Internet success story with a Lexington link

July 8, 2009

One of the November election’s big stories was how Barack Obama and other Democrats used the Internet to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions and connect with their supporters.

Much of that strategy and technology was developed by Blue State Digital, a company founded by four young guys who experimented with what the Internet could do for politics during the 2004 presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark.

One of those guys, Ben Self, is a Lexington native. Not only that, he still lives here, although that seems to be a relative term these days. Last week he was in Portugal. Before that, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Australia and the Dominican Republic.

Business is booming for Blue State Digital. Politicians and parties, businesses, universities, unions and non-profit organizations around the world are hiring the company to try to get some of Obama’s online magic for themselves.

“It seems non-stop these days,” Self said when I first met him at a downtown coffee shop in April. “We’ve never done any marketing. All of our clients are people who come in through our Web site and say, ‘Can you help us with this?’ It’s overwhelming.”

In the past year, Blue State Digital has doubled its staff to more than 100 people. It has headquarters in Washington, D.C., a technology center in Boston and offices in New York, Los Angeles and London.

Self, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he spends several days each week on the road, but always tries to get back to Lexington for the weekend.

Even when he’s here, Self has conference calls at odd hours with clients around the world. Earlier this week, there was an evening conference call to Australia, where one of his clients is the prime minister.

Self lives in an old house in the Aylesford neighborhood with his wife, Rebecca. They met as students at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. A former teacher who also has a degree from MIT, she is the education director for Seedleaf, a local non-profit that develops sustainable food sources for people at risk of hunger.

“We love Lexington,” Self said. “We would never leave.”

After studying in Boston and living in Madison, Wis., founding Blue State Digital gave the Selfs the flexibility to move back to Lexington and be close to their families.

Self knew the election campaign would be all-consuming. While partner Joe Rospars worked as the Obama campaign’s new media director, Self was technology director for the Democratic National Committee, where he managed an overhaul of its Web site, computer infrastructure and national voter file database.

Blue State Digital’s pace hasn’t slowed much since November. The company continues to work for the DNC and Obama’s Organizing for America arm, as well as a growing list of progressive politicians and parties worldwide.

Blue State Digital also is developing other lines of work, such as helping universities build fund-raising relationships with alumni. The company’s 200 clients include the University of Florida, the American Red Cross, the Carter Center, the Tony Awards, the Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project, the Sundance Film Festival and Wal-Mart Watch, which criticizes the retailer’s employment practices.

Clients are interested in Blue State Digital’s technology and expertise in building online communities.

“Technology is enabling people to organize quicker, more effectively and cheaper … and (public) engagement is tearing down all the walls,” Self said. “It’s about talking to people honestly and making them feel a part of your organization instead of customers of your organization, no matter what it is.”

As the name implies, Blue State Digital’s political and commercial work reflects the progressive values of its partners and employees, Self said. Several politicians and companies have approached the company and been rejected because they weren’t compatible with those values.

Eventually, the whirlwind will subside. But Self thinks Blue State Digital has a bright future as people’s use of the Internet matures. He finds the work fascinating, and he hopes he can continue doing it from Lexington.

“I feel like I got a fantastic education here in the public school system,” Self said, adding that Dunbar’s math, science and technology magnet program prepared him well for MIT.

If Lexington wants to keep and attract more smart people like Ben Self, it must continue to focus on the infrastructure and quality-of-life issues that technology entrepreneurs and workers look for in a city.

“I do wonder what would happen if I didn’t have this company,” Self said. “Would I be able to stay here? For a technologist, there’s not a huge number of opportunities here.”