Web tool created by UC Berkeley alumnus takes off

edited_Nikita-Bier-1-courtesy-of-Casey-Fyfe
Casey Fyfe/Courtesy

When UC Berkeley alumnus Nikita Bier woke up to an avalanche of emails and missed calls from reporters, it became clear to him that his life was about to change.

It was August 2012, right before the presidential election, and Bier had just launched Politify, a Web tool that allows people to see how each presidential candidate’s economic policies would impact his or her household and community.

“It was the craziest day of my life,” he said. “My phone was buzzing constantly — Politify was on the radio twice, it was on television twice, it was in 10 different publications all on the same day.”

Within 90 days of its launch, Politify was used by more than 4 million people.

Passionate about politics, Bier had always been interested in answering one key question: How can governments impact people’s well-being? He strived to create something that would allow people to make “what-if” analyses and demystify public policies.

UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich — a former Secretary of Labor and an early adviser for Politify — said Bier’s enthusiasm and excitement for the project was “contagious.”

“Nikita is a good example of the kind of students I find at Berkeley — self-motivated, innovative and able to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to relevant, real world problems,” Reich said in an email.

Bier began working on Politify during his senior year at UC Berkeley, from which he graduated in 2012 with a double major in business administration and political economy.

Since 2012, Bier has pivoted, recycling Politify into a new tool called Outline, which lets users manipulate government policies and measure the effects of these changes. The platform statistically merges data sets from the U.S. Census Bureau and the IRS to create easily understandable visual models.

Jennifer Walske, an adjunct professor at the Haas School of Business, said only about 5 percent of students achieve his level of entrepreneurial success.

Like that of most entrepreneurs, however, Bier’s success was hard-earned. In fact, he said, it was a struggle to even find somebody to work with him in the beginning.

“I met an engineer probably every day for 90 days, and every single one said no,” Bier said.

Intellectually precocious, Bier began building computers when he was only 11 years old and was already making fake IDs at the age of 13.

“Nikita seemed a little crazy, in a good way,” said Jeremy Blalock, a programmer who worked on Politify and met Bier during his sophomore year at UC Berkeley. “He was trying to do something that nobody else was even thinking of doing.”

In September, Outline received $850,000 through 15 different investors, including the Knight Enterprise Fund, Esther Dyson and the Dorm Room Fund. The company also recently signed a contract with the state of Massachusetts to license its first product — a budget simulator.

Yet even with this success at hand, Bier reached for more. He believed the simulator could be something a lot bigger than what Massachusetts had initially commissioned his company to create, and he pushed the team to expand the project. Ultimately, they were able to build something more valuable to the client that exceeded the client’s expectations, according to Blalock.

“Rather than just building the budget simulation game as they had planned, we built this whole ecosystem,” Blalock said, adding that as a rule of thumb,  Nikita does not accept the world as it is but believes he can shape it according to his vision.

For Bier, the most important traits for success are being obsessive, relentless, and creative. He added that it is also crucial to always question decisions, even if it means throwing out everything you’ve been working on.

“I think people always need to shoot for the stars in any decision that they make,” Bier said. “Just go for the biggest possible goal. The worst that can happen is that someone says no, and then you just do it again.”