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Show & Thank HN: my friday night project turns into a venture (postcongress.io)
74 points by scottmotte on Aug 25, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

Last friday night I hacked together FJunkMail.com and the following day posted it up on Hacker News - http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4402220.

The response from the Hacker News community was really encouraging. I want to thank you all for that. I especially want to thank ChuckMcM for his idea to turn it into a way to send a postcard to your congressperson (and his helpful feedback over an email thread), and prasincs for his additional re-enforcement of that idea.

From all that I built https://postcongress.io over the course of this past week. And already it is turning into a venture. A colleague of mine recommended I contact advocacy groups. I've started doing so and have some strong leads and a meeting on Monday.

So, thank you HN.

And there is still tweaks to be done so I'd appreciate any feedback.

I would think a letter is a more effective form of mailing congress. Postcards don't convey the same weight as a full letter.

I am actually already working on this possibility with a printer.

Quick question. Lets assume the best and this idea takes off. How do you plan to scale?

Seems like you have to put a lot of effort into printing and mailing the postcards for $1.99.

Your business model may eventually morph into an advocacy site. Have a bunch of campaigns running with postcard size messages and a pay to send mode. Let users sign-up with data to verify their riding and send to appropriate representatives. Lower cost as much as you can by being able to bulk send. Try and figure out what your best services and business model will be. Building a user-based site with social network plug-ins to drive viral growth will probably be key. Enable posting about sending the post-card and an in-site functionality to track campaigns and whether you inspire others is probably a promising way to go after end users.

Some comments:

Good turn around time.

Try putting black edges around your title text. Right now, they are just blending in with the background. The political background is a neat idea. Designing for it dynamically will be hard though. Set up A/B testing and test the various backgrounds you have, as well as backgrounds from subtlepatterns.com (just in case).

Rotate the bottom info bar so that it is horizontal instead of vertical. Nobody cares about the IO name I don't think. At this point the total message should be simple: "Send a postcard to your congressperson, PERIOD".

Use javascript to encode the message and congressperson into the url. Backbone has a way to do this. That way people can tweet out "Send THIS GUY a piece of your mind. I did! Here's my message! postcongress.com?senator='Dick Durbin'&message='Bro, come on. Taxes?'"

Not enough social buttons. Seriously, you need more buttons. Tweets and likes from political active people will garner attention from like minds.

Why don't I see any adwords from you here yet? http://lmgtfy.com/?q=mail+your+congressman (no sacarsm intended, mostly this link was shorter).

Change the font that the message naturally displays with. Times New Roman doesn't look right to me. Also, include a picture of a real, finished card on the site.

Good luck!

Great feedback. I really like the idea of encoding the message and congressperson into the url and making that easily shareable.

And on the adwords, I must be missing 'mail your congressman' in my keywords. I definitely have 'write my rep, etc'.

I also really like the a/b testing idea.

Yeah i really concur with the idea that the website needs more social buttons. I want to tweet about this website!

You can definitely do it of your own accord for now. :) There is a tweet button after purchase.

Some of those improvements are live now.

I created a very similar app a year and a half ago: mailcongress.org


It's since come down. Here are some things you need to consider

1.) Progressives won't respond well to this. I have some experience here, I spent a year working at the Democratic National Committee in DC on their Labs team. My observation is that unless you're "a name" in the progressive tech sector or have a name attached to the product it is going to be difficult getting notice. I actually respect the Republicans on how they adopt technology: throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. I can cite examples of this if people are interested.

2.) Since 911 Snail mail can take weeks to arrive. Everything that is sent to the Hill in DC is sent out for anthrax screening. It is very difficult to send reactionary issue snail mail unless it is hand delivered.

3.) The best way to get your rep's attention is to send mail, email, or call about a very specific issue. If you say "Support gay rights!" you'll most likely get a very well printed form response letter a few weeks later. If you say "I am one of your constituents and I want you to support SR 1992 up for vote in two weeks" this goes much further. Reps want to know that you are a vote and how you want them to vote on specific bills.

4.) Most hill staffers will actually ignore snail mail that doesn't have a postage stamp (the ones that the post office will put on the letter to mark its origin) from their district or state (for senators). Again, they really only care about votes. If you can't vote for him/her then you don't matter nearly as much as someone that can.

5.) I originally designed MailCongress because I saw a Communicating With Congress report when I was at the DNC. I cannot find the link now but this report comes out every 4 years (right after each mid-term). It represents the previous 4 years after publication of data on how congress responds to different forms of communication. The report I saw came out in 2006 which means it covered 2002 - 2006. At the time Email was way down around 30% efficacy and snail mail was up to 85% effective. I released MailCongress right before the 111th Congress left at the end of 2010. The next report came out that represented 2006 - 2010 and things changed a lot. Email went up to mid-70s efficacy and snail mail dropped to mid-70s. For the 4 years prior to 2010 email was just as effective at communicating with congress as snail mail. The report said the reasons for the swing was most likely because of the major turn over on the hill in 2006. When many new congress people come in they bring a new generation of hill staffers, younger, and more tech-savy. We had another major turn over in 2010. Which means more shift. I wouldn't be able to tell you what the numbers are but my guess is that email exceeds snail mail by now. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the next report's number were very skewed once you take Twitter and Facebook into consideration.

I applaud the effort, I really hope it works. Unfortunately you're fighting a lot of factors here. Your pricing is much better than mine (I was charging $1 per-piece and also would notify the senders when their letters should have arrived so they could follow up with phone calls). You should consider how the printing is going to scale if you get serious about this. I actually built out of mail queue backed by Redis. Scalability testing showed I could print 1000 letters per hour. Which is really not that many if it were to take off, any crazy issue that comes up (and they always do) can be an opportunity to get people to use this. The usage patterns in politics are very spiky so you need to be ready for immediate scale.

TL:DR; I once built something similar, best of luck! :)

BTW, I took down MailCongress.org because I was getting attention only from right-wing advocacy groups. As a blue-blooded Democrat I couldn't bring myself to do that even if they were willing to pay. It came down over a year ago.

It never ceases to amaze me how often people are against free speech when they don't agree with the speaker.

In political debate, all sides are sometimes guilty of various kinds of bad behavior, but it's usually lefties who have this particular problem. For example:

Think homosexuality is wrong? You're guilty of Hate Speech!

Think affirmative action isn't a good thing? You're guilty of Racism!

Approve of your town's Christmas celebration? You're Intolerant of Other Religions!

Regardless of your politics, name calling and ad hominem attacks like these do not inspire confidence in the strength of their originators' positions.

I'm not saying you're not within your rights to close down your service if you disagree with how it's being used, but it's interesting that your instinctive reaction to a message you don't agree with is to suppress it.

This isn't a free speech issue. By taking down MailCongress I was in no way preventing people from sending mail to their congress person. This is matter of choosing who I was doing business with.

  > it's interesting that your instinctive reaction to a message
  > you don't agree with is to suppress it.
I think you need to explain why not providing a communications tool to someone you disagree with is equivalent to actively suppressing that person's free-speech rights, otherwise we might just assume you're just trying to deliberately turn this discussion into name-calling.

It's interesting how the left are alternately wishy-washy moral relativists, and then neo-fascist adjudicators of public behaviour.

This is valuable information. I'll keep a lot of this at the forefront of my mind as I proceed.

If you want to talk shop feel free to email me. My HN username @ gmail.com

+1, BUT here is what I want to see:

I want an App that lets me join a "ring of awared" and execute an action, leveraging the power of Web 2.0/Social.

Very simple example: recently you had something called SOPA being pushed through. You would go to the App and create a thread "call representative X and tell him you are against SOPA". You put Rep name, phone number, and click "submit the project". Then everyone that feels compelled to participate, joins the "ring". Then simple algorithm puts everyone that joined into a chain: now A is calling rep. Once A finished his call, A press the button "done" and focus is switched to B that is notified via email/inapp notification/ etc that it is his time to call. If he wont do it in 10 minute timeframe, system moves forward to C, D, E ... n.

Sorry, but nowadays I think its the only way to get some traction. If rep staff memorize those $1.99 postcards, they will be simply throwing them without even reading, which is the same as clicking "trash" in your gmail judging just by subject/sender.

If you wont get the ICE/DHS ceasing your domain and servers due to "domestic terrorism", this could go viral and grow big. Perhaps then, overloaded with phonecalls from people that care about their future and future of their children, those in charge would start to care.

Please write more about how you actually fulfill orders. How do you print, send to printer, is part of the process manual, break down cost etc.

Great idea, love it. :)

This is cool, but others with more experience in the field have already figured out how to best deliver messages to congress.

See the "How it works" section: http://heritageaction.com/grow/using-popvox-email-congress/

> Unlike electronic mail, which is both free to send and easy to ignore, receiving a postcard sends its own message. It says to the congressperson, "I feel strongly enough about this to go to the expense of sending an actual card."

No. A postcard will never make it to the congressperson. It will be read by a staffer and most likely tossed unless it expresses support or opposition for a current issue or bill, in which case it will be tallied and then tossed in the garbage.

Hi all - I'm a former Congressional staffer and a co-founder of POPVOX. We built POPVOX precisely because of the ineffectiveness of so many other methods.

Heritage Action is using a POPVOX widget -- any site can do the same. https://www.popvox.com/services/widgets

Yes, organizations that conduct grassroots campaigns are frequently partisan, but POPVOX is absolutely NOT. We are just a platform for getting messages to Congress and providing a transparent record of what Congress is hearing.

We work very closely with Congressional offices to make sure messages go in in the best way possible -- with a 100% delivery guarantee. If for any reason it doesn't go electronically (99.5 % do), we print it out and hand deliver. You can see when you message is delivered on your POPVOX home page.

In July, House Democrats announced that POPVOX info is now feeding directly into their internal staff intranet via APIs. http://www.democraticwhip.gov/content/whip-hoyer-announces-h... We're working to make that a bipartisan, bicameral thing.

Driving traffic to a heavily partisan website and suggesting that people should not write postcards but rather route their messages through this heavily partisan organization to be discarded electronically if the Heritage Foundation does not see fit to censor them - this is not a helpful reply at all.

See above. Heritage is using a POPVOX iFrame widget. They have no control over the messages. It all feeds into the POPVOX system and we deliver the messages to Congress.

If you would like to weigh in on any bill in Congress (or pick up a widget to use on your own site) you can do so on POPVOX: http://popvox.com

Plus, it will take a very long time to get to that staffer. Ever since Congress went through the anthrax scares a decade ago, their snail-mail is highly scrutinized, which slows down delivery.

Maybe postcards get through the process faster than letters? They should be easier to check.

That's why we deliver messages via POPVOX electronically.

Slightly OT but I just wanted to point out that this stands in strong contrast to the "Why I now, unfortunately, hate Hacker News.." post and that's great. Other than that: congrats OP!

This is fantastic. I can imagine small advocacy organizations wanting to use this for their members with a custom issue graphic. For instance, if Amnesty International wanted its members to write on behalf of a prisoner of conscience they could use a photo of that individual on the back of the card.

Otherwise, are you willing to share some of the details about the fulfillment side of things? How did you find a printer? How are they receiving the orders?

Reminds me of something I did back in jan this year. I made a twitter account called SopaSoap and had a huge following.

We were going to allow people to send "SOPA" soap for $8 to their congressman with the tag line "Vote no on SOPA and help keep congress clean".

Then SOPA got tabled. Luckily it was right before I setup the website and place the order with a soap manufacturer I was working with.

Clearly I think this is an excellent idea. Very nicely done Scott! I expect this will have a long an prosperous life.

Thanks Chuck, and thanks against for all your excellent help, ideas, and feedback!!

May I suggest merging the postcard display with the input interface? It was the first thing that drew my intention, and I actually tried to click on it to start typing a message.

Other than that, looks like a pretty neat concept. I like the emerging trend of producing physical output from digital actions.

Great suggestion

This is a great idea!

One thing I'd suggest is to send a random assortment of postcards and don't includ your logo or company info anywhere on it. Ie make it look like it actually came from a citizen.

Otherwise congress people will just think they're form letters and throw them out.

Yea, I need to make that clear because definitely my logo will not be on it. And the postcard frontside is randomly chosen as well - to one of the random background images you see when visiting the site.

Cool project!

Are you printing/writing out the postcards yourself? Or are you automating/outsourcing it?

Yet again: http://CallRep.org

Looks nice! Congratulations on moving forward with your project rather than letting it languish.

Quick feedback: there's a typo in "sign, sealed, delivered"; should be "signed" rather than "sign".

Thanks. Fixed.

Great idea. Can you make it possible to put carriage returns in the message?

I guess the idea with advocacy groups is that they can subsidize the cost of postcards and get a bulk rate?

Yea, I think I should bring back carriage returns.

And yes, that is part of it.

just a comment about the background, though others have been made.

In chrome, at least, the background starts loading in, then goes white, then loads in again. It's a bit odd.

Have you thought of saving the image progressive or interlaced? Don't know what the common knowledge is on this at the moment, but watching an image that big and busy load in slowly from top to bottom takes time away from getting to the actual point of the site.

What's the front of the postcard like? It'd be awesome if I could choose from a few different designs... or even upload my own image!

Great idea!

It will be the same photo as one of the randomized background images. That's something I need to clarify with an adjustment to the design.

Ah, cool! Awesome picks. It still seems silly to need to reload the page a bunch of times to see all the choices. Little thumbnails underneath the blank postcard back would work perfectly, I think. And you could clearly show which one is currently selected (and that it's the same as the background).

i would like to know if this is handwritten or printed? handwritten would be a lot more effective, print looks like spam mail.

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