Without local leadership, there is no Startup City

Startup City book describes: The Role of the Government in Entrepreneurial Ecosystems. The book – which is now available to order – takes a comprehensive look at how the public sector can engage with the private sector to form initiatives that boost startup and tech ecosystems, nurturing the cities as hotbeds for growth and innovation.

This comprehensive manual is a must-read for civil servants wishing to understand the startup mindset and process. The book has already received a warm international welcome. Get a taste of what its all about it by reading chapter 6: Guide for a civil servant.

Chapter 6
‘You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and falling over’. – Richard Branson


Dear civil servant, prepare yourself! You are about to join a world where failing is suddenly a real option, of 60-hour work-weeks, with an act-now mentality, of meetings lasting a maximum of 20 minutes, and of acting as Mr Wolf for startups.

The local government plays an active role in a StartupCity. An important part of its success is a local leader — either a mayor, deputy mayor, or alderman of economics — someone who is passionately invested in the startup and tech sector. Without this level of political support, the civil servant cannot play more than a facilitating role. But with the right support, the civil servant can invigorate the startup ecosystem as pioneer, trailblazer, and partner in business.

Worldwide, country administrators view startups as one of their priorities. In England, former Prime Minister David Cameron made them a focal point. The Netherlands asked former EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes to become the Special Envoy for startups. France’s Digital Affairs Minister Axelle Lemaire launched Le French Tech. City officials have also taken the responsibility to strengthen their local startup ecosystem. In London former Mayor Boris Johnson

started TechCity UK, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg activated a partnership with various parties that lead to the creation of the Digital.NYC portal. When Deputy Mayor Kajsa Ollongren took office in Amsterdam, she became responsible for the economics bureau. Under the motto, ‘New work opportunities are to be found at the companies growing the fastest’, she placed a focus on young, quickly scaleable companies often related to the IT sector. She has given her tireless support to the startup sector, which has meanwhile dubbed her the Startup Mayor of Amsterdam. Without Ms Ollongren, there would be no StartupAmsterdam. Administrative power at both the national and local level is essential to put startups successfully on the political agenda that of a wider audience.

If there is political support for an active government role, then there is an important role for the officials to play, and that is making a plan. Not a policy plan, but an action plan. And then that role is as a ‘governpreneur’, a civil servant that is the co-founder of a public-private action plan who must take an active role in implementation based on the lean startup approach. A long-term policy plan alone was not enough to elevate Amsterdam’s startup scene into Europe’s top three StartupCities. We needed action, output, and concrete measures. We had no time to waste. To do it, we needed an action programme created with direct input from—and embraced by— entrepreneurs. We did not need much to convince our deputy mayor of this undeniable fact. Ms Ollongren also realised the importance of making a partnership with the entrepreneurs to directly influence the policy we were tasked with creating for Economic Affairs.

An important duty for any civil servant should be standing up for the public’s interests, and that applies to collaboration with private parties. Out of the original context of ‘duty’ comes this new task to light. The old guidelines gave direction and some grounding. But governments should not only adjust to their quickly changing environment, they must be a part of that change. They should evolve from cumbersome organizations with heavy hierarchical structures and policy departments, to smaller, more flexible organizations with ‘governpreneurs’ who actively do business in public-private initiatives. This requires that such civil servants develop their own personal ‘startup skills’.

‘You are not stuck in traffic; you are causing the traffic jam’. As a civil servant, you are a part of the startup ecosystem. And part of your role is to connect the governmental bodies to this sector. As a responsible civil servant, you have to know exactly what is going on as the local government attempts to play a valuable role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. You have to know who the important parties are, the most influential people, which companies are doing well, who likes to work with who (or not), which events are successful, who matters within university-level entrepreneurial education, who the investor angels are, and more. In short, you learn the startup lingo, you read books on the subject, you leave your office, go to meetings, follow workshops, participate in panel discussions, and pitch your StartupCity!

Place yourself in the middle of this ecosystem, and indeed it is a place with two faces: the public and the private. You as a civil servant are in a catch-22, constantly on both sides of the situation. The council wants a report on your programme’s progress, but the industry would like to deviate from the original plan because it can be done even better. The finance department will want to make sure an initiative is following procedure, but the stakeholders of the project want ‘a go’ because they need that money now. The alderman’s advisor wants the items for the meeting in advance, but after a week so much has happened that the information is already obsolete by then. Your trainee wants to know what her learning objectives will be for a particular project, while the exact content of the project are yet to take form.

Obviously there is a lot of discourse about modern skills for a civil servant. Things mentioned in studies or books include finding the ability to direct processes effectively, negotiating skills, know-how in social media, and influence processes. To play a role that truly stimulates the startup scene, a few extra skills beyond these are required. We will describe them here, and hopefully you can use them as guide to prepare yourselves for your role or use them re-educate yourselves constantly, just as startups do.

1) Connect to entrepreneurs.
This is easier said than done. Startup entrepreneurs are on a path. They want to solve a problem and scale their solution globally. They are in it to carve out the future. They question the status quo. Among them are the crazy, the successful, the misfits, the nerds, and the non-diplomatic. Connecting with them is hard. But once you do, you will have a deep and long-lasting partnership. By connecting, we mean: Connect with their ambition. See how they envision the future. Understand what guides them. What events they attend, and why. Who they follow on Twitter, and why. Get to know them by listening. What kind of support do entrepreneurs need, how can you help them as government? What is obstructing their path?

2) Get out of the way (most of the time)
Do not waste the most valuable thing for entrepreneurs: their time! Many times we were asked by colleagues whether we had a startup in mind ‘for a specific event’. But when we replied, ‘Perhaps, but what’s in it for the entrepreneur’, they did not have any clue. Civil servants have the tendency to approach entrepreneurs without doing their homework first. They set up round tables that take too long, with a lot of babble discussing the obvious, but with no concrete outcomes. If you stop standing in the way as government, the startups will be the ones approaching you for partnerships. There is no better starting point.

3) Experiment
Failure is an option. Let’s learn and start again. This is the world of the experiment. At most, the outcome can be unexpected. Be flexible, and choose a process approach. Try not to micromanage. Accept that you will not have all the answers in the beginning. Every StartupCity project and initiative is a process. Constantly imagine your vision, and customise it. Break free from the system, the plan, the design. Behave just as a startup would function when it comes to your action programme: continuously validate the assumptions of ideas. Let your data speak, and start small. Continue on to the execution or implementation of a plan, only when you are sure that a particular approach corresponds with all parts of the business model. Step of out the straightjacket of grand visions, long-term plans, tight schedules, fixed images of what the future should be, and very precise goals. Request explicit approval from the city council for this approach. This gives you the room you need to figure out what works and what does not. StartupAmsterdam did receive this approval, and it helped tremendously. This is part of its success: it is a unit responsible for its results, but within a broad framework. There is a disclaimer, however: experimentation only works when the projects are not abstract but only very concrete. Therefore, you must have an action plan in place rather than a policy plan.

4) Act as an entrepreneur, and think in terms of business models
Now that you make up part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, your entrepreneurial skills will be put to the test. Go on the search for a good business model, with the help of the private stakeholders you enlisted. Find creative ways to finance your projects. In other words, your role is more than just handing out grants. Be efficient with your resources. Often, a project does not need a lot of money, especially when other parties are involved. The collaboration combined with your funding offers the most value. Consider how to generate the revenues, and search for more partners that want to invest. A return on investment carries more weight than the effect on subsidy. Examine whether something is worth investing in.

5) Learn how to sell
Entrepreneurs know how to sell. An entrepreneur must be able to sell the product to customers. He must convince (read: sell) funding sources that their (much-needed) growth capital is a profitable investment. An entrepreneur must sell good delivery conditions to customers. An entrepreneur simply sells the better part of every day. Civil servants who work on their StartupCity must also sell internally and externally, as governpreneurs. So make a pitch and a business model for each project. Make it clear what problem you are solving and what’s in it for the partners. Make it clear and enticing why others should join as a team member. Market your projects well. Communicate what you do, and make a large-scale promotion of it on social media. Make sure you get noticed nationally and internationally. This is contrary to public officials who are often on the modest side. Regardless of your persona, take advantage of the marketing and communication professionals in your municipality. You will soon find yourself pitching your StartupCity to visiting scale ups and to potential (corporate) partners.

You’ll be pitching the action programme to the city council and pitching the approach to your management. When you decide to sign up for the task of being StartupCity civil servant, pitching and selling will take up at least a third of your time. So, start loving it!

6) Inspire others
The world of startups and fast growing tech firms is an energetic and dynamic one. Make that energy your own, and pass it on to colleagues. Talk to everyone and about everything. Give presentations, invite colleagues from other cities to accompany you during an average day in the life of a governpreneur. Show them that you are there and can be useful. Pay it forward!

Stay positive. After all, no one likes problems. By framing projects in a positive way, people are more willing to contribute and things often go smoother. Often governments are in the business of solving problems. This topic requires a mindset of ‘grabbing opportunities’. If the initiative is inspiring, it even attracts people to it. Whenever people feel inspired, they do not soon lose the sensation. Inspiration is energy that pays off, sometimes years into the future.

It doesn’t mean that Problems will not be solved. They will be approached differently. This may be a difficult principle to grasp for the problem-oriented government which thinks it would not exist without problems. Be reinforcing!

Inspire and show interest. Don’t be a bureaucrat. Involve as many parties as possible. Input that is new, unexpected, and uncontrolled makes a multitude of perspectives possible, exactly what is needed to truly resolve a complex issue.

7) Become the Mr Wolf of StartupCity
Like the intrepid Mr Wolf in Pulp Fiction, solve problems for people in the startup world, and be the beacon who can answer questions. Arrange permits, grant exemptions, secure parking for events, and make referrals to the right colleagues (doing this in a bow tie and tuxedo is optional; the startup scene prefers sneakers and a hoodie).

As public partner, the government can also play a role as independent alignment officer. As StartupAmsterdam, we had this role in many occasions. Sometimes we acted as Mr. Wolf for an event to make sure that a permit was given by a colleague governmental department. Another time, we had to mediate between university partners and the private partners in their efforts to push for a new Growth Hacking Minor. Aligning stakeholders and create common ground is not always easy. We helped a big venue in their acquisition process for an international event to Amsterdam. This hit a sore spot with an important stakeholder who also organises a similar annual event. As a programme facing a potential conflict of interest, we took care to focus on maintaining a level playing field for all our stakeholders by openly communicating to both parties. The event in question eventually chose another city that could offer a significant source of funding. Meanwhile that venue is a partner in our programme that we help win other events for Amsterdam.

8) Be the (independent) connecting force
We often say 50% of our time is spent connecting people. We connect startups with mentor-pools, launchpad network or event organisers. We connect corporates with startups, peer-corporates or startup communities. We connect students with tech teams. We connect Universities with accelerators. We connect StartupCities with other StartupCities. We connect colleague civil servants with incubators. And so on.

As a StartupCity liaison, you are in the business of connecting people. One advice to consider when you are in the connecting-people-business is to choose for the ‘double opt-in’ approach: when introducing two people who don’t know each other, ask each of them to opt-in to the introduction before making it. This is part of the startup ‘rules of engagement’.

Being part of an entrepreneurial network means that you are dealing with many different stakeholders. This calls for impartiality, which is the basis of being a civil servant. Ours is a duty of fairness, the degree to which rules apply equally to everyone in the ecosystem. Transparency therefore is of great importance. Decisions that the city government makes must be justified to everyone.

While you shall strive for unity in the ecosystem, keep in mind that at the same time, there are stakeholders who are in competition with each other such that any will to work together simply cannot happen. The government can play a neutral role, where working together to strengthen the whole system benefits everyone. You have to accept criticism from certain parties, along with those who do not want to make an active contribution to the startup policy. Do not ignore such parties.

9) Work extremely hard
Last but not least, work hard! Extremely hard.

Your StartupCity is in a hurry. The startups and its stakeholders are not just in a hurry themselves but also are fully passionate about their ventures. Because of this, your partners have long working days that continue into the weekend. They expect those long workweeks from you as well, but it pays off. In addition to all the progress you make, you will also earn their respect.

During StartupAmsterdam’s first year, as many as 40 meetings per week were the rule, not the exception. We worked everywhere, both in our offices but making sure to get out of the building to meet and work at coworking spaces, incubators, and headquarters of scale ups. This is how you become a part of this community, and as such, you understand what is going on in all parts of the ecosystem. You gain trust. Suddenly you realise that you are working impossible hours. This ‘work-life integration’ can present a challenging work-life balance.

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