Nick Bowden - GovConnect Interview

002 Nick Bowden

(mySidewalk & Sidewalk Labs)

Connect with Nick: Blog|Twitter

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Introductions and Background

Andrew K Kirk: Welcome everybody to another episode of GovConnect. I'm honored and really excited to have Nick Bowden here. Most of you probably know him from his days as a CEO and Founder of MindMixer and later mySidewalk and it's hard to believe Nick and I go back actually about five years. We were together in Palm Springs in the desert at an Esri Partner Conference and had our first really great in-depth conversation we're talking about  everything from monthly active users to the procurement process in government so he's seen a lot of sides. I think he brings a really interesting perspective to the  innovation side. First of all, Nick thanks for being here  wanting to kick off and tell us a little bit about you and your background.

Nick Bowden: Thanks for having me in Andrew, excited to continue the conversation. By way of background, I have an urban planning background so I started my career at the City of Phoenix, which a lot of people don't know on the municipal or the public sector side. Spent some time in a big urban planning engineering consulting firm and then started my own consulting firm and then my mixer and then mySidewalk.

I'm at sidewalk Labs, which is a subsidiary of alphabet or a sibling to Google. So I've spent that's been actually 12 or 13 years kind of my whole career in the government and then the government tech space.   

Transition to GovTech

Andrew K Kirk: That's a pretty interesting transition where you go from consultant to gov technology CEO.

I think at the time you raised  twenty three million dollars, so you had a pretty amazing jump as far as your career path there and a lot of success. So take us through that transition and how you kind of saw that opportunity.

Nick Bowden: So the government is largely relied on services and consultants for the better part of least the last two decades when it comes to a lot of what they do. Think as a consultant you get a lot of insight into like how does the work get done in part because you're doing some of the work which are also you have a longer kind of drawn out process.

And so that more time to like think about this is how this process works through and MindMixer was really a productization of the Civic Engagement process, right? So if I hadn't done that human process as a consultant like facilitating town halls, organizing town halls, trying to get people to show up to town halls, I'm not sure I would even have the insight to start MindMixer in the first place. And so it was a it was a pretty natural transition.

I mean the company and how you work is very different as a consultant your time is money. And so it's actually part of the reason I didn't like it is because you have a disincentive to be inefficient in some regards because you're billing your time. Whereas a product you have total incentive to be totally efficient and try to scale it across. And then the other notable part of that transition is just when in the consulting world we can only really do a small number of customers or places or cities at one time, and so it's not very scalable.

And the scalable in the sense of impact, right? I think one of the things that I know you guys have done and we try to do at MindMixer is how do we actually pass knowledge across relatively disparate cities, but actually have a lot of the same problem. So I think now I would never go back and be hard for me to go back to to consulting kind of full-time and not thinking about building products, but I think the transition is actually really helpful.

Andrew K Kirk: I think that's interesting that CitySourced we were so head down into at the beginning we're a product company. This is our DNA, this is who we are and we still are we partner on the services side, but it's somewhat the fabric of government today that that services component is just always it's almost the comfort level of having that expert there locally helping someone think through their own business processes, their own ways of doing business.

Give us the elevator pitch for what MindMixer was and then you had to transition into mySidewalk.  How did you think through it was the right move to make what a lot of people in the outside saw as of pretty significant change?

Nick Bowden: Good question.  The short version is MindMixer was an online town hall. So we want to take this process that was 12 months that required a bunch of meetings and people that show up physically those meetings and put it online not like in a live streaming way, but in a forum-esq way so if you're familiar with reddit is a decent example of something like this in the consumer world, and we ended up working with actually close to 2,000 cities across the world provide the service which  was cool, I mean it was fun. I think well beyond what Nathan and I imagine we started and of course of the transition was I think the tradition was twofold. One. I think like a lot of products in this space especially as venture capital flowed into the space lot of products have gotten commoditized and the price point drops significantly, which I think is an overall good thing for government because you can get more for your dollar. The problem when that happens is that differentiating between good products and not-so-good products becomes a lot more difficult because on the surface community engagement in particular everybody does community engagement quote unquote.

Whether or not they do community engagement and whether or not it's the kind of community engagement that you want. I think is just harder to distinguish and you're buying off of the short demo you may or may not have a lot of familiarity, and so you may not see like the inner workings of a product and I think what we saw as a macro trend was the community here and community engagement space was slowly getting commoditized the price point was coming down to a point where like our own business unit economics like started to not make as much sense anymore.

And so we didn't abandon it. We just said if this were to evolve what would be the next step but I think the natural next step is we want to know more about who's engaging because it's one thing to know, the example I always use is like 500 people want new bike lanes, right?

This is a common thing in cities but if cities don't know that those people are like, where do they live roughly speaking? Who are they, are they young people are they old people then designing, and implementing services becomes a kind of a shot in the dark. And so the transition from MindMixer mySidewalk was really let's maintain this notion of engagement, but let's actually have a backbone of it that is that's more empirical that's that's measurable. And so mySidewalk then still had the engagement part, but then the back end of mySidewalk is really really deep into demographic and socio-economics that both could be integrated into the engagement efforts, but also be kind of a call it GIS-light as a standalone.

And so that was kind of the two parts. I you know, it's funny, you know this from CitySourced when changes happen from the outside you don't see that they've been in effect for 12 months or 18 months or been thought about and as a Founder you think about this stuff all of the time. And so it was not nearly as sudden I think some course and even to our customers, maybe as it was the market as a whole but I'd still do it again a hundred times out of a hundred.

Venture Capital

Andrew K Kirk: You guys were probably some of the most successful when it comes to traditional Venture Capital, which is what people think of as like the typical capital source for quick, fast, young businesses. It's not doesn't seem to be quite as prevalent in the govtech space. We see especially as companies grow in maturity see a lot more growth equity and private equity type of funding, but you guys kind of bucked that trend in really did the VC model. As much as your kind of comfortable talk about what that's like and how you think that continues to play out for govtech businesses moving forward.

Nick Bowden: So I think VC regardless of Industry, I think VC when you raise Venture Capital Money, it just puts a different kind of pressure on the business. That's not a that's not a good or a bad pressure. It's just a different kind of pressure. I mean you're you're very explicitly saying we want to grow as fast as we can. We think we have a scalable product. And we think we have a scalable set of people in the company to take that product to a bigger market.

And so you condense a lot of your growth and it becomes intentionally inorganic and when your growth becomes an organic, that means you have a new kind of pressure, right? You have to service more customers than you probably were servicing or customer service you before you have to sell more, and I think the trap there if you're not careful is that you get out in front of your skis. And all of sudden you're just you're bigger than you can manage. I think the lesson learned for me there is that the we say the internal mass grows faster than the external surface. What I mean by that is you have to hire more people faster and as a company gets bigger just gets more complex and more complicated. There's more relationships to manage and this is not unique to govtech this is just venture capital in general. And so you're kind of in this as a as a Founder as a leader of a company you get in the space and like how do I continue to maintain a culture, and a value set, and a direction, and a vision that's clear while still growing really fast.

So I think it's not right for every business and it's also not right for every founder. I think the key part of that is like, is that what you want for your company? And are you willing to play within those expectations? I think a lot of people, I'm not sure why, get end up getting surprised by like they have to grow fast when they raise Venture Capital that's kind of that's kind of the point.

Right and I think we knew going into what we were getting into and I think it by and large to help us grow fast now specifically to this space. This space is really hard for venture capital in my opinion and that's this is not a popular take for a lot of people but I think the reason it's hard is because there's an inn there's a finite number of customers.

So if you're in like the small medium sized business, right and you're building a product for SMBs, there's 415,000 new businesses every year in the US, right? So there's this natural kind of churn of businesses that are new customers for a product. And the government space there are basically the same number of government agencies today that there were 40 years ago and not only is the number the same the agencies are the exact same. And in a lot of those agencies the same people work there that work there 30 or 40 years ago. so you just don't have a churn out of customers and a lot of product companies need a little bit of churn out because you need new customers to acquire. And government just doesn't have that much to go International, there's a whole sort of other challenges.

And so I think what that boils down to and again, this is seven years eight years of thinking about this and going through it is in order to support VC in this space, I think your price point on your product just has to be a lot higher in your lifetime value, right?

Which means that customers have to stay with you just has to be really long. And if you do that then a slower sales cycle and a finite number of customers and a slower adoption cycle don't play as much of a factor in the growth of the business. But if you're at a 5,000 10,000 20,000 dollar a year product, it's just really really hard to sustain the kind of growth rate that you need in venture capital.

Andrew K Kirk: Yeah, it's really interesting. And I've had this conversation with a lot of govtech Founders that it's very different than the private sector because as you said the price point increases you see a lot more procurement hurdles than you do in the private sector, but the model flips because you can usually have a lot lower churn. So that lifetime value can still be a great business opportunity, but you just don't see the growth multiples quarter-over-quarter even month-over-month that typical venture capital likes to see and that's why I think you see a lot of private equity sees it more as a safe cash bet and that's why you see a lot of play on that model.

So now kind of taking us recently, you know telling you went from one side walk to the next sidewalk to tell us about Sidewalk Labs and specifically replica doing some really amazing stuff. I know there's a lot of location and your another data play. So tell us about what you're up to now.

Launching Replica

Nick Bowden: Yeah, so I left mySidewalk. It's been a year and a half or so. So November of 2016.  I'd probably put a decade of 80 hour and 90 hour work weeks in at the time had a year and a half year old son who's now close to three. mySidewalk is still operating and doing well. And so I think. It's actually turned out well for both sides.

I took some time off which I haven't done in a long time and then Sidewalk Labs for people that aren't familiar, I mentioned it's a it's an Alphabet company, but the whole of the company it's based out of New York. It's about a hundred people little bit less than hundred people. This point is focused on building cities from the internet up think is what we'd say. So think about a future city, it takes all this this smart kind of Internet of Things smart development, innovative things around infrastructure and tries to put them in one place. We're working in Toronto to try to do that.

The other part or the part that I kind of sit in so to speak inside Sidewalk Labs there's some independent product groups that are working on products they're both applicable to the Toronto project, but also may be applicable to a wider market. And so when I came on a little over a year ago or so I'd spent some time kind of in the data is a service side of govtech Nick Jim and Alexei Pozdnukhov both kind of starting to think about how to do this in the transportation space and it's been some time. And so melding of our interest and expertise and backgrounds is now resulted in Replica.

I think the easiest way to understand it is just how do people move in a city. They better understand how people move in a city and so not fundamentally different at its core than say mySidewalk was which is how to use data to support better decision making the difference of course is Replica is focused kind of specifically on the movement of people.

Simply put is we take mobile location data. It's privacy protected, anonymized before we get it and we build a synthetic version of a region's population so it's statistically equivalent but not identifiable. So you can't go identify yourself in it that's made up part of household characteristics or things that you'd see in the census and part on people how people move. And then we model that to create an entire representation of your city or your region's movement.

So where do people go? When do they get there? How do they get there? So they go by bus, they go by car, and for what purpose. And then a lot of bunch of different variables  in Replica what a city can do is say we want to understand how many people are biking to work from neighborhood A to downtown between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m.

And you can actually get that answer and you can get you know, what network links they're using, so what roads they go to get there. And so if you're thinking about planning decisions and policy sensitivity, Replica is a tool that you can do a lot of that end and then we update it every single quarter. And so you get a new snapshot of your city or regions movement every three months and the kind of the state of art right now or previously in transportation model and as you use it what's called a household survey or a travel diary that that a family that's randomly selected literally writes where they go and when they go there and on a piece of paper and now they have mobile apps that do some of this.

A region does that if they're really lucky every five years more likely closer to every 10 years. And then all of our region's major transportation policy and infrastructure decisions are based on that model that may be using data that's 10 or 12 years old.  There are ways to do this now that you can maintain and improve accuracy and fidelity but use new methods to get there and so Replica's a shot at this and we've been really really fortunate that they're is a ton of interest in. So were actually basically booked out till 2020 building replicas for regions across the U.S.

Andrew K Kirk: It's a really interesting way of using data and what I find   most fascinating is that I think people could look at you and say, oh he was an urban planner and then left and went and did government technology.

But a lot of the stuff you've done is really a planner needs information to make decisions and you've just found new and maybe a better way. So whether it's asking someone to come to a Reddit style forum and trying to  push them to give you information. And now kind of just pulling that data in through these mobile devices and increasingly more ways that citizens are connected, you're just doing this with more and more data and providing more information. So hopefully cities can do more innovative things. But also just think about their planning and moving people in the day-to-day stuff that that's kind of a core of what a city offers.

I think a huge thing in the news right now as far as mobility and moving is the dockless scooters and whether five years ago, it was Uber which is the new innovation and it's like, you know kind of sidestepping government entirely and trying to think about moving people. I guess how do you think about it? But how do you think also like Innovation Officers within these government organizations can  continue to provide services in a smart way to citizens and continue to encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to bring those ideas and bring them to life and find solutions and kind of coexist nicely together in that world.

Nick Bowden:   I think one of the challenges some broad challenge for any kind of innovation government is a government I think has two primary elements to. So one is its risk-averse and you actually want governments to be risk averse in many ways now the trade-off though is that risk of adversity brings a more top-down kind of approach to the world and so governments, urban planning in particular, have this kind of view that you can you can actually plan out ten or twenty or thirty God forbid you can plan out a year, but we think we can plant like 30 years.

And in reality the world actually works a lot different which is more bottom up and the cities are the most beautiful cities that you want to go to and visit the in the most distinctive neighborhoods are not because someone sat behind a desk and said wow, you know 20 years on this is what I want. They're largely organic, they're largely bottom up, and they're mostly emergent right. And I think technology and product companies work that way very emergent way and I think Uber is an example of this kind of like emergent technology that says wait a second there's people needing there's a Marketplace here ket's do this.

These new dockless scooters or dockless bikes for example of this, right? And so these are emergent demands of your citizens. They want to move in different ways, companies and entrepreneurs take that kind of latent demand of consumers and build products to support it. And then they come to a place like a city to actually operate and these two things like collide, right? So this  bottom-up emergent behavior collides with kind of this top-down risk-averse hierarchical nature of governments. And this is where all this conflict and tension comes from. And so governments do  as a little bit of a knee-jerk to that is they regulate so they stop things and then they say like what is saying we got to get this under control.

The hard part about that is you just don't really have enough data because it's new and it's emergent to really regulate it effectively.  And so I'm not an advocate for like this everything goes right and like it'll just sort itself out but in some respects it kind of will right because consumers will sort themselves out. So I think if you're in a chief Innovation position part of the challenge is how do we actually not cut things off at the legs that might be great for a cities before they even get started?  I think this is why you've seen this kind of adversarial relationship between governments and particularly mobility because it gets into the public space. It's using public infrastructure their safety elements to it. By and large I think a lot of it government have overreacted in some respects because consumers are going to kind of sort it out for you, right? There's only so much demand for scooters and only so much demand for Uber and I think now come to light some congestion problems that are created by some of these things; but like by and large, they're also creating new forms of mobility that people clearly value and find value in and so one interesting thing that I think

I don't think the government's try to yet. But there's this notion of like  can you create like almost regulation-free or innovation zones like geographic areas  that  companies like this could actually test in in exchange for sharing data. We'll go in here. We'll test it. People that live there right or choose to go there know that it's this kind of Zone that  new stuff is happening right. And you live with some of the chaos of that  I think cities could probably actually get companies that would be willing to share some of that but when it becomes adversarial then it's hard, right?

You see this play out with Uber in particular where like Uber doesn't want to share data for competitive reasons. And cities regulate more or they try to subpoena some of those data and I just you get into this kind of weird dichotomy of like innovation versus  government.

Mobility is probably, moving people around is probably one of the foremost functions of government  is how do we efficiently move people from A to B. And how do we do it in a cost effective way. How do we do it in a way that isn't damaging the environment? How do we do it in a way that doesn't create more problems, right, then it solves? And this  regulatory  regulate first and then  try to allow innovators to follow or subsequently kind of like still provide a service, I think he's a really hard tension. I don't know how it gets solved unless you get a company in a city that are truly cooperate in a way that allows both to kind of meet their needs.

Andrew K Kirk: I think there might be a business model in there for a future govtech entrepreneur which would be chaos as a service. Can you find a local government and create a Zone and you'll just create the chaos or innovation zone?

Nick Bowden: Think about from your perspective right I mean think one of the one of the hard challenges to starting a company in the space is that you're like you're battling all this stuff. So you're batting like in a regulatory environment, battling procurement, you're battling a long history of doing things a certain way, you're battling like organizational structure and government that is not really designed to be cross-functional.  It's designed to be very vertically oriented.

Andrew K Kirk: What do you think working with different  governments as a consultant different products and really looking at  Chief Information Officer.  What do you think is the biggest  challenge or opportunity?

Nick Bowden: Privacy and security. Governments in general deal with it which is like you're storing a ton of information. You have an increasing number of sensors and that's not going to stop lot of people don't realize I mean traffic sensors have been around for a long time right traffic cameras have been around for a long time. But now you have smart sensors, right? Kiosk you've got public provided Wi-Fi that's collecting data. You have digital services and digital identification Services. You've got registration. I mean, there's just a lot a government holds a lot of data and that's increasing their lot of private companies that are trying to get into this space and I don't think people are quite prepared for like what that entails from a privacy standpoint.

But the thing is is they can provide value if they used an appropriate ways,  and so  specifically  decentralized identity and identity management, I think he's a really really interesting thing that Chief Information Officers can be thinking about. Which is how do we provide a single  digital identity that isn't centralized that can be used for things like driver's license to payment and a store and how does government get a part of that because it's happening, it's happening and I'm not sure the government's are part of that. That to me is like one of the most interesting problems that I think we're embarking on.

Andrew K Kirk:   Something you hit on a little bit about could you as a citizen basically potentially blockchain technology, could you basically opted into services? And then as soon as you're done  using that service remove your personal  information so that the end service provider would actually really never tap  directly into that.

"Rapid Three"

I want to jump into our rapid fire where we going to ask you a couple questions and then just hit it back with so the first one, you know, because CitySourced really into Mobile City Hall. We believe in this model of delivering more and better services  through a single mobile application. What type of smartphone do you use and what is your favorite app?

Nick Bowden: Oh man. I'm an apple. I'm an iOS guy favorite app  actually because I have a relatively newborn, it's called a Wonder Weeks. It's like a psychological shows you how babies advance psychologically it's pretty cool as a parent. I don't know if that's the answer you're expecting.

Andrew K Kirk: We want to know you, so that's great. You're really into the everything talk about Innovation and rapid development, you have a newborn every week is different  all right, next one.

What's one book that you most  recommend or give away to others?

Nick Bowden: Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.  It's kind of a history of trade  that and it's a history of just like the world, it's there's never been a better time to be alive empirically. And so I think go to Twitter for a second right and be drowned out pessimism and how everything is terrible and we're about to cross another line and we're never going to come back and that's about the time. I think there's some of those things may be true, but by and large  pessimist have come. They're pretty cheap and they're they're around all the time. They've been around for all of history and they're usually wrong.  And optimist have largely although in their moment, taken a lot of heat, have largely proven to be right. So I think  that book it's 10 years 10 or 12 years old, but I've read it a couple times and I'll read it again.

Andrew K Kirk: I love the idea  very simply,  as an individual as trying to eliminate as many negative voices in your life. Obviously, you're not going to get rid of everyone, but if you have people in your circle those tend to be the voices you hear the most and as much as you can build positivity around you it tends to reverberating really bring back good things back to yourself.

Last one, what's one tool software even just a hack that you're using right now that makes your life better?

Nick Bowden: I read a lot but I read   never could figure out like how do I consume articles effectively and I don't really want to like sift through Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds. So I use Nuzzle.  Nuzzle brings like links and popular articles, but I don't like reading and Nuzzle because I can't highlight things. I like to highlight things. And so I push Nuzzle things from Nuzzle in the  Pocket, which is an app which allows me to read offline because I travel but I also can't highlight pocket, so I had to find a hack to push in my Kindle  and so it happens to be that a developer somewhere and thank him or her for doing this has automated that. So I can push all of my pocket  articles into my Kindle and then in Kindle I can highlight and I can export my notes out of Kindle.

Andrew K Kirk: A true geek in action that your your Russian dolls of digital reading service. I love that cool. Well Nick listen, I just want to thank you so much for giving us your time sharing a lot of. You've obviously done an amazing amount of work from the consulting side all the way now to really really I think on the cutting edge of data and really helping cities make better decisions through using data and hitting one of those biggest challenges in terms of mobility.

Tell the listeners and the readers. I know you're big on medium, you contribute a lot of stuff, where can they read more about you and connect with you online?

Nick Bowden: Emails probably the best honestly, just or I don't tweet a ton, but I follow Twitter. I try to be meaningful and some of the tweets but Twitter is a good example, it's @njbowden or I do, I blog a lot less now with a newborn than I did before but on medium, yeah, my better planning blog. I try to write about this stuff and have written decent amount of stuff. I don't know if any of its good but it could be helpful.

Andrew K Kirk: Well, I've read it as well. I can attest to it, we'll throw a link to all of those up in the show notes. So people can go and  learn more.  Thank you so much for your time.

Nick Bowden: Really appreciate it. Thanks. Andrew appreciates good was fun.