Matt Mahan launched a startup called Brigade in 2014 with the aim of encouraging young, smartphone-obsessed Americans to turn out for elections. Backed by high-profile investors including Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Mahan hired scores of software engineers and political veterans. Their job was to build an app in which users could take political stances and debate friends about issues like climate change.
But Brigade shut down last year, after struggling to translate its vision into sustained political organizing. Mahan’s next project was his own campaign for a city council seat in San Jose, Calif., which he won in March. From that effort, he said, he discovered firsthand why Brigade didn’t work. “The most meaningful civic engagement is face-to-face and local,” he said, rather than what happens in an app. “I learned this the hard way running for office. I spent nine months in neighborhoods knocking on doors. It works, but it’s incredibly inefficient.”