"Government is this vast ocean, and politics is this little six-inch layer on the top," Tim O’Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media, said, stealing a quote from Code for America (CFA) founder Jen Pahlka.
O'Reilly spoke recently about entrepreneurship and civic duty at CFA headquarters in San Francisco. It was a panel event that also included Director of New Media Ventures Christie George and Google Ventures Partner Ken Norton.
The goal of the event was to get skilled technologist to consider applying their skills to civic problems, including things like solving infrastructure challenges or streamlining bureaucracy.
And, as it turns out, there's a case to be made for getting into this messy world:
1. Ideas are everywhere.
If the thought of working in civic tech seems exceptionally daunting in comparison to other sectors, keep in mind that starting up in this area is essentially the same as starting up in any other area. But that doesn't make it easy, O’Reilly said.
"The fundamental challenges for civic startups are the same as any other startup -- which is to find a meaningful problem whose solution is a market of reasonable size," he said. The difficulty for non-civic tech startups is that it's hard to find a truly meaningful problem to work on.
"When we look at investments, particularly in the consumer world a lot of times you'll see a product and you'll say, you know is that an investment? Is that a real problem? Is that really something that someone would care about?" said Norton. This is not the case in the world of government.
"The advantage that you have in civic tech is there are problems in abundance," he said.
2. VC's are taking notice.
"Venture capitalists are herd animals -- or perhaps more accurately they are predators who follow herds," O’Reilly joked. O’Reilly himself is now a partner at O'Reilly Alphatech Ventures.
He added that he's just beginning to see VC interest in this space, and he predicts more will follow. Usually a meaningful amount of money will flow into the space after the first successful exit of a company. "That's what will really trigger the frenzy," he said.
In the meantime, consider trying to grow without taking funding, O’Reilly suggested. He related his own experience starting up O’Reilly Media with $500. "I never took any money, and I grew it organically for 35 years, just doing things that seems worthwhile," he said. "I think we've got a little caught up in the only way to do a company is with venture capital."
3. It's more than just cutting red tape.
Civic startups shouldn't just consider inefficiencies in bureaucracy as targets. There are problems to be solved outside of government in government-regulated markets.
Take the taxicab industry, for example. San Francisco residents have historically been agitated by the difficulty of finding a ride and the lack of choice when it comes to price. But the scene on the streets today is extremely different, now with hundreds Lyft, Sidecar and Uber drivers delivering rides.
"These are startups that are seeing the inefficiency of some government-regulated market. And then saying, wow, we can really change that market." O’Reilly said.