Access is the key that unlocks everything, from delivering the next multi-billion-dollar innovation to securing your nominee in the White House, says entrepreneur and technology maven Harper Reed

Harper Reed has a theory. Necessity drives original ideas but access – in other words, the ability of people to use ideas in the way they were intended – allows them to become real. Reed has applied this theory to his work in a variety of ways.

He was chief technology officer (CTO) of Threadless, the t-shirt business that uses designs crowdsourced from artists. He worked briefly for a venture capital firm, before joining Barack Obama’s successful 2012 re-election campaign as CTO. There, he was tasked with optimising donations to the campaign via digital channels.

It was while campaigning for Obama that he made the connection between technology that works and how it is deployed: “Without access you can’t have innovation. I realised innovation has nothing to do with what I thought it did – shiny new things or ‘disruption’.

“I learned fast that just buying technology was a mistake and that people can do a lot of innovative stuff with things I had deemed anachronistic, such as paper, phone calls and door-knocking. If you can innovate with paper then the whole world can use your product.

“Alternatively, you and I could invent the coolest most technological thing in the world but if no one has access then no one can see it and it is valueless.”

It is a lesson that the current presidential hopefuls should learn well. In an election race, which is historically decided by who can raise the most cash, Obama amassed campaign finances of $1.123 billion, over $100 million more than his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.

Reed is at least partly responsible for this mismatch. During the campaign he experimented with different ways to connect with voters and ask them to contribute. Voter registration details are freely accessible in the US, so campaigners have a wealth of information with which to target potential donors.

Small tweaks

Email-based multivariate testing revealed that by far the best engagement came when the president’s message began with a ‘hey’ compared with more a formal greeting.

The team experienced a high level of success when it sent emails suggesting amounts of money voters should donate, based on their previous donations, and nudging the figure slightly higher than their evidence suggested they would give.

Meanwhile, the addition of a ‘quick donate’ button on emails meant people could give without reaching for their credit card. The innovation resulted in around $250 million dollars of lift, says Reed. In an electoral system where money counts, small tweaks like these were a game-changer.

“Having a quick donate button is definitely illegal in the EU, but that’s the kind of thing you can do when you have reasonable laws,” he jokes.


Accessibility, or lack of it, is in evidence throughout the ages, not least in the long list of failures experienced by the tech industry, Reed’s field of expertise. He cites the example of a Nokia smartphone launched in 2004 with a touchscreen. It sold poorly and in 2006 it was re-released around the same time as the first iPhone. Because the Apple product was easier to understand – and therefore access – the Nokia product was overshadowed by the multi-million seller we know today.

Recent history is littered with similar examples of inventions that didn’t quite connect. Even the world wide web didn’t get near its potential until the world began to adopt it universally, making its way into people’s homes and onto their phones.

Innovations such as 3D and virtual reality have experienced jittering progress for the same reason; they are not really easy to adopt. Reed mentions a friend who has a 3D-enabled TV, but to his knowledge is yet to watch a 3D film on it.

Figuring it out

“It took me months and months to figure it out and when I did I felt stupid. It was like banging my head against the wall and then realising I didn’t have to do that,” says Reed, remembering his lightbulb moment. “If you take the iPhone as an example, it wasn’t successful because Apple made it – because Apple can fail. It was successful because Apple solved the user experience issues and suddenly everyone loved touchscreens instead of hating them like they did before.

“Ostensibly, I was the CTO of the Obama campaign but I knew that it wasn’t about having the latest tech, it was finding out where technology – some of it quite basic – could be an appropriate force multiplier in getting donations.”

Reed’s most recent foray into the world of accessibility is his payments business Modest, which aims to smooth the shopping experience for smartphone users by helping them to check out more easily. The business was sold to PayPal for an undisclosed sum last year.

His team at Modest are working to apply the same access-based formula to mobile payments. Currently, transactions over smartphones are vanishingly small compared with the rates on desktop computers; people research purchases but they don’t click the ‘buy’ button.

Despite Modest being acquired by PayPal – which would represent an end game for many entrepreneurs – he says there remains a lot of work to be done.

A win-win deal

“Both sides saw the deal as a cheat code or a power-up on a video game. We wanted access to the huge pool of users PayPal offers and they were just starting to develop the technology we had been working on. They get to jump ahead with the technology and we get to jump ahead with the audience. We set out to change the way e-commerce works and we’re only partway through what we set out to do. ‘Doneness’ is a continuum in technology so you never really finish.”

Harper Reed was talking to Dan Matthews at Grant Thornton’s ‘Inspiring Business’ event in London in November 2015

Main image: Eyevine; montage images: Harper Reed