Spotlight on startups: from Cityzen to Public Input, CEO talks about its evolution and future

Editor’s Note: Startup Spotlight is a regular part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package, which also includes updates to our Triangle Getting Started Guide, Triangle Zone Meeting List, multiple event calendars, and Startup Rewind – a summary of the news of the previous week.

RALEIGH – Having recently closed with $ 6.1 million in funding, the Raleigh Public Input startup is making the news with its unique business approach. Jason Parker of WRAL techWire spoke with Jay Dawkins, co-founder and CEO, about the evolution and future of the company.

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TW: Tell us about the origin story of the company, what was important for the future of Cityzen and how it became Public Input.

Dawkins: After graduating from the state of North Carolina, I worked as a transportation engineer at a consulting firm here in Raleigh. Many of the major infrastructure projects required public opinion before plans could be finalized. It usually involved an archaic in-person process that few people were involved in – but it was the main thing that shaped our physical world.

I knew this had to change, but it seemed like an exaggeration to think that a transportation engineer could do a lot about it. Then one weekend I went to this conference hosted by Christopher Gergen, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist. He introduced this concept of “entrepreneurship of life” – integrating what you’re good at, what you care about and what the market is willing to pay into a central goal for a business and a life.

It really turned the wheels on, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon an amazing community that he, Jason Widen, Jes Lipson, and Brooks Bell were building at Hub Raleigh, now Raleigh Founded. This led me to move to a home business incubator called ThinkHouse, and before I knew it I quit my job and started a business.

TW: What happened next?

Dawkins: It quickly became clear that I shouldn’t have quit my day job. Although Raleigh and Charlotte joined as customers in the first year, the product was still new and monthly earnings were less than $ 2,000 per month. I was racking up credit card debt, eating sweet potatoes for meals, and working absurd hours learning to code and selling software. There were many weak spots where I doubted myself and the company, but I had co-founders like Graham Stone who worked long hours nights and weekends. Also a very patient and understanding spouse!

The first product was essentially a better survey widget for the government, but it evolved into a flexible tool that could collect feedback from many places, including news articles. WRAL became a client to embed polls into news stories, and you can still see them today. We’ve also partnered with nonprofits like EducationNC to do statewide SMS and email outreach, and along the way we’ve built a platform that communicates and collects feedback anywhere people want to engage – whether through email, text, online, in a virtual meeting, or in person.

TW: The company just closed its $ 6.1 million fundraiser. Why seek funding, and why now?

Dawkins: Those tough early days really created discipline and focused on solving customer issues. Satisfied customers have helped us grow organically, double year over year, and remain profitable during the pandemic. So lifting a round is less about survival and more about accelerating towards the potential we see for the business. From our roots at Raleigh Founded, this potential is measured not only financially, but also in the positive impact a business can have on how government listens and becomes more responsive.

We chose to work with Growth Street Partners because it was clear that they shared this philosophy of positive impact and value creation that go hand in hand. They also have a ton of relevant experience in vertical software spaces like govtech – which we need to take things to the next level.

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TW: What are the main challenges facing public sector organizations today? What trends exist in the supply of software for this sector?

Dawkins: As our world goes digital, people expect their interactions with government to follow suit. At the same time, federal funding increasingly relies on local agencies proving that they are effectively reaching and serving historically under-represented groups such as people with disabilities, seniors, low-income people, and non-English speakers.

These heightened expectations and the growing number of interactions make it very difficult to manage audience engagement without the right tech stack. So we’re seeing a greater interest in back-end systems to manage and automate the thousands of interactions that occur between local government and residents.

TW: What does the future of audience contribution look like?

Dawkins: Right now, a lot of our job is to centralize many resident touchpoints on one platform, with a focus on a better resident experience. A better experience is hard to measure, but we’re seeing data that shows that agencies adopting PublicInput more than double the number of people engaged in public meetings, surveys, and communications. This has been the case for neighboring cities like Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheville – and similar things are now happening in more than 30 other states.

An interesting thing has emerged – now that agencies are standardizing the way they collect demographic data and compare it to the latest census data, it’s clear that “more” engagement isn’t always “fairer”. But it is possible to understand where there are gaps so that staff can do more targeted outreach, whether through high-tech approaches like geofencing or low-tech approaches like working with landmarks. community partners.

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TW: How can software like Public Input be used to streamline or better facilitate something like, say, zoning ordinances or new residential developments or transit projects?

Dawkins: Here in our backyard it looks like GoTriangle and the City of Raleigh doing online and SMS polls on topics like Bus Rapid Transit, Raleigh Zoning Text Change Portal and even digital voting on the sidewalks of new neighborhoods. Further upstream, the NCDOT uses the software to gather public feedback on road projects and the Capital Region Metropolitan Planning Agency collects feedback on their long-term plans for greenways, highways and roads. public transport.

The digital transformation of government is only just beginning and there are many opportunities beyond public engagement. We believe the Triangle could become a hotbed of innovative govtech companies, as we’ve already seen a number of them start up here, including PublicInput, ArchiveSocial, Acta Solutions and Neighborland (now part of NextDoor).

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