On Growing a Startup At Civic Hall

We need places like Civic Hall if we want to continue to bring non-developers into the fray. I think our technology, and our world, will be better for it.

Heat Seek is a civic startup launched in 2014 by Noelle Francois and William Jeffries. Working at the intersection of innovative technology and tenant advocacy, Heat Seek provides tenant lawyers, organizers, and city officials with new tools in the fight to maintain affordable housing in New York City. The organization builds and installs low-cost, web-connected temperature sensors for tenants facing underheated apartments in the wintertime, often as part of intentional harassment campaigns meant to displace lower income rent-stabilized tenants from rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

After working out of Civic Hall for six months, Heat Seek’s team decamped first to Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood, the labs arm of the Robin Hood Foundation, and then to Beespace, an incubator for launching new, sustainable nonprofits. Despite the new digs, the team has maintained an active presence in the Civic Hall community. Here, Heat Seek’s executive director Noelle Francois shares her experience growing a startup at Civic Hall.

My first experience at Civic Hall came before the space was even open to the public. When Heat Seek won the BigApps competition in 2014, we were a team of more than 10 volunteers with a lot of passion, but very little experience starting a company. But we knew one thing: In order to incorporate as a nonprofit, we needed a board of directors. So we rounded up one of our BigApps mentors, a few former team members, and representatives from two of our closest community partners, and got them to agree. Now we only had one problem: Where to host the meeting?

Our existing meeting space was in a building that wasn’t heated on nights and weekends—yes, that’s partly where the idea for Heat Seek came from, thanks Flatiron School!—and our upcoming board meeting was on a Saturday in January, so that was out. We reached out to the only other people we could think of, Andrew and Micah, who we knew from back when we demoed at New York Tech Meetup. We’d heard they were opening some kind of work space and wanted to see if it was open yet.

Turns out it wasn’t, but that wasn’t a problem. A few quick emails later and they’d arranged for someone to let us in that Saturday morning, even though the space wouldn’t officially open to the public for another few weeks. We were so nervous about it going well (it was our very first board meeting, after all!) that we would have been happy to host it almost anywhere, but being able to have it in a space like the Civic Hall board room made it all seem so much more official, and lent a lot of credibility to Heat Seek in our early days.

After that, we started coming all the time. From January to October 2015 Heat Seek’s team met every single Sunday at Civic Hall. Once Civic Hall opened to the public in February, it only got better. We met so many smart, funny, compassionate people who all cared about making the world a better place. So many of them were further along in their startup journey, or had been part of the civic tech community for quite some time, and we had so much to learn.

In June of 2015, I started working full time for Heat Seek as our first paid staff member. Just five days later I attended my first Personal Democracy Forum. Let’s just say it ruined all other tech/innovation/startup conferences for me—I was completely blown away. My background isn’t in tech—I was originally interested in Heat Seek from a public policy/housing justice lens—but hearing from so many smart, thoughtful folks who were using their tech skills to tackle big, complicated, nuanced problems in an effort to make the world better made me realize that this was a field and a community I wanted to be part of.

Civic Hall was our gateway to that world. During our time at Civic Hall we’ve been introduced to so many people we wouldn’t have met otherwise, including heads of city agencies, elected officials, and a bunch of fantastic, committed volunteers. We’ve learned from each and every one of them, and today we run a better, more effective program because of them. As a startup, it likely would have taken us years to build out the same network without Civic Hall, and that network has been critical to our continued success.

One of the things I value most about Civic Hall is that you don’t have to be a developer to contribute to, and learn from, the community. The only lines of code I’ve written have been dictated to me by my co-founder William, but the more time I spent at Civic Hall, the more I realized that my experience running nonprofit programs in the real world was also valuable, and frankly necessary if we were going to make good on our promise to build tech tools that addressed a real need and helped solve a complex, complicated problem. At Heat Seek, we came to understand very quickly that pristine temperature data—proof that your landlord was under-heating your apartment—was only useful insofar as the tenants had the time, know-how, and financial resources to take action. Building a beautiful, easy-to-use app wasn’t enough. Being at Civic Hall helped me to understand just how much non-developers bring to the table in designing technology to address some of our most challenging civic and social problems.

This became even more clear recently, as we’ve been working with the Civic Hall Labs team as part of their Delta.NYC project. Delta.NYC seeks to bridge the digital divide between the technology and nonprofit sectors by pairing nonprofit organizations with a team of pro bono developers, designers, and project managers to execute a short term tech project. The Labs team assembled a group of incredible volunteers to work with us, helped us scope a project with them, and supported us as we spent eight weeks working to build out a housing database that would make open data on housing complaints and other risk factors for tenant displacement more accessible to our legal and organizing partners. None of our tech volunteers had a background in housing or knew much about the datasets we were interested in, but together we’ve co-created a tool that is going to be an incredible resources not only for Heat Seek, but for housing organizers, attorneys, and policy makers working to preserve affordable housing in NYC. Those volunteers were so committed to the project, by the way, that they’ve been going strong for eight months now. We’ve been absolutely blown away by both the quantity and quality of work they’ve been able to accomplish, and by their genuine dedication to the project and to Heat Seek.

In short, Heat Seek wouldn’t be what it is today without Civic Hall. We need places like Civic Hall if we want to continue to bring non-developers into the fray. I think our technology, and our world, will be better for it.

Noelle Francois is the founding Executive Director of Heat Seek NYC, an innovative NYC-based nonprofit working to end tenant harassment and displacement throughout the five boroughs.