Meet Professor Emil Pitkin: Statistician & CEO

Can you provide a brief background about yourself and share how/why you decided to pursue your PhD at Wharton?

The three passions that animate me are mathematics, politics, and teaching. I completed my undergraduate degree in mathematics at Harvard, and when it came time to look for graduate degrees, it was a very natural choice to apply here. I had long been inspired by Professor Larry Brown, may his memory be a blessing, a professor of statistics here at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of the towering giants of statistics and was a treasure to the entire discipline. It was my ardent hope that I would be able to apprentice myself to him and to learn from him as several generations of students had done before. I was also drawn to Wharton because in addition to the strong emphasis on research, it prizes the teaching of its graduate students and faculty. Ever since I began my teaching enterprise as a TA for Multivariable Calculus during my sophomore year of college and as a TA for Statistics during my junior and senior years, it was essential that I would attend an institution where both research and teaching are prized.

You referenced Professor Larry Brown. Can you share a few words about his impact on you?

A few months ago, there was a ceremony here at Wharton celebrating Professor Brown’s life. All of the giants of statistics—his contemporaries, his students, his students’ students—were represented. The unanimous praise that was shared was that Professor Brown was a man who was brilliant, who combined intellectual capacity with a deep humility and love for his students, and who did everything in his power to cultivate the sparks of those around him, no matter how slight they may have been. Above all, he was a mensch. That has been an inspiration to me, and is what I try to emulate with my students as well.

With that in mind, what do you enjoy most about your role as a teacher?

One of my deepest pleasures is giving students another window through which they can look at the world. For example, there are different prisms through which you can read the news. You might read it through the lens of history and try to understand how today’s events are contextualized by what has transpired before. You could read it through the lens of persuasion, and ask yourself if the article is attempting to convince you of a particular point of view, and how. However, you can also read it through the lens of statistics, probability, and numeracy. You can ask yourself: “Does the number that’s been presented as evidence to persuade me even matter? When placed in context is there even an argument to be made? When analyzing a company or a market, are the numbers that are presented meaningful? Are they fluff? Are they profound?” This is a window that I think all too few are able to look through, and it’s a window that I hope my teaching enables more people to gaze through.

You are the founder and CEO of a very successful startup, GovPredict. Can you provide a brief overview of the company?

The meta purpose of GovPredict has always been to provide an increased level of transparency and responsiveness in the democratic process, while at the same time giving organizations the necessary technological tools to influence political outcomes. In its original incarnation, I teamed up with an MBA and an undergraduate here from Wharton, and wrote algorithms to predict which bills Congress was going to pass. The thesis was that if an organization or an individual could anticipate legislative activity, they could better respond to this activity, plan for it, and possibly try to influence it. On the one hand, it was the most accurate predictive technological algorithm for legislative outcomes ever written; on the other, it’s even more accurate to make a phone call to the staff director of a committee chairman who will simply tell you which bills are going to move and which bills will not. So we had to evolve. The meta purpose remains the same, but the strategy itself needed to change pretty dramatically. So we built and built, and evolved the product into a coherent platform that helps organizations anticipate political threats, research and plan a response, and then mobilize an effective campaign. Our core offerings are now:

  • A research and intelligence platform that provides our clients advance notice of legislative and regulatory happenings in Congress, across the 50 states, and in thousands of cities, alongside social listening
  • An advocacy platform to activate stakeholders and help them correspond with members of Congress and state legislators, and comment on regulations
  • A ‘Hill Day’ app to manage Capitol Hill fly-ins
  • A suite for campaigns and PACs to do intensive donor research. We have the largest database of political contributions in the world
  • A CRM (customer-relationship management) tool to tie all of this together.

There’s an apt analogy from marketing. The very basic marketing process is lead-generation, campaign automation, all hosted in a CRM. For GovPredict, our ‘lead-generation’ is identifying which members of Congress to approach with what message, what bills to follow, and what bills we should try to influence. The ‘campaign automation’ is activating membership to make political contributions, send letters, and visit Capitol Hill in an attempt to directly influence these legislators. The CRM is the record management whereby the data is enriched, ultimately creating a virtuous cycle.

You mentioned that the Hill Day app manages fly-ins. What is a fly-in?

There are tens of thousands of professional organizations in the United States. Any one of them may have 30 members, 300 members, or 300,000 members. An effective way for these organizations to promote their policies is to invite their membership to visit Washington, D.C. to meet with their elected representatives. This way they can share—from constituent to representative—how their choice of vote, co-sponsorship, or any other legislative activity will influence the folks back home. This event is known as a fly-in, and like any event, it needs to be managed. Better to manage it with good technology than with binders and folders which was the state-of-the-art for a long time.

Can you talk a bit about the hierarchical structure of the company?

We’re a team of about 30 people now with headquarters in Washington, D.C., but we have a presence in several other locations as well. As founder and CEO, I guide the strategy and vision for the company; our CTO’s leadership is indispensable.

Who are your primary clients?

We work with national campaign committees, Fortune 500 companies, some of the largest and most influential trade associations in the United States, congressional campaigns, lobby groups, single issue organizations—really everybody who’s involved in either the shaping of policy or in the process of influencing the shaping of policy.

Did this idea grow out of a passion that you have for politics or was there an external stimulus that motivated you to pursue this endeavor?

My belief is that generally, the more voices that are heard in the marketplace of ideas, the healthier it is for our democratic system. I was born in the Soviet Union under a system that was not free and that repressed the free expression of ideas. My parents and I immigrated here in 1989. We were welcomed with open arms by this great country and by the people of this great country under the democratic system innate to the United States. I think that’s why this belief is so closely held.

Can you discuss what key partnerships you’ve made during the process of starting GovPredict and how these introductions were facilitated?

We have valuable partners, but the one that stands out is with the American Society of Association Executives, a trade group representing executives at trade associations. It is a very well-respected and established organization in Washington, D.C. They use our products and services, and as we’ve built out our product suite, they’ve expanded their usage as well. They’ve been instrumental in introducing us to their membership, many of whom we’ve helped, and have used our software to allow their membership to lobby legislators directly on Capitol Hill through the GovPredict Hill Day app. As our partnership is mutually beneficial, I only see it deepening with time. Regarding our introduction – in Washington, a lot of contacts are made through friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues. This relationship was no different.

How did you secure your original funding?

The investment that helped us get off the ground came from Y Combinator (YC) a startup accelerator in Silicon Valley. After that, we received funding from institutional and angel investors that came through relationships we’d built within the investor community.

How much did it cost, all told, to get this idea up and running?

Less than it’s making us!

Many aspiring Wharton entrepreneurs who read your story may be evaluating different cost-minimizing mechanisms or tools in their own startup pursuits. Do you have any advice for them?

We’ve kept our costs low by not setting up shop in San Francisco! We hire the best people that we can find, regardless of geography. Hiring and maintaining remote teams has paid dividends for us, but isn’t the right choice for everybody. The geographies where you look for talent can be a very savvy way of keeping costs reasonable.

Are there any particular habits or mindsets that you believe have aided you in your success?

I live by the Bill Belichick mantra of “Do Your Job.” I think that this is true of every successful organization, even if it’s not their explicit mantra. At GovPredict, everybody has a responsibility in a finely-tuned watch mechanism and successful execution of those responsibilities is the sine qua non of our organization. Everybody’s success truly depends on everybody else’s success. This is apart from the culture that we build of mutual respect and mutual helpfulness that are essential for a positive working experience. But as far as strict execution – do your job.

It’s very unusual to start a company and not experience any adversity or hiccups along the way. What are some noteworthy challenges you’ve faced throughout this process, and how did you manage the task of overcoming them?

The most overt challenge was trying to make a business out of predicting which bills Congress was going to pass. The takeaway was that rather than trying to foist the next big idea onto the market, I should be sensitively attuned to market reactions. I crazily treated many “noes” as affirmation of an important vision the world wasn’t yet ready for rather than internalizing that this wasn’t an idea that was valuable to people. The YC mantra is “make something people want,” and I wish that I had been attuned to market signals much sooner when the market was yelling at me. That was the most fundamental learning.

Would you do anything differently if you could start over?

I don’t mean to revert to the same idea, but I wish that with more humility I would have reacted faster and smarter to market signals.

Was there anything that went unexpectedly well along the way?

I’m thinking of Malcom Gladwell’s idea of the “tipping point.” The tipping point between virtual anonymity and very wide recognition has something to do with the market in Washington, D.C., which is very closely knit. There were a few years where we were hustling day in and day out, fighting for meetings, and were virtually anonymous. Then, just a few months ago, it feels as if there was a tipping point and now everybody in town knows who we are. This rapid change has been both very pleasant and very unexpected.

How do you see GovPredict evolving? What is the ultimate goal?

Our ultimate goal is that the time comes where every piece of public policy—all of the laws and regulations that are promulgated—will have been shaped in some way by information flowing through the GovPredict platform. I’d like to see every organization that has an interest in shaping public policy running their campaigns through GovPredict as an indispensable part of the process. In so doing, we will help amplify and coalesce the voices of their membership, which range all along the political spectrum and across the gamut of political issues.

Is it, therefore, fair to say that GovPredict is (political) party agnostic?

Yes. It is both party and issue agnostic. We have major clients from both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Likewise, within the trade association and corporate world, we have a whole palette of issues that are represented amongst our clients.

Do you have any advice for current students who are endeavoring to start companies of their own?

The school of life is a strict but good teacher. My best advice is that if you are thinking of starting a company, you should start a company. Trying to build a product and bring it to market is better than waiting six months thinking of the ideal name, brand, and “testing the waters” in anticipation of one day launching something. There will be no better lessons than from the actual doing.

If you could travel back to the start of this journey and have a one-on-one conversation with your former self to communicate the lessons you’ve acquired and save future heartache, what would you say?

I would quote David Ben-Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel) who said: “If an expert tells you that it can’t be done, find another expert.”

 

 

About Jonathan Teitelbaum, WG'20

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