We had started VoteIndia.in as a non-partisan social platform to educate and encourage the youth to participate in the elections. I was 20 at the time and was studying Computer Science to eventually get an engineering degree.
The platform was completely apolitical and neutral from day 1 as a strict policy. We saw the educated youth taking democracy for granted and treating elections as a public holiday. In 2020, India had more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and more than 65% below 35. Imagine 65% of the population saying ‘What difference does my single vote make?’. If you weren’t voting in the elections, did you really have a right to complain about the decisions and consequences made by the elected representatives then?
How could we encourage this group to just step out and vote for the candidate of their choice? Can we really aspire to increase the voter turnout percentage?
The young voters that we spoke with mainly had three problems which made the process tiresome for them.
Problem: They wanted to know if they were eligible to vote
Solution: If you registered on our platform, we used to tell users the criteria needed to vote (18+ and name in voter list). You also don’t need a voter ID card (which people just assumed they needed).
Problem: Which local polling booth address to go to cast their vote
Solution: We sent you the address of your local polling booth a week before the elections.
Problem: Who their local candidates were
Solution: We sent you the list of local candidates with their self declared data.
We decided to integrate Google Maps which had a new feature to let a developer build polygons. With that, we could now accurately map the geographic constituencies for any region.
Users could just pinpoint where they lived with a single click and give us their email address / mobile number. Our platform had automated services running in the background which resolved the geographic constituencies to the local candidates. We emailed / smsed the list of candidates to the voters a week before the elections. We also sent the candidate data and the polling booth address for them to go and cast their votes. This was before the era of smartphones and apps. Our users could just sit back and relax, while we did the hard work for them. They wouldn’t need to do anything else after they registered on our website other than wait for our communication before each election.
We did not want to influence decisions of anyone whatsover. We simply wanted the youth to make informed choices based on objective data.
We were careful not to put any of our own individual biases in the information process which could affect people’s choices.
The public data we managed to get our hands on was provided by the candidates themselves while filing their nominations. We also managed tieups with multiple non-profits and NGOs who worked hard to digitise the data of candidates and elected representatives.
As is the case with most bootstrapped startups, we simply did not have the budget for marketing campaigns. Instead we did the next best thing i.e. social media. Orkut was the facebook before facebook and the myspace after myspace, the ‘coolest’ social media platform at the time. And Youtube gave us the enormous potential for someone outside of our network to somehow arrive at our videos. We began getting good coverage from print and television media like IBN-7, IBN-Lokmat, NPR – World Space Radio, AFP, Times of India, Washington Post, Mid-Day, DNA, Hindu etc . Marketing was a full time activity and got the awareness boost that we needed. We began to acquire people organically from the branding activities alone.
We had a fantastic mix of people, all willing to do anything it takes to get the brand out there. None of us had fancy designations nor the experience to even know what ‘branding’ or ‘product development’ meant. Most of us were students and a few were working professionals. People volunteered their time and efforts to help us with everything from tech, marketing operations to logistics.
A complete stranger reached out to us and helped us architect the backbone of our automated mapping service. Some talented professionals helped us create the branding. Several people with media connections reached out to help us with coverage. Some volunteered to manage our social media. We managed several tie ups with leading social organisations to help us with the supply chain of information awareness. Give us a problem and we could come up with a solution as a team. No task was too big or too small. Each of us believed in the same direction. We would do whatever it took to support each other in our individual tasks.
This was a social startup, running on the donated time and efforts of students. Our goal was pure awareness and not revenue. In that, we managed to succeed. We shelved the startup after a few years and the team moved on to their own individual pursuits. At the time of writing this article, it has been 15 years since we did this. The one thing that I am grateful for is that we did what we wanted to at the time. So now, we do not have to spend our time regretting and thinking of ‘what if we had done that’.
In the pursuit, I made some friends and I lost some. Some of us still manage to get together from time to time. When the topic of VoteIndia comes up, our eyes light up and we smile. Because even if we had shut the product, we had inadvertently made memories that all of us will cherish forever. The experiences made us confident in our beliefs. As software engineers and product designers, we are capable of creating valuable and scalable products for the world. Because if we are not creating value every day, then what are we really doing with our lives?
Featured Image by pch.vector on Freepik