Insight on the Incubator

This post one in a short series in effort to recognize and celebrate the close of the 2013 Code for America Incubator. This was a new program was created to support Code for America Fellows as they work towards building startup companies to scale and sustain their Fellowship projects.

The Code for America Accelerator is powered by Google for Entrepreneurs.

We’re incredibly grateful to have participated in Code for America’s inaugural Incubator, as this experience has been key in our transition from the CfA NOLA Fellowship team behind BlightStatus, into the civic technology startup Civic Insight. As a newly-founded company, participation in the Incubator provided our team with the guidance we needed to develop our business plan as well as the runway to refactor our codebase and transform what was once a one-off application into a scalable, multi-tenant platform. Thanks in part to Code for America’s expansive network, we’ve been able to cultivate new relationships and strategic partnerships with advocacy groups, local governments, corporations, and foundations across the country; relationships that will be key as we continue to grow our company.

After BlightStatus launched in New Orleans last year, we were pleasantly surprised when a numerous municipalities from across the country expressed interest in putting our technology to work for their citizens. This unsolicited interest solidified our decision to continue growing the project beyond the Fellowship, and sparked our interest to build a sustainable business.

Stating the obvious, building a company is no easy task, rife with immense challenges, questions, and decisions to be made. We found ourselves facing some really big questions: How do we quantify the value of culture change? How do we set a price that is reasonable for government budgets but will also allow us to sustain ourselves? Ultimately we’ve learned that developing a pricing strategy is a process of trial-and-error and the right fit comes with experience and honest communication with our customers.

Luckily, just as we began seeking answers to these questions, CfA announced the launch of the Incubator program. The initial seed funding we received from the Incubator provided us with the runway to expand our platform into the more flexible and scalable Civic Insight, which is now capable of supporting multiple government agencies and representing other civic processes beyond just code enforcement, such as permitting and construction.

We are so grateful for the host of talented advisors and pro-bono business services that the Incubator made available to us. To quickly ramp up our knowledge of financial planning and business modeling, the Incubator’s business coach consultant Meredith Finn helped us identify our business goals and define a trajectory to achieve them. Top law firm Morrison Foerster graciously offered their assistance, pro-bono, with what would have otherwise been overwhelming and financially exhaustive work of developing our customer contracts, operational agreement, and several strategic partnership agreements that have been critical to the success of our business.

While we’re constantly impressed with the level of passion and commitment with which our municipal partners are working to make their cities better every day, there are still plenty of challenges for a young civic startup, and opportunities for cities to improve existing processes and how they contract and interact with vendors. One challenge that we knew from day one would present a hurdle for us and any other civic startup hoping to work with government is the procurement process. While we understand the importance of regulating municipal purchases and contracts, the rules are often set up in such a way that makes it nearly impossible to work with vendors who have existed for less than two years, or who do not yet have a substantial list of existing customers.

Additionally, municipal government IT systems are often outdated and challenging to access, only to find data that may be decentralized or incomplete, making it evident that cities must demand more from their IT vendors and increase their engagement in implementation processes. While we could simply seek out only the most progressive and tech savvy municipalities with cutting-edge web APIs, centralized data systems, open data portals, and on-staff developers to be our customers, we recognize the opportunity for Civic Insight to assist cities in improving the structure and quality of their data. It is exciting for us to know that in addition to providing a platform for more open and honest communication with citizens about properties in their neighborhoods, we can also help standardize and centralize this data to provide cities with sound, cohesive information that’s easy to understand and share. After all, having a positive effect on culture change within government is the ultimate big win for us.

As the company continues to move forward, the Civic Insight team is excited about the road ahead. We continue to forge relationships with new government agencies, non-profits, and existing software vendors to further our understanding in this space and share our experiences in ways that provide values to others. A great example is our non-exclusive, strategic partnership with Accela Software, a leading provider of land-management software for government. Working with Accela provides us with greater visibility into how more than 400 government agencies are collecting and managing place-based data. As we study municipal data and the systems that store it, we continue to learn about new datasets that can provide new insight into the trajectory of a neighborhood, and think about how these datasets can influence our product and its ability to tell complete stories about properties.

Thanks to the support of the CfA Incubator, the Civic Insight team is making big moves and covering new ground on our exploration of place-based civic data.

To keep up with the our latest developments, sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Civic Insight is available now – if you are a government representative interested in putting Civic Insight to work for your community, sign up here or get in touch at info [@] civicinsight [dot] com.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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