What We Believe (And What We’re Testing)

Urban.Us exists to help startups solve urban challenges. We’re beginning with assumptions from personal experience, interviews and observations. In the coming months we’ll be testing these assumptions with our first startups.

Expanded Advisory Roles
The growth of accelerator programs has demonstrated the value of connecting early stage teams with mentors and advisors. Discussions with startups solving urban challenges, suggest that they have additional needs related to interacting with urban leadership and institutions in areas like policy, pilot projects and procurement. Teams can benefit from expert help in domains like mobility or public safety and a number of additional institutions are lending a hand like foundations, academic institutions and not-for-profits.

We found that some teams expend a lot of time and energy to seek out the people who can offer them the feedback and support they need during the critical stages of discovery, evaluation and efficiency. So we’re designing the Urban.Us network to let startups focus on building solutions versus building a new community or network.

The goal: have startup teams benefit from the Urban.Us network, so they can focus on building and testing their products.

Startup & Civic Innovation Hubs
A number of successful founders and early stage investors have argued eloquently about the benefits of moving to a startup hub. Some cities have ecosystems with more depth than others – that is, more people with more experience building and funding startups. Increasingly, startups are succeeding outside of the most established hubs. The geographic expansion of successful accelerator programs plots the emergence and importance of other hubs in places like Boulder, Chicago, Austin, London and Seattle.

But which cities are developing interesting civic innovative programs to better enable them to work with startups? There is some overlap between startup hubs and civic innovation hubs like Austin and Boston, but there is an emerging group of civic innovation hubs like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Washington DC, Portland, Hamburg, Philadelphia, Melbourne, Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Bogota. Civic innovation hubs become even more important when one considers startups that need to find pilot city partners.

So we know our advisors and startups are likely going to span multiple startup and emerging civic innovation hubs. Since the 37signals team just published Remote, we expect we might not have to try make this point too strongly that we believe that a distributed network can work. But we have a lot to figure out to ensure that the distributed network can add significant value beyond the local ecosystems.

The goal: find the best mix of online community and “in real life” city specific startup and civic innovation hubs.

Beyond the Demo Day
Demo Days have emerged a potent platform for generating interest for seed stage funding. In recent years fundraising options have expanded, more startups have sourced equity investments via accredited investors they have discovered via angel.co or early supporters on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Crowdfunder or Neighbor.ly. In fact, the recent introduction of Angel.co syndicates has resulted in a new way to invest in accelerator cohorts.

At the same time, the recent passage of the JOBS Act in the United States is further expanding these opportunities. Title II enables solicitation or broader advertising of investment opportunities for early stage firms and funds and Title III expands the types of people who can participate in equity crowdfunding.

Beyond the expanding funding universe for startups, there are some additional funding sources for startups focused on urban challenges. Foundations and not-for-profits offer grants and there is also a shift to support for profit civic innovation as foundations like the Knight Foundation and Omidyar Network are doing. Further challenges and prizes offer an additional source around specific problem areas. Like funding for primary research, these additional funding options are critical to help early stage firms who might take longer to navigate key early stage processes during discovery and evaluation.

The goal: help startup teams to understand the availability, best strategies and benefits associated with emerging funding options.

Playing Matchmaker
I constantly connect people (some have even gone on to get married). I’ve learned there’s not just a single best way to discovery what connections might be best. Sometimes, I’m responding to specific requests from founders or issues that arise from their updates, and other times I take advantage of opportunities from chance conversations.

For startup teams to benefit from the great people in the Urban.Us network, we need to better understand what constitutes a good potential match.

The goal: have startups quickly connect to the people they need to meet, and discover people that can help them before they know they need the help.

The Right Interaction Modes
In a diverse, distributed network, we cannot expect everyone to have the same preferences for working together. Some people prefer to avoid meetings, but can provide great written feedback by e-mail. Others might prefer to carve out office hours on a Google Hangout, and still others might prefer interaction via a social feed or comment thread. I’ve personally wondered in and out of love with services like Basecamp, but after some analysis, we’ll make this the backbone for online interactions and explore some additional fun and games via their API. But tools are not enough, our real work will happen on process, but that is enough for a bunch of other posts.

The goal: identify and organize the interaction modes that enable startups to get the most value from Urban.Us advisors.

Fair Compensation
From discussions so far, it is clear that Urban.Us advisors are motivated in different ways. Some are successful founders who want to give something back, others are investors looking for a return on their investment, or syndicate participants. Still others are focused on the potential social impact. My main concern is being fair, given this mix of mo

The problem, however, is more complex. How does one compensate someone who is working for a city and cannot receive options? In an organization where most of the value comes from a part time network, how should these people be best compensated? We’re just starting to have these discussions.

To keep things fair, we’ll need a way to monitor contributions. Inspired by the success of reputation systems like eBay and Reddit, we’ll be testing ways to keep track of how everyone is doing.

The goal: ensure that Urban.Us advisors feel that they are being fairly recognized and compensated for their contributions.

Problems Worth Solving
We’ve picked an initial set of urban problem spaces. If one looks at city agendas, there is some strong agreement about the main agenda items across city sizes and countries. The biggest challenges relate to  environment, economic development, mobility, urban systems and services, and government. Health and education also feature on this list, but we believe great ecosystems are already evolving in these areas, so if interest is high from people working in these areas, we’ll point them to some of our favorite accelerators and venture networks.

Looking a bit more broadly, issues like resilience are buried in concerns about environment, but this is likely to change as cities like NYC make very visible adjustments in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. As a result, more citizens feel the direct impact of costs such as rising flood insurance premiums.

The goal: ensure that we allocate finite resources to working with the teams that can have the greatest impact – they have the desire and abilities to take on these important challenges.

Want to help us solve urban challenges? You can start by challenging our assumptions, so please get in touch.