No matter how engaged you are, no matter how many articles you read or names you search, it’s hard to enter a voting booth with all the information you need to make an informed decision. This was the problem Alex Niemczewski faced when she went to vote in the 2014 midterms. Despite knowing who she supported at the top of the ballot, there were other downballot races where she knew neither the candidates nor the purpose of the positions they were running for. After realizing that she wasn’t the only person who faced this problem, Alex created BallotReady, an online voter guide that gives users everything they need to make informed choices in races both big and small, where she now serves as CEO. In a year where it’s arguably more important than ever to not just vote, but know who and what you’re voting for, BallotReady’s mission has taken on a whole new significance.
I spoke with Alex about coding, her relationships with her co-founders, and what being CEO has taught her about effective leadership.
SOPHIE HAYSSEN: I think it’s really cool that because you had some coding background you were able to actually code the first iteration of BallotReady yourself. How has having a CS background empowered your creativity and innovation?
ALEX NIEMCZEWSKI: I did not have a computer science degree. I went to a coding bootcamp, so I didn’t have a lot of experience at the time. When I made the site for myself, I was extremely happy and proud, but it was also super ugly. I felt like it was a little thing that I had made that I was proud of. It was my thing, not ready for prime time.
What got you interested in coding in the first place?
I wanted to better understand how it worked, and I wanted the ability to make a thing that I wanted to exist. Right before I took this coding bootcamp, I was working at a nonprofit that helped people who were low income or homeless or in prison find living wage jobs, and having coding skills put people very in demand. So I kind of wanted to learn about it from the perspective of ‘what does the workforce in the 21st century look like? Coding is so important to the way we do things now. So it just came from a place of pure curiosity but also the desire to make things myself.
There have been other sites that have served similar functions to yours. What do you think BallotReady does differently?
We show you what’s on your whole ballot, so we go further down than anybody else. We make it easy to see background information about the candidates. There are other sites that do this for higher-level candidates. One thing we know is that a lot of times when people go to vote in the presidential election, they think there are only gonna be two candidates on their ballot—the Republican nominee and the Democratic nominee. On my ballot, there were over 100 candidates because I think there were 93 races on my ballot. The gap in information is at the local level, but at the same time, there’s so much power there. Not only do local elected officials later run for higher-level offices, but often federal level policy has come from local level policy that has been tried and tested at that local level before it has gotten to the federal level. Local politics is also a way for people to really see their engagement matter. Since the districts are smaller, they’re often won by a smaller number of votes. So BallotReady goes down the ballot because we know how much the local matters.
Also, the user experience is just designed for the voter. It’s mobile first because in many places, you can take your phone into the voting booth and research all your candidates on BallotReady, but also we know that people are on their phones more than they’re on their desktop–especially young people. It’s designed for that.
In the past you’ve spoken about the connection you have with your co-founders. What do you think it is about your co-founders that makes you work together so well?
It’s a really nice relationship because some days are stressful, but I feel like I can always talk to my co-founders. No matter how down or frustrated or anxious I am, it makes me feel better to talk to them, which is a really wonderful thing to have. We are very open with our emotions, and we’re also very open with each other. We have a practice of not withholding any negative feedback from each other, which makes it feel like we can be honest and vulnerable. I also think it’s very lucky that my cofounder Aviva loves making financial models, and for me, sitting at a Excel sheet–I do not want to do that for hours, but I like fundraising and talking to investors. That’s not really a thing that I knew about myself before starting BallotReady, but so far, our skill sets have worked very cohesively together.
One of your co-founders is your friend from college. How do you feel like that friendship has grown or evolved since becoming business partners?
We lived in the same dorm. I knew her well but we never hung out one-on-one. We had similar social circles but we weren’t BFFs or anything. I thought of her as weird and competent, which are two traits I love. So between college and when we started BallotReady, we had maybe talked twice. I know we talked once because she said, “Hey, I’m maybe running for a local office. Will you vote for me?”, and I was like, “I didn’t know there was an election.” When I started talking to her about BallotReady, I was like, “Hey, I find this useful. I want to see if something like this exists, and I want to talk to someone about it.” She said, “This is cool,” and we would just hang out and talk about it. We went to this gym together. There was a pool at the gym, and we went swimming once a week. It got to a point where we were so excited about what is now BallotReady that we only did kickboards so we could talk the whole time. Now, even at the end of the workday, when we’re walking home, we’ll call each other. We talk to each other all the time. We share an office, but even at the end of the day, we’ll call each other.
You started working on this site before 2016, when Americans started consuming politics with a new voraciousness. What has it been like for your company’s growth to coincide with such a politically charged time?
There was a point before 2016 where we were like, “Are voters gonna care about local stuff? People say they care, but are they really going to care enough to come to our site and use this information?” I think voters are looking for ways to engage on a local level, and it’s really exciting to be able to provide that to them. Before 2016, we were just working amongst ourselves and working really hard to do all this research. Then it was like, “Whoa, all these people want this.” It’s exciting to be there when people are so excited to be more engaged in local politics.
As CEO of BallotReady, you’re obviously in a leadership position. What has working at BallotReady taught you about being an effective leader?
I used to procrastinate and that is a thing you can’t really do as a CEO if you expect your staff to not procrastinate. As a leader, one of the best ways to teach people is to model, and I saw how impactful–in a bad way–my procrastinating was. At first I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to get better at it, and it sucked. My co-founder called me out on it, and I worked on it a lot. I don’t exactly know how to explain it, but now I don’t procrastinate. I think it’s a mix of the pressure of being CEO, being open with myself that this is the flaw that is impacting things, and having my co-founder be open and honest with me.
But then there’s another thing where, as CEO, I struggled with what I should be doing and what I’m really good at. Given that I had never done any of this before, I was like, maybe I’m not good at anything, but I now feel very good at talking to investors and sales. At the beginning, both of those were totally new to me, and in the first few months, I didn’t know if I was the right person for this. Once I got a feel for it, though, I recognized that I get a lot energy out of doing those things, which is great because those things are super important for our company. I feel like being a leader forces you to learn about yourself in a way that is sometimes fun but is often about acknowledging painful truths. ♦