Our first profile is of Christian Monaghan, co-founder of Nava, a startup that works closely with the US government to radically improve government services, like healthcare.gov. Nava was founded by the folks who were brought in to fix healthcare.gov in 2013, after they realized there was much more they could do for the people through great engineering and design.
Christian was in business consulting before learning how to code by himself. After he got roped into fixing healthcare.gov, he decided to start Nava with the team there.
Running delightful government services wakes me up every morning. The scope of the impact is enormous — I want to change the belief that the government can’t do things. I want to give people faith that the government can do incredible things.
In 60 seconds, how would you describe your social good initiative?
We started Nava in April 2015 to help save healthcare.gov, and we decided to stay and improve technology across federal government services, to be a voice for the people who don’t tend to have a voice in how government technology is built. For instance, we worked on the Veterans Affairs appeals process, which half a million veterans are on. Another project we worked on was improving the Medicare payment system. This serves over 50 million Americans, some may not speak English well, some may be blind. We see ourselves as being advocates for these people not in the room.
One of the things we are proud of is streamlining the healthcare.gov application process. Before we stepped in, the existing application took 21 minutes to fill, and only 65% of those who did finished the form. Through condensing the questions and shortening the form, the process now takes only 9 minutes, and over 90% complete the form.
Tell us how you were inspired to start your social good initiative.
Personally, I have always wanted to start a company and be an entrepreneur. I’ve also always wanted to create social good and leave the world a better place than I found it. I never knew how to combine the two. I changed my career a few years ago, learned how to code, and got involved in healthcare.gov. We worked in small cross-functional teams, and realized that there was a business opportunity to bringing this mindset to other areas of federal government. It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, to have a social mission. I happened to be at the right place at the right time.
What has been your proudest moment in the past year?
It’s been proving that we can compete in the space. We won 3 contracts this year going through the formal contracting process, and that we can win it through the front door. The government has come back to us, and want to expand our scope in every way imaginable. We’re happy because it shows the caliber and quality of our work. Despite being a small team, we can create great work.
Are you in the process of raising capital?
We haven’t had a strong need for funding yet, since we’re funded by the contracts we win. I’m slightly leery about raising capital. External funding adds some incentives that can pervert a social mission or altruistic goal. We’re privately held so we’re in this for the long-term, and we’re paid for our time and our material. VC funding might have a different formula — we’re not a typical product company, which is what Silicon Valley thinks of when we think of technology. We’re currently more like a consultancy, though we are planning future products to build in the space.
What’s a common misconception you’ve realized about doing tech for social good?
That you can’t make a good living if you pursue a path of social good. People think you either make money and do something you’re not crazy about, or you take a big pay cut to do something meaningful. But there’s a lot of meaningful problems out there that could also be profitable.
There’s a lot of meaningful problems out there that could also be profitable.
What was most difficult about changing your career? What did you learn from making that decision?
Long before, 4 years ago, I had a few startup ideas. I was limited by a lack of technical experience. I kept thinking that I was the business mind looking for a technical cofounder. If you want to start a tech company, you need to understand tech and engineering. So I taught myself to code for fun on weekends or after work, but not with the intention to make a career change. I found I really enjoyed it. I went through a coding bootcamp, and have been writing code professionally ever since.
I think it was pretty empowering to realize how much you can teach yourself without going through the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge, like college.
One of the biggest challenges is having the self-discipline of having a goal and sticking to it. I didn’t like my job, but it took me a while to realize that coding could be a career. I think it was pretty empowering to realize how much you can teach yourself without going through the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge, like college. You can learn just about anything you want to.
What about the most challenging thing about starting Nava?
The most challenging things we faced were challenges faced by other startups. Starting a company from scratch, you both have a normal job of serving a client or customer, but you also have another job of growing a company, defining its culture and more.
Money wasn’t the biggest constraint, and we had a client willing to pay for our time.
Some of those traditional challenges were flipped on its head, though. Most product companies, they need to raise funding, so they tend to run a deficit, seek out funding… many of their challenges are around money and finding product-market fit. For us, we already found the product-market fit. Money wasn’t the biggest constraint, and we had a client willing to pay for our time. We did have to learn how to work with our client, the government, though.
Tell us about a positive interaction working with the government.
There’s so many talented people in the government that care, that go above and beyond for the people they serve. That really inspires me — seeing people who have served for 30, 40 years and see the frustrating bureaucracy, but deal with it because it matters.
There’s so many talented people in the government that care, that go above and beyond for the people they serve.
For instance, there’s this one guy who works for the Department for Veteran Affairs. He’s nearing retirement age, and has been working there for over 30 years. He single-handedly built a database to track appeals of veterans, and this was not his full-time job. His full-time job was IT, setting up A/V equipment. He’s been maintaining this database for 30 years. A single database, run by a single person, that’s powering appeals for so many veterans. It’s not even in his job description — it’s just him going above and beyond.
What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever made at Nava?
The hardest decision has been whether to make a leap into a new career. Jumping from a stable job as a consultant was a pretty big leap of faith. By doing a lot of research, and talking to a lot of people, I made a calculated risk, and my life is now much more fulfilling as a result.
What wakes you up every morning?
Running delightful government services wakes me up every morning. The scope of the impact is enormous — I want to change the belief that the government can’t do things. The government can do things. It might be difficult, but they can. I want to give people faith that the government can do incredible things.
Any advice you want to give to your 18-year-old self?
Exposing yourself to problems is one of the most valuable things you can do early on. As a young person, my experience with the world was pretty narrow. I went to my AP classes, played my sports. But there’s a much wider world out there. Exposing yourself can show you problems to be solved. We’re still dumping waste into landfills. Our credit system is relatively opaque and mistakes can have financially ruinous result for many. Exposing yourself to problems early on opens you up to different entrepreneurial opportunities in the future.
Favorite midnight snack?
Ben & Jerry’s: Chocolate Therapy.
What are you currently listening to?
Here’s my playlist!
How can people get involved in what you’re working on?
Join Nava! We’re hiring like crazy :)
Also, there’re many ways to volunteer on local levels. Code for America, they hold small hackathons to improve cities, and you can also volunteer with them locally with other community members. You can contribute and learn in a low-effort way.
Christian is the co-founder of Nava, and you can learn more about their cool work here! As Christian mentioned, they’re also looking for people interested in making an impact through the intersection of tech and government to join their team.
If you know of other ways to get involved with civic/government technology, be it on a small ad-hoc basis, or on a larger scale, comment below!