WASHINGTON — I take a seat at Cafe Milano in Georgetown and hear, “No, no.” I look up.
“Mr. Tavlarides prefers that seat,” the host says. I duly slide into the next chair.
The host is referring to Christopher Tavlarides, the entrepreneur I’m meeting for dinner to discuss two political ventures — Prytany and Crowdpac — that Tavlarides and his partners hope to turn into utilities for political activism.
The goal is to empower small donors by making it easier to bundle contributions.
“We want to be the Venmo of politics,” he said, referring to the app-based payment system that also enables people to exchange cash. “Every millennial is executing their life on their iPhone. Why should politics be any different?”
Tavlarides, a 51-year-old Washingtonian and self-made networker, honed his people skills in the congregation at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral. He is the fifth and youngest child of its popular dean, the late John Tavlarides.
He is a graduate of St. John’s College High School in Washington D.C., whose ample collection of success stories includes Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s vice chairman, Raul Fernandez; Under Armour founder Kevin Plank; and the late James M. Kimsey, an early investor in AOL.
Tavlarides’ flagship business is Capital Outdoor, a privately held, $35 million-a-year billboard company that displays roadside advertisements for consumer products and services in 22 markets across the United States.
“We find niches,” he said of the business, which he owns with a cousin, John Polis. “We fill vacuums.”
He and Polis also produce small-budget documentaries — ranging from $600,000 to $1 million — through a partnership called Sophia Entertainment, named for their Greek Orthodox church.
Tavlarides has invested in a number of start-ups over the years, including ventures involved in restaurant apps and brain-injury software.
“We take big swings at risky opportunities,” Tavlarides said.
At the moment, the swing is at political fundraising, which is dominated by relatively few givers, Tavlarides told me. Of the 1.5 million people who donated more than $200 to candidates for federal office, only 92,000 reached the $2,800 maximum that an individual is allowed to give a candidate during an election cycle.
“Those 92,000 are commanding all the attention of the politicians,” Tavlarides said. “Small donors are marginalized.”
Crowdpac is a highly partisan, left-leaning, five-year-old site that allows donors to contribute to a specific candidate or to efforts to defeat one; it even allows for “rage donations.” It also includes some constructive political commentary from candidates seeking local, state or federal office.
“People can yell and scream as much as they like, just like Twitter,” said Tavlarides, an independent voter from Washington. He and his team purchased the site last year from some Silicon Valley bigwigs for an undisclosed amount.
Prytany — named for the presidential office of Greece’s Athenian senate — is a nonpartisan site that Tavlarides said is designed for political discourse and fundraising. It went online in March 2018 and has 5,000 subscribers.
“The endgame is for Prytany to be a social media network for politics,” he said. “We will invest more in Prytany over the coming weeks.”
Prytany transfers money electronically from the contributor to the candidate or political action committee. It serves only federal candidates.
Tavlarides and his partners have invested more than $1.5 million in Prytany and Crowdpac. Both are profitable and approved by the Federal Election Commission. Tavlarides said he and his partners collect a 3% fee on every donation that passes through either site.
The sites, so far, have raised $16 million from small and big donors, many of whom are giving for the first time. Most of that money has been raised by Crowdpac.
Donors can use a credit card or electronic check to create an account on either site. Then the money goes to the designated candidate or cause.
The platforms collectively have 1 million accounts, the vast majority of which are on Crowdpac. There are hundreds of candidates on the two sites, including Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., who this year is running for Senate.
“We allow anybody from the comfort of their couch to get online and test the waters to run for office or build coalitions,” he said. “From our sites, you create a group and then go out on social media like Facebook and Twitter, and recruit people to form larger groups to influence policy.”
Tavlarides is betting that the timing is right because of the passion around the 2020 presidential election and because of the focus on sites like Twitter and Facebook as vehicles for political influence and misinformation.
“Those sites were not built for politics,” he said. “We are.”
He said his platforms have safeguards and user agreements against misuse and hate language “that basically say, ‘If it will get you suspended in high school it will get you suspended from our sites.’ ”
“We are so concerned about bots and fake accounts and narratives we have added two features no one has done on social media platforms,” he said. “Currently on Prytany and soon to be added to Crowdpac are ID scan and Social Security verification.”
The idea was hatched one Saturday afternoon in spring 2018 at Tavlarides’s Georgetown home.
Tavlarides, Polis and their friend Royal Kastens, a former Senate staffer to Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, both Massachusetts Democrats, were getting bombarded on their smartphones by requests for political campaign contributions.
“They were very aggressive solicitations,” Tavlarides said. “It was laughable.”
“We realized in that moment that there are no platforms to get more people politically engaged,” he said. “It’s the same people at all the fundraisers.
They hired attorneys and met with the FEC to get its approval. They hired 10 employees who work remotely, primarily technologists and graphics experts.
It’s unclear whether Prytany and Crowdpac can achieve Tavlarides’s goals of disrupting the political fundraising game and getting more people involved in politics before they step into the voting booth.
But Tavlarides said he is accustomed to making bets.
“I have been working for myself for three decades, and I am comfortable with the risk that comes with that,” he said.
He worked his way through George Washington University, graduating in 1990.
Capital Outdoor grew out of a door-to-door slog of selling advertising to Washington’s old-time restaurants, including the legendary Duke Zeibert’s and Blackie’s House of Beef in the city’s West End.
The company now sells billboard space from Weehawken, New Jersey, to West Hollywood, showcasing big ads for Amazon, Facebook, Netflix and other major consumer brands.
“What we are doing with outdoor billboards and my films is the same thing we are doing with Prytany and Crowdpac,” Tavlarides said. “We are monetizing eyeballs.”
The only way to expand the number of people who have a seat at the political table is to make them heard. “Money makes them heard,” he said. “It’s not unlike being a regular at your favorite restaurant. You get noticed. But if the owner doesn’t know you, you get the crappy table at the back of the room.”