Shadow, Inc. and the Iowa caucus app: Case study in how NOT to launch a product

By Michelle van Schouwen

The other day, I gave a guest lecture on product launch to a class of engineering entrepreneurs. I wanted to cite a relevant example of a failed product launch. That was easy. “Shadow, Inc.,” I said. “Aren’t you glad that wasn’t YOUR app counting and reporting votes in Iowa?”

Somehow, Shadow, Inc. did pretty much everything wrong. And while most of the news focus is, rightly, on the mess Iowa made of the start of a critical presidential campaign (and Shadow’s role in that mess) just imagine being one of the principals of that business. “Congratulations, team! We have just conducted one of the worst product launches in recent history.”

While much is still not known about what happened with the app and its use in Iowa, we can start putting the pieces together. From a “business lessons learned” perspective, here are some primary takeaways:

-Shadow, Inc. is (was?) a small, for-profit startup contracted by the Iowa Democratic Caucus to build an app to record and report its caucus results. According to an ABC News article, “Shadow Inc. was launched early last year by liberal-leaning nonprofit ACRONYM, which specializes in providing digital services for Democratic campaigns and committees, as part of its efforts to build what it called a ‘smarter’ technological infrastructure for Democratic campaigns and committees.” According to this same article, ACRONYM is now taking steps to distance itself from its spinoff. LESSON: One visible failure can lose you a lot of “friends” in business.

-The New York Times reported that the app, designed in approximately two months, had not been adequately tested on a statewide level. LESSON: Never conduct a large or important launch without exhaustive testing of your product.

Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira told Bloomberg News that he was “really disappointed” in the app’s performance in Iowa. “All the data that was produced by calculations performed by the app was correct. It did the job it was supposed to do, which is help precinct chairs in the field do the math correctly. The problem was caused by a bug in the code that transmits results data into the state party’s data warehouse.” LESSON: Good luck with explaining your massive fail. PR ‘after the fall’ is never enough.

-The Nevada Democratic Party, which had contracted to use a version of the app for its upcoming caucus, says flaws have been discovered and this it will not use Shadow’s Nevada version after all. LESSON: And the walls come tumbling down for Shadow – as for any company that “blows it” with an important launch.

-What’s more, Shadow’s client base appears to be mostly Democratic organizations and candidates, using services ranging from “fundraising consulting” to “messaging” and “software services and subscriptions.” It is safe to assume that most of the company’s tightly-connected clientele are extremely nervous about Shadow, Inc.’s work and reliability. LESSONS: See above. Also, diversify your client base so not everyone is angry at you at once.

-Shadow appears not to have been paid well, by app development standards, for its work on the app that messed up the Iowa process. Also, as mentioned above, it didn’t appear to have long for the development process. Apparently, the Iowa party committee paid Shadow approximately $63,000 during November and December, having had only one other proposal for reporting results (“use the phones”). So, the Shadow team developed the app cheaply and in a hurry. LESSON: Think hard before you take that low compensation and that tight deadline. Maybe you AREN’T really up to the task.

-“The secrecy around the app this year came from the Iowa Democratic Party, which asked that even its name be withheld from the public,” according to the New York Times. “There were concerns that the app would malfunction in areas with poor connectivity, or because of high bandwidth use, such as when many people tried to use it at the same time.” LESSON: Your client may not ‘know best’ and you alone are responsible for your company’s work and reputation.

-The secrecy surrounding the app and the company was aggravated by the company’s deep-web-sounding name. Shadow, Inc.? Really? (Shadow takes pains to describe its name on its website About page: “When a light is shining, Shadows are a constant companion. We see ourselves as building a long-term, side-by-side ‘Shadow’ of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large.”) LESSONS: Having to make excuses for your company or product name is a bad sign. And, your company’s reputation is not helped by creepy-sounding names.

As a company, Shadow, Inc. will likely disappear into the shadows soon. I would be very surprised if the firm itself survives at all, although its players, some of whom are operatives from past Democratic campaigns, will surely pop up elsewhere. As business owners, we can take a number of lessons from Shadow’s terrible performance. We can only hope its principals learn something as well.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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