Tech startup process a model for political trail
The Blue Lab is buzzing with the familiar energy of yet another local startup convinced it is on to the next great thing. Workers, many in their 20s, hover over laptops and cellphones, checking off completed tasks on the obligatory whiteboard. They sometimes fan out from their shared table to take over a nearby couch. The dress code, like the atmosphere, is not formal — even the boss sometimes wears jeans.
The scene may seem like something out of Cambridge’s Kendall Square, where innovation is as common as a lunch break, but the Blue Lab in Boston’s Liberty Square is not about designing apps or websites. It launches political campaigns — on a budget and for a fee.
The company aims to cut the cost and inefficiency of building individual campaigns from scratch by offering candidates shared space and resources — much like a tech incubator.
The 10-month-old business was started by Democratic operative Scott Ferson, once Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s press secretary, and Sean Sinclair, a former campaign manager for US Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Ferson and Sinclair call it a “political incubator,” and their goal is to shake up the business of campaigning by bundling services at discounted prices. For now, it is operating out of the offices of Ferson’s communications firm, Liberty Square Group. Technically, just one room is called the Blue Lab, but in reality the service has taken over most of the rest of the space.
Given the company’s name and its founders’ backgrounds, it is no shocker that the Blue Lab is focused exclusively on Democrats seeking office in “blue” states.
“Mobile, Ala., is not in our future,” Ferson deadpanned.
The idea arose in part from an effort to raise the statewide profile of Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem in fall 2012. Ferson and Sinclair wanted to produce a video of the city’s Halloween festivities to show off Driscoll’s managerial prowess. They decided the $5,000 price and hassle were greater than they should be in the era of YouTube and iPhones, and figured they could come up with something better.
“Campaigns are run the way they were 100 years ago,” said Ferson, “and at some point that was going to have to change.”
Before launching the Blue Lab, Ferson worked as a communications consultant to Democrats in statewide and congressional races, charging them $5,000 to $10,000 a month. Sinclair billed at a similar rate for his general political consulting work. Under the Blue Lab model, that amount of money buys the services of both men, and more.
A retainer also includes high-end design work for campaign materials such as brochures, basic video production, and access to a dozen interns — college students — who often help by researching issues. Candidates who do not have their own headquarters can use the Liberty Square office as a place to hold meetings or make fund-raising calls. The approach allows the cost of overhead, such as office space and computers, to be spread across multiple campaigns.
Additional services, such as polling and fund-raising, are billed a la carte — roughly $5,000 to $20,000 for a poll and 10 percent of a fund-raising haul.
“It’s more profitable,” Ferson said of the new campaign model. “It’s volume.”
Blue Lab is currently working with three Massachusetts candidates, including Seth Moulton, who is challenging Representative John Tierney in one of the country’s most closely watched Democratic congressional primaries, and James Arena-DeRosa of Holliston, a former Department of Agriculture official who is running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor.
“Sometimes this place is like a beehive,” said Arena-DeRosa, who hired Blue Lab recently. “Sometimes you can’t actually find a place to sit.”
Arena-DeRosa, a first-time candidate for political office, said the company’s interns are an inspiration.
“Being around their energy and seeing their commitment to social-justice issues gives me hope that there are so many young people that still care,” he said.
Peter Ubertaccio, an associate professor of political science at Stonehill College in Easton, oversees the Blue Lab interns in exchange for a monthly stipend. The concept, he said, is overdue on the American political scene.
“I was a little bit surprised that campaigns and consulting firms were not already doing this,” he said.
But Ubertaccio said he also realizes the business of campaigning is, in many ways, still steeped in tradition that harkens to the days of smoke-filled rooms and handshake deals.
“There’s just a history of doing it in a certain way with people who have great experience doing it that way,” he said.
If the Blue Lab grows as planned, it may one day depart from Liberty Square Group’s offices in favor of a coworking space, where several companies operate under one roof.
Stas Gayshan, founder of Space with a Soul, a Boston incubator that provides nonprofits and small businesses with shared space and access to professional services, said the Blue Lab is an effort to answer this question: “How do you get the expertise you need at the price you can afford?”
Its idea of consolidating services and space “is pretty irresistible,” he said.
Indeed, Ferson and Sinclair are talking about setting up a campaign incubator in New Jersey, where they have a partner. From there, Ferson said, they have their sights set on the rest of the country’s Democratic landscape.
“We see this as the wave of the future,” he said.
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