The Smart Cities movement is creating the opportunity for city leadership to try new approaches in delivering services to residents and visitors. This era of experimentation could be a boon for small business owners who can bring a fresh perspective to solving civic challenges.
But selling to a city requires a different approach and often times a lot of patience. Every city is distinct so there is no one approach that fits all. Following is some insight and great advice from entrepreneurs and city administrators that can help you navigate this new space.
1. Understand What Your City Wants and Needs
Most of us live in cities and therefore, we are "customers" of our local government. But the perspective of the user is quite different from understanding how a city operates. Smarter Sorting, an Austin-based startup, uses technology to divert hazardous content from the city's waste stream. They are doing business with the City of Austin, Portland Metro and the Region of Peel (near Toronto, Canada) and recently took first prize in the Smart City Connect's Startup Challenge competition.
Founder and CEO Chris Ripley said a big part of their success was starting with cities that had a culture of wanting to do things differently. "We found the champions who were interested in being better." And they offered the technology for free. "We didn't go in asking for anything. We worked to understand what the problems were and how we could build a solution that didn't cost them anything but instead saved them money and made their jobs easier. We started with a two-month pilot."
2. Be Prepared to Go Slow
Understanding how city departments are structured and identifying the decision makers who embrace innovation can be an arduous process. Building trusted relationships that encourages collaboration requires a long-term approach.
It's also important to understand the regulatory issues that come with public sector dollars. There are municipal and statewide statutes that determine how contracts are structured and administered. The rules, paperwork, requirements and the Request for Proposal (RFP) process can often seem insurmountable for startups. But it IS possible to do business with a city.
Cityflag recently secured a contract with the City of San Antonio to provide enhanced 311 services that uses social and gamification tools like badges and rewards to connect users to local government. San Antonio Chief Innovation Officer Jose De La Cruz looks to the company as a way to both help the city connect with its residents as well as learn how to work better with innovative companies.
"One of the areas we struggled with was how to involve young, energetic people in the (government) process. We want new ideas coming to the city and so we are working with Geekdom, our local co-working space and incubator to explore new ways to increase the collaboration."
Some cities are trying to get creative while also maintaining the integrity of the process. For example, listing 10 city issues with a consolidated RFP and a limited time period enables the city to purchase some of the developed solutions without an arduous RFP process. These kind of experiments require an open mind and a willingness to collaborate and work through multiple approaches.
3. Work With the Local Ecosystem
All around the country, cities are embracing programs and platforms that enable them to source the energy, ideas and enthusiasm of small and mid-sized companies. There are many more ways into the city than just knocking on the door of the procurement officer.
Startup In Residence (STIR) is an organization that "connects government agencies with startups to develop technology products that address civic challenges." Thanks to a grant from the Department of Commerce, STIR launched in the City of San Francisco and has since expanded to regional allies, Oakland and San Leandro. The program is 16 weeks and provides a framework for startups and government to co-develop civic solutions. San Antonio is considering this approach to enhance their ability to source innovation.
Austin CityUp and member SmartAustin are both communities that bridge the public and private sectors, enabling people on both sides to experiment and discuss ideas. This informal and personal approach rapidly expedites the process and increases interaction.
In Los Angeles, Eric Espinoza and Lauren Rinkey run the Mayor's Cup Challenge which provides a forum to build solutions to encourage civic engagement and better connections with the small businesses and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. What began as a single competition is quickly morphing into the Mayor's Innovation Lab, a model which can then be exported to other cities.
Espinoza says, "We want to build a culture of innovation in a faster way. We're known for being the Entertainment Capital and we have a chance to orient that in a way that has real impact. We are building the ultimate playground for open sourced, collaborative approaches to city challenges."
This is an exciting time for both cities and startups to work together. Where there disruption, there is great opportunity but also many unknowns. If you understand that this is a journey, and have patience and plenty of business to keep your business afloat while you help cities learn how to work with your company, you are in the right space. If you expect a short business cycle to compensate for the significant investment you have made in creating the solution you think cities need, prepare for frustration.
The smartest startup and city leaders will start by being involved and forming the solutions that will eventually make this process much more straightforward. Cities that do their homework, embrace change and seek new partners will be rewarded with interesting, innovative solutions. So how will you help them get there?