Edward Saatchi would not call himself an accidental entrepreneur. But when he, Aharon Wasserman, and Justin Lewis were volunteers on the Obama campaign in summer 2008, the British national who holds degrees in literature and in economics became just that.
Together, the three had come up with a software program that solved a very specific problem: how to track the efforts of local volunteers going house-to-house or making phone calls, all in real time.
Saatchi thought it would end there. That is, until he got a call from Jeremy Bird, another field director for the campaign. "We thought we built a social network just for us, and he was the one who said, 'Come out to Ohio; let's make it work here.'"
And it did. Soon the entire campaign was hooked into a private, social network that looked a lot like Facebook, albeit with a built-in graph that sorts members according to their place in the working hierarchy. In other words, managers got a view of their direct reports while worker bees could only see what their peers were up to.
The platform also featured a nifty function that marked successes and challenges. Like watching a SWOT analysis evolve in real time, everyone would report what tactics worked and when they had a problem. These "ups," "downs," and "solutions," were not, however, completely broadcast to the entire network.
"That would be chaotic," admits Saatchi, "but people at the bottom of the organization feel like they are being listened to, so people become incredibly honest without the worry of 'I don't want to be held accountable.'" Saatchi maintains that people do want to be held accountable, and consider it a sign of respect for work.
That functionality is what gave the newly hatched NationalField legs beyond the election. In a scenario any entrepreneur would kill for, the less-than-one-year old NationalField started attracting funding and new clients. And why not? Its Facebook-like interface was familiar to many and it already had a loyal base of thousands of users. In short order, Fortune 500 companies such as Kaiser Permanente and the U.K. National Health Service were clamoring to connect. As the latter organization counts over one million employees, NationalField quickly became the largest private social network in the world. Just don't call it Facebook. Saatchi likens it to "Yammer with metrics."
Comparisons notwithstanding, last year NationalField raised $1.2 million in angel funding and counts Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes and Jabe Blumenthal, creator of the original Microsoft Excel program, among its advisors.
A Born Storyteller
It’s been a wild ride for Saatchi, who is emerging as the face of NationalField. The 27-year-old laughs when asked how he feels about being called the "British Mark Zuckerberg," but he's as dedicated as the Facebook founder to building his own network. Saatchi continues to put in 18-hour days and lives out of a suitcase as he travels between offices in San Francisco, London, and NationalField’s base in Washington, D.C.
He admits his background (son of novelist Josephine Hart and advertising magnate Maurice Saatchi) and education (studying literature at Oxford, philosophy and economics at the Sorbonne) have helped.
"I think it comes down to vocabulary when you are selling something to someone," says Saatchi. "If you are reading stories, that is something you are going to do." But he says a core lesson came from the Obama campaign itself. "Obama is the guru of community organization, so we had hours of training on how to tell the story of yourself and the community." When it was Saatchi’s turn to organize volunteers, he understood how valuable storytelling could be when applied to business. (Cue: the sound of cheers from parents of liberal arts majors everywhere.)
The Power of Three
Saatchi also admits he doesn’t share the expertise his cofounders have in the tech realm, so marketing naturally became his responsibility. It’s also proof that another lesson learned from the campaign really works.
"We divide our responsibilities but the team has to be equal," he explains. "Three is perfect because essentially the power dynamics can shift over time and any one of us can step up or down at different times."
It also helps that the three are friends. So close, in fact, that they live together. "It becomes like a marriage," says Saatchi noting that they have a rule not to talk about work at home, yet their desks have invaded the living room. Still, he doesn’t believe he’ll burn out, but admits to taking mental vacations at the movies.
Leading By Example
Such dedication helped even before Saatchi hit the campaign trail. Though NationalField’s launch and successful rise occurred at light speed, Saatchi’s road was fraught with setbacks. Though he confesses he is Obama-obsessed, all the passion in the world couldn’t open doors when he showed up in Iowa to volunteer. No one wanted a foreigner, no matter how eloquent, drumming up support for the campaign.
Saatchi says sheer determination helped him turn the tables. That and his father’s advice, which gave him the fortitude to persevere in the face of rejection.
Is that what it takes to be a leader? Saatchi again defers to Obama. "What we saw was a community organizer and that is how I identify myself," he explains. It doesn’t mean you can’t lead, he adds, but rather than grab the spotlight, that type of leader leans towards motivating others.
Setting NationalField Apart
It’s a philosophy Saatchi says he and his cofounders bring to the companies that work with NationalField. "Our job is to empower people and give them an environment that sets them up to be successful."
Saatchi is convinced that organizations are much more effective when people are encouraged to be honest with each other and themselves as they can with NationalField. He also thinks that the platform’s ups, downs, and challenges function can eliminate the dreaded performance reviews that come annually at most companies. "People hate them and are actually less productive after the evaluation," he says.
With a workforce quickly being dominated by a generation "obsessed with getting feedback because we are so used to sharing everything in our personal lives," adding gripes and pats on the back as easy as clicking "like" ensures transparency and accountability. "It aligns your interest with the organization and makes you happy," Saatchi asserts.
NationalField’s "reviews" are out there on a daily basis. "We believe that will change the workplace," says Saatchi.
[Image: Flickr user Muhammad Mahdi Karim]