Go to Industry Conferences

Whichever sector of civic tech you're taking on, be it transportation, elections, payments, or procurement, chances are the people who have been doing that work for decades are already convening annually somewhere. That somewhere might not be in San Francisco.

I came away from the Omidyar Network‘s Building the Business of Civic Tech event (which took place at Civic Hall earlier this year) with one very concrete piece of advice by and for civic tech startups: go to industry conferences. For years, we’ve advised political campaigns, news companies, and others to meet their audiences wherever they naturally congregate. If you’re building govtech products and services, that might just be a conference with more suit jackets than track jackets.

A panel discussion during the Omidyar Network's Building the Business of Civic Tech event in April.

A panel discussion during the Omidyar Network’s Building the Business of Civic Tech conference in April.

Whichever sector of civic tech you’re taking on, be it transportation, elections, payments, or procurement, chances are the people who have been doing that work for decades are already convening annually somewhere. That somewhere might not be in San Francisco. The average age might be older than most civic tech events. You should still go. This isn’t my advice; it’s the happily-shared secret of several successful civic tech startups.

The Center for Technology & Civic Life team are regulars at events like IACREOT. Says founder Tiana Epps-Johnson, “If you’re not interested in a morning word puzzle, that’s the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials, and Treasurers.” They also regularly attend state election association conferences like the New Jersey Association of Election Officials conference. Don’t get the wrong impression, these things can still be plenty of fun: This year’s NJAEO was at Harrah’s in Atlantic City, complete with St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

Industry conferences have obvious value to groups like the Center for Technology and Civic Life: a high density of customers, users, and partners getting into the nitty-gritty of their work. But travel, lodging, and registration add up quickly (not to mention the time away from building your company). The solution? Ensure you get invited as a speaker, rather than as a vendor or sponsor. Not only should this spare you a registration fee, it also gets you more exposure, and introduces you to the community as a savvy peer rather than a pay-to-play vendor.

Much of the inspiration for this post comes from Marci Harris of POPVOX (and a fellow Civicist contributing editor). Talk to her about civic tech startups, and she’ll bring up her dad. He lives and works in county government in Tennessee. And the way he learns about and decides to purchase govtech is a little old fashioned: Companies come and share their product with him.

Marci writes:

These are important places for local officials to meet each other, learn about new things, and make connections. I remember walking around the Tennessee Municipal League convention and being so impressed…As with any other convention/trade show, I picked up all the brochures, talked with the people in the booth, grabbed some business cards, and came back to tell my boss and the department heads about the cool new things I learned. The smart companies followed up with me after the event and we scheduled several meetings for them to come in and present to others in the city. That’s the way it works in any industry. Our civic startups need to get into the same system.

In case you don’t have family in public service, Marci rattles off some public sector trade groups:

And that’s just to start. Each of these associations has state chapters, like the League of California Cities (LCC).

Of course, most civic tech startups don’t have the salesforce or the time necessary to hold conversations with tens of thousands of potential public sector customers, especially when they’re in their early stages. Sometimes, there are intense procurement processes and rigid cultural barriers preventing government from adopting promising govtech. Other times, the people making those decisions simply haven’t heard of you yet.

To ameliorate this situation, Microsoft, where I work as Director of Civic Technology, is thinking about how we can bring to bear our own resources to support govtech startups’ growth. Our CityNext initiative works with hundreds of partner companies offering nearly a thousand offerings to help cities accelerate innovation. Last December, CityNext’s Jeff Friedman (who previously lead Philadelphia’s New Urban Mechanics) designed a public sector pitch day to showcase some great civic tech startups and get them in front of government technology purchasers. Formally, Microsoft Ventures calls it the Customer Access Program, “aimed at introducing Microsoft’s customers with a portfolio of startups who we have identified as being today’s top entrepreneurs.” Think of it as the Demo Day at the end of an accelerator program, without the three months of forced coworking leading up to it. We’re looking to replicate this successful event in New York City and other markets to help local govtech startups share what they’re doing with potential customers.

Another model I recently came across is the partner pilot. If you’ve launched a govtech startup, you’re probably trying to do something in a new way. And public sector employees have lots of reasons to resist new ways of doing things. So some larger govtech partners are helping newer startups bring in business by inviting them to pilot new solutions with their own customers.

MeWe is a govtech company working to streamline regulatory inspections with a clean, friendly checklist app called CoInspect. They’re exploring a structured pilot with Accela, working with one of Accela’s existing municipal customers to test their mobile inspections application.

As civic tech startups face very real challenges of sustaining themselves and scaling to reach (and then reinvent) the massive public sector, we should keep an eye out for strategies and partnerships that put the wind at their backs.

Let me know in the comments if you know of other models for scaling govtech startups.