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Anthony Jamison - CEO of Civstart

In this episode of The 3rd Question we talk with Anthony Jamison, CEO of Civstart about how his govtech accelerator is helping start-up companies aimed to help the government.

Video Transcrip

 

Ryan James:

Hello and welcome to the 3rd Question. Our video interview series with public sector thought leaders from around the country. And today's a little bit different. Today we have Anthony Jamison joining me. Anthony, thank you so much for sharing some time with me today.

 

Anthony Jamison:

Thank you, Ryan. I'm glad to be here.

 

Ryan James:

So, I'm going to let you tell the audience why you're on the 3rd Question. But before we get into your organization, why don't you tell us a little bit about you, your history and why you're so interested in the public sector?

 

Anthony Jamison:

Well, that's a loaded question.

 

Anthony Jamison:

Oh, man. Well, before we get into CivStart, my organization, a little bit of background about me. I'm not going to go deep into my work history, but I'll just go into what got me into the public sector. I first started my career at the National Association of Counties, NACo. And so I started off there. I had no clue. I didn't know what counties were. And so it was just a new world to me. I did not think I would be working anywhere remotely close to the public sector. But when I got into it and started progressing in my career at NACo, which I was there for about eight years. When I did corporate development there helping corporations navigate the county landscape, I started to understand the things that these officials were dealing with on a day to day.

 

Anthony Jamison:

These are things that we deal with as individuals that we don't see. And that was something that was very important to me, to want to dive a little bit deeper once I left NACo. So, when I started dealing with startups at NACo, it was a whole new lens I was looking through. Because I was used to dealing with these larger corporations, the Googles of the world, the Amazons of the world, right? And how they would do it. And not understanding that the smaller companies do not have the same type of bandwidth, budget access. Just all the things that you need to be able to survive in the GovTech space. I started a startup that wasn't in public sector. When I started a startup it was back in around 2015, 2016 timeframe. That's when I started to really understand the pains of what these founders and these teams go through. And going through that, not in public sector, I just knew that it was tenfold if you were to add in dealing with public procurement, you had to deal with trying to gain the trust of government officials. I would say that started my journey to CivStart public sector. And that's why I'm here today.

 

Ryan James:

Well, let's go into our first question and zero in a little bit about CivStart. So, why don't you spend a few minutes just talking to the audience about what CivStart is? What the core mission of CivStart is? And maybe some of the successes you've already been seeing with this ecosystem you've been building?

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yeah. So, CivStart we're a nonprofit GovTech accelerator. We're focused on building an honest and inclusive ecosystem of startups that serve state local governments in their communities. So our program is a little different than most accelerator programs where our programs are two years long. So the startup joins our program and they're in it for two years. And the reasoning is we want to ensure that the startup has the support they need to deliver honest services that they're providing to the government. So that's what we mean by when we say honest solutions. We aim to provide a holistic support to their businesses and help them de-risk their solution for entry into government. We want to speed up the adoption of these solutions within these communities. There's a whole lot we offer to the startups that go through our program.

 

Anthony Jamison:

We provide them with mentors depending on where they are in their life cycle. They can have a mentor that can help them focus on network building, or if it's around marketing and communications, or if it's around legal, you name it. It depends on where that startup is. We're stage-agnostic, but our sweet spot is where I would say that pre-seed to series A startups early land. The majority of our startups that come into our program already have some type of customer base. So even one customer is enough, right? We just need something to help us... It'll make it easier when we're taking you into these communities and helping you foster those relationships with localities that you have some government trust already.

 

Ryan James:

Proof point. You've got a proof point. It's been done, yeah. It's successful, yeah.

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yes. So you need to make sure that that's there. In terms of success now, and I don't know if we'll get into this later, but I'll just throw this out there. 2020 was a unique year for everyone, right? And so it did open up a lot of doors, though, for GovTech and allow for tech companies to get... It was an easier procurement opportunity for them because governments had to innovate quickly, right? And normally governments move slow, they don't normally move that fast.

 

Anthony Jamison:

But they're looking for efficient solutions that also can save them money. That also allow them to deliver on the services at the same level that their employees and constituents are used to receiving those services. So that opened up a lot of opportunities for the startups. And so a lot of startups on our program have benefited from that. If it's citizen engagement, you can go into vendor support, or business support solutions, even transportation solutions. So, yeah.

 

Ryan James:

Well, let me ask this before we get to our second question. Some technology is, let's call it, vertical agnostic. It doesn't really matter what vertical you're. Manufacturing, healthcare, government, et cetera, it doesn't really matter, the technology still works. But I've also seen where you get very verticalized in your approach. And from a startup perspective, I'm curious just your opinion on maybe the pros and cons of that verticalized approach.

 

Ryan James:

Because you and I both know. We've both been in the public sector sphere for 14 years now. Understanding that there's some unique challenges there, and it's not just permit. Sometimes it's just change management, changing how things are done. It's policies, it's union rules, et cetera, which some technologies may or may not be able to adopt to. So, I'm curious what's your thoughts and your opinions are to just a more verticalized approach versus that agnostic approach?

 

Anthony Jamison:

Well, I think the more verticalized approach, I would lean towards that more than trying to provide something for all. When you're first starting out, you probably want to think ahead that you're able to like, "Hey, I want to start off in human resources department." Or, "We want to focus on the transportation departments." But we know that we have the capability built in our solution if there's a need to go into health departments or something like that, right? The reason I say that is because I'm not even looking at just the governments, I'm looking at if you're even trying to survive through, if you're going out and raising capital. When you're raising capital and your market is very niched, sometimes that makes it very hard for you to go out and go to your traditional investors, to ask them to raise some money.

 

Anthony Jamison:

They're going to look at how big is your market? If you pigeonhole yourself into like, "Hey, we're only going to be focused on this and that's it," then you might run into some problems. But it helps you focus. It really helps you focus. It helps you understand what that customer needs are. And then once you're good with that customer, then you can explore to other customers. Companies like Esri, they've done that well, right? If you look at these really successful GovTech companies, they all started off in one area and then they expanded.

 

Ryan James:

Expanded, right?

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yeah.

 

Ryan James:

Okay. Well, this is a good segue into the second question because traditionally technology and innovation and the public sector, it's been a little bit of oil and water. Not always, there's some really innovative things that are going out there in the public sector space, but adoption seems to be a bit of a challenge at times to make change, at least historically. And you said it, 2020 brought a forced change for public sector organizations. What have you seen as some of those challenges? Or let's say the change has diminished, the adoption has diminished. And how have you and the CivStart's team been able to capitalize on this new work environment that we see?

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yeah. For that one, I would say governments usually operate under, and I'm going to use some terminology that Mitch Weiss, who is a professor over at Harvard Business School. He wrote a book on, "We the Possibility." Hopefully I said that title correctly. But governments usually are operating under what is probable, right? And then they look at all these different things like, "How much money do I have? What is our bandwidth?" They put up these objections right away before they even get things started.

 

Anthony Jamison:

They already have that checklist of roadblocks before even doing anything. And what 2020 did, it was a forced change, but it did start making governments think about what is possible, right? And if you remove some of these roadblocks, you can see how you can do things a little bit more transformative for your communities and force governments to operate more like entrepreneurs and live with like, "Hey, this might fail, but if it does succeed, it's going to be better for all of us in the long run." And so for us, we have a partnership with the National League of Cities, through the Kauffman foundation, which has been a really good relationship for us.

 

Anthony Jamison:

Where they have been working with cities and mayors and within these cities to help entrepreneurs, to build that support for them. And the work we've been doing within that program is helping cities understand how to work with startups, to start thinking about what's possible more than what's probable, right? And getting that buy-in from their leadership and having them just say, "Hey, here are some of our challenges. Let's see what's out there. Let's open it up and see if we can engage some of these earlier stage companies to help us solve some of these pressing issues." And it's been a huge success, right?

 

Anthony Jamison:

We're working with the Borough of Carlisle, very small city in Pennsylvania. But they implemented this engagement platform that we went out and sourced for them. Or, if we'll use the city of Maine or Texas, right outside of Austin. Working with a business support platform that's allowing them to provide information and permitting and all types of support to their local vendors and businesses that were hammered by COVID, right? By the pandemic.

 

Anthony Jamison:

But these are things that probably weren't going to happen anytime soon if 2020 didn't happen. And I don't see it going back, I don't see governments changing. It'll be hard for them to revert back to the old process. Now, has every government adopted this process? No. And that's why we're here. We're here to try to go out and educate governments as much as possible on what they can be doing. And like, "Hey, we're here to listen to you and understand what your challenges are and bring you the right solutions for those challenges."

 

Ryan James:

So, what I'm hearing is the flip. You flipped the equation in some ways. Because a lot of times I think startups are trying to see a problem and fix the problem. What you're doing is you're going to these public sector organizations saying, "What is your problem? Let us see if we can find the solution to that problem." I mean-

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yeah.

 

Ryan James:

... You know what I mean? It's a little bit... Which is great. You're going to the buyer and saying, "What's your challenge?"

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yeah. Because the one thing that we've noticed and when we first started CivStart was that a lot of companies will come out with these really flashy, cool-looking technologies. But is it really needed? Is it solving something, right? Your technology might be needed, but you're presenting it in the wrong way. Even my time at NACo, I would see that all the time, that this company... I'll just start hitting my head against the wall because I'm just like, "If I was in charge of this company, this is what I would say to governments around this." But they want to go pitch it a different way because that's what they're being told by their leadership. But for us, we want to make sure that we're bringing in solutions that are needed, not nice to have, right? And also startups that are looking to be partners with governments, not just vendors, right?

 

Ryan James:

Right.

 

Anthony Jamison:

That's the whole thing. Because the governments want to know that they can trust you. That's why they continue to go to the larger legacy companies because they know like, "Hey, I might pay X amount of dollars to them, but I know they're going to be there and I know what I'm going to get at it. And I'm not going to get fired for spending that amount of money versus even if I spent like $20,000 on a startup and everything just blows up in my face, then there might be some consequences to that, right?" So, yeah.

 

Ryan James:

Okay. All right. Well, listen, we've already got to the third question. So we're fast and furious here. And for this season, what I've been doing is I've been taking a blank check. I wrote you, I don't know if you can see it on there. I'm writing a CEO of a nonprofit a blank check I get. I get it-

 

Ryan James:

But let's just say that you did have the ability to take a blank check and invest it in CivStart for what your core mission is. What would you do with it and why?

 

Anthony Jamison:

Just to go back to what I was just talking about, going around and educating governments and making sure that they know what's out there. So we have a program that we are partnering with a government technology magazine. It's our state and local government innovation program. And what we're doing there is we're taking on cohorts of 15 or so governments a year. We'll have a theme, of course. And we're looking for them to provide buy-in from their leadership where we will identify those challenges that they're facing.

 

Anthony Jamison:

We'll work with them to really go out and secure that, do all of the heavy lifting, what startups are out there that can provide that support. And then we will be program managing the entire pilot engagement between the government and the startup. Now, if we have that blank cheque, what we will love to do is be able to double that number of governments so that we can reach more governments throughout the year. I think the approach we have right now, we're seeing a lot of success, but we would love to bring in more governments and support more governments as much as possible through this program.

 

Ryan James:

Well, listen, I think success breeds more success. And hopefully, as you guys continue this momentum... I mean, one of the reasons I love doing this show or series is that you start connecting with more and more people. Because people are very interested in all things public sector, and ways to be more efficient, and how are other people doing things maybe more efficiently or strategically? And so, for what you guys are doing, I'm sure that as it continues to grow, you're going to have that opportunity to double and triple and make it a bigger opportunity than it is today.

 

Ryan James:

Because it's early days yet for you, but I love the mission. I love what you guys are up to. I think anyone who works as a partner with a public sector organization. Or even if they're vendors or not, you still have to have a passion for this space. I think that shines through. It definitely does in our conversations. So I appreciate you spending a little bit of time with me today to share a little more about CivStart. Do you want to say where your website and all that and just-

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yeah. You can find us, our website it's CivStart.org. So C-I-V-S-T-A-R-T dot O-R-G. And you can find our government page there as well to see what we provide. One thing I wanted to throw out there, everything we do for governments, it's all free. We don't charge governments, anything. We want to bring more governments to the fold as much as possible so if we can provide them with any type of services. It doesn't even have to fall into our main core programs. If you're a government and you're trying to address a problem, or you want to engage startup communities nationally, or you want to engage startup communities locally, we would love to hear from you. And we can figure out ways to work with you all and help you become a part of this ecosystem.

 

Ryan James:

Awesome. Well, I know there's people in the government space that watched this series. So, hey, the magic word was, free, I believe. For most governments, that's always a good thing. So, Anthony, thank you so much for joining me. I hope you have a great rest of your week and I really appreciate your time. Look forward to staying in touch with you.

 

Anthony Jamison:

Yeah. Thanks, Ryan.