UpVote co-founders share about pitching at SXSW, launching first product

For their first pitch competition as co-founders, Kasey Clary and Zack Krawiec stood up at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas this spring and pitched UpVote to a room with hundreds of investors, competing alongside more than 40 other finalists from around the world.

It was a big leap from the panel they presented to when applying for a loan from the Iowa Economic Development Authority last year.

“Yeah, it was like seven people to 700,” Krawiec said.

The SXSW Pitch event is an annual competition designed to showcase early-stage startups’ innovations to the global ecosystem, including venture capital and angel investors and industry technology experts. Since 2009, finalists involved in the SXSW Pitch competition have raised more than $23.2 billion in funding, according to Pitchbook.

Next year’s SXSW event is scheduled for March 7-15, 2025, in Austin, Texas. Applications are set to open this month, according to the SXSW website.

Clary and Krawiec said the opportunity to pitch was timed perfectly, happening alongside the launch of a fundraising round and their first product, Legible. The startup also received a $50,000 proof of commercial relevance loan from IEDA in October. 

“We’ve found our niche and we really understand the people that it is we’re trying to serve and we’re doing that on a daily basis. … Now is the time, from our perspective, to make sure that it’s getting in front of the people who could give us the means to accelerate that,” Krawiec said.

The pair, who met while working as pages at the Iowa Capitol in high school, founded UpVote in 2022 to bridge disconnects between constituents and elected officials. Clary said gaps in the relationship have been driven in part by the emergence of an inverse relationship.

The cost of a federal election rose from $2 billion in 2000 to over $14 billion by 2020, while trust in government fell from 43% to about 16% in the same time period, he said.

“Our first idea was can we create a marketplace that connected voters and politicians with shared accountability to realign incentives between the two?” Clary said. “The first business model that we wanted to test was, how do we take a big swing to bring those two sides of the market together on a valuable platform.”

That business model was an unbiased news platform to directly inform voters about issues and decrease the cost of running and winning elections for candidates by providing better data on their constituents’ views. 

Seeking an avenue to generate initial returns and grow sustainably, Clary and Krawiec began to develop Legible, a tool to help trade associations and lobbyists discover, track and analyze policy. The new product aims to help these “information brokers” get more holistic information in less time.

The Business Record spoke with Clary and Krawiec about their experience at SXSW and how they’re building their business.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Did the connections and interactions you made give you leads to follow up on after the event?

Krawiec: 100%. We met dozens of people in the venture space and angel space who are not only connections now, but a lot of them I hope to be fruitful relationships, either as potential clients or just individuals that are able to advise us down the road. It was a really welcoming community, and for us, it was just a target-rich environment. Everyone there is either a skilled operator or potential customer or investor. We were able to have a ton of conversations that led to “Well, let’s continue to talk about this and what it would look like to get involved.”

Why do you think it’s important that Iowa and the Midwest are represented at events like SXSW?

Krawiec: I think Iowa’s making a lot of steps as a state, both on the state and local level, to be business friendly and try to draw corporations and innovation into the state. That can start on a policy level and an appropriation level, but it also has to be paired with people who are looking for these opportunities and willing to take them. For example, there was a huge representation from Michigan at SXSW. Michigan has this reputation as the innovation center of the Midwest, and I think it’s important that Iowa makes sure they’re known for that because people in the Midwest know how great the Midwest is. But you start to talk to people from the coasts — coastal operators or coastal capital — and they’re really quick to be like, “Well, things only get so big over there and there’s not all that much opportunity, and the talent is in San Francisco or New York or LA or Miami. There’s definitely a little bit of a stigma that it’s hard to go bigger in the Midwest.

What are the basic functions of Legible?

Krawiec: We pull really hard to access data from across the political spectrum. Not only is it decentralized, but it’s typically from disparate legacy data sets as well as dated government websites that don’t have great usability and so most people either aren’t willing or aren’t able to go get that information. What we’ve done is we do all that searching for them. Not only do we put it in one place but we then take it and analyze it and draw connections. To work the whole way around, what we’ll do is pull a piece of policy and feed it to whoever the user is, be that a lobbyist, an NGO executive director, a political journalist and say we know you’re interested in this because these are the things you do in your day-to-day job. They’re then able to click into that and not only see the actions and track it through their life cycle, but they’re able to analyze different aspects of it. What committee is it in? Who’s voting on it? What are the lobbyist declarations? We’re working on features right now that’ll add in that news piece, so if media is being delivered around it, we can say these are the articles being written on it so you can start to understand public sentiment. 

Now that UpVote has launched its first product, what are some of the company’s short- and long-term goals? 

Krawiec: In the short term, we’re raising a pre-seed round and that’s been going relatively well. That’ll give us the opportunity to make sure that we’re dedicating the time and resources necessary to accelerate the speed that we’re getting product iterations to market and be able to get it to more customers. What that looks like is, starting in Iowa, a full rollout outside of the pilot program. Then, we’ll branch into another five surrounding states, and by January 2025, the plan is to be in 50 states and Congress operating for the next legislative session. Hopefully that looks like additional full-time team members as well as means to scale quickly with capital.

Clary: We have a validated roadmap that we’re excited to ship. We have some really exciting features that will set us apart as differentiators for us. In order to get there, there’s just that small capital hurdle and then we plan to rapidly report custom routes as quickly as possible. Everything beyond that is a customer acquisition goal.

Tell me more about the goal to bring Legible to Congress.

Krawiec: We’re hyper-focused right now in two specific ways. One, we want to make sure we’re really nailing the service for our first users who are going to be those information brokers, so not congressmen specifically, or not politicians specifically, but initially the goal is to make it easier for those people who ultimately inform the lawmakers. A lot of these lobbyists and nongovernmental organizations are the ones that are putting together the reports and making recommendations on the language in bills and such. Our plan originally is to make sure we’re serving a specific need for that group, and you want to just serve one customer at a time as you start to grow. 

No. 2 is we really want to focus on the state and local level off the bat. There is the most acute need for a service like this at the state level. Budgets are lower. Teams are smaller, yet there’s just as much information to stay up on as these larger groups have at the national level. We want to make sure that information is accessible to all of these groups, starting with the long tail of the market so that time and money aren’t barriers to them being able to go get effective representation or communicate effectively. Long term, the answer is yes, we’d like to build, one, for the national level and, two, scaling into political back offices and policy researchers and legislative aides, both at the state and federal level.

As a company working to provide unbiased news and information, do you think UpVote’s platforms have a role in fostering civility in policy discussions among leaders?

Clary: 100%. Our goal is to be the backstop for all political communication. Right now we’re building Legible. That’s our entry into the market because it’s sustainable and it allows us to drive revenue growth early. But our goal is to become political infrastructure, and what we mean by that is by serving each community with the base level of information that they need to combat misinformation and disinformation and to basically realign incentives between voters and politicians so there’s accountability on both sides. Voters have the information that they need in order to make rational decisions and to open dialogue and have discussion, and the politicians have the information from their constituency for their decisions that they make so that they can worry less about the size of their war chest and more about the effectiveness of their representation to win votes and curry favor with their constituents.