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
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.
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.
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.