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Don’t sell products, tell stories

While I was in Tampa for another infamously humid summer, my Co-founder, Tony DeSisto, was spending six weeks in beautiful Rhode Island visiting family. This was a tradition for Tony and his family, one that I had learned to live with as his startup spouse.

By GovFresh · June 12, 2014

[caption id=”attachment_17762” align=”alignnone” width=”1200”] Photo: Jordan Raynor[/caption]

Jordan Raynor, a Co-founder of Citizinvestor (a crowdfunding and civic engagement platform for government projects), released a book today chronicling the first two years of the civic startup’s life. The book, Startup Stories: Lessons Learned from a Startup’s Launch, Grind, and Growth, is available for half-off today only. The following is one of the book’s twenty short chapters.

While I was in Tampa for another infamously humid summer, my Co-founder, Tony DeSisto, was spending six weeks in beautiful Rhode Island visiting family. This was a tradition for Tony and his family, one that I had learned to live with as his startup spouse. Our long-distance relationship meant fewer trips to Lin’s Hibachi Buffet and more time on Google Chat. One chat in July 2013 started one of the greatest stories we have had the pleasure of telling at Citizinvestor:

Tony: Central Falls RI just signed up on site and emailed me scheduling a call later today Jordan: sweet Tony: could be good press ... one of the only US cities to go bankrupt could have nice redemption angle Jordan: wow would be amazing press lock it down Tony: will do Jordan: GO meet with them! How far away are they? Tony: gonna offer it its RI nothing is over 30 minutes away

For more than a year, Tony and I had been selling our product to cities touting our technology, success rate, and the fact that Citizinvestor was free for cities to use. My academic background is in public relations, so I’m constantly looking for the stories behind my companies. While we had some good stories to tell to accompany our pitch of Citizinvestor, we had yet to find “the one.” Tony and I would constantly talk about the need to “find our Pebble” – a reference to the paper watch that crowdfunded more than $10,000,000 on The Pebble quickly became shorthand for an amazing story of the promise of crowdfunding. As soon as the City of Central Falls signed up for Citizinvestor, we instinctively knew that we held our own precious pebble in our hands.

In 2010, Central Falls became the first city in Rhode Island history to file for bankruptcy. Two years later, the Mayor resigned his post due to charges of corruption. If any group of citizens had an excuse to distrust and disconnect from government, it was the people of Central Falls. Following the Mayor’s resignation in 2012, the City elected his successor, 27- year-old James Diossa, with the daunting task of leading the City out of bankruptcy and restoring trust between City Hall and its citizens. And now they were looking to Citizinvestor to help do just that.

Of the hundreds of cities we have pitched Citizinvestor to, we have only met with a handful of them in person. But because Tony was already in Rhode Island, it was a no-brainer for him to meet with the Mayor and his staff in Central Falls. When Tony called to brief me on the meeting, he informed me that Stephen Larrick, our main point-of-contact in Central Falls, had assembled all of the department heads to attend the meeting and offer ideas for projects the City could crowdfund on Citizinvestor. Someone pointed out that when the Mayor asked students what they wanted him to focus on, they overwhelming asked that he clean up the trash that littered the one-square-mile city. The students had identified the trash as a source of shame for their city. Knowing that much of the litter originated from the flimsy trash cans that were easily knocked down in the park next to City Hall, Larrick devised a plan to replace the bins with trash and recycling bins made of steel. But the City didn’t have the $10,044 they needed to make the project happen. The Mayor, Larrick, Tony, and the department heads came to a consensus that crowdfunding these trash bins would be the perfect first project on Citizinvestor. After the meeting, Larrick emailed Tony to say that, “Since the bankruptcy, it’s been rare to see our department heads excited and willing to share positive ideas, so the excitement they showed yesterday over Citizinvestor was very encouraging.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better story to tell; and the major media outlets agreed. CNBC published one of my favorite headlines about the launch of Central Falls’ first Citizinvestor project: “Issue municipal bonds? No thanks, we’ll crowdfund instead.” told the story beautifully, saying that “economically strapped cities around the country can’t afford basic improvements. If Central Falls meets its goal, it could serve as a model for other municipalities to follow.” These were the talking points we had been pushing for months, but it took a great story for the concept to be understood by the masses.

The amazing cleanup day our intern Daniel organized helped visualize in the physical world what Citizinvestor was all about: empowering citizens to invest in their community. These citizens were telling a powerful story of civic engagement by investing their time and their money to restore their city. A few weeks after the cleanup event, the front page of The Boston Globe ran a story on how the City’s efforts on Citizinvestor were helping Central Falls establish “a new identity, as a model of creative, modern, interactive government.” Soon after the story was published, the project reached its goal of raising $10,044 to install the steel trash bins.

With our beautiful pebble in hand, we showed it off to anyone who would listen. Months after the project reached its funding goal, Mayor Diossa wrote an op-ed to The Providence Journal saying that the “citizens who contributed to our first Citizinvestor project demonstrated the deepest level of civic engagement,” and that the City of Central Falls is now “a model for what civic engagement should look like in the 21st century.”

To this day, in nearly every speaking engagement, media interview, and pitch to a city, we make sure to tell the incredible story of Central Falls. In a startup, it’s easy to get in the habit of selling your product’s features, how it works, and why it’s a great value. While all of these things are important, I have found that they are secondary to telling great stories. Stories inspire us. They paint a picture of what is possible. Do everything you can to find, cultivate, and share the story you want told about your company.