Why This Political Empowerment Startup Put Values First

When is the right time to set company values? “Yesterday,” many founders will say.

Creating company values is certainly a time-intensive exercise that many early-stage companies don’t feel they have the time or resources for. Without formalized values, the personal values of the founder or leadership will trickle down to determine hiring and other strategic decisions. If the team has conflicting values, they’ll wind up with conflicting strategies. Thus, it’s never too early to have the discussion.

Without formalized values, the personal values of the founder or leadership will trickle down Click To Tweet

For IssueVoter, a nonpartisan platform that helps users track their congresspeople’s votes, values were important from day one.

“Our mission is to make civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful for everyone,” founder Maria Yuan says.

IssueVoter launched just after the 2016 election and recently won Mashable’s Dolphin Habitat pitch contest at SXSW. We spoke with Yuan about how she started IssueVoter, and how she developed company values that will drive their growth.

The Impulse

IssueVoter is the answer to the question, “The election is over, now what?” Yuan came up with the idea 10 years ago as a campaign manager in Iowa, and when nobody else had created a tool to track your representatives and what bills are being voted on, she decided it was time to do it herself. In today’s political climate, the rising interest in following politics in between major elections and contacting representatives is a good thing, and the technology now exists to make that easier.

Chris Henry, CTO

As a mission-driven organization, values were never absent from IssueVoter, but they weren’t formalized until Yuan brought in Chris Henry as CTO.

Henry was previously the head of technology at Behance, a design social network now owned by Adobe, that is known for its strong values. Because he has seen the impact of values in action, Henry suggested IssueVoter define values.

For an early-stage startup, the culture comes directly from the founder, and drives hiring and other strategic decisions. Values often reflect the founder’s personal values — but should be revisited each time a business strategy is changed or major leadership change occurs. So, Henry’s arrival was the perfect time for IssueVoter to initiate the conversation.

How They Did It

“In really small companies, a lot of culture comes from the founder,” Yuan said. “From the beginning, I sat down and thought, ‘Okay, what are we? What is it that we believe in? What are our values? How are we going to refer to this when we are bringing in new people and making decisions about what to do?’ ”
Maria Yuan at New York Tech Meetup

Yuan was familiar with a presentation Netflix released on its values in 2009, now viewed more than 15 million times. The values expressed in the presentation resonated with Yuan and served as a starting point. She hoped IssueVoter could emulate Netflix’ culture of flexibility and autonomy.

She drafted a set of values, and met with Henry to talk about each one.

“Even just putting something on paper helps you to process, ‘Okay, what does that mean?’,” Yuan said. “We say ‘autonomy,’ but what does that mean? We want autonomy, but also responsiveness.”

Value Touchpoints

IssueVoter’s values are in place to drive both strategy and hiring. Yuan keeps them in a shared document, and cites it as the company’s first formalized document, apart from Henry’s contract.

Here are the values:

“A” players: We value DNA (like raw smarts) over experience, surrounding ourselves with “A” players who are intrinsically motivated, seek self-improvement and continuous learning, and will take initiative when given autonomy.

Judgement: In some ways, the saying “everything in moderation” describes good judgement.

For example:

  • Taking calculated risks, not simply risk-taking
  • Being decisive, yet making decisions that are reversible
  • Taking initiative (just do it), and knowing when to ask for help
  • Working extremely hard for results, but not to the point of burnout
  • Being yourself while exercising self-awareness & self-discipline

Results: We set ambitious goals, are high-achieving, and with attention to detail and flawless execution, deliver results.

“They’re very much in line with the way that we work, with our natural habits,” Yuan said. “They’re reflective of our work style. It’s not something we have to remind ourselves to do necessarily, because a lot of it does come naturally.”


As a small company with a few full-time members and a number of freelancers, it’s important each person is pulling their weight and aligned on objectives. The newly formalized values came into play when Yuan needed to reconsider a hire.

“Part of it was this person wasn’t aligned with the culture and our values, they just weren’t the right fit,” Yuan said. “They were not really able to take initiative and do things on their own; they needed a lot of direction.”

She discussed with other senior members on the team. When they looked at the company values and the person’s work ethic, there was a clear mismatch, and it was causing problems. A process to test for fit with values didn’t exist when the employee was hired, but will be used in the future.

What are our values? How are we going to refer to this when we are bringing in new people and making decisions about what to do?

IssueVoter has big goals — and Yuan is first to say the values and culture aren’t going to be a fit for everyone. But with the right talent on the team, her vision of a “truly representative Congress” is closer to reality.

More in our company values series: