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A Cold E-mail to Mark Cuban Helped Turn FiscalNote Into One of DC’s Hottest Startups

The company is using Big Data and artificial intelligence to improve government advocacy.

Six years ago, Tim Hwang was a 21-year-old college student working out of a Sunnyvale, California, Motel 6 on a new way to collect and analyze government records. Today, this boyish executive has $230 million in investment capital, a sixth-floor office overlooking the Trump hotel, and a business with a staff of more than 500 people. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can barely recognize the names of all of our employees,” Hwang says, “which is a really strange feeling because we used to quite literally be three guys and a laptop.”

Hwang’s company, now called FiscalNote, is helping pioneer a new industry that brings Big Data technology to bear on an old-fashioned Washington business: government advocacy. His software lets anyone track all kinds of legislation, bypassing the complicated government systems that have traditionally provided that kind of information.

Other startups, such as Quorum and GovPredict, have also built digital tools that can give insight to lobbyists and help activists better steer their efforts. But after last year’s $180-million acquisition of CQ Roll Call, Hwang has become the highest-profile player in an emerging field that’s creating new ways to help Beltway insiders predict which bills are worth advocates’ time.

It all began in Potomac. The son of Korean immigrants, Hwang was a preposterously overachieving teenager who founded a nonprofit for homeless children at age 14 and took 22 Advanced Placement classes in high school. He became active in politics, serving as a field organizer for Obama’s 2008 campaign and launching the National Youth Association, a 750,000-member organization that advocated for policies that the group says benefit millennials. The disjointed manner in which government records were maintained—scattered across state legislatures, federal agencies, and municipal offices—made it impossible to keep up with new laws and regulations affecting the issues he cared about. “So I was thinking, if the government can’t even monitor what the government is doing,” Hwang recalls, “how does everybody else monitor what the government is doing?”

Along with a buddy from Wootton High back in Rockville, he came up with an idea for a digital platform that assembled all of these legislative records in one place. In 2013, they put together some PowerPoint slides about it, entered the concept in a University of Maryland startup competition, and took home second prize. Afterward, the judges told Hwang they loved the idea; while the other entries were narrowly focused consumer apps, his tackled a large-scale problem. The only reason Hwang’s team didn’t win first prize, the judges told him later, was because they didn’t have a working prototype. During the summer after his junior year at Princeton, he and a few high-school pals headed to Silicon Valley. Working out of a $70-a-night room, they scraped data from government websites—it was all there, just waiting—and cold-called trade associations, lobbying shops, and law firms to try to drum up business.

One evening after watching an episode of ABC’s Shark Tank, Hwang had a thought: “We should just e-mail Mark Cuban.” To his surprise, the Dallas Mavericks owner replied enthusiastically and, within a month, had written FiscalNote a $740,000 check. Other investors—eventually including Jerry YangSteve Case, and the Winklevoss twins—followed, and Hwang decided to move back to Washington in order to be closer to his clients.

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