When Alex Wirth was a freshman at Harvard, he became smitten with the idea of creating a presidential youth council to give young people a direct say in government. So, when summer came, the then-18-year-old did what any preternaturally political college student would: He went to Washington to make it happen.
Wirth asked the White House for an executive action, but he spent most of his summer trudging around the Hill, seeking allies for his idea the old-fashioned way: via moderately educated guesswork and contacts. (Wirth is the great-nephew of former Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado and the son of a state senator from New Mexico; he also was a Senate page in high school.) It was, to say the least, a disheartening experience—”this wild goose chase across Capitol Hill,” he recalls now. When he was able to talk to lawmakers at all, most told him they didn’t have time for him, or promised to think about his resolution and then never called back. He left incredulous and frustrated with Washington in a way that only a digital native could be. Was this laborious, inefficient, unscientific process really how lobbying worked?
Back at school, Wirth vented to his roommate, a computer-science type named Jonathan Marks, with whom he had bonded on a freshman-orientation backpacking trip. Marks, who had no experience with Washington, was even more appalled than Wirth. “The more I learned about the way Alex’s world worked, it was inconceivable to me,” Marks tells me. Wirth continued his campaign, unsuccessfully, from Cambridge. Then, during their junior year, he and Marks hit upon an idea. At the time, Marks was working in a biochemistry lab, where he mapped how proteins interact in the body. What if he could chart lawmakers’ actions in much the same way? “Though proteins and people are different things, math doesn’t really care,” Marks says. He thought he could get a computer to identify ideal legislative allies—exactly what Wirth had spent a summer trying to do by dint of shoe-leather and moxie.
That idea became Quorum, a data-analytics program that, today, four months after its launch, is already drawing a surprising level of interest from Washington insiders. Among those paying Quorum’s $4,800-per-user annual subscription price are the Club for Growth, the Podesta Group, the law firm Holland & Knight, the Glover Park Group, the United Nations Foundation’s Better World Campaign, four congressional offices, and four Fortune 100 companies—one of which is General Motors. (Though Wirth is a self-described Democrat, he’s selling his product to all comers.) Wirth and Marks won’t disclose their revenue, but they say that the business is already profitable; they haven’t raised any venture capital and haven’t needed it.
So what did two college kids in a dorm room far outside the Beltway envision that insiders couldn’t? Quorum’s key feature is its ability to map relationships between members of Congress. Pull up any lawmaker, and you see what looks like a dandelion gone to seed: a ball of silver lines with red or blue points on their tips, which represent Republicans and Democrats with whom that person has cosponsored a bill. But Wirth and Marks are constantly adding new capabilities. All year, Wirth has been making trips to Washington to ask clients and prospective buyers what features they would use; he takes the suggestions to Marks and asks what it’s possible to build. The results have included district-by-district demographic data and a search engine that can pull up every floor statement, press release, or tweet from a lawmaker on a particular topic.
Was this laborious, inefficient, unscientific process really how lobbying worked?
Not every swing connects. “I think it’s clear in how they’ve designed it that they’re not from the Hill,” says one congressional staffer whose office is still testing Quorum. For example, “there were some factors” the software uses to rate members of Congress that “we don’t think are particularly important.” But the Quorum team’s youth and chutzpah are for the most part serving them well: When I asked clients whether they felt strange doing business with college students, they told me that, if anything, it gave the duo more credibility. “It’s a matter of being able to crunch the data, being able to move the data,” says Chris Cushing, a lobbyist at the firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. “As a 52-year-old, I’m not on the cutting edge.”
This month, the roommates are graduating and relocating to D.C. full time. In Wirth’s case, that’s no surprise. At Harvard, he went on to study government and economics, and since his freshman year, he has been a White House intern and the chair of a “youth working group” at the U.S. National Commission for the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Wirth’s still-smooth face must get him carded in restaurants, but his manner at 21 is as polished as any midcareer operator’s. (He and other students on the Quorum team “have done debate, Youth and Government, Model U.N.,” he says, and are “comfortable in very big rooms with lots of important people.”) Marks’s arrival in Washington was somewhat less predictable: Before Wirth introduced him to politics, Marks, 22, who studied chemical and physical biology as well as computer science at Harvard, had always planned to go into the “biomedical space,” he says. “But, for now, I’ve become very interested in the problems faced by this particular market.”
When they arrive, their game plan will be to differentiate Quorum from other influence-industry players, such as Bloomberg and CQ Roll Call, by promising to save their users as much time and hassle as possible. Marks’s latest addition, for instance, compares two versions of a bill and identifies every difference in wording—a task that, until now, Hill staffers and lobbyists did the analog way, comparing large documents line by line, with highlighter in hand. Likewise, many advocacy groups have long sunk huge amounts of time into creating legislative “scorecards,” which rank members’ performances on particular issues. The group First Focus Campaign for Children “used to spend a week and a half with three members of their staff” to make scorecards once a year, Marks says. With Quorum, the process “takes an hour, and they do it once a week.” Stories like that still leave Marks flabbergasted: “It’s stuff a computer can do! Saving people from that tremendous amount of time is what the information-technology revolution of the last 40 years is all about.”
Yet apparently, before Quorum, no one in Washington had noticed that the future had arrived. Perhaps that’s because, as Holland & Knight lobbyist and former lawmaker Gerry Sikorski observes, old hands had “jerry-rigged” their own approaches to finding information and no longer noticed Capitol Hill’s inefficiencies. “I still will reach for the congressional directory that I have in my car,” says Sikorski, who recently started using Quorum. “I have the apps on my iPhone, but we’re captive to our own ways of doing things.” Wirth and Marks, on the other hand, had the time, optimism, and lack of familiarity with D.C. to consider a new approach. As one client puts it, “These are just really, really smart young guys who came up with an idea and don’t know well enough not to do it.”