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Tue May 28, 2013
The Tale Of A Startup - One That "Traks" Legislation
More than six thousand bills are before the Illinois General Assembly this spring session. Legislators have until Friday to get through them.
And with some of the biggest policy issues facing the state still outstanding, measures will move, change and die rapidly. Amanda Vinicky spoke with a recent University of Illinois Urbana Champaign graduate has founded a company that aims to make it easier to follow what's happening at the capitol.
Like so many endeavors, this one started small.
A friend was interning for a lobbyist in Springfield who wanted a better way to track legislation.
"I thought at first we'd just develop this product for him, ship it out and we'd be done."
That was back in the spring of 2011. Now, this is how the thin, eager, suited U of I grad now introduces himself:
"My name is Steve Marciniak, I am the Founder and President of Trak Bill, LLC. That's TrakBill.com."
Marciniak says he quickly realized that there was a market for monitoring legislation ... so rather than develop a product for one individual in the state of Illinois, he's developing one that could cover every state, and Congress.
For now, the website covers Illinois and Missouri. And recently, TrakBill unrolled an iPhone app.
He shows me how it works:
"Now you're tracking that one. You can see an overview, synopsis, action..."
You can search by bill number, sponsor, statute or topic.
Sort of like Google, results are ranked based on how many times a keyword - say education - pops up - as well as popularity, and relevancy.
Once you choose to "trak" a bill ...
"It's now added to your list. So now you're going to receive alerts via email, or text."
Information that, with a click of the button, you can send to Twitter or Facebook. A quick click also lets you contact your local legislators.
Marciniak’ s not a web or software developer - that's the job of his 17-year-old, yes 17-year-old, roommate.
But he has a grasp on the technology.
"I wanted to be an astronaut. And thought that was pretty cool. So I took aerospace engineering at the U of I. And ... turns out there's a lot of physics, calculus. Turns out I didn't really care for it. Apparently you need to know that to build a rocket."
And so he briefly turned to investing.
"I traded stocks for a while, and thought I wanted to do finance. Turns out -it was just like, I found it kinda stressful and just always changing on a daily basis. And I felt like my mood would change because of that. I didn't like that. I wanted to be in control of my own thing."
Lo and behold - NASA came calling.
"They wanted me to buy parts for the rockets."
Read Forbes. Or Business Insider. Consistently - a key trait of a successful entrepreneur is the ability to take risks.
Here's what went down at Marciniak’ s interview with NASA:
"And they asked, you know, the typical question: 'why do you want to work for NASA?' And I said, well, I'm very innovative, entrepreneurial, Iike coming up with new thing.' And they were like, 'actually there's a lot of red tape, we're highly regulated by the government.' Which once, again, me not thinking, so I was like, "I guess this isn't for me then.' And the interview ended at that point."
Marciniak did something similar when he tried working in sales. He drove out to Las Vegas to work at a production company. But after a month, he wasn't happy. He says he wanted to do his own thing - and the sales gig didn't give him enough autonomy. So - yes, in during the recession when college grads were starving for jobs - he left and drove back to Champaign.
"At that point I didn't have any money either. So I was like, on my way home, I didn't get a hotel, I just slept in truck stops, and just made sure that I was locked in and you know, just had my protection. And ... yeah, it was a little sketchy I guess.
“And your parents were cool with this?
“They didn't know."
That's when he really started putting his heart and soul into TrakBill. He slept on a friend's couch - a friend who ended up writing him a check in return for an equity stake in the company - and ate lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; cheap, but filling.
The first year, Marciniak says he wasn't able to afford paying himself a salary. He says he tried to not think about when Trak Bill was going to be out of money.
"Cause I knew it was always around the corner. And thinking back, before we got this investment money, I don't even know how we would have did it at that point. You know ... I really, there was so many points where I'm glad I just didn't think about it. Because there's no way it would have happened if I actually put any reasonable thought process into it."
Since then, things have turned around for Marciniak and Trak Bill.
TrakBill was accepted into start up boot camp in St. Louis, providing the company not only with funding, but also legal, accounting, and marketing mentors.
There's still a lot of risk.
"With something like this, we could be bankrupt tomorrow or we could be worth a few million bucks by the end of the year."
But things are going well enough that Trak Bill's 17-year-old web developer has decided to stick with the company, deferring his acceptance to his dream school, Georgia Tech, for a year.
An angel investor has swooped in.
And Trak Bill recently learned it won an Arch Grant; it's part of a program meant to foster an entrepreneurial culture -- in St. Louis.
Which means that Trak Bill will no longer be an Illinois based company.
Tack up one loss for Illinois in the border war between states as they try to keep and create jobs.
Marciniak’ s careful to say that Chicago and Illinois have great startup cultures, too ...
"But St. Louis, it's a big focus of theirs right now. It's not just something that’s kinda put on the backburner, like, we'll try and look good by passing a few entrepreneurship bills and then, you know, we're done. They're actually making a lot of very progressive steps to make sure that that becomes a reality."
Call it a lesson in politics.
It may be the first of many. Marciniak hopes to eventually makes deals with states, so it's easier to "scrape" data from their websites.
But there are other companies that offer legislative monitoring services. And at least in Illinois, procurement rules and deals involve a lot of the red tape and bureaucracy that led him to flee NASA.
Another lesson about government?
"You know my realization has been that there's so much about government that's not really as transparent as it could be."
He says that's part of his goal. Taking information that's already available, for free, on government websites, and making it more accessible.
To that end, you can use Trak Bill to track three pieces of legislation for free.
To follow any of the additional 6,131 bills introduced in Illinois, it'll cost you.
After all, this 23-year-old entrepreneur is also out to make some money.