An open letter to venture capitalists frustrated with the federal government shutdown

Photo: <a href="">historilla</a>

Photo: historilla

Lately, what’s happening between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is starting to catch the ire of some venture capitalists who, like many Americans already, are starting to publicly vent their frustrations.

Two in particular stand out.

TechStars founder Brad Feld:

And Y Combinator founder Paul Graham:

As a fellow citizen, I couldn’t agree more with their sentiments, however, I’m equally embarrassed by the VC community’s inability to focus its attention on entrepreneurial ventures that matter and could play a vital role in changing all of this.

Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s darling startup incubator, has a long list of funded companies, none of which have a significant pitch on democratizing the political process or offering much-needed technology solutions to the bureaucracy.

Likewise, TechStars’ portfolio of funded ventures has not one civic-focused startup. According to its own official stats, the average company funding amount is $1.5 million. With 28 companies having failed, that’s a good $30 million dollars that could have easily gone into worthwhile, perhaps less-risky, civic ventures.

From grassroots campaign tools to fixing the bureaucratic minutiae of government procurement and everything in between, there are civic entrepreneurs chomping at the bit to get a fraction of funding in the range of just those losses.

If you’re a VC frustrated with the federal government shutdown, here’s my advice:

  • Fund 10 percent of your portfolio to civic-focused ventures aimed at solving bureaucratic technology issues or the campaigns and elections process.
  • Pivot your expectations for these ventures. The civic vendor market has a much longer sales cycle than those in the private sector. You’ll need patience, but estimates place the government IT market at $140 billion.

Unlike your average citizen (or furloughed public servant), VCs like Feld and Graham can have a huge impact beyond voting or voicing concerns to elected officials. They can play a major role in disrupting markets and if there’s one industry that could use some disruption, it’s the government services industry.

Pundit (amongst many other other notable accomplishments) Vivek Wadhwa effectively summarizes Silicon Valley’s sentiment in a recent Washington Post column “Silicon Valley shrugs off Washington shutdown“:

Perhaps it is best this way. Rather than fighting unproductive and destructive battles about budgets and health insurance, our innovators are chugging along inventing technologies that will make industries more productive and reduce the cost of healthcare. They are doing what they do best—looking forward, competing, and collaborating. Someone has to save the economy after all. Our politicians certainly won’t.

While I couldn’t agree more with Wadhwa on the “chugging along” part, more entrepreneurial and VC energy needs to focus on problems that will solve the state of our civic affairs. Saving the economy is important, but if all we’re left with is another mobile advertising platform or photo sharing social network, are we really better off as a country?

The good news is, appropriately,, a “global social platform for participatory democracy and political engagement,” launched this week with $2 million in seed funding. Other companies, too, have found funding to make a go at it, such as NationBuilder and SeeClickFix.

My intention isn’t to single out Feld or Graham. I have much respect for both of them. They have created amazing communities of innovators and inspire and mentor entrepreneurs everywhere beyond just their work with Y Combinator and TechStars.

I’d just love to see them and their peers take a meaningful lead on leveraging their influence and capital to change the entrepreneurial focus of the startup community. The best way they can do that is to start funding ventures that directly impact foundational aspects to a stronger civil society.

Yes, it will take some serious VC pivoting, but if you care about your country, it’s worth the investment.

Let democracy be your exit strategy.

NationBuilder brings community software to government

GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Note: This is not a product promotion or endorsement. Learn how you can get featured.

NationBuilderNationBuilder Vice President of Community Adriel Hampton introduces the company’s newest offering, NationBuilder Government.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

NationBuilder Government is a unified web, communications and CRM database solution – at less than $100 a month for most entities (yes, really).

What problems does NationBuilder solve for government?

Governments of all sizes struggle with listening well to feedback from a growing number of communications channels. The challenge is to provide better customer service, and to do it cost effectively.

NationBuilder is a unified organizing platform that’s designed to improve the efficiency of communications and constituent/customer service staff.

What’s the story behind NationBuilder?

We’ve been around for a few years, but just launched our Government Edition earlier this month.

Jim Gilliam founded the company after personally seeing the power of people connected by the internet as family and friends helped him get a double-lung transplant six years ago. I met Jim in 2009 while I was running for Congress, and joined NationBuilder as employee number 3 in May 2011.

Doing internet software for government better, more efficiently, is extremely important to me. There’s no reason to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for these technologies.

Why should governments use your SaaS product and not an open source alternative?

Haha, I asked for that, right? So, open source projects have greatly helped to lower the costs of providing services over the web. We use a number of open source technologies including Ruby on Rails and PostgreSQL and Liquid (a templating language that we’ve helped extend) – that allow companies like ours flourish at very low cost.

Instead of paying millions of dollars a year in licensing, we’re able to offer end-to-end solutions to cities and officeholders for just hundreds of dollars a year.

Open source products are never free for government – they require technical staff and consultants. We value transparent pricing and require it from our partners, and provide a comprehensive, regularly updated solution that does not require a tech team to implement or maintain.

What are NationBuilder Government’s key features?

Interactive websites, email and text blasting, and constituent services tracking.

With NationBuilder, a government office can manage events, log and track issues, send email newsletters, and manage social media communications and an entire website all in one place.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Our pricing is based on the size of your database – the smallest plans are $19 a month, a large city with 50,000 people on its email list would pay $499 a month with no limit on administrative users.

How can those interested connect with you?

2011 GovFresh Citizen of the Year: Adriel Hampton

2011 GovFresh Citizen of the Year: Adriel Hampton

Fresh off off getting recognized as the 2011 GovFresh Awards ‘Citizen of the Year,’ we asked Gov 2.0 Radio host and founder and NationBuilder Chief Organizer Adriel Hampton to share more about his work and what drives him.

What efforts over the past year have you been involved with that you’re most proud of?

Gosh, there are a lot. I was really happy to work with my great SF City Attorney colleague Jen Drake on the SF version of the global “Let’s Do It!” movement with local cleanups and blight mapping as part of “Let’s Do It SF!.” Also with Jen, I helped create the “Local Lifesavers” project in SF, supporting the great “PulsePoint” emergency response app from the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District and organizing local basic emergency response trainings. CityCamp was a big part of my year, from the first camps in Oklahoma City and Raleigh to an SF unconference at the SF Department of Technology offices and a hackathon in December with Javier Muniz and the great folks at Granicus in SF supporting the work of local nonprofits and good government activists.

I did some fun feature writing for the new “Social Media Monthly” magazine, including pieces critical of Google+’s identity policies and supportive of Occupy Wall Street.

We had several great months of “Third Thursdays” civic tech mixers in SF. I co-founded SF Tech Dems to help connect technologists with Democratic Party leaders in SF and California.

I was really happy about the continued success of Gov 2.0 Radio, aided tremendously this year by the addition of Sydney-based open government expert Allison Hornery as a co-host. I helped Karen Suhaka launch her new legislative data company Legination and its BillTrack50 product. I helped draft and organizing support for a new digital open records law that California Sen. Leland Yee has announced he will sponsor.

I left the City of San Francisco to join NationBuilder and help it grow to supporting more than 300 active advocacy groups, politicians and filmmakers around the world.

What drives you to do what you do?

Ha! Sometimes I wonder that myself. I guess I’m just really concerned that as individual citizens we need to be involved in “being the change.” I can be as cynical and full of fear about the future as anyone when I think about our economy and government, but I’ve decided that the best thing I can do with my energy is to fight for what I believe in – open, accountable and efficient government, a strong social safety net, and the advancement of democracy and human equality through technological innovation. And when I can’t have personal direct impact, I can certainly use my skills and networks to advance and promote the work of others.

There is a speech by novelist Haruki Murakami I first read this year that sums up a lot of how I feel:

“We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong — and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.”

What civic advice do you have for your fellow citizens?

It’s easier than you think to make a major difference. Organizing matters. Presence matters. Perseverance matters.