In the summer of 2013, high school friends Tim Hwang, Gerald Yao, Jonathan Chen, and Dev Shah camped out in a Motel 6 room in Sunnyvale, California, laboring seven days a week to put the finishing touches on the artificial intelligence platform that ultimately became the flagship product for FiscalNote.
The Washington, D.C.-based company uses artificial intelligence to sort through reams of publicly available government data to make predictions about legislation that's likely to pass in Congress and statehouses around the country, which can be useful to businesses in highly regulated industries. The company's clientele consists of some of the nation's largest businesses, which buy access primarily to FiscalNote's Prophecy platform, which tracks legislation as it moves through 50 states and Congress. The customer list includes Southwest Airlines, ride-share company Lyft, and software company VMWare.
They had bootstrapped the company with $2,000, and were on the hunt for venture capital to build it out and get its first customers. Within three months, Hwang had attracted the attention of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, billionaire investor Mark Cuban, and partners at New Enterprise Associates, who collectively invested $1.3 million in FiscalNote. It was not a matter of pure luck.
While FiscalNote's beginnings are, in many ways, the archetypal startup story and one that could be easily plucked from a script for the television show Silicon Valley, it's also the classic story for Hwang. He's started companies, held elected office, and piled up accolades for his public work starting from a very young age.
Born in East Lansing, Michigan, Hwang grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. At 14, he founded a nonprofit aimed at helping inner-city children gain better educational opportunities. At 18, he served as the student representative of the board of education of Montgomery County, Maryland. While attending Princeton, where he majored in public policy and international affairs, he founded the National Youth Association, an advocacy group for Millennials that now has 750,000 members.
His various experiences, and sometimes frustrations, working in and around government, as well as studying policy in college, gave him the idea for his current company.
"There was no systematic way to understand what government is doing in one single place," Hwang says. "I thought this was a very easy problem to solve from a computational and informational perspective."
And that, in fact, is what FiscalNote does. It has built Google-like search crawlers to extract data from hundreds of government websites that list information about pending legislation around the country. Then, the artificial intelligence platform digests the information and predicts outcomes based on its analysis of the data, such as bill sponsors, committees, and the actual wording of the legislation. Hwang claims the company's accuracy is better than 95 percent.
Hwang says FiscalNote's platform recently helped Dow Chemical's lobbyists identify 18 bills around the country related to plastic bag disposal and waste emissions, two things that could have big effects on what it manufactures in its facilities in six states. With the help of FiscalNote's analytics, the lobbyists were able to predict which committees the bills would wind up in, and which representatives might vote on the legislation. That in turn gave Dow insight into whom, and how, they should lobby, Hwang says.
FiscalNote hasn't exactly invented a new market; it's just applying technology to a sector that has depended primarily on manual, people-intensive efforts, experts say. There are well established information companies including Bloomberg, LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters, and Westlaw that specialize in gathering similar types of data. And in many ways, FiscalNote does what lobbyists and political research firms have done for decades, though probably for millions of dollars in fees, says Michele Goetz, an analyst specializing in artificial intelligence and government for Forrester.
By contrast, the price point for FiscalNote's software as a service offering starts at around $10,000 a year for a nonprofit, and is upward of $200,000 for a large private or public company.
Still, Goetz is somewhat dubious. "There is something about building relationships and working with people on Capitol Hill that requires human nuance, and many companies won't just leave this to a machine," she says.
One big draw for venture capitalists like Keith Nilsson, a partner at Visionaire Ventures, which has invested $6 million in FiscalNote, is how useful the service might be for any industry that needs to stay on top of legislation. That includes the nascent ride- and apartment-share industries, health care, and biosciences sectors, not to mention law firms that represent such customers.
Another key attraction is Hwang's clear sense of mission, and his ability to assemble a strong management team to run the 105-person firm, Nilsson says. "What really impressed me about Tim, who was 22 at the time [Visionaire invested], was that he could recruit people who were much older in age," he says.
That includes the recent hire of Justin Scott, a former branding and marketing executive at both Tumblr and Zillow, hired by FiscalNote as its senior vice president of revenue in late 2015. In 2013, the company also brought on Arthur Karrel, a former army lieutenant who fought in Afghanistan, and an attorney with degrees from Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is the company's vice president of operations.
"We were extremely fortunate to get great investors and extremely talented people to join our team early on," co-founder Gerald Yao, who is FiscalNote's chief strategy officer, says. "This speaks to the greater mission of the company and how it can inspire people."
Meanwhile, FiscalNote has launched new products that track regulations as they emerge from federal and state agencies. And in a bid to build the company's global reach, in 2015, following a $10 million investment from the Chinese social network Renren, it also made its first acquisition--the South Korean company MyCandidate. That company, acquired for an undisclosed sum, aggregates information about political candidates in that country.
If the financial connection to China, a country whose government typically opposes transparency and political dissent, seems problematic, Hwang isn't concerned: "If anything, we are informing the public about upcoming changes in laws as well as the decision makers behind it, emboldening affected parties to act up and speak up if necessary," he said.
Going forward, Hwang sees almost endless possibilities to customize the artificial intelligence platform he has built. "There is this very large opportunity to build a transformative company," Hwang says. "The opportunity to create change in society is much larger in the position I am in than any elected position I could run for in the future."