Government Technology

4 Secrets to Launching a Successful Civic Tech Startup

February 12, 2014 By

Inside the often pale and cold-blooded architecture of business, desires to do good typically take a back seat to meeting the bottom line. More prized traits seem to be a raw pragmatism, a squinting attention to detail and a mind for numerical advantages.

That’s why it may strike people as peculiar to know a growing number of civic tech startups are happily speaking up against the trend. On Wednesday, entrepreneurs from three of these startups, which have adopted community problem solving into their business models, gathered via webinar to share success secrets and proselyte the business virtues of urban samaritanism.

The speakers were taken from Tumml, an urban accelerator that mentors and seed-funds civic startups. They included Julie Lein, Tumml’s co-founder; Rose Broome, the founder and CEO of HandUp, an online crowd funding platform for the homeless; and Snir Kodesh, co-founder of Corral, a multi-pickup ride sharing service — both of the companies are part of Tumml’s accelerator program.

The hour-long discussion, dubbed Startups & the City and hosted by the urban tech supporter Meeting of the Minds, took the speakers back to their company’s roots as they fielded questions, delved into entrepreneurial mechanics and hypothesized about their paths ahead. Here is a small extraction of what developed by way of four tips that foster civic startup success.

1. There is No 'I' in Success

In 2012, Lein, along with her fellow co-founder Clara Brenner, were sifting through ideas for how to best help a rising tide of civic entrepreneurs. Searching for more than mere anecdotes, the two took to their phones and email accounts to survey 106 early stage entrepreneurs with the mission of spotlighting impediments to civic tech growth. When results were tallied, Lein said two dominant gaps emerged. The first being a lack of startup capital (due to the industry’s unfamiliar track record) and the second being an unmet need for collaboration from city officials. The big takeaway, she said, was that civic tech success requires joined arms to secure both funding and to cut red tape in ways of urban permitting and licensing.

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“Our specific mission is to empower entrepreneurs to solve urban problems, and so basically we provide an education program, a mentorship program and a general support group for urban impact entrepreneurs,” Lein said, speaking of the Tumml accelerator, a program that offers $20,000 in seed funding in addition to the mentorship program. 

2. Cashflows Create Longevity

Generating profits is, of course, a practice that any business, civic minded or otherwise, should unapologetically embrace. It’s a concept even Broome has employed at HandUp to makes sure the company is sustainable over the long haul and that the homeless served continue to receive support.

Broome explained that 100 percent of the donations go to the homeless directly through nonprofits that manage funding distribution. However, an additional (and voluntary) $5 support tip is requested from donators to help with costs such as credit card processing fees and operational expenses. According to Broome, while they're still considering additional revenue models, these tips are the primary thing keeping HandUp afloat.

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