Meet PolicyMogul, the startup that wants to open up lobbying to SMEs
We talk to PolicyMogul founder Elliot Robinson about how his company is helping SMEs stay ahead of the game when it comes to government decisions.
For many entrepreneurs, “the government” is something that is best avoided as much as possible – a nebulous force that wants to take away your profits (in the form of taxes) and get in the way of you doing business.
This has admittedly changed a little in the pandemic, with initiatives like the furlough scheme meaning SMEs and startups have been forced to rely on government intervention to survive one of the worst economic crises in the UK’s history.
However, for many, this was a needs-must temporary measure. Generally, the goal is to keep government engagement to a minimum.
Unsurprisingly, Elliot Robinson, the founder and CEO of parliamentary information platform PolicyMogul, sees things rather differently. In his view, “it’s never been more vital for those at the helm of a business to understand government and policy-making activity.”
If you’ve never heard of parliamentary information before, the basic idea is that you can stay up to date on what the government is doing, the regulations it’s considering, and the areas it’s looking into. This means you can not only be aware of what’s coming, but can even get a chance to influence the government’s thinking – by contributing when it calls for evidence on an area that affects your business, for example.
The big companies know this already. Indeed, they spend large sums on monitoring services that let them know what the government is doing and how it could affect their business. And they pay consultants whopping fees so that their voice is heard as loudly as possible – in other words, lobbying.
All this is a far cry from the stretched finances and thin margins of many SMEs – and this is where PolicyMogul comes in.
Political monitoring for small businesses
Robinson points out that “the current political monitoring services don’t cater for small companies and charities who need to know what’s going on, but simply can’t afford to spend the thousands of pounds a year to do so.”
And so he set out to build a flexible, powerful solution to this problem: a customisable platform that lets users set search terms to establish what’s important to them, and then alerts them to relevant governmental or political developments. And all this is free for small businesses, with paid plans available at a fraction of the cost of previous services.
If all that sounds a bit abstract, this example search for ‘startup', ‘technology', and ‘SME' gives a much better idea of how it all works. The search results include a funding boost for the ‘digital revolution', the Scottish government's plans to invest in key sectors, and a story about a virtual trade mission to Taiwan.
And then there’s the looming spectre of Brexit, whose myriad complexities mean it’s never been more important to keep up with government developments. As Robinson puts it:
“Britain’s exit from the EU has resulted in thousands of changes to our laws. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the daily flow of regulations coming out of Westminster. The vast majority of these changes go unnoticed, but PolicyMogul uses algorithms to ensure that users don’t miss vital information relating to their interests.”
As an example of how PolicyMogul can help SMEs, he discusses a recent signup, a small agricultural business in the north of England that trades with Northern Ireland:
“Until now, they have been in the dark about the mass of announcements and regulations that have a bearing on their business.
“Using PolicyMogul, they can keep themselves up to date with a raft of information. Recently, this included a major debate on trade over the Northern Ireland border, the UK government’s response to a report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, government statements on export costs across the border, on ports infrastructure, and on support for exporters affected by COVID-19.
“They were able to prepare for the final Lords debate on the Agriculture Bill, progress updates on the future relationship with the EU, a debate on the UK’s to the EU negotiations, and oral questions on Northern Ireland in the Commons.
“It’s a fast-moving environment, and we put it all at their fingertips.”
That is, as Robinson admits, “a lot to take in for a small business.”
But, he argues, “unless you are capable of understanding the broad thrust of developments, how can you be ready or expect to benefit from changes?”
Beyond simply being aware of what’s going on, Robinson suggests PolicyMogul can also help SMEs to get involved in the decision making process. Small businesses could, for example, join up with other SMEs to give evidence to a select committee, or make representations to their local MP. They could also get in touch with their industry’s trade association to find out what they are doing to influence matters.
The family business
It’s clear that Robinson really cares about this stuff – he has an almost evangelistic zeal for getting businesses informed about government decision making, viewing it as a crucial part of the democratic process.
It’s a mysterious passion, unless you know his background – for him, parliamentary monitoring is the family business.
His grandfather essentially created the industry in the 1960s, days when parliamentary monitoring meant “sitting in the Parliamentary Press Gallery listening to debates and phoning in urgent news, or writing up reports which would be mailed to clients.” And expectations were a bit different: “Two or three days later, those clients would receive the updates and wonder how they’d managed to get the news so fast!”
The tradition continued with his father, who took over ParliamentToday (the UK’s original political monitoring service) in the 1980s and still runs it today. As soon as he took control, Robinson father recognised that the future was online, and ensured that it was the first business in the industry to have a web presence.
So, as Robinson sees it, he’s merely taking the work of his grandfather and father to the next level:
“With each generation, we’re striving to make parliamentary and political information more accessible. Our vision is a level playing field, where it’s not just those with deep pockets who can make sense of the policy landscape and have their voices heard.”
From startup employee to startup entrepreneur
However, Robinson didn’t go straight into the family business. Before starting PolicyMogul, he cut his teeth at a successful startup, where he learnt a lot about building and scaling a software company, and the importance of being customer-centric.
“When I left university, I joined a small startup called Zendesk as the third employee in Europe. They make software to help companies support their customers online and, being fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian, I joined to help them grow the business within Europe. In five years, we were a multi-billion dollar public company, with thousands of employees and some of the world’s top brand names as customers.”
Having been an integral part of the growth of Zendesk, Robinson was encouraged to do something he’d always wanted to do: start his own business.
“I’d always wanted to start my own business. With the knowledge and contacts I built up at Zendesk, along with some other companies I’d been advising, I started to think about gaps in the market and problems that needed to be solved.”
But, as with any business, starting up wasn’t without its challenges:
“We started in 2018 with a clear mission to support a fairer and more open democracy, in which companies and people can thrive. Yet our first iteration was a more literal response to that, where we created a platform for organisations across any sector – but with shared goals – to collaborate and share their collective wisdom and voice, in order to shape the policy agenda.
“We still have that in mind, but what our early product releases taught us was the market is not yet ready for that. Hence, following feedback from hundreds of customers, we have emerged with a simpler, more streamlined product, and we have immediately seen a far larger number of registrations in the first few weeks than we saw in the first two years. It’s a key lesson for every startup: listen to your customers, especially those with new and interesting needs, such as small businesses.”
The future for PolicyMogul
It’s still early days for PolicyMogul, but Robinson tells us he has some exciting plans in the pipeline.
“We’re constantly improving tools such as filters, so our users receive more relevant alerts. We'll continue to improve with feedback, implementing more sophisticated methods – such as machine learning – to help our users get what they need.
“We're soon going to launch a new set of social media tools, to bolster the political and parliamentary information. This is for users who need to go beyond the legislative and policy materials and understand the public discourse around it. We have very exciting plans for that material in future.
“And we originally designed PolicyMogul to help organisations with shared goals to align their interests and achieve greater public affairs impact. That’s still our ambition. Once we've empowered our users with information, intelligence and insight, we’ll help them achieve unprecedented impact.”
Ultimately, it all comes down to one thing:
“We will always go back to our mission: to help create a more open, fair democracy, in which businesses can thrive. Small businesses are the lifeblood of the modern economy, and we want to help them stay in control by equipping them more effectively to play a role in shaping the future of the country and the economy.
“The way the pandemic has shaped the government’s involvement in the economy, we are confident there is an army of small and growth business owners out there who will welcome the chance to influence policy.”
We couldn't agree more. Small businesses have never needed a startup like PolicyMogul more.