The last 5 years of my life have been surrounded by all things “startup”. My co-founders and I launched PreventScripts, my husband and I completed a 10,000 square foot historic renovation project, opened a gym, opened and closed a juicebar, then an actual bar, became landlords and property managers for four residential units, launched a political campaign, won an election and had the honor of serving as Mayor for 4 years.
As the second youngest Mayor to ever serve my home town of Paducah Kentucky, I was a different kind of face in the office. Paducahans were not used to seeing someone at the beginning of their career serve as Mayor. Historically, most Mayors had been retired or towards the end of their careers. Mainly, because the job of Mayor in our city is meant to be part-time. But as I said often “the reality is, it’s a part-time pay, full-time effort job”. In a city manager form of government, the Mayor is the political head of the city and therefore the public face, the one that gets little credit for good things that happen but gets the battering when things go wrong.
In 2016, when I finally decided to run for office, I was very curious about two things; 1. Could a person run a positive political campaign (no negativity against their opponent) and still win in the modern political environment? 2. Is government really as hard to change as they say? The first hypothesis proved true. I won by a fairly large margin and never stooped to going negative on my opponent. In fact, I consistently praised the leadership that had come before me. And I meant it when I did. The second hypothesis took a while to work through. I knew, though, that I wanted to change things. That I wanted to disrupt the status quo and challenge the city government to break loose of the bureaucracy and solve some of the big problems that had been lingering for decades. What I didn’t realize then, but am starting to better understand upon reflection after my service has ended, is how similar to running a Startup my approach really was.
I know, I know. As an entrepreneur, you don’t often think to yourself “Oh, I have a lot to learn from how government operates”. But take it from me, this human experience we are all having is more universal than we might imagine. So why not learn from the most unsuspecting places? Here are a few areas where, as a founder, I found overlap, inspiration or just flat out something new from my time as Mayor that could be applied to my startup.
Team Alignment and Vision
I had many people tell me during the campaign which city employees I should fire when I took office. I hated that. As a leader, I wasn’t about to march into the position and fire people without having firsthand experience with them. That’s not who I am. As I did get more clear on the growth goals of my term, however, it did become obvious that there was a misalignment with our city manager. He operated from the “time is my resource” philosophy (which meant go slow, don’t cause a wake) and I operated under the “we’ve been waiting long enough” philosophy (go fast and fix things as you go). He left on good terms for himself and with a strong package to support his next steps. Once we found our next city manager, it became clear as day how important that alignment really is. Our next city manager was the kind of guy who wakes up at 4am, exercises, reads, prays and prepares for a slammed day of pushing and challenging his team. He operates under the “yes and” philosophy and we really hit a stride together. He and I overlapped for 2.5 of the 4 years and we accomplished a lot with little time, especially in the world of local government.
If you are an entrepreneur or a leader of any kind, you know that team alignment is critical to success. In our startup, we’ve worked hard on identifying our “here and now” goals and which skillsets me and my founders have to get us to those goals. When we are lacking in a specific skill, we readjust and usually call on one of our advisors to fill in the gap. That’s the day to day work, constant adjusting. But the most important thing I realized about team alignment while serving as Mayor is about the long game. In politics, many times you only have a set number of years to make an impact. The impact a person can have during a given elected term is minimal if they only think about the years of that term. For me, I knew that if I only thought about the 4 years in front of me, I would have limited impact on my community. But if I worked with my community to imagine what’s possible 10 or 20 years down the road, then the decisions we made would not just be what’s in front of us, but about where we are heading for the long haul. Without the long view, or the vision for the future, it’s hard to know if your team is aligned. Just doing the day to day tasks doesn’t make that as obvious. But aligning a measurable strategic plan that is consistently monitored with the long term goals and vision for success helps to identify the misalignment. In our startup, we are constantly going back and forth between the long term vision for our company and the “here and now” work that must be done in order to accomplish that vision. We align our team based on the long term vision, so we find the right people who are committed to growth and opportunity and not just getting through the day. Time is scarce, growth is necessary and if there isn’t team alignment for the vision, we will be paddling upstream unnecessarily.
For decades in Paducah, there was a reputation from the business community that city hall was difficult to work with, especially if you were trying to do a development project with the fire prevention/inspections department. During the 2016 campaign, I heard over and over again the horrors of projects getting stalled, sometimes cancelled because of the overreaching and oftentimes, unfriendly practices coming from City Hall. I knew this was a huge thing to solve, but if we were going to see growth in our city, we must solve for it. It was time we started treating our citizens and businesses like customers. And what happens when we start to think about our customers? We will do everything in our power to make the experience exceptional. In a startup, we have the opportunity to build a customer-focused culture from scratch. But in a large government organization, there was already a culture. We had a good starting place because most employees were there to serve, but we had to figure out how to inject design thinking and innovation into the culture so we could start to change. Several team members embraced learning more about those approaches and quickly embedded them into everything they did.
Through a months-long strategic planning effort with community members, employees and my fellow Board of Commissioners, we landed on a vision for multiple aspects of the city government, with one of the most important ones being “make city hall business friendly”. And let me tell you, the team worked miracles. Before we knew it, we had a full Customer Experience Department who took a stale “people-less” lobby and turned it into a welcoming people-filled environment. THREE customer experience specialists greeted citizens as they entered, answered citizen inquiries, filtered their needs to the appropriate staff person, sometimes creating much needed gatekeeping in order to help with efficiencies. Kick-start meetings were birthed for any new project that put developers and business owners in a room with everyone in city hall that would eventually touch that project. This helped to reduce communication issues and get everything out on the table before the project started in order to prevent surprises later. Open Counter was launched to provide an online tool for dreamers and entrepreneurs to play around with building projects and knowing which zoning, licenses, and other requirements would be needed for their success.
During COVID19, the customer experience department quickly turned into an important call center for citizens trying to find information, resources and sometimes they even coordinated grocery deliveries by non-profits. The focus on customers became front and center. We can take a cue from this effort for our startups. The multi-faceted approach to meeting every customer where they are, customizing experiences, and ensuring that every layer of the interaction is well thought out… this is exactly what we should be doing in our startups. It’s easy to get distracted by all of the other activities of building a startup. Take your customer experience and look at it from every angle. Then build out your support and product to ensure your customer is front and center.This is exactly the lens through which we are working at our startup now.
My favorite saying is “You put your time and money where your values are”. The desire for growth was a strong theme in my 2016 campaign. I believe that was the number one thing citizens wanted. And our values of smart growth were front and center during my term. We were constantly asking ourselves, where are the taxpayer dollars going? Is it toward things they care about? And how do you know what citizens care about? As a public health professional, I am a firm believer in using data for decision making and feedback from “users” or in this case citizens. There was a very intense “burnout” from our citizens and super low tolerance for hiring anyone to “study” something. When I looked back on the shelf at all of the studies Paducah had commissioned over the years, I could see why. The majority of them hadn’t seen the light of day since they were written. Almost none of the items identified through hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of studying and hundreds of hours of citizen feedback had been accomplished. There are plenty of growth opportunity in those reports. We added those to the strategic plan and started collecting feedback. For the most part, the studies were still on trend. Most of the community still wanted to see our riverfront fully developed, our downtown turned into a TIF (tax increment financing) district, our airport to build a new terminal, new sports and recreation facilities, and developing a culture to attract new businesses to increase job opportunities. So how do you make these things happen? You need capital.
Just like in a startup, if you want to pour the fuel on the fire for growth, you must have the resources to do so. And just like in city government, it takes getting creative to piece together the capital needed to make a company successful. In a startup, we are always asking ourselves, what is the right type of capital for our current stage, for our long term goal, and for our current investors. We asked ourselves the same thing in city government. What is the right mix of public funds, private funds, grant dollars and all of the options in between to complete these projects. For example, we hustled to apply to become a TIF district to leverage over $20m of state funds over 20 years, we hustled for a federal grant to build out the riverfront and a new riverboat excursion dock, we built relationships with private developers who are using the private market to develop a new hotel, public promenade and more residential/retail space to finish out our historic downtown. We used some funds in our general fund to help finance the planning and application process for many of these. At the end, I was proud to have worked with a strong team of staff and commissioners to leverage over $100m of private and public investment for our community. Unfortunately, the projects take time to develop in the real world so it will be 3-5 years before we see the true benefit of that hustle. But isn’t the same true for us in the startup world also? We plug and chug and push and hustle for what’s possible at the end. And in the end, capital is always necessary to make it happen. And even in a startup, where we spent our time and money show where are values are.
I ran for re-election against my gut instincts. Deep down I knew I had spent all of my political capital making the changes we made and pushing our community to believe in itself and take some risks. I felt pressured by my supporters who wanted to see the momentum continue. And part of me hoped that we had overcome the scarcity mentality that had plagued our city for so long. But so much of me knew it was time to go. I’m a big fan of leaders who know when their time is up. It wasn’t quite so clear to me in the moment, but I knew I needed to put all of my time and energy into our startup and also that most “turnaround leaders” don’t last very long for a reason. I went against my guy instincts and ran again. I ended up losing the primary of 2020 when I ran for re-election. Those of us who choose to create startups must be ready for the wins and the losses. I am beyond proud of the pioneering work we did during my four years as Mayor. It took guts, just like startups do; to create something out of nothing when you have people with scarcity mentalities in your ear, to push through the fear and uncertainty, to keep going even when you start to doubt yourself.
The last four years taught me so much about myself and my role in the world. I am a starter, a demonstrator of what’s possible, a visionary who can execute with a strong team and I am a young woman who believes in herself. I learned that local government does not have to be the immobile beast we have been taught to believe it is, but can be an important part of the push for growth and positive change in a community. And more importantly, I learned to trust my gut, surround myself with smart and caring people who are both doers and visionaries, that courage goes a long way, to “start with the end in mind”, and even though I ran a positive campaign and won, negative campaigns are still out there.