I have an idea.
I want to suggest starting a community of disruptive software companies that are trying to sell products to local and regional governments. I know we can make cities better, more participatory, more accessible, to say nothing of saving them money. But to be effective I think we need a common message – an association that conveys why this disruption is in government’s interest, and how it will help them.
Last year, I along with some friends, incorporated a small company with an innovative approach to messaging that helps cities be smarter, communicate better and serve their citizens more effectively. Where we deploy, citizens love us. It’s a blast to do. (You can read more about our company here – if you work for a local or regional government, I’d love to talk to you).
We also don’t think we are alone. Indeed we like to think we are part of a new breed of start ups – companies we respect like SeeClickFix, Azavea and Citizenvestor – whose DNA is influenced by the likes of Tim O’Reilly and others who talk about government as a platform. Companies that believe there are hyper low cost ways to make local government and services more transparent, enable citizen participation and facilitate still more innovation.
Happily we’ve had a number of early successes, several cities have signed on with us as paying customers. This is no small feat in the municipal space – governments, especially local governments – tend to be risk averse. Selling software as a service (SaaS) for a product category that previously didn’t exist can be challenge. But it pales in comparison to the two real challenges we confront:
1) Too Cheap to Buy
For many cities we are, weirdly, too cheap to buy. Our solution tends to cost a couple of thousand dollars a year. I’m talking four digits. In many municipalities, this price breaks the procurement model, which is designed for large purchases like heavy equipment or a large IT implementation. We’re too expensive for petty cash, too cheap for a formal process. I’ve even had a couple experiences where a city has spent significantly more money in staff time talking to and evaluating us than it would have cost to simply deploy us for a year and try us out. We need a smarter context for talking to procurement specifically, and local government in general. That might be easier in a herd.
As company that tries to keep its product as cheap as possible we have a limited budget to invest in marketing and sales. We could charge more to pay for that overhead, but we’d prefer to be cheaper, mostly because we don’t believe taxpayers should pay for the parts of our business that don’t really give them value. In short, we need a better way of letting cities know we exist, one that is cheap and allows our product to reflect its value, not an advertising budget.
As I look at our peer group of companies, I have to believe they share similar challenges. So why don’t we band together? A group of small companies could potentially do a virtual trade show that not only could attract more clients than any of us could on our own, but would attract the right clients: local governments that are hungry for next generation online services.
So who would I imagine being part of this association? I don’t think the criteria is complex, so here are some basic ideas that come to mind:
- Software focused
- Disruptively low or hyperlow-cost: here I imagine the cost is under 35 cents per citizen per year.
- Following a SaaS or open source model
- You keep the barriers to entry low – any operational data your system creates is open and available to staff and, if requested by the city, to citizens as well
- Citizen-centric: In addition to open data, your service should, whenever relevant or possible, make it as easy as possible for citizens to use, engage or participate.
Is it the Government as Platform Business Association? Or the Gov 2.0 Software Association? Or maybe the League of Awesomely Lean Gov Start Ups. I don’t know. But I can imagine a shared branded site, maybe we pool money to do some joint marketing. I love the idea of a package deal – get Recollect, SeeClickFix and OpenTreeMap bundled at a discount! Maybe there is even a little logo that companies who meet the criteria and participate in the group could paste on their website (no worries I’m not a designer and am no attached to the mock up below).
The larger point here is that if the next generation of civic start ups – companies that can do software much, much cheaper while enhancing the experience for city staff and residents – have an education challenge on our hands. Cities need to learn that there emerging radically small, lean solutions to some problems. I’m not sure this is the right answer. I know this proposal creates a lot of unanswered questions, but it is an idea I wanted to throw out there.
If you have a company that fits the bill I’d love to hear from you. And if you work for a local or regional government and think this would be helpful, I’d love to hear about that as well.