Conversations with founders: How to build a GovTech startup (Part II)

Imogen Granger and Lichelle Wolmarans

18 March 2020

Ever wondered how startup founders decided to build their company? Or what experience they had in that industry that made it possible? As part of our research for PUBLIC’s upcoming report on the background of GovTech founders we interviewed 8 startup founders to explore some of the challenges and successes encountered when building a GovTech startup. To ensure a diverse cohort of experience and expertise we interviewed founders of startups across multiple sectors including healthtech, policetech, edtech and civtech.

In the second in our series of ‘Conversations with founders’, we interview three GovTech founders about their experiences building a startup.

John Witt, Co-Founder and CEO of Stotles

John Witt is the co-founder and CEO of public-sector sales-tech platform Stotles. John and his co-founders Taj and Carsten met, and founded Stotles, during their time at London Business School.

Stotles plunged into the market with its sales-enablement SaaS focused on opening up public sector procurement to more suppliers. Their product uses data science to help suppliers proactively find the hottest leads in the public sector and boost sales productivity.  

John gained relevant public sector exposure while working as a financial auditor of U.S. public sector agencies and tech companies who sold to the public sector. Before founding Stotles, he also worked at the World Economic Forum on the digital transformation of public bodies. Like many founders, John found that his previous experience working beside the public sector helped him understand how governments are approaching digital transformation; this enabled him to understand the opportunities for Stotles. 

His previous experience founding a financial inclusion start-up taught him valuable skills, such as unearthing customer pain points, conveying the “art of the possible”, and learning the types of businesses he most enjoyed: B2B, rather than B2C, at the intersection of business and government. 

John considers one of the best ways to find problems worth solving is to get your hands dirty in messy experiences, and to connect dots across those experiences. His experience and connections across the public and private sectors helped him identify problems he wanted to solve.

John sees no substitutes for hard work and a world-class team. But he’s also convinced that much of Stotles’ early success has also come through the support of family, friends, networks, and luck. During their funding round, Stotles worked hard to change the stigma that working in the vicinity of the public sector is “boring”. The team firmly believes “boring” is actually not-so-boring at all.

Key takeaway from founding Stotles? People are everything. Build something people love and find the people with the right values to build it. Particularly in a software business, employees and customers are the foundation of our product; of our growth plan; of our mission to unlock the potential of two largest institutions on the face of the planet – business and government – working better together.

Stotles is currently running a private beta of its platform for suppliers aiming to grow in the public sector, bringing hundreds of UK businesses onto its early-access list. Sign up for the private beta here: stotles.com/w/PUBLIC

Alfonso Zamarro, CEO and Co-Founder of Unblur

GovStart 2019 founder Alfonso Zamarro co-founded Unblur in Barcelona in 2014. Unblur helps emergency services make faster and better decisions and grew out of a previous startup that Alfonso founded. The idea for Unblur came when they were trying to develop a platform for drones, and the emergency services they were talking to were interested in certain aspects of the software but not the drones, hence why they decided to turn the software into a new startup. 

Like many other founders, Alfonso met his co-founder at business school – the founding team of the previous company they co-founded were no longer relevant for the new company, but played an instrumental role in using their connections to help Alfonso fill the new c-suite roles. They interviewed over 100 emergency response organisations across Europe for their previous startup, and this network proved crucial for getting Unblur off the ground.  

After bootstrapping in the original stages, they got an Enisa loan from the Spanish government and used this money to build the product. Alfonso admits once they had the product it was easier to get other investors interested.

Biggest obstacle? Being taken seriously by the emergency services, this involved building credibility and gaining their trust and cooperation in co-developing the solution.

Key to success? Perseverance.

Simon Hall, Co-Founder and CEO of Coeus Software

Simon speaks from experience when it comes to building, running and innovating companies, as Coeus Software is not the first company he has started. Prior to Coeus Software, Simon founded HeliMedia, a leading supplier of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) communications solutions. Before that, he held a number of roles, from spending 10 years as an engineer for the BBC to heading operations for three years at a Californian startup.

Coeus was created from the vision of developing technology to help frontline police officers with their day to day duties through digitising manual paper-based processes. Coeus completed an initial trial with Lancashire Constabulary and this won the APPSS Innovation Award judged by the Home Office Scientific Development Branch in 2008.

However, Coeus soon learned that there are many barriers which prevent innovative solutions, created by SMEs, from being commercially successful in the UK Police Market. Coeus has continued to build on the initial innovation to rapidly and continuously test and adapt ideas to provide enough evidence from the field to prove they will work. This has included working with the NPIA and CPS on Electronic Witness Statements and with the Home Office and BAE Applied Intelligence on a technology demonstrator to showcase UK technology at the Security and Policing Show. This evidence-gathering approach helps to reduce the risk and uncertainty for those in the public sector that are looking at new ideas, but as Simon points out, it is no guarantee of immediate success.

As a start-up in the police sector, Simon points out that the only way to gain contracts is through larger prime contractors as there is a reluctance to work with SMEs, especially if you are not on any of the government frameworks. The disadvantage of this is that you are one step removed from the customer which can make it more difficult to understand their needs.

Greatest challenge? Breaking the ‘cosy cartel’ that currently exists in the market where forces complain about the high costs and poor service they are being provided by the incumbents but yet they still go back to them because of the ‘better the devil you know’ attitude.

If he could change one thing about his experience as a founder he would wish that the talk from the government sector would be matched with the same action and enthusiasm that exists in GovTech Startups.

Calling all GovTech founders! Help shape the future of digital governance by filling out our short survey – this will greatly help our research team who are working on their latest report. Click here to fill out survey.

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