned the campaign less than $50k, money we returned to him once our fundraising picked up over a year later. Not to mention, he went without a salary for 1.5 years due to campaign finance laws that discourage newcomers. As brutal and heroic as this work is, it’s a fair observation that Yang could afford to support for his family, without salary, for 1.5 years, while also having friends who had a few thousand dollars of discretionary income, often married to a spouse of similar socioeconomic disposition. Entrepreneurship requires a great degree of privilege, and I believe our community does aspiring entrepreneurs a disservice by being disingenuous and perpetuating a myth of “pulling yourself up from your bootstraps.” As rigged as the reality is, that only puts greater onus on those of us with money and resources to work in the world as it is to build the world as it should be.
Why is fundraising really important?
Now that I’ve sufficiently emphasized why fundraising is existential to get started, both for your candidate and your campaign, you may be wondering: “but wait, don’t campaigns with more fundraising lose all the time?” After all, didn’t Michael Bloomberg spend over $900 million dollars, more than twenty times what our campaign spent, in one-seventh of the time of the Yang2020 campaign’s entire existence, and still achieve little besides the most elaborate jobs program in political history? And didn’t Joe Crowley still lose to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez despite outraising her 10-to-1, or $3.3 million to $300k?
The answer to this is that while money buys you your right to play, it doesn’t buy you a right to win. At the same time, however, before you have the luxury of being a legitimate contender on the ballot, money will pay salaries (including your candidates,) buy you TV advertisements, pay for your ballot access, and the million other things you need to function as an org. It’s very much like the Laffer curve: ultimately, while it’s true you need money to run, you may not need as much as you think.
Ideally, if you are preparing to run for office, your candidate is ready to go without income for the entirety of the race. Being able to seed around $50k, and fundraise another $50k, worked for us on a national race and can be adjusted down according to what race you’re in. In addition, it’s a useful exercise to look at the FEC reports of various comparable races (e.g. Senate, or other nationally relevant races) to see what types of money your comparables are raising, and investigate whether you can spend as efficiently/more efficiently than them. This is the political version of the business world’s competitive analysis.
Fundraising as a metric of your candidate’s and campaign’s success is also useful because it’s an objective, actionable, non-equivocal way to hold your candidate and campaign accountable. Fundraising is how you clarify that your candidate’s time on Twitter is mostly a waste of time (unless it’s directly leading to money,) versus talking to new audiences that will actually donate. Fundraising is how we established that trying to “activate young people,” was mostly useless because we have less disposable income and donate less often. Fundraising is how you know whether your candidate will be a gag candidate or a serious contender. It’s a crucial indicator of your performance both for your team and the greater public.
While I primarily compare insurgent political campaigns to startups, the candidate-centric nature of campaigns actually likens it also to a talent management agency. People buy into your campaign because of your candidate, so your goal is to push your product/candidate in the most profitable way. This is why as the campaign proceeds, your candidate will become increasingly dehumanized. Especially in the Golden Days, we occasionally joked that it felt like an endless game of “dance, monkey, dance!” for whatever scraps of fundraising we could bring in. At one point in the campaign, we sold a meal for Yang at famed restaurant Tim Ho Wan for $2700. This later dropped this to $1000. The brutal reality and centrality of fundraising is also another explanation why individuals who stay in politics too long seem inhumane — just as lawyers who learn to think in billable hours, the job description for a politician requires them to optimize their time for wealthy people who can give money. Finding profitable audiences on media and fundraising from your supporters via email helps alleviate this pressure, but the economic realities only get worse the further your campaign goes.
How to Improve Early Fundraising
It’s cliché but true to say that fundraising is all about relationships, so I’ll go one step blunter: early fundraising is about cashing in favors.
Like startups, when people give money to a political campaign, they’re fundamentally giving money because they like and trust the person. A vision will play an essential role in your fundraising, but so much as visions are extensions of your candidate and team, the people come first and the vision second. Not to mention, this gives you the flexibility to modify your vision, as long as people still believe in the integrity of your candidate. This is where actions speak louder than words: if your candidate has a positive track record — say, working for over 6 years to bring entrepreneurs into various American cities — then you’ll be fundraising with a tailwind, even if it’s still hard and humbling.
Fundraising is always personal. I remember reaching out to over 50 of my friends to pre-order Yang’s book when it came out. Overall, I was both surprised and deeply grateful for how many of my friends bought Yang’s book purely because they appreciated me, and my, friendship. Similarly, in fundraising, because I was working for Yang, I was surprised by the frequency of small checks my mother sent me from various friends whom she shook down for $10 or $20. My mother, in particular, is known for helping and giving all forms of consulting and assistance in her community, so she was a natural in “cashing in favors” when the time came.
In several religious traditions, there is a concept known as tithing, where individuals historically pay one-tenth part of their income as a contribution to a religious organization. This last made national news when Mitt Romney shared his tax returns and showed that he paid $4.1 million to the Mormon Church. Like all functional forms of insurance, the idea behind tithing is that individuals paying today, even when they have nothing immediate to gain, will have that same social safety net when they may one day need help. As a result, because individuals falling on hard times should not be correlated, the group enjoys net gains in overall well-being, and everyone benefits.
During the Golden Days, I remember talking with Yang about fundraising and doing some personal life audits for small recurring donations to non-profits and organizations I’ve been an alum of. Although it felt hyperbolic to describe my $5 monthly donations to various orgs as “virtuous,” now having been on the other side you realize just how small that group of people who take action actually is. To put this concretely, here are typical conversion rates of donations from industry behemoth Mailchimp:
- Average open rate: 22.94%, or 1 in 4.5, will open your fundraising email.
- Average click rate: 2.37%, or 1 in 42, will click on a link in your fundraising email.
- Inferred donation rate: Less than 1 in 42 people will actually finally donate.
In other words, nobody fucking donates. So if you do, and do so regularly, people never forget.
Ideally before running for office, your candidate and management team is already genuinely supporting your community. If you have any shred of a thought of building something one day, and you’re not doing this already, start doing this today. And even if have no inclinations, this is still just a great way to be. As an individual, the single most out-sized thing you can do is be the 1 in 42. The actual amount is less important than the habit of giving without expecting anything in return. In my own small way, among my friends, for any reasonable amount of donation ($5-$50,) I’ve tried to make a habit of taking out my credit card, no questions asked. I’ve spent larger amounts of money on stupider things, so besides making virtue a habit, I also know, selfishly, that when I make asks (introductions, sending out newsletters, etc,) the asks are more likely to land.
What does this mean for your campaign and how do you scale? Asking is important, but getting into a habit of giving as a campaign and as individuals is winning at the starting line. For your campaign, in addition to asking your donors for money, understanding what your audience wants and trying to give that in a responsible way (candidate time in a group call, interview content, video podcasts, engagement in terms of content marketing, informative and genuinely interesting email newsletter that doesn’t just ask for money, exclusive merchandise, etc.) are all critical skills of give-and-take that your candidate and team need to master. All relationships are characterized by a set of rights and responsibilities: if there’s one thing everyone hates (and ignores), it’s political campaigns that spam you with fundraising asks without listening and giving. If you spend time genuinely giving to your supporters, it’ll matter less what you give, more so the act of generosity will pay itself back in dividends.
Fundraising will not win you your race but it is indispensable to letting you compete. In the beginning, there are little-to-no tricks: people will only donate if you have either given, presently give, or will give value to them in the future. This is another way of explaining why it’s still to run for office without money or connections. Once you have enough resources to cover the essential need of a small scrappy team, however, you will want to turn your attention to aggressively testing different messages, demographics, and new tactics altogether for how to bring the dollars in for your campaign. If you do this right, what worked in month one will likely be completely irrelevant by month seven. And if you do this wrong, you’ll wrong out of money, burn out your candidate, and join the nameless hordes of candidates who dropped out and/or lost their election. For us though, a new year was on the horizon, we had raised our $120k, and had built out a small team
Now, it was time to publicly launch the campaign.
Launching in the New York Times
All throughout November and December, we never knew when Kevin Roose, the reporter from the New York Times who promised to cover Yang2020’s launch, would actually publish us. By January, we eventually obtained the concrete launch date of February 10th, 2018. Our team now had a tangible deadline to finish all the policies, tweak the front end presentation, ensure that everything was ready for prime time. For the final website review, Yang commented that the site was “a solid A-.” By that point, me and a combination of three ride-or-die friends and contractors had helped program the website outside their day jobs. I chose to host our production website with Pantheon, mainly because a blog I loved www.mrmoneymustache.com gave a great technical case study about the product and onboarding. This architecture ended up serving us until the end of the campaign, and for what it’s worth, I would easily recommend again. From what Pantheon’s excellent sales representatives told me, Pantheon was the hosting platform for Bernie, Warren, and many major political figures by late 2019.
Launching the campaign publicly in the New York Times was our organization’s public debut to the world. The reason Yang had said our time, up until this time, were the “golden days” was because we were purely in a build-no-scrutiny mode. By the time the New York Times sent photographers to take photos of Yang for the piece, we used the commercial Airbnb equivalent, Breather, to rent a fancy office room in West Midtown to make our campaign seem more legit. We figured the ethos of photographing Yang in his mother’s apartment, while charming, might be counterproductive to us demonstrating our seriousness as a campaign. Either way, it seemed the New York Times was not going to take us seriously, fairly declaring us a “Longer Than Long Shot”; not so fairly hiding us into the Business/Tech section in the fourth section of the print copy. I remember running to numerous bodegas and corner stores in New York, finally buying ten copies of the physical print, confident we were on our way to making history.
After launch, the focus of our team of three was fundraising events. Yang had plenty of experience with these through Venture for America and his party-throwing side business in his late twenties. These were generally a combination of wealthy friends and VFA connections who opened up their homes, and businesses who were willing to host Yang as a provocative speaker as opposed to a full-throated political event. While these events were mostly non-successful from a financial standpoint, they were the first events that we got Yang to practice his stump speech at as a presidential candidate. In addition, Robert Fogarty, wherever you are, know that your sole donation at one of our earliest fundraisers in 2018, for $2700 nonetheless, was so poignant, that you remain a legend among the early team.
Takeaway #2: Launching
Whether you’re launching a startup or a political campaign, the core components are pretty similar:
- You need a core value proposition
- You need an audience
- You need a call-to-action
In our campaign’s case, this looked like:
- Andrew Yang, VFA founder, is running for President to enact a Universal Basic Income
- Our audience to launch was readers of the New York Times and others who knew where our society was headed
- The call-to-action was to visit yang2020.com, watch our video and explore our website, hopefully giving us an email to add them to our email list, or better yet, a donation
Everything else beyond this is bonus points, but not strictly necessary for resource-strapped organizations. In addition, while it’s important to put together something presentable, if you do your job correctly you’ll probably upgrade everything once your campaign starts, as previously mentioned. Among many reasons, this is why I chose to keep us to common standards for technology and not obsess over details. The first version of our website was a simple WordPress website with a custom theme, but nothing to write home about — tweaking infinitely over the website is a clear sign that your organization doesn’t know what your key performance indicators are. Resist the urge every time someone new comes to the organization to redesign the website. It’s a great nice-to-have, but almost never a must-have.
The same goes for merchandise and apparel. Our campaign had the likes of the very talented Andrew Frawley who launched our merchandise operations with FII Marketing in Rhode Island for full design, manufacturing, and fulfillment of all campaign merchandise. While it was great that Frawley figured out merchandise fulfillment at launch, the biggest value add came later on as he experimented with different concepts and products, most notably, the MATH hat and various similarly recognizable brands.
Your goals for launch are to set the infrastructure that will also give you the key indicators for how your campaign is doing. Twitter and Facebook are nice, but email is still king in digital fundraising as it’s the only non-proprietary channel that lets you get in direct touch with your supporters. Watching your list grow, and keeping tabs on the key metrics: open rates, deliverability, clickthroughs, conversion rates, and costs for these metrics once you start running paid campaigns, will be pivotal as you start to experiment with different levers that help your campaign drive results under different scenarios.
Similarly, before you have revenue, shamelessly call in friends for help. I had friends who helped me after business hours on web development, and as well as friends who helped us debug Google Analytics tracking and conversion funnels for our Shopify page. Volunteer engagement can be tricky if you need something recurring, but if your ask is specific and focused on someone’s specific skillset, you’ll be surprised how much you can get for free. This was a consistent theme in Yang’s advice and experience from starting Venture for America. Even when running for President, especially when running for President, it’s time to call in every favor. From letting your first employee live in your mother’s apartment to fundraising from some long distant aunt in another country, every favor and friend from every walk of life are fair game.
Filling out the Team, Moving into an Office
By March, our early founding team was starting to round out. Zach Graumann joined as campaign manager in March, with Matt Shinners joining later as Chief of Staff in April. During this period of time, we continued to focus on working events, refining our info collecting at events, and trying to figure out what a political campaign did during the day. After the exhilarating high, we were eager, possibly anxious, to demonstrate continued progress and achieve more milestones.
During that time, we tried to help Yang’s The War on Normal People become a bestseller upon release by selling enough units in its release week, shaking down our friends and family to spread the gospel. I distinctly remember a group field trip to Barnes & Noble when Yang’s book went on sale, with necessary selfies and newsletter photos taken soon-after. We also ate a lot of Tostito’s Lime chips, which for anyone who followed us then knows was featured into our Instagram stories far too frequently, but never resulted in a sponsorship from Tostito’s. I remember fondly an early Instagram story Frawley made of me and him goofing off on a late afternoon in our roller chairs and one of our supporters saying our content was too “bro-ey.”
We also experimented with a Young Professionals for Andrew Yang (YPAY) association to tap into the energy of young people for Yang, mainly culminating as fundraising young professional parties in dive bars. These sadly never made much money as well, and soon lost steam and was ultimately disbanded. As it turns out, doing stuff that’s cool and fun has a generally low correlation with making money. We moved into our first office on April 1st, 2018, and by that point our monthly burn for payroll, rent, and normal expenses was $40,000/mth. Money was on everybody’s mind: I remember Zach regularly asking me in between panicks “how many months do we have in savings if we don’t fundraise a cent.” To put into perspective how delicate our cash balance was, at the time that number was 3–4 months.
Adding on the headcount and rent really turned up the fire — soon after moving into our office, we bought a bicycle horn that we’d honk every time someone became a major donor. Before achieving a level of fame that would allow giant windfalls of fundraising from media appearances, we would calculate how many people Yang needed to persuade to donate the maximum to the campaign: $2700 per person, or $5400 for a couple. At the ~$40,000/mth burn rate, Yang now needed to get 10 people, or 5 couples, to max out for our org to not lose money every month. In other words, he needed to convert 2–3 people to become max donors every week, and the scheduling of his time necessitated optimizing for this goal. Sadly, and unsurprisingly, large donations didn’t happen very often. The vast majority of each day was us begging for scraps, netting a few hundreds of dollars daily. To put that into perspective, on most days, we were only fundraising 1/10th of the pace we needed to afford everyone’s salaries and the office.
In case the Takeaway #1 section wasn’t clear: fundraising is miserable, soul-sucking work, and provided enormous motivation from the candidate for the campaign to find a way to grow our brand so he would no longer have this be most of his day.
Takeaway #3: Burn & Runway
As important as money is, the actual dollar amount is less significant than the time it represents. In the startup world we call this burn and runway. Breaking down these terms:
- Burn = How much more money you spend over how much you earn, month over month
- Runway = How many weeks/months/years until you run out of money
Runway is how much time you have to answer all the existential questions about your organization before game over, including messaging, vision, ballot access, etc.
If your burn is zero, then you have infinite runway to improve your business. If your revenue is greater than your costs, then congratulations — you’re profitable and sustainable and will make it to the election. Now that you’ve solved the existential problem, you have a higher quality problem: how to spend your resources effectively to grow the campaign’s key performance indicators. More on this later.
The concepts of burn and runway from startups are critically important to outside campaigns. Just like a candidate’s one job is to fundraise, a campaign management team’s primary job is cash flow management.
Throughout my time, I heard every reason under the sun why our candidate had no shot, such as:
- He’s Asian, racism and the bamboo ceiling
- Universal basic income is too futurist, and making a mountain out of a molehole about our economy
- He has no political experience
- Our foreign policy at the beginning was particularly unclear
- The DNC was going to Bernie us
Which lead me to my favorite conclusion by summer of 2018: there’s only two things that actually kill your campaign before the election: your candidate drops out, or you run out of money. The former is why candidate psychology is your one scarce resource, and the latter is the job of a campaign’s management team. You can ignore everything else. Being an Asian political neophyte with little-to-no foreign policy experience didn’t hold Yang from being a top-6 contender, and ultimately, we ended up legitimizing Universal Basic Income. Now, I’m not suggesting that you do ignore everything else — marketing, messaging, policy, all of these are important — just that runway gives you the time to judge what are actual problems and what’s commentary from the peanut gallery of the masses who have never run for President.
At the beginning of the campaign, as the only payroll expense, my annual salary was $55k, meaning that we had a burn of $4.6k. With $120k in the bank, we had 26 months of burn left, a very comfortable cash position. For comparison, when startups are fundraising their comparable rounds, investors want to see the founders will have 18 months of runway after the round closes. If a startup raises $250k and wants to have 18 months of runway, that means it can hire 3 people full-time at $50k annual salary, at a $13k/mth burn, with some margin for small expenses.
Nine months later, by April 2018, however, we had four full-time employees, several contractors, services, rent, etc. so our burn had 10x (pronounced “decupled”) to $40k/mth and we had, at most, 4 months of burn. As an individual, common personal finance wisdom recommends saving up to 6 months of living expenses before looking at investments. Consequently, you can imagine my constant terror at seeing our cash reserves so low. Yang would assure, however, as a high-growth organization, this is not that shocking of burn and runway. While still terrifying in retrospect, I now see that no one won their election from having “saved” the most amount of money. (Don’t get sloppy, managing a campaign’s finances is still saying “no” 90% of the time.) There are infinite shades of gray between responsible fiscal austerity and being too conservative and ultimately not being aggressive enough with your spending: finding that line for your campaign will be a function of your candidate and team.
The Summer of Sam Harris
By May, we were starting to focus on building the organization. Culture was starting to change. Yang no long regularly took the team out for team lunches; the Real Kung-fu Steamed Dumplings meals never got replaced from right next to Mama Yang’s to Times Square, despite the sister location right nearby. Without Schmackary’s, Yang substituted with Gregory’s, a coffee shop filled with sweets that were discounted after hours, but those soon went out the door as well. What used to be regular small bags of pastry and joy, stamped with the outline of a hipster man and glasses logo, at the office soon ceased as altogether as Yang focused more on events and team members rotated to work event duty.
The reality was, as an organization that was not raising a lot of money, and essentially quintupled our burn with new hires and office space, the creeping reality was that we were entering a challenging and stressful period. Teammates were starting to work with each other and face real friction as our team with exactly zero political experience struggled to figure out what we were supposed to do. The early decision I made to set Blue State Digital as our CRM was now being challenged, with users who had more needs for usability and features. As a technical person who tries to appreciate systems and empathize with the system builders, I had not anticipated my team’s needs for more modern and user friendly interfaces. I now had to make decisions not for a theoretical future team, but for real people with real idiosyncrasies. After weeks of deliberating and building spreadsheets for user specifications, something that never slowed me down as a solo builder, I ultimately settled for NationBuilder.
Still, it was tough to not feel the reality of our overextension dripping into my day-to-day. In addition to my technology responsibilities, I now was also responsible for all financial compliance work, as I was the bridge between our treasurer and day-to-day cash and donation operations from the campaign. I remember Zach coming into the office, after a fundraising event with Yang, and dropping a large wad of envelopes of donations on my desk (mind you, of $5 and $10 donations,) and hoping it would be straightforward to handle, not realizing the plethora of complications from donors who omitted information, illegible handwriting, depositing and reconciling bank deposits, and limits on anonymous cash donations. Learning the rules then doing the work to keep our campaign compliant by the Federal Election Commission’s campaign finance laws was the job from purgatory that I never knew existed. Although I enjoy being a generalist problem solver, doing three people’s jobs of finance, technology, and regulatory compliance was never the plan. Nonetheless, our cash position was tight, and I knew that better than anybody. We were transitioning from a stage of early euphoria into unspoken anxiety.
June 2018 was my first summer in New York, and while progress was slow, and the reality of what we were attempting dawning on us, the season was on our side. Slowly, our team got into a groove of having different teammates assigned to events to bring books, banners, and donation envelopes. Even if the events weren’t bringing in the money, we now had a team, office, and were starting to work on the candidate’s presentation of ideas. I remember Zach celebrating how he had finally convinced Yang to stop talking about “time-banking,” a core concept in The War on Normal People and instead focus on Medicare-For-All. Just around this time, a mysterious lifeline had come in from the Internet: Sam Harris wanted Yang to appear on the podcast.
Around this time, Andrew Frawley was the only person who really knew anything about Harris. As such, he lead the charge on prep for Yang’s first appearance on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, trying to impart on Yang why Harris was a big deal and what his audience cared about. Thanks to the campaign’s preparation, Yang was articulate and well-trained to speak to Harris’ audience, in exactly their language, resulting in the windfall of $60,000 in June fundraising. Our team was ecstatic. Yang was shaping up as a candidate and finding his groove as a candidate. It was the first time we didn’t lose money, and even had a modest surplus. We were well on our way — after all, how hard could it be to find a few more Sam Harris’?
Takeaway #4: Technology
For those coming from industry, it’s in your best interest to lower your expectations for political technology. I’m not sure what technology looks like on the Republican side, as it may have better funding or a different ecosystem, but the Democratic technology stack leaves a great deal to be desired. In my time trying to understand the marketplace, my most sympathetic understanding is that it’s inherently an inefficient market, further complicated by the regulatory and frequently luddite culture of political operators.
Imagine a market where most of your customers live for less than a year. Most of them will not raise much money, and if they do, it’ll increasingly be towards the final months of their existence. There’s no long-term feedback loops for efficiency or performance as an organization besides one final election that then makes one winner and many more losers, meaning it’s hard for professionals to systematically identify what works and what doesn’t. Then remember that the people who work in this field don’t have the most amount of stability, nor do they get compensated very much, so you may be selling to individuals who will eventually be churned out of the industry. Take all this, then divide the market by half because the United States is so polarized that both Democrats and Republicans are paranoid about a vendor selling their data to the other side. Then to top it all off, because your markets are small and your customers are all non-profits, you probably have a hard time hiring and retaining the most competitive talent.
With all this said, when possible, try to stick to industry standard best-tools that you know, and only use the political tools when strictly necessary. Google Apps and G-suite remain fantastic for your productivity suite. If you get to the level where you need to lock down hardware, Chromebooks are inexpensive and good value, while also being easy to administer from the organization’s side. ActBlue is a great example of a Democratic technology that is necessary from the very start, as Venmo/Stripe/PayPal/Braintree/Crypto are not built to collect the regulatory information the FEC needs from your donors. Trust me, we tried. When I had to certify that we had the number of donors the DNC asked for, they only accepted certifications from ActBlue and NGP. NGP has the monopoly of filing software for your regulatory filings to the government, as well as the VAN (voter activation network) data that you’ll eventually need in the final months of the campaign to map who has volunteered, donated, and what the historical behavior of any region has been.
The one time going with the default lead me astray was using Blue State Digital Tools. My team hated it from the get-go, and required us to export CSV files to run most reports. BSD has since sold its tools to EveryAction from NGP so this is probably a moot point, but it’s worth mentioning case studies of how to make decisions under ambiguity. When we went with NationBuilder as our CRM for round 2, many Democrats told us we were using a Republican CRM, but I found them to be non-partisan. Use the tools you like, conform when there’s a specific political need, and be prepared to change much of it when you raise more money. By the end of the campaign, we got rid of the idea of one central CRM, opting for Civis as our data warehouse, ActionKit as our mailing platform, and NGP for VAN data and DNC data.
Muhan Zhang was first employee and Chief Operating Officer of the Andrew Yang 2020 presidential campaign, Yang2020. During his time on the campaign, he lead major business functions from technology and finance to legal compliance and operations management. From 2017 to 2020, the campaign grew 300x in fundraising, totaling $40 million in lifetime donations from 400k American donors, and had a team of 250+ in five states. If you like the series, be sure to follow on Medium, share the piece with your friends, and sign up on muhanzhang.com, so you can be notified for new and special early-access posts.