Serving the Greater Good Without Going Out of Business

Jan 10, 2014

This post is by Cristina Garmendia, co-founder of OpportunitySpace, Points of Light Civic Accelerator participant that aims to bring governments, developers and community organizations together to create vibrant communities. 

Civic Accelerator teams gather in Atlanta.

What does it mean to be a civic startup?

One of the most common questions we receive here at OpportunitySpace after we explain what we do is, “Wait, are you a for-profit or a nonprofit?” – promptly followed by, “For profit? But how do you make money?” The confusion is understandable. We take public information and make it easier for the public to access it at no charge. (I'm going to leave you hanging on the edge of your seat for a few paragraphs.)

Government often doesn’t know what it owns. It has a worse inventory than your average shoe store. OpportunitySpace has an explicit social mission to provide better data to the public in order to drive community revitalization. Unless you’re great at trolling though tax assessor data, you’re not going to know that a vacant lot is owned by your city. Without stalking your city's (probably atrociously designed) website, you're not going to know that the property in question – something your community could put to good use – is up for sale.

We believe that more accessible property data will lead to tangible, quantifiable value for our customers. And there are also less quantifiable social impacts to increasing the transparency of government and increasing citizen engagement.

As we sell governments on the idea, we are honored to be part of the latest group of startups participating in the Points of Light Civic Accelerator, an intensive, 12-week startup boot camp that includes mentoring, entrepreneur education, peer support and networking. We’re joined by 14 other organizations, both nonprofit and for profit, a diverse bunch who share the belief that people are at the center of change. In October, we spent a week getting to know each other in Atlanta. In November, we broke bread in Palo Alto, Calif. In the new year, we'll come together one last time in New York.

Why be part of an accelerator devoted to civic startups? We have been taking a hard look at our weaknesses so we can make our company more sustainable and a smarter investment. Part of this process has been to more strongly articulate our revenue model. That means defining our value and differentiating between our customers and our users.

What’s the difference between customers and users? Facebook's users pay nothing and have signed up by the millions. Facebook's customers are not you and me, rather those willing to pay for access to our eyeballs: advertisers.

So, who are our users? And who are our customers – as in who is willing to pay for access to our users? Our users – including urban agriculturists, artists, next-door neighbors and local developers – pay nothing. Our customers are not our users, rather those who are invested in providing public services: governments.

Like Facebook, one of our jobs at OpportunitySpace is to deliver active users to government. These users represent both greater community engagement in public space and more potential buyers and lessors of government surplus property. We hypothesize that these users will drive cost savings in the form of decreased maintenance costs of vacant properties and revenues in the form of more properties on the property tax rolls.

Let's wrap up by returning to our initial question: What does it mean to be a civic startup?

For the team at OpportunitySpace, being a civic startup means our success as a company is deeply tied to both improving citizen engagement and quality of governance. Our resolution for 2014? To prove it!