PUBLIC’s Rachel Guthartz speaks to three tech startup founders who made the transition from the public sector, exploring what inspired them to make the move, and what advice they have for aspiring startup founders.
As a new member of the PUBLIC team, with a background working with NGOs, I was curious about other people who have made the transition into the world of tech startups. A high proportion of companies in both the 2017 GovStart cohort and PUBLIC’s wider portfolio have been started by former public servants. Given that beginning a startup is notoriously challenging, what sparks public servants into making the move?
I spoke to three GovTech founders who previously worked full-time in the public sector—Ben Maruthappu (CEO, Cera), Kate Glazebrook (CEO, Applied) & Govin Murugachandran (CEO, Flynotes)—to see what inspired them to start their own companies. A number of key themes quickly became clear …
Identifying Problems and Solutions
Each of the founders I spoke to developed their idea in direct response to their experiences in the public sector: whether it be the challenges they encountered, or a heightened awareness of policy-making priorities.
Govin Murugachandran, a maxillofacial surgeon, came up with the idea for Flynotes (a digital consent platform for the health sector), after routinely facing the inefficiencies and limitations of a paper-based consenting process currently used by the NHS—a process that, due to its largely inherent inaccuracies, has resulted in a sharp increase in litigation cases against the NHS in recent years.
For Ben Maruthappu, co-founder of Cera (a technology-enabled quality home care service), the possibilities of technology became clear during his time advising Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England: “I saw the opportunities that technology had to improve services while reducing costs […] Given the challenges on the health and care sector, I thought it was important to seize that opportunity and act on it”.
Kate Glazebrook, co-founder of Applied (a recruitment platform which focuses on fair hiring), was part of the the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) when she pitched her idea for Applied to BIT’s venture arm. Her research and professional experience—a former researcher at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Policy Officer in the Australian government—were crucial in increasing her awareness of the public sector priorities which make Applied so pertinent: diversity in the workplace, equality of opportunity, and fair hiring practices.
Public sector experience, then, can serve as a significant advantage in identifying key challenges that need solving. Ben, of Cera, emphasised this point flagging the thousands of companies and technologies that aren’t addressing real public sector problems: “Being able to draw from my public sector experiences, allows me to develop a much better solution”.
The Startup Founder/ Public Servant Overlap
The founders were quick to note how their experience in the public sector was also an advantage in developing the skills fundamental to building a startup. The process of identifying a problem and fixing it was hardwired into Govin as a doctor: “In medicine you’re always encouraged to do audits, and to look into how to improve things”. For him it was intuitive to be proactive and figure out how to fix the problem of consent once he encountered it.
Kate pointed out another similarity between public servants and startup founders: both have a level of audacity in their unyielding commitment to their ideas and projects. This commitment is necessary to enable them to push these ideas forward relentlessly despite obstacles and pushback. Both Govin and Kate articulated a shared resilience and perseverance between public servants and startup founders.
Nothing Prepares You to Start a Startup Like Starting a Startup
And yet, in spite of overlaps with the public sector, building a startup is categorically different.
“Startups have a lot of volatility—things are always changing. You’re continuously improving the direction that the company is travelling in because it’s so small and agile.” — Ben Maruthappu
Imagine combining the speed at which startups change and develop with the necessity to build every aspect of a business from scratch and you might get a sense of the unique challenge of founding a startup.
“None of my previous jobs prepared me for 90% of the work involved in building a startup”, Kate explained.
Each of the founders mentioned the extensive list of activities you have to be involved in as a founder—from office location and operations, to recruitment, marketing, fundraising, partnerships, and technology.
But rather than dwelling on the obstacles, mishaps and setbacks—and I’m sure they encountered a few—they framed their experiences in terms of progress and development.
As Govin noted, “it’s been one of the greatest learning experiences for me. I’ve picked up skills that I never had as a doctor or dentist.”
In the public sector, the majority of civil servants work within a variety of predetermined parameters, with structures to support and guide them. In startups, however “parameters are far more variable or even unknown which makes it far more difficult to deliver—and far more exciting” (Ben).
A Risk Worth Taking
When I asked them whether they’d encourage other public sector workers to make the leap, they were emphatic in their response:
“Do it. You’ll never know if it’s right for you unless you give it a shot. There’s no recipe for making a successful business except for doing it.” (Govin)
“Definitely do it. Going into a startup can be perceived as risky, but it’s a risk worth taking.” (Ben)
“Sometimes the key to achieving social impact comes in unexpected places. Be led by the passion not the method and you’ll always find it rewarding.” (Kate)
The consensus was clear: If you’re passionate about improving public services and have an idea of how to tackle a public sector challenge, it’s worth pursuing your idea and trying to meeting the challenge head on.
A parting word from Govin: “The revolution in public services is going to be through these people”. That means you.
Applications for GovStart are open – click here to find out more and to apply.