August 25, 2013

With New Project, Ben Saren's Influence Grows

In his eighteen years in the tech/innovation sector, Ben Saren has been involved in many influential companies.

Saren’s self-described “eclectic and dynamic” entrepreneurial career started at which eventually became Prospero Technologies. He then founded Atomic Enterprises, an IT and new media consulting firm. Next, Saren co-founded the hyper-local-search startup CitySquares, which later received funding from angel investors including Mark Cuban and Jonathan Kraft (CitySquares was eventually acquired in 2010 by Backyard).  After working as the VP of Marketing for Litle & Co. (acquired by Vantiv), Saren started SureShot Labs, which is described as a “strategic marketing technology solutions firm/innovation lab.” He is a prolific blogger and even pops up from time to time on WGBH’s Innovation Hub Gadget Review.

However, Saren’s latest project, Influential, could make an impact far beyond the IT, tech, and marketing sector.

Influential is going to disrupt how American politics function (more specifically, to fix the current system that doesn’t seem to be working well). Saren wants to use the massive amount of poll data and different methods of influence to hold politicians, who vote on legislation completely at odds with the majority opinions of their constituents, accountable for their behavior.

As Saren explained in a recent sit down, “All along, I have sort of been inspired/frustrated by what’s happening in the democratic process in the country right now. It’s clear we have a serious problem in Congress.”

“Right after the Newtown shooting,” he continued, “everyone was up in arms about gun legislation. The whole country was pissed off, and even the most conservative polls showed that 80% of the population wanted common-sense gun control.” Saren described common sense gun control as encompassing an assault weapons ban, magazine capacity limits, and universal background checks.

“Nothing got done,” Saren said emphatically. “Nothing is happening and yet people are still very angry,” he added. “Really at the end of the day, looking at that particular issue, the elected officials didn’t represent the true interest of their people. Even in the 'red states', the typical NRA member/gun owner favored SOME change. And yet, the elected officials did not represent the interests of the people.”

“Nothing got done,” Saren reiterated.

“How can the electorate/voters get more informed?” he asked. Saren sees many problems that need to be elucidated. For one, he points to the fact that, “You often hear about people voting against their own interests.”

Why is this happening? Why does someone who may be on a government assistance program vote with some ideological party-line, against government assistance programs? These are some of the questions Saren and his small team of “Influencers” are trying to solve.

Saren has a hypothesis that Influential can truly affect change in politics. As they prepare to launch later this fall (they are aiming for October), Influential is looking for new ways to leverage social media to impact politicians voting decisions. “We’ve got to make it easier for voters to engage their elected officials,” Saren said.

“We’ve been collecting a lot of data,” he explained, “data from the Library of Congress, data from Open Secrets. Tons of these sites are giving their data away.” Saren added, “It’s the beauty of the open government movement.”

Influential aims to bring the available data to the forefront of the political discussion.

“How do we take this data and start to tell stories; to tell stories based on the data we are seeing?” he said.

As an example, Saren shared some truly mind-blowing numbers on the success rate of bills presented in Congress. “96% of the bills that get presented drop to the floor, only 4% actually make it into committee,” he said. “That’s a tremendous amount of waste.”

“What are some of these bills? There is a bill that is in committee right now, sponsored by a democrat from New York that proposes that we eliminate presidential term limits. Why? Why are we wasting our time with this when we have actual serious issues?” Saren wondered.

“How is that helpful, why is that a priority for this guy? And shouldn’t his constituents know about that?”

Saren relayed some information he received through a White House connection. He told me that all special interest groups have a form letter that gets submitted to senators and congressmen. They have something similar on Twitter, with Facebook, and with email. And yet, Saren’s contact told him that all of these get ignored. What actually gets a politicians attention these days? A written letter from a constituent.

“So a strategy we are looking at is trying to figure out things like the best way to communicate with an elected official, and how do we leverage social media to do so,” Saren explained.

Influential is a massive work in progress and their were a many aspects of the project that Saren was keeping under wraps.

In our discussion, two things became very clear about Ben Saren and Influential. One, this is a passion project for someone who has a very successful entrepreneurial track record. Two, Influential is an immensely disruptive project that could make an impact in a way few startups/entrepreneurs could even imagine.

I, for one, can't wait for Influential’s launch later this fall but, in the meantime, check out the company's blog.

Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz.  You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.