Govtech

Insights from a Govtech Founder Part 1/2

Last month, govtech startup Indigov agreed to a partnership with the state of Michigan to improves constituent services. UrbanTech sat down with Indigov's CEO to learn insights on scaling a govtech startup and how the company thinks about the future of constituent services.

John Thomey
John Thomey
Aug 2, 2021
Insights from a Govtech Founder Part 1/2
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR

Indigov is on a mission to transform how constituents interact with their representatives. Indigov's CEO Alex Kouts joined the UrbanTech community to share his experience scaling a gov tech startup and how we can change our relationship with government through better communication.

J.T.: Alex, can you introduce yourself first and then just give an overview of indigo and what y'all do, and maybe tease a little bit of the recent partnership with the state of Michigan?

AK: Yeah, absolutely happy to do it. So first off, thanks for having us.

We're super excited, and anybody who likes to talk about technology and government is a friend of mine. Appreciate the time. I'm the founder and CEO of Indigov and Indigov is, effectively a constituent service management platform designed for modern elected representatives.

If anyone has ever worked in an elected representative office, while they're at the congressional level, or the state and local level, you probably used antiquated tools built 40 years ago by defense contractors or pieces of paper. I think in government, we have an attitude because the government is a fortune, one company; it's never going to go out of business.

It's not in a constant state of entropy like normal private market companies that have to innovate in order to stay alive in government. We have the opportunity of surviving forever. 

A big problem that we zeroed in on is constituent services. There are hundreds of millions of Americans, hundreds of millions of participants in our democracy. We have 570,000 elected officials in the U.S. who are fielding billions of messages a year. And they don't have the tools to do that effectively.

During COVID, when things have gone nuts and people rely on their government more than they ever have before, the number of incoming requests and messages going into elected representative offices has been exploding year over year. We'd seen a five-x increase in incoming comms to elected reps because they're new channels like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and more email and SMS and all these things.

We designed Indigov to be a modern platform, accepting messages from all different channels, through which people can reach out to their elected representatives to sort, help people move through them a lot more quickly, and filter them in meaningful ways. As an example, by the way, 85% of mail that comes into congressional offices comes from advocacy organizations like one-click politics type stuff; their staffers have to manually go through that influx.

We built tools to help them manage it the way a private market company would. And so all the messages come in from social media, from websites, We even integrate with their phone systems. Someone, calls up the opposite, automatically logs in the system. And so they can really quickly respond to those people with a much higher level of service.

We also have mobile applications so that people can actually do this in the field, which also makes sense because politics happens everywhere. It doesn't just happen in the office. And so our mission holistically is to support the functioning of democracy by helping people.

J.T.: How did you stumble into govtech and what makes it difficult to innovate in?

AK: First off. So for my background. I've been building and scaling tech companies in the Bay Area my entire career.

I hate to use the term Silicon Valley, but that's where I learned technology. The first thing that you have to understand is that the government buys technology far differently than the private market. I think everyone generally understands this, but I don't think they really understand how it's different.

People will tell you that the government buys technology or modern SAS platforms the same way they buy tanks or paperclips, because it is the truth. That's what the RFP process was designed for. It was designed for something before technology existed in the way that it does now.

So first off, you have to understand the dynamic of why and how people buy, then figure out strategies for who you're selling to that are super targeted. The more targeted you're going to be,  the better off you're going to be. But to the larger point of, how do you get people to engage with this kind of stuff?

It's not too dissimilar from organizational design and change management. I'm always looking for private market analogs for what people do in government, because I think. If you try and do everything that government contractors and prime vendors have done, you'll be just like them. You won't compete with them because they have a significant rent-seeking and an incumbent provider advantage.

The way that I've always looked at it is you get as high a level as you possibly can in whatever organization you're working in. You really drum up the possibility of significant savings and efficiency. Often unlike in the private market where people will think about branding or sales and government, it tends to be more efficient, service delivery things that align with key missions or whatever agency you're selling to.

I think the problem that many government tech companies have, especially from the more idealistic founders who don't really understand what they're about to get into, is they'll go directly to the end-user. That's always a mistake because in government it's a forced hierarchical system.

And so decision-making comes top down. People look up for approbation, and they look up for permission instead of doing things independently because the government's not designed to be an innovative risk-taking environment. 

It's designed to be a contemplative , deliberate, non-discriminatory body that's responsibly allocating funding. The angle of approach for having conversations and opening them is as important as the conversation and the product itself, if not more important in a lot of cases. And really sitting down and lining up your chessboard for, at our agency, you're working with them like, who do I need to sell to?

An acute understanding of personal dynamics is in the sales process. Now, if you do it efficiently and if you really figure it out, like we have at Indigov, which is why we've had the rapid scaling that we have, you can dramatically reduce your sales costs for growing your business. Most V.C.s say the upfront sales cost that you have to eat to get that business live is so high. It's not a venture fundable business. And so that's true if you haven't figured it out, if you go at it like a normal development process. Ideally, you want the government to fund the innovation and development of your product.

J.T.: How do you compare types of engagement? Is there a weight given and  importance or comparatively to the means someone reaches out?

AK: Yeah. So I'll, step back and answer it at a very holistic point of view, but we can dive in to some interesting examples, but generally I would say that over the past decade and I would really say it's been a concerted trend I've seen over the past, like 10 to 14 years maybe: politics becomes more public.

That was never the case. If you talk to me, when I was a kid, my grandparents would have cross-fire or CSPAN like on the T.V. at all times. And it was something that like people that define themselves as politically engaged were actually given a crap about political issues beyond specific social spikes of things they really care about.

That's not the case anymore. Almost every single issue that we're dealing with at a societal level is a political, governmental governance-related issue. And so when you talk about what's been happening with BLM or some of the protests that were happening in D.C. around women's rights and things like that, especially in the last administration, these are all political issues.

For example, AOC is living rent free in the brains of every conservative in the U.S., whereas from a policy and input impact perspective, there's no reason she should be other than the political ire. Our culture is like carrying her to that level of earned media. We're talking like tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of earned media for these politicians.

It's incredible. And I think social media and the way that the internet is indexed with engagement based content ranking algorithms has accelerated that in a really crazy way. And so number one, I would say politics has become pop culture. That's a very big trend that we've seen, and that changes the dynamic of civic engagement.

The other is obviously an explosion in the amount of incoming communication from an explosion in available channels. 

I've met with people at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and others who are having a product crisis because people are using their product for political communication. Whereas it was not designed for that. Facebook was not designed for that. It's designed for depth of usage, ad view, and density, right?

That's what the product is optimized for --  not for meaningful political discourse. The disconnect there is while Twitter and Facebook and others recognize that's something that they want to accomplish. That's not the path dependency or the implicit expectation of value that people have when they go to those platforms, they go there to rant, and that rant becomes the conversation and that conversation then goes to the elected representative.

Another really interesting one that we've seen is the way in which society metabolizes political ideas is so insane, like relative to what you used to. If you watch The Tiger King documentaries, and I'm not exaggerating, I would say self-reported from our clients, your members of Congress, state, and local representatives, something like 80% of their incoming communication was about Tiger King. That's what people were talking about. So a Netflix documentary can dramatically change the political conversation we're having in this country, especially ones that are irrelevant and ridiculous.

Obviously, the most important one aside from the pop culture stuff is, during COVID. There are people who are losing their houses, who can't work, who desperately need the government to help them unlock unemployment insurance benefits. We've also seen situations with veterans coming back from active duty overseas who were trying to get the V.A. to give them access to services or therapies or psychotropic medications.

The amount of those requests and the importance and intensity of those requests has also exploded dramatically. The amount of unemployment insurance requests that states are fielding, for example.

If representatives don't respond, the consequences are significant, much more so than just answering a policy question, which would have been what they would have been doing primarily five, six years ago.

J.T.:  There are people like AOC or Dan Crenshaw who want to be pop culture figures, but what do you think about local leaders or the people who are just interested in constituent services? Or ones just interested in pushing policies rather than raising their profiles? 

AK: It's a fair question. So yeah, politics is, they're different at different levels of government, right? And I think one of the things that changes the most is obviously like name, I.D., and scope of responsibility and things like that.

But the other big one is the expectations, right? Like at the federal level, people expect different things than a local representative. The other huge difference is accountability. Like for local elected representatives, if they don't answer someone, they may see that person at church. Or like a KFC on the weekends and that's going to become painful.

They also know the people that are reaching out to them in many cases. That's what a lot of people don't understand. There are 570,000 electric officials in the U.S. These people are like local soccer coaches, or like they are a local, small business owner or someone who's retired and has time on their hands and wants to get back.

And so they are truly parts of the community. And so I would say at that level, the big ideas, like just keeping track of everything that they're doing. And so if you have, let's say you're there, you're a person, and you don't have a staff. At the federal level, they have 12 to 20 staff members, like in an office on an average basis, they're capped at 18 full-time staffers, but they have fellows and interns and things like that. At the state level, a state level representative may have two or three. If their leadership, maybe a little bit more. At a local level, there likely isn't a staff, like maybe they're shared staff resources or like an intern.

And so if they don't have a system where they're managing these things and keeping track of them, they can lose them amongst the other responsibilities of their job. And so one of the things we have in our tool is a reminder, a little reminder feature, right? So if someone asks for help with a government agency and I reach out to a government agency, I can also do through Indigov inside the app.

We have a contact book of all the agencies you could work with. There's a great example from an alderman in Chicago we were speaking with the other day, and so he has street lights that go out on a block, and it's dangerous for people to walk at night.

He doesn't really have a big platform, but he can use our tool to proactively communicate with those people because we give them lists of everyone that they represent. And so they can talk to them and they can make special announcements if they have to. He basically can reach out now and say, "hey, listen, like there are street lights out and it's gonna be repaired next Tuesday."

Hey, I can say that I actually have this person's contact info because I serve them. It is my job to serve them. I should have that information to reach out as a huge use case if something comes out. And so with Indigov, we give people a  map that they can zoom in to the street level and see who they represent so they can talk to them. 

We don't have contact information for everybody. But when we do, that's significant, we have a very broad coverage because we can use voter files. In my opinion, without that type of technology, without that type of data, it's impossible for representatives to do their job.

You put yourself in officials' shoes, like you're elected to do a job, and you don't know who you represent? You can't communicate with them. You can't make announcements, you can't do things you need to. That's doing your job with two hands tied behind your back. Our goal is to give them the platform that they need to be able to do that.

At the local level, the issues have become much more focused: speed bumps, trash cans, parking, meters, lights, things like that. But the irony is that those small things at a local level affect people's lives a lot more than most things that happen at the federal level.

The truth is all politics are local. And so at the local level, it gets more targeted.

J.T.: What advice would you give to readers thinking about innovation and the public sector?

AK:. Yeah, I would say a couple of things. So if you're looking to found a govtech company I would first spend an enormous amount of time studying failures.

That's what I did for years before I founded Indigov. I looked at every company in the Bay Area that had tried to make the jump to govtech. And I met with the founders. I reached out to people, and I talked to employees who tried govtech before.

So structurally, the way I built Indigov was determined by the data that I saw from people who couldn't make it work before. A great example of that is that I saw many companies with really innovative, smart engineering staff and put them in direct contact with government bureaucrats who had no technical expertise.

They burned through engineering teams rapidly. When you put a Silicon Valley engineer in front of a government official who's been working with COBOL systems for years, that's a really big cultural divide that burns through people, so I saw an enormous amount of churn. 

Another one  I saw is a lot of small govtech companies think the smart way to grow with the conventional wisdom is we're going to be a subcontractor to other prime vendors. And think they'll be a prime vendor themselves. That's a very slippery slope. In my opinion, I don't work with prime vendors because my general impression is that those vendors, their core competency is managing contracts and relationships.

They're going to do everything they can do to own those because that's their core competency. And so there's an enormous disincentive for you to grow your business the way you want subbing to other prompts.

My holistic advice is to study failures. Read articles, look at horror stories, do not study success stories at all. Don't study Indigov in terms of how we work, because what worked for us will not work for you, but what didn't work for other people is much more likely to not work for you.

The other thing I would say is solicit negative feedback constantly. And I would tell that of any entrepreneur in any situation. If you're building commercial companies previously in your career, there'll be a lot of people who will tell you that govtech companies are not going to work.

Solicit that feedback, hear that feedback, internalize that feedback, hear them over and over again, and solicit as much as you can until you stop hearing new things. And if you don't have convincing answers to all the reasons people will tell you this won't work, you're not going in the right direction.

That's true of anyone starting any company, soliciting negative feedback early, often constantly internalizing it and answering it before you want to move on and start taking the leap. 

The last thing I would say and this is true for all types of companies and guts do not exhibit the traditional Silicon Valley, which is building solutions in search of problems. 

That's the biggest mistake most founders make. That's my big problem, A.R. and blockchain and all those things, right? Like these are people who are excited by the type of technology they have. And then they're desperately looking for solutions. Work for that technology.

That is a fool's errand. That is the sure-fire way to waste an enormous amount of money and a lot of your own time and get burnt out. And so think about problems first, get into a government agency in whatever way you can, whether it's casual conversations or interning or consulting or whatever, learn about a specific problem, and then build solutions to those problems.

Government tech transformation design is extremely difficult, much more so than any other private market company I've ever built. More so than for all of these social media, consumer applications, crowdfunding platforms, gaming, whatever -- govtech is harder.

It is just because you have to play human chess while building things; it's a very complicated place. And one of the most valuable things you can have in your toolset and managing that is humor. It's a core part of our company culture. You have to. What about this stuff? Otherwise, you will tax yourself into oblivion emotionally and not be able to figure this stuff out.

You have to be in it for the long haul. Humor was designed by humans. I believe it is a pressure release valve. And so if you're doing something hard, if you want to make something great, and it's going to take years, you gotta be able to joke about it. And that, that's a huge part of who we are at Indigov also.

Part 2 of UrbanTech's conversation with Indigov CEO Alex Kouts will publish later this week.


Indigov is on a mission to transform how constituents interact with their representatives. Indigov's CEO Alex Kouts joined the UrbanTech community to share his experience scaling a gov tech startup and how we can change our relationship with government through better communication.

J.T.: Alex, can you introduce yourself first and then just give an overview of indigo and what y'all do, and maybe tease a little bit of the recent partnership with the state of Michigan?

AK: Yeah, absolutely happy to do it. So first off, thanks for having us.

We're super excited, and anybody who likes to talk about technology and government is a friend of mine. Appreciate the time. I'm the founder and CEO of Indigov and Indigov is, effectively a constituent service management platform designed for modern elected representatives.

If anyone has ever worked in an elected representative office, while they're at the congressional level, or the state and local level, you probably used antiquated tools built 40 years ago by defense contractors or pieces of paper. I think in government, we have an attitude because the government is a fortune, one company; it's never going to go out of business.

It's not in a constant state of entropy like normal private market companies that have to innovate in order to stay alive in government. We have the opportunity of surviving forever. 

A big problem that we zeroed in on is constituent services. There are hundreds of millions of Americans, hundreds of millions of participants in our democracy. We have 570,000 elected officials in the U.S. who are fielding billions of messages a year. And they don't have the tools to do that effectively.

During COVID, when things have gone nuts and people rely on their government more than they ever have before, the number of incoming requests and messages going into elected representative offices has been exploding year over year. We'd seen a five-x increase in incoming comms to elected reps because they're new channels like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and more email and SMS and all these things.

We designed Indigov to be a modern platform, accepting messages from all different channels, through which people can reach out to their elected representatives to sort, help people move through them a lot more quickly, and filter them in meaningful ways. As an example, by the way, 85% of mail that comes into congressional offices comes from advocacy organizations like one-click politics type stuff; their staffers have to manually go through that influx.

We built tools to help them manage it the way a private market company would. And so all the messages come in from social media, from websites, We even integrate with their phone systems. Someone, calls up the opposite, automatically logs in the system. And so they can really quickly respond to those people with a much higher level of service.

We also have mobile applications so that people can actually do this in the field, which also makes sense because politics happens everywhere. It doesn't just happen in the office. And so our mission holistically is to support the functioning of democracy by helping people.

J.T.: How did you stumble into govtech and what makes it difficult to innovate in?

AK: First off. So for my background. I've been building and scaling tech companies in the Bay Area my entire career.

I hate to use the term Silicon Valley, but that's where I learned technology. The first thing that you have to understand is that the government buys technology far differently than the private market. I think everyone generally understands this, but I don't think they really understand how it's different.

People will tell you that the government buys technology or modern SAS platforms the same way they buy tanks or paperclips, because it is the truth. That's what the RFP process was designed for. It was designed for something before technology existed in the way that it does now.

So first off, you have to understand the dynamic of why and how people buy, then figure out strategies for who you're selling to that are super targeted. The more targeted you're going to be,  the better off you're going to be. But to the larger point of, how do you get people to engage with this kind of stuff?

It's not too dissimilar from organizational design and change management. I'm always looking for private market analogs for what people do in government, because I think. If you try and do everything that government contractors and prime vendors have done, you'll be just like them. You won't compete with them because they have a significant rent-seeking and an incumbent provider advantage.

The way that I've always looked at it is you get as high a level as you possibly can in whatever organization you're working in. You really drum up the possibility of significant savings and efficiency. Often unlike in the private market where people will think about branding or sales and government, it tends to be more efficient, service delivery things that align with key missions or whatever agency you're selling to.

I think the problem that many government tech companies have, especially from the more idealistic founders who don't really understand what they're about to get into, is they'll go directly to the end-user. That's always a mistake because in government it's a forced hierarchical system.

And so decision-making comes top down. People look up for approbation, and they look up for permission instead of doing things independently because the government's not designed to be an innovative risk-taking environment. 

It's designed to be a contemplative , deliberate, non-discriminatory body that's responsibly allocating funding. The angle of approach for having conversations and opening them is as important as the conversation and the product itself, if not more important in a lot of cases. And really sitting down and lining up your chessboard for, at our agency, you're working with them like, who do I need to sell to?

An acute understanding of personal dynamics is in the sales process. Now, if you do it efficiently and if you really figure it out, like we have at Indigov, which is why we've had the rapid scaling that we have, you can dramatically reduce your sales costs for growing your business. Most V.C.s say the upfront sales cost that you have to eat to get that business live is so high. It's not a venture fundable business. And so that's true if you haven't figured it out, if you go at it like a normal development process. Ideally, you want the government to fund the innovation and development of your product.

J.T.: How do you compare types of engagement? Is there a weight given and  importance or comparatively to the means someone reaches out?

AK: Yeah. So I'll, step back and answer it at a very holistic point of view, but we can dive in to some interesting examples, but generally I would say that over the past decade and I would really say it's been a concerted trend I've seen over the past, like 10 to 14 years maybe: politics becomes more public.

That was never the case. If you talk to me, when I was a kid, my grandparents would have cross-fire or CSPAN like on the T.V. at all times. And it was something that like people that define themselves as politically engaged were actually given a crap about political issues beyond specific social spikes of things they really care about.

That's not the case anymore. Almost every single issue that we're dealing with at a societal level is a political, governmental governance-related issue. And so when you talk about what's been happening with BLM or some of the protests that were happening in D.C. around women's rights and things like that, especially in the last administration, these are all political issues.

For example, AOC is living rent free in the brains of every conservative in the U.S., whereas from a policy and input impact perspective, there's no reason she should be other than the political ire. Our culture is like carrying her to that level of earned media. We're talking like tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of earned media for these politicians.

It's incredible. And I think social media and the way that the internet is indexed with engagement based content ranking algorithms has accelerated that in a really crazy way. And so number one, I would say politics has become pop culture. That's a very big trend that we've seen, and that changes the dynamic of civic engagement.

The other is obviously an explosion in the amount of incoming communication from an explosion in available channels. 

I've met with people at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and others who are having a product crisis because people are using their product for political communication. Whereas it was not designed for that. Facebook was not designed for that. It's designed for depth of usage, ad view, and density, right?

That's what the product is optimized for --  not for meaningful political discourse. The disconnect there is while Twitter and Facebook and others recognize that's something that they want to accomplish. That's not the path dependency or the implicit expectation of value that people have when they go to those platforms, they go there to rant, and that rant becomes the conversation and that conversation then goes to the elected representative.

Another really interesting one that we've seen is the way in which society metabolizes political ideas is so insane, like relative to what you used to. If you watch The Tiger King documentaries, and I'm not exaggerating, I would say self-reported from our clients, your members of Congress, state, and local representatives, something like 80% of their incoming communication was about Tiger King. That's what people were talking about. So a Netflix documentary can dramatically change the political conversation we're having in this country, especially ones that are irrelevant and ridiculous.

Obviously, the most important one aside from the pop culture stuff is, during COVID. There are people who are losing their houses, who can't work, who desperately need the government to help them unlock unemployment insurance benefits. We've also seen situations with veterans coming back from active duty overseas who were trying to get the V.A. to give them access to services or therapies or psychotropic medications.

The amount of those requests and the importance and intensity of those requests has also exploded dramatically. The amount of unemployment insurance requests that states are fielding, for example.

If representatives don't respond, the consequences are significant, much more so than just answering a policy question, which would have been what they would have been doing primarily five, six years ago.

J.T.:  There are people like AOC or Dan Crenshaw who want to be pop culture figures, but what do you think about local leaders or the people who are just interested in constituent services? Or ones just interested in pushing policies rather than raising their profiles? 

AK: It's a fair question. So yeah, politics is, they're different at different levels of government, right? And I think one of the things that changes the most is obviously like name, I.D., and scope of responsibility and things like that.

But the other big one is the expectations, right? Like at the federal level, people expect different things than a local representative. The other huge difference is accountability. Like for local elected representatives, if they don't answer someone, they may see that person at church. Or like a KFC on the weekends and that's going to become painful.

They also know the people that are reaching out to them in many cases. That's what a lot of people don't understand. There are 570,000 electric officials in the U.S. These people are like local soccer coaches, or like they are a local, small business owner or someone who's retired and has time on their hands and wants to get back.

And so they are truly parts of the community. And so I would say at that level, the big ideas, like just keeping track of everything that they're doing. And so if you have, let's say you're there, you're a person, and you don't have a staff. At the federal level, they have 12 to 20 staff members, like in an office on an average basis, they're capped at 18 full-time staffers, but they have fellows and interns and things like that. At the state level, a state level representative may have two or three. If their leadership, maybe a little bit more. At a local level, there likely isn't a staff, like maybe they're shared staff resources or like an intern.

And so if they don't have a system where they're managing these things and keeping track of them, they can lose them amongst the other responsibilities of their job. And so one of the things we have in our tool is a reminder, a little reminder feature, right? So if someone asks for help with a government agency and I reach out to a government agency, I can also do through Indigov inside the app.

We have a contact book of all the agencies you could work with. There's a great example from an alderman in Chicago we were speaking with the other day, and so he has street lights that go out on a block, and it's dangerous for people to walk at night.

He doesn't really have a big platform, but he can use our tool to proactively communicate with those people because we give them lists of everyone that they represent. And so they can talk to them and they can make special announcements if they have to. He basically can reach out now and say, "hey, listen, like there are street lights out and it's gonna be repaired next Tuesday."

Hey, I can say that I actually have this person's contact info because I serve them. It is my job to serve them. I should have that information to reach out as a huge use case if something comes out. And so with Indigov, we give people a  map that they can zoom in to the street level and see who they represent so they can talk to them. 

We don't have contact information for everybody. But when we do, that's significant, we have a very broad coverage because we can use voter files. In my opinion, without that type of technology, without that type of data, it's impossible for representatives to do their job.

You put yourself in officials' shoes, like you're elected to do a job, and you don't know who you represent? You can't communicate with them. You can't make announcements, you can't do things you need to. That's doing your job with two hands tied behind your back. Our goal is to give them the platform that they need to be able to do that.

At the local level, the issues have become much more focused: speed bumps, trash cans, parking, meters, lights, things like that. But the irony is that those small things at a local level affect people's lives a lot more than most things that happen at the federal level.

The truth is all politics are local. And so at the local level, it gets more targeted.

J.T.: What advice would you give to readers thinking about innovation and the public sector?

AK:. Yeah, I would say a couple of things. So if you're looking to found a govtech company I would first spend an enormous amount of time studying failures.

That's what I did for years before I founded Indigov. I looked at every company in the Bay Area that had tried to make the jump to govtech. And I met with the founders. I reached out to people, and I talked to employees who tried govtech before.

So structurally, the way I built Indigov was determined by the data that I saw from people who couldn't make it work before. A great example of that is that I saw many companies with really innovative, smart engineering staff and put them in direct contact with government bureaucrats who had no technical expertise.

They burned through engineering teams rapidly. When you put a Silicon Valley engineer in front of a government official who's been working with COBOL systems for years, that's a really big cultural divide that burns through people, so I saw an enormous amount of churn. 

Another one  I saw is a lot of small govtech companies think the smart way to grow with the conventional wisdom is we're going to be a subcontractor to other prime vendors. And think they'll be a prime vendor themselves. That's a very slippery slope. In my opinion, I don't work with prime vendors because my general impression is that those vendors, their core competency is managing contracts and relationships.

They're going to do everything they can do to own those because that's their core competency. And so there's an enormous disincentive for you to grow your business the way you want subbing to other prompts.

My holistic advice is to study failures. Read articles, look at horror stories, do not study success stories at all. Don't study Indigov in terms of how we work, because what worked for us will not work for you, but what didn't work for other people is much more likely to not work for you.

The other thing I would say is solicit negative feedback constantly. And I would tell that of any entrepreneur in any situation. If you're building commercial companies previously in your career, there'll be a lot of people who will tell you that govtech companies are not going to work.

Solicit that feedback, hear that feedback, internalize that feedback, hear them over and over again, and solicit as much as you can until you stop hearing new things. And if you don't have convincing answers to all the reasons people will tell you this won't work, you're not going in the right direction.

That's true of anyone starting any company, soliciting negative feedback early, often constantly internalizing it and answering it before you want to move on and start taking the leap. 

The last thing I would say and this is true for all types of companies and guts do not exhibit the traditional Silicon Valley, which is building solutions in search of problems. 

That's the biggest mistake most founders make. That's my big problem, A.R. and blockchain and all those things, right? Like these are people who are excited by the type of technology they have. And then they're desperately looking for solutions. Work for that technology.

That is a fool's errand. That is the sure-fire way to waste an enormous amount of money and a lot of your own time and get burnt out. And so think about problems first, get into a government agency in whatever way you can, whether it's casual conversations or interning or consulting or whatever, learn about a specific problem, and then build solutions to those problems.

Government tech transformation design is extremely difficult, much more so than any other private market company I've ever built. More so than for all of these social media, consumer applications, crowdfunding platforms, gaming, whatever -- govtech is harder.

It is just because you have to play human chess while building things; it's a very complicated place. And one of the most valuable things you can have in your toolset and managing that is humor. It's a core part of our company culture. You have to. What about this stuff? Otherwise, you will tax yourself into oblivion emotionally and not be able to figure this stuff out.

You have to be in it for the long haul. Humor was designed by humans. I believe it is a pressure release valve. And so if you're doing something hard, if you want to make something great, and it's going to take years, you gotta be able to joke about it. And that, that's a huge part of who we are at Indigov also.

Part 2 of UrbanTech's conversation with Indigov CEO Alex Kouts will publish later this week.


Insights from a Govtech Founder Part 1/2

John Thomey

John Thomey is a founder of Urban Tech, a newsletter and podcast. He’s a graduate student at the University of Southern California, studying Public Policy and Urban Planning.

You might also like...

Investing in a City Through Crypto
Oct 1, 2021
Govtech
Investing in a City Through Crypto
UrbanTech sits down with the founder of CityCoin to learn how citizens can invest in their cities using crypto and gain rewards.
Keep Reading →
Investing in a City Through Crypto
Oct 1, 2021
Govtech
Investing in a City Through Crypto
UrbanTech sits down with the founder of CityCoin to learn how citizens can invest in their cities using crypto and gain rewards.
Keep Reading →
Investing in a City Through Crypto
Oct 1, 2021
Govtech

Investing in a City Through Crypto

UrbanTech sits down with the founder of CityCoin to learn how citizens can invest in their cities using crypto and gain rewards.
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR
Insights from a Leading Urban Tech Investor
Aug 12, 2021
Business
Insights from a Leading Urban Tech Investor
JT sits down with Micah Kotch, the CEO of Urban-X an accelerator focused on the urban tech space. Micah shares his thoughts on the last year in the space and what trends and themes have caught his eye in the space.
Keep Reading →
Insights from a Leading Urban Tech Investor
Aug 12, 2021
Business
Insights from a Leading Urban Tech Investor
JT sits down with Micah Kotch, the CEO of Urban-X an accelerator focused on the urban tech space. Micah shares his thoughts on the last year in the space and what trends and themes have caught his eye in the space.
Keep Reading →
Insights from a Leading Urban Tech Investor
Aug 12, 2021
Business

Insights from a Leading Urban Tech Investor

JT sits down with Micah Kotch, the CEO of Urban-X an accelerator focused on the urban tech space. Micah shares his thoughts on the last year in the space and what trends and themes have caught his eye in the space.
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR
Parking Compliance - Unleashing the Potential of Shared Micromobility
Jul 26, 2021
Opinion
Parking Compliance - Unleashing the Potential of Shared Micromobility
Alex Nesic, Cofounder and Chief Business Officer of Drover AI, explains the parking dilemma facing micromobility.
Keep Reading →
Parking Compliance - Unleashing the Potential of Shared Micromobility
Jul 26, 2021
Opinion
Parking Compliance - Unleashing the Potential of Shared Micromobility
Alex Nesic, Cofounder and Chief Business Officer of Drover AI, explains the parking dilemma facing micromobility.
Keep Reading →
Parking Compliance - Unleashing the Potential of Shared Micromobility
Jul 26, 2021
Opinion

Parking Compliance - Unleashing the Potential of Shared Micromobility

Alex Nesic, Cofounder and Chief Business Officer of Drover AI, explains the parking dilemma facing micromobility.
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR
UrbanTech Market Map Series #2: Zooming into Energy Tech
Jul 20, 2021
Climate Tech
UrbanTech Market Map Series #2: Zooming into Energy Tech
In the second piece in the UrbanTech Market Map Series, JT shares details on the companies the UrbanTech community is tracking.
Keep Reading →
UrbanTech Market Map Series #2: Zooming into Energy Tech
Jul 20, 2021
Climate Tech
UrbanTech Market Map Series #2: Zooming into Energy Tech
In the second piece in the UrbanTech Market Map Series, JT shares details on the companies the UrbanTech community is tracking.
Keep Reading →
UrbanTech Market Map Series #2: Zooming into Energy Tech
Jul 20, 2021
Climate Tech

UrbanTech Market Map Series #2: Zooming into Energy Tech

In the second piece in the UrbanTech Market Map Series, JT shares details on the companies the UrbanTech community is tracking.
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR
The Adoption for Building Sustainability Continues to Lag
Jul 1, 2021
Climate Tech
The Adoption for Building Sustainability Continues to Lag
To learn more on how we can scale technologies focused on decarbonizing the built environment, JT sat down with Kate Frucher, co-founder and managing director of The Clean Fight, the first growth-stage clean energy accelerator backed by New York State, through its energy agency NYSERDA.
Keep Reading →
The Adoption for Building Sustainability Continues to Lag
Jul 1, 2021
Climate Tech
The Adoption for Building Sustainability Continues to Lag
To learn more on how we can scale technologies focused on decarbonizing the built environment, JT sat down with Kate Frucher, co-founder and managing director of The Clean Fight, the first growth-stage clean energy accelerator backed by New York State, through its energy agency NYSERDA.
Keep Reading →
The Adoption for Building Sustainability Continues to Lag
Jul 1, 2021
Climate Tech

The Adoption for Building Sustainability Continues to Lag

To learn more on how we can scale technologies focused on decarbonizing the built environment, JT sat down with Kate Frucher, co-founder and managing director of The Clean Fight, the first growth-stage clean energy accelerator backed by New York State, through its energy agency NYSERDA.
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR
It's Now Inevitable: Tech Is Going to Transform the $11 Trillion Housing Industry
Jun 30, 2021
Opinion
It's Now Inevitable: Tech Is Going to Transform the $11 Trillion Housing Industry
Phillip King, vice president and principal product manager at ServiceLink, unpacks real estate's race for digital transformation and why machine learning and an omnichannel retail strategy are two ways the sector could look to innovate.
Keep Reading →
It's Now Inevitable: Tech Is Going to Transform the $11 Trillion Housing Industry
Jun 30, 2021
Opinion
It's Now Inevitable: Tech Is Going to Transform the $11 Trillion Housing Industry
Phillip King, vice president and principal product manager at ServiceLink, unpacks real estate's race for digital transformation and why machine learning and an omnichannel retail strategy are two ways the sector could look to innovate.
Keep Reading →
It's Now Inevitable: Tech Is Going to Transform the $11 Trillion Housing Industry
Jun 30, 2021
Opinion

It's Now Inevitable: Tech Is Going to Transform the $11 Trillion Housing Industry

Phillip King, vice president and principal product manager at ServiceLink, unpacks real estate's race for digital transformation and why machine learning and an omnichannel retail strategy are two ways the sector could look to innovate.
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR
All Blogs

Want to be a part of UrbanTech?

Exclusive UT Content

Private Slack Group

Handpicked job resources and postings

Community of Leaders and Shapers

Member-only Events

Learn More