At Luminate, we’ve supported entrepreneurs improving government service delivery and increasing civic participation for over a decade. We’ve seen the impressive growth of the broader civic tech field, and learnt many lessons along the way. For example, we first invested in SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz back in 2010, when we were part of the Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative within Omidyar Network. Since our most recent investment in 2015, SeeClickFix has been working hard to grow the company and reach profitability. Today, they are a leading request and work management software platform that has helped citizens post nearly 7 million requests like fixing potholes, removing downed trees, or clearing snow cover to local officials. To date, SeeClickFix has allowed local government to engage communities while resolving more than 5.3 million of those requests quickly and effectively.
Recently, SeeClickFix announced their acquisition by CivicPlus. We caught up with Ben in the days after the acquisition closed to learn more about what it means for the future of the company, and what the broader field might learn from SeeClickFix’s journey.
Ben, congrats again on this important milestone! As you reflect on SeeClickFix's history, what are you most proud of?
First of all, thanks in return to Omidyar Network, now Luminate, for taking an early bet on me as a first-time entrepreneur and on SeeClickFix as one of the first civic tech start-ups. Without Omidyar Network’s support of our company and the civic tech industry at large, neither would have grown to where they are today.
When I reflect on the past 12 years, I am most proud of the fact that we provide a novel but lasting fix to a common and pervasive problem. For many citizens, failing infrastructure is a manifestation of government inefficiency, poor civic communication, and lack of accountability. It certainly was for me when we launched in late 2007. SeeClickFix has provided a cost-efficient and effective way for governments to manage public space and public expectations. At a time when trust in government is at an all-time low and civic discourse is filled with heightened tension and disrespect, I believe SeeClickFix is a solution for engaging the public in meaningful communication, solving actual problems, and most importantly rebuilding a little bit of trust in local government.
There are a few other proud moments for us at SeeClickFix that stick out in my memory:
- The empathy and self-sufficiency in communities where SeeClickFix was heavily used in natural disasters such as Hurricanes Sandy, Irene, and Harvey, and Winter Storm Nemo. For instance, I’ll never forget the woman who was able to deliver her baby in the hospital during the snowstorm because a neighbor saw her SeeClickFix post and was able to get a government payloader to remove snow on her road in time. Whenever a user leans in and helps another user where the government is unable, I’m reminded that we are much more resilient as humans than we sometimes assume.
- There have also been a number of really funny moments where officials have used the open communication format to show their lighter side. I am reminded of the time that citizens, officials, and self-described design snobs got into a healthy debate about the particulars of the typeface used on a transit stop in Toronto.
- The hundreds of thousands of thank you’s to public officials from citizens. Kathy Hurley in the New Haven Department of Public Works has a book of thank you’s printed from SeeClickFix user comments to remind employees that their work is appreciated and matters. SeeClickFix needs to continue to be a platform for constructive input and gratitude; it’s what separates us from much of the existing online civic debate.
- The small influence we were able to have on other companies, organizations, and individuals in the civic tech space. The Open311 standard that we co-created with others around the world continues to be a point of pride for SeeClickFix. A few other proud moments for me are the times I was invited to share our successes with the White House, State Department, and World Bank as they assessed potential protocols for broader global solutions.
At a time when trust in government is at an all-time low and civic discourse is filled with heightened tension and disrespect, I believe SeeClickFix is a solution for engaging the public in meaningful communication, solving actual problems, and most importantly rebuilding a little bit of trust in local government.
Can you share a bit more about why you’re excited to join CivicPlus and what this means for the future of SeeClickFix?
When we launched SeeClickFix we were explicitly focused on solving the problem of broken service request communication. When I thought about what would come next it was always in the context of solving more problems for more people in the way that we believe they should be solved: Equitably, transparently and constructively with a healthy dose of empathy.
Over the past few years, SeeClickFix became financially sustainable and as a result, we had the luxury of waiting for the right partner to help grow our impact – that partner is emphatically CivicPlus. They have always been a founder-led organization focused on elegantly solving hard problems in government communication. CivicPlus builds modern products and from our perspective, solves problems better than any of their competitors. As CivicPlus has been around for a decade longer than SeeClickFix, they have also grown to serve over 3,500 cities in North America. When I was first introduced to the company, I was most impressed by their focus on future growth that builds on a track record of expansion in recent years. It was also clear that that their clients are clamoring for a tool like SeeClickFix and that this was the best chance of scaling SeeClickFix’s impact faster than we could on our own.
SeeClickFix sees partnerships and integrations as an important part of our strategy. Our acquisition by CivicPlus will help us strengthen our existing partnerships and grow new ones with other platforms in the industry such as ESRI, Cartegraph and Cityworks in ways that benefit us all.
Finally, this is also an investment in New Haven, Connecticut, our home base. With our anticipated opportunity for growth, CivicPlus is committed to expanding the SeeClickFix team here in New Haven. Together, we are going to continue to solve the problems that arise in service request management, work order management, emergency communications, parks and recreation, city websites, and notifications. And together we are going to solve even more challenges for citizens and city governments as our combined organization grows with the needs of our shared clients and users. I am confident that this will be done in the same spirit of building trust and accountability that both organizations have brought to their users. I’m incredibly excited to get started working with CivicPlus to scale SeeClickFix to ever more users.
We often talk about the role of early-stage catalytic capital in supporting an early business innovation in the civic space. What role did your investors have in helping you grow the business, and how can other funders best support innovative solutions in the market?
Without our investors, we would never have been able to fund the product development that ultimately created a self-sufficient organization Because of the early leadership from institutional investors like Omidyar Network (now Luminate) and Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, as well as several successful exits of our peers in the civic space, early funding is much easier to find these days.
However, for many civic tech startups, it can still be challenging to find investors willing to write larger checks and help scale growth, which often comes slow when selling to government. As a result, many companies are opting to focus on only profitable growth, much like we did at SeeClickFix. For us, finding funders that cared about and understood the problem and solution was critical to alignment. It also helped us stay focused on the original mission of the business and created space to build something that truly addressed the problem at hand. The civic tech field currently includes a diverse range of early-stage ventures poised to grow their impact and businesses, if only they can find the capital aligned to their goals. Now more than ever, we need new funders to step up to the plate to help the field continue to cultivate civic innovation at scale.
Be equally thoughtful of your platform’s citizen users as you are of the government users, especially where their needs may be in tension.
What advice do you have for aspiring civic tech entrepreneurs?
The early days are a grind. It is hard to get those first clients in any business. It’s harder in government where the total number of customers is relatively limited and procurement rules can be a blockade. If you love the work, are uniquely positioned to make it happen, and believe it is worth fighting for, stick with it. A few other thoughts for civic tech entrepreneurs include:
- Be equally thoughtful of your platform’s citizen users as you are of the government users, especially where their needs may be in tension.
- Transparency and accountability matter in 2019 more than ever. Build both into your platform as required features. Civic tech is a big responsibility as much as it is a business or career.
- Leave biases like “government is helpless” and “citizens are self-interested” behind. They aren’t. And they aren’t.
- Large social platforms and major news organizations have systematically eroded trust in society. Civic technologists have an opportunity to fix that. I’ll be rooting for the people who reinvent or fix one of the most disruptive modern civic technologies: the social web.
- Strongly held values are core to creating a successful civic tech value. Public officials get into government because they care about building healthy communities. Civic tech entrepreneurs must bring the same need to do the same to compete. And because it’s how we got our start, even potholes can be a gateway drug to civic engagement.