This is Part I of Data-Smart City Solutions’ New Faces of Public-Private Collaboration series.
As our Regulatory Reform for the 21st Century project has documented, the regulatory framework on the local government level is notoriously complex, confusing, and onerous for both government workers and business owners alike. But Manik Suri, the co-founder and CEO of the startup MeWe, thinks his company is on the way to a solution to many of these problems.
That solution is CoInspect, an inspections tool that the company is piloting in partnership with several towns and cities across the country, including Boston. Relying on a database of industry-standard regulatory checklists, the mobile software is designed to be used by government field inspectors to do their jobs more efficiently and easily. MeWe is also working on a version of the software that can be used by business owners and managers to conduct self-inspections.
Unlike many founders working in the government technology space, Suri has a background in government. Though he hasn’t worked in local government, he advised on economic policy at the White House National Economic Council under the first Obama administration. To better understand the unique perspective that Manik brings to his startup, Data-Smart City Solutions got on the phone with him for a wide-ranging interview about the challenges and benefits of working with local governments.
Data-Smart City Solutions: Have you found that that experience working in federal government has served you well working with local officials?
Manik Suri: I think it definitely helps. At the outset of our work, and as we go through the process of trying to build close relationships with officials, it does help to have appreciation for government workflow, for the constraints that government officials face, for the importance of their work, I think there’s a lot of empathy on our team for government officials, for people who are doing a lot of the hard work behind the scenes. There’s a lot of skepticism and cynicism about government in mainstream tech circles, and I think that the reality is that it’s particularly difficult and often thankless job, so we certainly feel a lot of empathy. And I think that helps us, it gives us an appreciation for the work, and it also helps us work through difficult issues.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge in working with cities and local governments?
Managing the sales cycle is really challenging. There’s a couple of aspects of that, but the procurement process in particular is difficult, complex, and time-consuming. And for a startup with limited resources, it’s very challenging to navigate that. When people tell you that the sale could happen between 12 and 18 months from now, it’s very hard when you’re planning around three- and six-month cycles to book revenue 18 months out. It’s just hard to grow a business that way, and to keep people on the team, and to keep everyone motivated.
I think I have a newfound appreciation for how difficult it is, and why it’s often established players, unfortunately, that are already on vendor lists that get these contracts. The reality is that a lot of folks who are selling into government with existing software systems in the inspections space are using dated software, but are on the vendor schedules already. They’re already contractors, they’re already approved vendors, or they have relationships in place for many years that just make it hard to go head on.
And I think people realize all of this on the government side. We’ve had dozens of conversations with government officials and bureaucrats who say: we know we’re using suboptimal software, or we know that we’re not where we could be.
What advice would you give to a local government official that wants to work effectively with emerging startups?
One of the most significant things that comes to mind is dedicating resources to such partnerships, really committing personnel and time. We’ve found that in the municipalities where we’re having the most progress, it’s really because there are folks on the government side who’ve committed time to actually helping us help them, to helping us understand their pain points, to working with us on beta tests in the field or in the office, to comparing results across different demos or across different versions of an application. That kind of close back-and-forth is not always easy to do with folks in government, because time is limited and resources are limited, there’s a lot of priorities. So to the extent that government officials can either appoint a person or designate a small team of people within a department or agency to really be the champions of such partnership efforts, I think that goes a long way to making these things successful.
At the end of the day, these government officials and government staff are the subject-matter experts. Folks like ourselves that are coming from the outside can really only build solutions that are effective if we can understand, if we can get ourselves into the heads and the minds of the real people doing the work.
What assets and perspectives do you think startups can contribute to government?
I think startups in general and public-private partnerships more broadly can bring expertise, particularly technical expertise, where there’s often a gap, just due to the pace of change in the private sector. The technologies that startups often bring to the table are less than two or three years old, so it would be very hard for governments to have procured that technology or have that expertise in house.
I think a second asset startups can bring is a mindset. It’s a truism, but startups really do bring an innovative risk-oriented approach, a willingness to fail fast, fail hard, to try things, and if they don’t work to move onto the next thing. It’s not something that’s often encouraged in government, for various reasons, and so I think that mindset can help move the needle on longstanding problems.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.