Start-up of the week: Poleeto

3 Oct 2016

Polito’s founders: Declan Burrowes, Dennis Theurer and Dan Reilly. Image: Poleeto

Our start-up of the week is Poleeto, a civic and political social network that connects politicians and parties with the public in constituencies across Ireland.

“By providing a single, consolidated platform for civic and political engagement, Poleeto filters out the noise of other social networks and concentrates on what matters to the user, whether that’s local issues, broader political discussion or getting in touch with influencers and representatives,” explained the company’s co-founder Declan Burrowes.

‘We want to bring democracy online using the tools of the 21st century’

“For politicians, Poleeto creates a brand new pathway to the electorate by providing a dedicated platform to highlight views and policy; access to trending constituency conversation; and an event scheduling system to drive attendance at clinics, fundraisers and so on.”

Future Human

The market

Ultimately, Burrowes explained, Poleeto is aimed at everyone.

“Poleeto is your ‘digital neighbourhood’, the place you go to whenever you have a query about a local issue, want to talk to your representatives or have your say on a major political development.

“To build that critical mass of users, for now we’re focusing on gaining the support of younger, digitally savvy users and representatives. We’re experimenting building ‘college communities’ that directly connect students with their elected student unions.”

Burrowes said that there’s a massive opportunity for data-driven insight, and the company is planning a feature called Poleeto Analytics.

“Today, most parties and politicians rely on time-consuming offline polls and focus group meetings to gauge voter sentiment and opinion, if they do at all. By the time the results are analysed, the information can be out of date – that’s an increasing problem in the internet age where the big issues can change in hours and minutes.

“Poleeto Analytics will give parties, politicians and governments real-time and historical insight into voter sentiment and demographics (like age, sex, political beliefs, profession etc) in constituencies nationwide. Powered by interaction on Poleeto, it’s a tool that will enable politicians to efficiently respond to issues, anticipate crises, more effectively execute communications strategies, and formulate policy with confidence.”

The founders

All three founders of Poleeto are graduates of Trinity College Dublin. Burrowes studied pure history, Dan Reilly studied history and politics, and Dennis Theurer tackled computer science.

“Since we graduated four years ago, we’ve been cutting our teeth in the professional world, variously in PR, marketing, recruitment and media. Dennis spent a number of years working on a US-based edtech start-up, and in college I co-founded and edited an online video games publication.

“My role is as the strategic lead; Dennis is our infinitely talented designer and developer and Dan is our resident politics and research expert.”

The technology

Start-up of the week Poleeto

Poleeto users create profiles and are sorted into discussion forums called ‘communities’. This will be their local council area, national Dáil constituency, and EU Parliament constituency determined by the address they enter at registration.

Users can then create discussions and polls, vote on issues and connect with influencers in these communities. For example, in the Dublin City Council community, a user could alert their local councillors to a spate of vandalism or enquire about the status of a local building project. In the Kerry community, a TD might update constituents on the National Broadband Plan, and in the Midlands-North West EU community an MEP could poll constituents on the impact of Brexit.

“Elected representatives take control of their pre-generated Poleeto profiles and interact with their constituents in the community they represent, or more generally with the public in the national Ireland forum, through discussions and polls,” Burrowes said.

“Representatives can also schedule events in their community, like constituency clinics, fundraisers, public meetings and demonstrations, to drive awareness and attendance.”

Burrowes said that the ultimate goal is to bring Poleeto to every country on the planet.

“We want to democratically empower people and promote a continuous, constructive dialogue between electors and elected based on solving problems with real-time, real-world data. Put another way, we want to bring democracy online using the tools of the 21st century.”

While it is still early days for the company, feedback from elected representatives has been constructive. “Earlier this year, we hosted live Q&As with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and Sinn Féin MEP Matt Carthy, and both sessions received a lot of positive feedback,” said Burrowes.

“Our live general election coverage went down very well too, and in many instances we beat the main broadcasters to the punch publishing counts and winners. We’ve also been nominated for a Dot IE Net Visionary Award.

“Poleeto is now fully launched and open to everyone, so this our first real test. Our trial of college communities will be a big focus. We’re hoping that over the course of the coming months, we can grow our user-base considerably to justify a pre-seed or seed round of investment and fast track the development of our planned analytics tools.”

Wait, another social network?

Poleeto faces the usual start-up struggles of bootstrapping and working only part-time on the project. “Investing what we can spare from our pay-cheques, the pace of growth can be frustrating,” Burrowes admits.

“But the biggest challenge is selling people ‘another’ social network, particularly one based on politics. Most people have an indifferent or negative view of politics and politicians. They picture shouting matches in the Dáíl, men in suits and posters on lampposts. Few actually feel connected to the people they elect and many are totally unfamiliar with our political system.

“With Poleeto, we’ve found that once we show these people who their representatives are, how their representatives can help, and then provide a direct platform to reach them and their fellow constituents in the ‘digital neighbourhood’ I was referring to, they immediately feel more involved, empowered and much more willing to ask questions and share opinions. Facebook and Twitter, for many reasons, simply don’t provide that level of connection.”

The start-up scene in Ireland is improving gradually, Burrowes said. “While I strongly believe we’re still much more of a ‘tech hub’ for billion-dollar multinationals than local start-ups, efforts by groups like Startup Ireland and the Dublin Commissioner for Startups, and events like the Web Summit, have helped to improve access to resources and wisdom, and put Dublin on the map.

“But meet-ups and seminars only get you so far. Ultimately, I think we need more in the way of funding opportunities, through accelerator programmes like NDRC’s LaunchPad and direct mentoring initiatives.”

His advice to fellow founders is to be prepared to invest a lot of time and all the money you can spare.

“Without a big team and budget behind you, it can take what often feels like a lifetime for things to come together. But persevere and the rewards are worth it, even if they’re not financial.

“Don’t waste your shot with publicity, either. While it’s fair enough to release a product or service as soon as it’s minimally viable, if anything is broken or it’s not as engaging as it could be, people will be left with that impression.

“That’s particularly problematic if it’s your key influencers who are turned off, as they’re the people most likely to advocate on your behalf. What you’re making has to look good, function perfectly and, crucially, have longevity and repeat value for the user. It’s different for every industry, of course, but postponing your big reveal an extra week or month until you work out the kinks is worth it.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years