“Don’t Tell me More, We’re Not Interested”. Why these words are deadly for a Start-up — and for your City.

Sascha Haselmayer
Nov 1, 2019 · 5 min read

Many city leaders profess their love for start-ups and small business. It smacks of innovation, equal opportunity, job-creation and finding answers to new and future challenges. Yet, if you are a start-up, few cities have mastered the art of translating this love into predictable action.

A vibrant start-up and small business community is a great asset for a city. Its diversity makes our economy more resilient and it accelerates new ideas into our communities. It multiplies the possible pathways to opportunity, sustainability and innovative answers to our problems.

Going forward, I refer to the start-ups and small businesses collectively as ‘start-ups’. Our data shows that small businesses have the same needs and are no less innovative or successful in helping cities and bring a lot more diversity to the table. This post covers something like the ‘last mile’ of being a start-up friendly city: How city halls can become great at doing business with start-ups.

Learning the Good ‘No’ for Start-ups

As a founder of a start-up I can tell you one thing: We all want cities to unconditionally say ‘Yes!’ to our ideas. For very good reasons that is not going to happen. So let me explain how differently the ‘No’ and ‘Maybe’ can play out, and why it matters.

Below, I share two conversations (both are no’s) I had with procurement managers in two cities whose Mayors publicly declared their love with start-ups, diversity and innovation.

A tale of two cities: Procurement & Startups

I am pretty sure that the person in City A would not consider himself any less open-minded than his peer in City B. But I would bet that neither of them had guidance on how to deal with a pitch from a start-up like Citymart. So it’s pretty much down to how the person felt like responding — it’s unmanaged. That is a shame, and doesn’t help the Mayor of A get an A+ rating from start-ups or small businesses.

I am not looking for sympathy here, but rather want my story to illustrate something bigger: The vision of a start-up friendly City Hall has yet to become practice. Over the years Citymart has brought thousands of highly diverse start-ups to participate in public procurements and tracked their experience. So, building on my first hand experience and what this small army of urban innovators and their investors have told us, here is what we would like start-up friendly city leaders and staff to consider when interacting with us.

10 Things Start-ups Want City Staff to Think About

  1. When a start-up calls. We want to tell you about a new, passionate and even disruptive way of doing things that could be better, faster or cheaper. Please be kind enough to really consider our pitch and suspend disbelief just for a second.
  2. You’re not the right person? Did we get our research wrong? Chances are that you can provide valuable feedback, help us find the right person and take a moment educate us a little bit about how things work in your city. Thanks!
  3. Solution is not perfect? Start-ups rely on quick trial-and-error to build something that really works. Your honest feedback is invaluable on all aspects of the offering, it will help us get it right faster, and avoid wasting scarce resources. And, don’t be surprised if we get back to you in 3 months with something that works!
  4. About our bosses. Investors and banks are afraid of start-ups that do business with government. Compared to other business, procurement takes too long, it is hard to make unsolicited sales, and discretionary spend — whilst faster — pushes us to under-price our services. We have to work very hard to convince them that this is an important market — how can you help us earn their trust?
  5. Buy if you like what you see. Early on, start-ups need to prove that they have made something that customers want. The most valuable way for you to show this is to buy something. Sounds risky? Start-ups are more flexible to de-risk their business models. So maybe together we can work something out?
  6. On time. Start-ups live in a different ‘time-zone’. Our survival depends on how predictable and responsive our relationship is going to be at all steps along the way: listening to our idea, contracting us, paying on time and providing a reference.
  7. On fairness. Of course I want you to favor me! I heard that sole source is great. But that would not be the healthy path toward a start-up friendly city. Instead, help us understand the fair process you have in place to consider new ideas and support what works.
  8. On procurement: How can we tell that your RFP is fair and open to new ideas? Bidding is very expensive and all our mentors and investors tell us that we should assume that you know the desired winner upfront. We love RFPs that specify your desired outcomes and provide pathways to prove our new solutions.
  9. On contracts: Don’t get us wrong, we’re ecstatic to sign! But, too often, start-ups have to accept standard Terms & Conditions that do not fit a small business, even less an innovative solution. These terms risk becoming a huge liability to the start-ups your city tries to support. We would be happy to help you write the simple T&Cs for the 21st century city that values diversity and innovation.
  10. Not sure what you’re supposed to do? If you don’t know whether you should talk to a start-up at all, how much time you can spend giving feedback or whether your colleagues will hate you for referring us to them? We wrote this post so that you can share it with colleagues, raise the issue at a department meeting and ask for guidance!

Download the 10 Things Start-ups Want from Cities here

How the other 99% can help.

Yes, your Mayor has said he loves start-ups, innovation and small business.

He did so, because he wants your city to be ready for the future and wants to make sure it is contributing to a healthy local economy. The future will bring change and even disruption: A lot of the answers will come from new places — including start-ups, small businesses and the 99% of the economy and society who have never worked with government.

Find ways of connecting with them, starting today.

But this isn’t just about a smart future, but about creating opportunity for small and local business to maximize inclusion and local job creation. We have found that the needs of start-ups and small businesses are very much alike. You will help them most by creating a predictable environment for them to compete and flourish, providing guidance and showing empathy to their needs.

Want to get started? We’ll be glad to help.

Originally published at http://blog.citymart.com.


Innovation in Cities, Public Procurement, Government and Communities.

Sascha Haselmayer

Written by

Passionate about urban + government innovation, delightful procurement, rebuilding civic + entrepreneurial eco-system around government. Founder/CEO Citymart.



Innovation in Cities, Public Procurement, Government and Communities.

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