Since starting New Media Communications in his Ohio basement in January 1995, Mike Connell has built his firm into one of the leading Web designers for conservative causes and Republican politicians. That GOP business also has led to significant government accounts for GovTech Solutions, a separate online services company owned by his wife Heather.
The road to New Media's success hasn't always been smooth. But after enduring a slow start and some lean years, business has taken off. Now during the busy campaign season, Connell can fly to visit clients in Washington and around the Midwest on the six seat Piper airplane he owns.
The Internet has taken Connell on a wild ride.
In 1995, the online frontier was largely unconquered by the political set. In March of the previous year, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, U.S. Rep. Martin Hoke trumpeted his status as the first Ohio congressman with an e-mail address, which he said offered "a new way for the 10th District computer techies to take a ride on the information highway right into their congressional office in Washington." If reporters called Hoke's office then, they could have connected with his 30-year-old press secretary, Mike Connell.
Connell was an early promoter of political technology. He had made a name for himself in Republican circles by designing software for the George H. W. Bush campaign in 1988. At the end of 1994, he left Hoke's office and moved to Ohio to start New Media, with start-up funds from a Small Business Administration loan.
Selling the Internet as a political tool was tough work in the beginning. Before politicians would pay to be on it, they had to know what it was. In a July 1996 article for Campaigns & Elections magazine, Connell praised "the boldest new medium since the invention of the Gutenberg press," but conceded that "you'll be lucky if it touches as many people between now and November as a single TV or newspaper ad."
The Clinton-Dole debates that October proved him wrong, though: when Dole announced his Web address on the air, it received more than 2 million hits the next day.
New Media was still taking "baby steps" in 1996, says Connell. Revenues were lean. "It was a "rude awakening," he says. "It took a couple years for the business to take off."
But Connell got on track with a high-profile client: New Media designed the www.jeb.org site that made Jeb Bush the first candidate online in the 1998 Florida gubernatorial race.
The year 1999 was big for politics on the Net, with election-related Web sites appearing and disappearing as entrepreneurs struggled to find a business model that worked. New Media partnered with the lobbying firm DCI Group to form DCI/New Media, creating the lobbyists' Tech Central Station (tcsdaily.com) and other sites.
Other Republican campaigns and committees soon followed as clients, and New Media scored another Bush account — the 2000 presidential campaign of Jeb's older brother, George W.
In 2000, Connell told Inside Business magazine that his company dealt "in a very niche market." But the family business found a new niche when his wife Heather formed GovTech Solutions to pursue government accounts rather than political business.
Heather Connell is majority stockholder in GovTech Solutions, and until September 2001, the DCI Group was a minority stockholder. While it is identified as a woman-owned business in the federal procurement database, Connell says his wife's company never sought formal certification as such, nor has it received set-aside government contracts.
Mike Connell says he and his wife formed two companies because the two markets are different: New Media helps to advocate political positions, while GovTech's work provides a nonpartisan way for an office to communicate with all constituents.
When political clients ask New Media to work on their government Web site, Connell says he refers them to his wife's company. Though Heather Connell is the majority owner, the business' day-to-day operations are managed by its president, Randy Cole.
In some cases, New Media and GovTech Solutions have had contracts with the same clients. New Media might design a campaign Web site for a candidate who, once elected, would contract with GovTech to design a federally funded official site. At least four of the seven New Media clients who won House races in 2004 also used GovTech as the designer for their congressional sites.
That year, New Media provided Web design services for the re-election campaign of George W. Bush, three senators and seven House members, in addition to the Republican National Committee. In all, the company took in $1.2 million for its work on the 2004 campaigns.
By 2004, GovTech had served as Web designer for the official, federally funded Web pages of 37 members of Congress. And the following year, according to House financial statements, GovTech received more than $144,000 in business from 21 Republican House members and Republican-led committees.
In 2002 and 2004, GovTech received authorization from the General Services Administration that allowed federal agencies to purchase services directly from the company without going through the full bidding process. A news release from the company said, "As a GSA-approved vendor, GovTech can contract directly with agencies to streamline the procurement process."
Between October 2002 and the first half of this year, the General Services Administration reported more than $800,000 paid to GovTech by federal agencies. The company has designed Web sites for the White House, Department of Energy, and the 2004 meeting of the Group of 8 in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, among others.
The GSA Schedule contracts from the federal government can serve as a stamp of approval for state and local government purchasers.
In Ohio, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell's office paid about $465,000 to GovTech, which redesigned the Web site and worked with the office to present Election Night results in 2004. In 1999, when Blackwell co-chaired the congressional Census Monitoring Board, New Media had won a contract to redesign a bilingual Web site for the board.
New Media went international under the auspices of the International Republican Institute, for which Connell consults. The company created Web sites and sent cell phone text messages to voters in the 2000 Slovenian general elections. Connell also consulted in Macedonian parliamentary elections for USAID.
In 2004, Connell joined with another Republican Internet consultant, R. Rebecca Donatelli of Campaign Solutions to form Connell Donatelli, which creates online advertising campaigns.
For the 2006 elections, New Media Communications has redesigned more than two dozen state GOP sites and worked on Blackwell's campaign for governor of Ohio.