I’ve been a long time podcast listener; I’m a heavy user. I’m currently subscribed to 33 podcasts and listen on average to 15 shows per week.
But this heavy usage actually blinded my eyes to the opportunity in my own space. I thought I was an anomaly, but the truth is podcast listening continues to grow. Podcast listeners listen to an average of 7 shows per week, which is up 40% since last year. But, popularity wasn’t the only factor driving our decision.
I also wanted to make sure we had something interesting to say in our space. In the past, we only focused on building a tool to report service requests.
Don’t get me wrong, getting stuff fixed is important; but IMHO, it made for a terrible podcast topic. I mean, how many times can you really tell a story about 1) citizen reports issue 2) city fixes issue 3) citizen rejoices with unending joy! 😜
Our customers still rely heavily on us for service requests, but our focus has changed the past 18 months. We’ve become much more focused on mobile as a tool to deliver services to residents. And this focus opens an entire door beyond just getting stuff fixed. In my daily activities, my team and I are talking more and more to innovation officers, digital services teams, and IT & application managers.
This shift sparked an opportunity to tell the story of the work done by these people, and most interestingly, the people behind this work. Because this group is made of people from all walks of life; technologists, local gov lifers, entrepreneurs, civic tech hackers, and dreamers are part of this growing group who see how technology, design principles, and people processes can and will radically shape the local government of tomorrow.
And with that note, I’m incredibly excited to introduce our first episode with Steve Ressler. Steve’s known as the founder of GovLoop, but he started his career in public sector and comes from a line of public servants. We talk about Steve’s journey into government, the steps that Steve took to build GovLoop and decide what’s next.
- Creating and growing an audience for Govloop, “Facebook for Government Employees”
- The process and decision to have Govloop acquired by GovDelivery
- How governments can assess startup companies
- Impact of outside financing on government technology
Andrew K Kirk: Hey everybody, welcome to GovConnect. I’m Andrew Kirk from Rock Solid (previously CitySourced) and I’m really pleased and honored to have Steve Ressler. Most of you probably know him as the founder of govloop. He’s done a lot of amazing stuff since and we’re going to really get into that, but thanks so much for being with us, Steve. For those of us that don’t know you, could you give us a little bit about who you are, your background, what brought you to where you are today?
Steve Ressler: Awesome. Well, first of all, thanks for having me. One of my passions is GocTech I, I joke I was a little bit born to do this. I’m a third generation government employee on my dad’s side and third generation entrepreneur in my mom’s side, so I feel like, you know, birth to do kind of public sector entrepreneurship at a fun run so far. Looking forward to doing more awesome things. I was an IRS brat, which is not cool. Military. Brad’s cool. My Dad worked for the Internal Revenue Service, moved a bunch growing up, ended up in Ohio for high school, went to Miami of Ohio for Undergrad and the University of Pennsylvania for Grad School. During Grad school I got to have the homeland security scholarship, so sitting social network analysis and terrorism, which got me interested in, in serving our country. So after my masters, I went and worked in homeland security for about six years and a few different technology roles at the inspector general office as well as immigration and customs enforcement. So that was super fun, but a little bit in the belly of the beast and the 200,000 person homeland security and learning how to navigate was able to do one of my projects, one of the first cloud project.
In 2008 which was pretty early. And then, during that time me and a friend started happy hour for young federal employees. There’s not many of them, but that group two to 10 to 100 and actually became a national nonprofit called young government leaders, which now is 10 chapters, 10,000 members, kind of the young lawyers or young bankers for young government professionals. So that got me into my first passion, which is really about connecting folks in public service, which I guess your listeners would know.
The beauty about government is we’re all on the same team, so if you’re at City of Cincinnati and I’m at the State of Ohio or EPA, we’re willing to connect and learn from each other, which is different than other industries. If you’re in tech, you’re at Amazon. I’m in Google and Facebook we don’t share. We’re kind of mortal enemies, with government we’re on the same team.
So that led me to launch GovLoop an online community for government employees, which we can talk about that eventually got acquired by a software company. GovDelivery where an executive on that team through his acquisition, by Granicus. And now I’m at a, an awesome back to the startup, game law enforcement SaaS called Callyo. Let’s fast forward. Happy to dig in on any of that.
Andrew K Kirk: Thank you so much for that background. One really interesting thing I thought that you brought up that I’ve seen a lot even in the technology space, is this idea that if you have a passion to start a meetup, it’s amazing how many companies, side projects, or side hustles if you have a passion for it and you live in a somewhat decent sized metro, there’s probably other people out there who want to meet and drink a beer and hang out with and chat about it and so I think that’s a really cool way that you started something.
Steve Ressler: It’s hard to believe now in the current era when social media, so just pervasive in everything we do, but back then it probably wasn’t an obvious first step. So for people today and they’re thinking about, you know, what’s the next innovation, what’s the next thing that’s gonna come about? What were the signals and what were you seeing that said, hey, I need to make this a formal digital online group and start Govloop is something kind of official.
It really wasn’t like I created it out of, uh, out of, out of fairy dust. It really was a couple of different signals through, through the young government leaders group actually, besides being the founder, I was also did our technology, so ran on our website or email lists, but I also ran our myspace group when that was cool. And our Linkedin group. Through that, I basically kind of saw two trends.
Someone was always kind of interested in social media, saw that growing rapidly. I saw the problems with just being a small presence on a broader platform. Myspace now facebook, do you really want to connect and talk about our work about government while you’re on myspace or facebook? The answer is usually not Linkedin, you know, groups while they make sense. They never really mastered it. So I would make sense that Linkedin groups would be popular. I could never really get them to work by folks I knew never could. They really focused so much really on the profile, which is then used for recruiting for my own personal sense I had that feeling. Then at the macro trends I was following — a couple of things happened what I saw a company called sermo, which was a social network for doctors want and then I saw Marc Andreessen who’s a famous venture capitalist, founder of Netscape.
He launched a company called ning.com right around that time, which lets you create your own social network for basically 50 bucks a month. So I saw myself, hey young government leaders, I know there’s a need. I know the technology of being the subgroup wasn’t effective and then I saw have to create my own social network. I don’t need to hire 10 developers. There’s software I can leverage. So those were kind of the three points that put it together. That really got the idea from an idea to hey, let’s actually do this.
Andrew K Kirk: So I know one thing, and this I think is pretty universal, whether you’re a civic tech company trying to find an audience or even in your local government in you’re trying to get attention and get people’s eyeballs. What did you do early on that made GovLoop really successful at just getting people interested in signing up and really building out that network?
Steve Ressler: I get that question a lot and unfortunately, my first answer is there’s no secret sauce. So I think that actually audience is really the hardest part for any company. The or government agency with a, with a new service. So I find too often people don’t spend enough time and attention of how to get the word out. Kind of tactically. A couple of things we did. So one I had a decent amount of network through young government leaders and we launched and we promoted it everywhere we could. Had some good news articles, like we had a catchy pitch at the time, you know, face it was called the from my line, which I think people need the 32nd elevator pitch, you know, an online community for public servant to on Facebook, whatever wasn’t catchy article. I do that ton of blocking and tackling and the beginning of.
I had a day job, nine to five, this was I joke, my five to nine and I would personally welcome every new member. I would, you know, on my own dime. Bought some stickers that I would mail out stickers and lanyards to new members. I created a volunteer group called community leaders that people could apply for that. Now I had a volunteer army that welcoming new members.Making it have a buzz given folks a lot of love and then making people feel like they're a part of the journey. Click To Tweet
Right. So you know, we would celebrate every milestone. We have catchy taglines, like government doesn’t suck, not your father’s bureaucrats. It just kind of made it part of a fun journey that you’re part of something bigger than yourself.
Andrew K Kirk: I think a couple of things to pull out that’s interesting. You know like you said, one people that are going to be a little disappointed. There wasn’t some magic sauce or you figured out some hack to facebook ads to draw a lot of people in. You had to kind of just build it like a snowball effect and the other one that was interesting was that you had this passion for that local young group and you had a little bit however big or small, you want to think about it as a platform of people that were already interested and you had a genuine interest and I’m sure you didn’t start that to say, oh, I’m going to start a technology company that I can eventually get acquired. You said they have a real passion here. How can I use that for the next level? So as you’re building that organically and you said you know, your five to nine, when did you have that kind of Aha moment that this is more than a really great after hours project that I’m building that wow, this could actually be something much larger.
Steve Ressler: A couple of different things along the way. So it’s, you know, you’ve seen this with building company that there’s never one big one. There’s just a bunch of little ones and I would say, you know, early on it was, I think the 20th member was not someone I knew, which was great that the 100 member was a, you know, someone, you know, like a CIO of a big state agency, which was amazing, you know, three months in, someone reached out to me and said, hey, how can I advertise? And I couldn’t accept it any advertisement because I had a day job. Um, you know, we had a big article in the Washington Post. So really I’d say over that first year there was just a lot of buzz that kind of, it went pretty fast. So I always tell people my experience and we launched May, 2008 and got acquired October of ’09, so it really 15-18 months, which is just, you know, certainly fast and it never happens. We hit on a time in the moment where Obama just been elected. There was a lot of buzz out of Obama, um, new, a new rise of digital government and use of social media. We really hit a cord with government employees I think who were looking for something fresh, dynamic way to connect. And then, you know, as you said, it was just my passion and interest. I’ve spent, you know, number of later solving similar problems and all those three factors. It just Kinda took off pretty quick.
Andrew K Kirk: That’s pretty incredible story. I think it’s interesting to hear just take a lot of hard work and less than 18 months acquisition so people can, they can gleam whatever gem they want from that. Have you know, how long the process may or may not be. So fast forward to that 18 month period. And I think a lot of people, especially if they’re on the builder side, they’re thinking about acquisition, but even people in the public sector are using more and more tools. They’re trying new things and whether they realize it or not in the back of their head is probably always what will happen to this company, you know, whether it’s from a support perspective or. Yes, they’re young and new. Do they have the resources longterm? Like how do you, as the person that created and built that company, how did you think about that acquisition process and was it, uh, a given, how did you go through and kind of go through the analysis about what was best for, GovLoop?
Steve Ressler: About a year into it. I realized basically it was unsustainable as a, as a part time hobby. Right. So it was, it was growing fast. There’s a lot of demands on the technical side. There’s a lot of demands on the community building side. And I realized, Eh, I can’t do this and have a day job. Right. So it’s hard to do both. So for me and I had a big vision, you know, at the time it was 10,000 members, you know, I thought there’s a huge opportunity to scale, which we eventually did over a quarter million members now. And for me it was like, you know, how do I scale this idea to accomplish what I thought we, I thought we couldn’t the side note to the, to that that feeling was on young government leaders. We were all volunteers and still to this day we’re all volunteers. I had some kind of reflection that an all volunteer approach just doesn’t fully work longterm.
There’s some pros to it, but it’s hard to truly scale without full time resources dedicated to better. So it was really like a year and I thought that was Kinda my court feeling. I was basically deciding to kind of three option one, you know, quit my job and just run it through, bootstrap it myself, figure it out a auction to raise a little bit of capital for it. Honestly, I’ve never, I’d never raised money at the time, didn’t know much about it. So that auction felt pretty far away from the reality at that time. And then three, you know, luckily enough I had had a ton of inbound interest from folks wanting to partner. Some of those partner in conversations turned into more of a full time. Like, Hey, what if we actually acquired you? We gave you more resources and randomly met this guy, Scott Burns, who was the founder of GovDelivery. We both won the Fed 100 award the same year. We’re at a couple of events a, he’s a med Dartmouth Mckinsey, Midwestern guy. I’m from the Midwest. We got along and I think it was at one of the events, the fourth beer. And I was like, Hey, you’re, you’re a smart business guy in government. I’m really trying to figure out what to do with this. Got a couple of these offer and still figuring out what to do. And uh, he gave me some advice and said, let me think on this call you on Monday. And long story short, he gave me a great opportunity where they fit, owned a couple other subsidiaries that they run pretty independently. And he said, hey, why don’t, why don’t I know what you’re doing is important because of my experience in government. Why don’t we give you an opportunity to give me some resources to really grow that vision?
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