Building civic ‘Startup Communities’

Startup Communities

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of a more structured approach to community with respect to the civic technology movement, which is why I picked up Brad Feld’s ‘Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.’

Feld, a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, brings a huge dose of humility to his writing and genuinely seems to live up to his “give more than you get” mantra. He’s the founder of TechStars and is a big influence on Boulder’s emergence as a hub of technology entrepreneurs and startups, having organized regular meetups of various kinds to bring the community together.

I loved this book and spent the final pages reading it as I walked through SFO after just getting off a cross-country flight. Feld’s advice is comprehensive, concise and inspiring.

One relevant aspect of the book is a dedicated chapter on government, “Contrasts Between Entrepreneurs and Government,” that highlights the obvious differences between the two, and essentially designates government’s role more as a “feeder,” rather than leader, in fostering startup communities (a feeder encourages others to be part of the community).

His assessment is representative of how most entrepreneurs, especially civic entrepreneurs, see government:

Entrepreneurs often focus on the micro, that is, specific things that need to get done or will have impact. In contrast, government focuses on the macro. When I talk to leaders in government, they use words like global, macroeconomic, policy, innovation, and economic development. These are not words that entrepreneurs use; entrepreneurs talk about lean, startup, product, and people.

And here’s one that nails the traditional approach to government innovation:

Government is an instigator of feeder control. Although this happens at a federal, state, and local level, it’s most obvious at a state level. A new governor is elected. After the typical six-month settling-in process, he and the recently appointed head of economic development declare that innovation is a key driver of economic growth for the state and they convene an “innovation council.” This innovation council takes another six months to get going while it recruits the appropriate high-profile members. It then creates a set of high-profile public events to spread innovation across the state.

While other chapters include commentary and advice from others, the government one simply identified the obvious problems (which is a great first step, but I finished the chapter wanting ideas and solutions as was provided in others).

Feld has a great deal to offer the nascent civic technology community (especially civic startups), and I hope he follows up at some point on specific ideas and advice for government. His long-range approach to building community is aligned with the pace the public sector moves, and he would be instrumental in helping move the needle on the changes happening in government.

While there are a few semi-formal, regular civic technology communities emerging, like what we’ve started with CivicMeet and what Code for America is doing with CfA Brigade, there’s still not a heavy focus on building core communities beyond the hacker set.

For those in the civic technology community, having more leaders focused on bringing people together with regularity is much-needed and will be key as the movement goes forward. Feld’s book can help us get there.

Whether you’re in government or generally interested in building community, I highly recommend ‘Startup Communities.’

Watch the book’s trailer:

Startup Communities Book Trailer – Brad Feld from Simplifilm on Vimeo.

Luke Fretwell is the founder of the civic innovation and technology blog GovFresh. He advises civic leaders and businesses on how to best leverage digital strategies to create more effective, collaborative governments. He has written about government IT for Federal Computer Week, NextGov, FedScoop, StateScoop and FierceGovernment, and has been referenced by the Washington Post and Fast Company on civic technology issues. He has worked with a number of government-focused companies and media, including CivicActions, NuCivic and FedScoop and has been involved in broad-focused community efforts, such as GovPress, CityCamp, CivicMeet, Agile Government Leadership and Open Source for America. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


Thank you

Every day I get to engage with entrepreneurs, public sector innovators and journalists on re-imagining and re-energizing how government works, what it means to be “civic,” and this year has been an incredible one for many friends and colleagues.

Funding government technology

I’m always inspired talking and working with entrepreneurs trying to solve big civic problems, especially those who realize much of the challenge lies within modernizing and empowering internal government operations, so it was great to finally meet with Govtech Fund Founder and Managing Partner Ron Bouganim this week.

Government and the ’empowered product owner’

The 18F Delivery team released a “Partnership Playbook” that aims to help federal agencies understand what to expect when working with 18F, and the gem within is play number two, “We work with an empowered product owner.”

Benchmarking for better government

Citizens simply glaze over when they are confronted by a sea of large numbers with many zeros. These figures need to be relatable to the person reading the data. Otherwise, open data is just more data that dies on the vine.

Why local government must go digital

The Welsh Government released a report of its findings on how local government in Wales can better leverage digital technologies and realize significant savings while still providing quality, scalable citizen services.

‘No ugly, old IT.’

“No ugly, old IT” jumped out at me when I first reviewed DataSF’s strategic plan, “Data in San Francisco: Meeting supply, spurring demand,” and it still sticks, mostly because someone inside government was so bold as to make this a priority and openly communicate it and also because this should be a mantra for everyone building civic technology.

Why is a big deal

Enabling internal government tech shops to quickly stand up applications in a secure testing environment is fundamental to quick prototyping, and 18F’s new is a major step in realizing ultimate IT flexibility.


Follow GovFresh