Startups often struggle to provide services to governments due to challenges around procurement, interoperability and slugglishness, but a growing govtech ecosystem is lowering the barrier to entry.
This network includes Public, a venture capital firm and accelerator founded by former David Cameron advisor Daniel Korksi and investor Alexander De Carvalho. This week, the duo teamed up with coworking space Huckletree to launch Public Hall, a new hub in Westminster thas brings together startups, investors and innovators working to improve public services within walking distance of Parliament's power-brokers.
Korksi and Public Hall members Futr, which helps councils and police forces deliver services to citizens and staff through natural language chat, and Apolitical, a peer-to-peer learning platform that provides government workers with easy access to expert insights from other departments and administrations, gave Techworld their tips on how startups can work with governments.
Know your customer
Selling to government is in many ways different from selling to the private sector, but the central principle of the process is the same.
"You've got to win the trust of people, you've got to show that your product adds value, you've got to get to know your buyer," said Korski. "Do they have a problem? Do they know they have a problem? Are you the best person or product to fix it?"
Apolitical COO Nitika Agarwal has gained an understanding of both sides of the deal, having served as a senior policy advisor at the treasury prior to joining the startups. She believes that many startups that don't yet serve government may make successful govtech companies because they've already proved the value of their technology in the private sector.
"We've come across lots of companies who would not see themselves as selling to the private sector, but because they've established a reputation, a track record, and a tried and tested product elsewhere, they're in fact in a very strong position to go and support government with their most challenging problems," she said.
A key need of any startup is gaining reference clients that can gain the faith of potential customers. These can be particularly hard to find in the public bodies, which are typically more risk-averse that private sector companies. Apolitical CEO Robyn Scott suggests that govtech startups harness the power of their networks to spread the word about their service.
"It always makes sense to get your first evangelical customer," she said. "And that's where a group like Public is so valuable – they know who the evangelists are. The other thing that's worth saying with this space, is it's not for the faint-hearted, because it takes time and thought to get in, but government, once you work with it can be a fantastic customer and a much more stable customer than even enterprise."
Futr CEO and cofounder Andrew Wilkins adds that public sector customers are easier to find if the startup focuses on a specific use case.
"We needed to really focus on particular pain points that you can solve, and then use as reference clients," he said. "That's exactly what I would say to startups. You've just got to build up those reference clients and show success."
Follow the frameworks
Gaining government contracts is a daunting task for startups due to the complex procurement process and competition from big vendors with long-established relationships in the public sector.
Korski advises them to prove they are a safe option. "There are certain ways in which they need to show security and data resilience so that people don't think it's a risk to try out something with a startup," he said. "I think it's good to get use case evidence, even from the private sector, if you want to show the public sector that you're the sort of company that can be relied on."
Wilkins adds that they should get involved with procurement frameworks such as G Cloud as early as possible.
"Get involved," he said. "We've gone through all the procurement, we're on all the frameworks, so make sure that you get onto the frameworks quickly, you really understand the benefits, because there's some fantastic ways to win some great business. There's some great opportunities if you know where to look and you've got the approvals. And I think getting those as quickly as you can, is really important."
Stay close to your customer
The members of Public Hall believe that their proximity to Whitehall has been a major benefit. For Apolitical, the move from Mayfair to Westminster triggered a marked increase in the number of meetings the company has had with public sector employees.
"Nothing says significance in the digital world like a presence in the physical world, ironically," said Scott. "Just think about Silicon Valley, Silicon Roundabout, Silicon Savanah. It's really important that govtech has got this physical presence for all these digital companies.
"Being embedded and part of the fabric of that is really important for us from the perspective of raising money for investors, because it looks like a thing and hiring top tech talent, because you're trying to persuade people who've got loads and loads of options that this is the next big thing."
Be patient and persevere
Wilkins admits that delivering a service to government can take a lot of time but believes that growing support for govtech is speeding up the process.
"The good thing is that there is definitely awareness about emerging technologies and there's definitely real proponents in the industry that are talking about this and it's become far more visible and open through organisation like Public, but also key people within government as well," he said. "That's really encouraging."
Remember the potential
The procurement processes are opening up, public sector employees are increasingly demanding better tech, incumbents in the space are often weak and startups are gaining the trust of government.
"And you get to work on the most meaningful problems in the world," said Scott. "Government is facing 21st-century problems, working on 20th-century systems. If you get to be behind upgrading those systems, you can pick the global challenge that keeps you awake at night - climate change, healthcare, inequality - and you can play a significant role in tackling it."