What startups need to know about working with government

Recently the Turnbull government came through on one of its promises from the National Science and Innovation Agenda with the launch of a new $5 billion ‘Digital Marketplace’.

The marketplace will provide startups and SMEs better access to government IT contracts, the kind typically reserved for bigger firms due to the exhaustive application process and the multitude of “hoops to jump through”.

This new marketplace opens up new opportunities for smaller, more innovative companies to collaborate with government and it’s an exciting start that will ideally lead to greater public-private partnerships across industries.

Working with government organisations can bring huge scale and benefits to your startup, but it can admittedly be daunting to navigate. Whether it’s an introductory coffee, a speaking engagement or networking event, or even a formal pitch right off the bat, here are three things to remember to set you up for success.

Ask not what they can do for you, but rather what you can do for them

Go blindly into a meeting, prepared only to discuss your own solution, and you’ll never get a second chance.

Do your homework — that means real research — so you have a clear understanding of that person’s specific responsibilities, policy priorities and stakeholders. Be prepared to discuss how you fit into the existing game, and whether you contradict or compete with any of their existing partnerships.

Don’t hide the risks, or rewards. Be transparent.

Back up your case with facts and figures

Evidence is key to back up any pitch. While understanding your suburb, city, or state’s challenges is important, make your case compelling by drawing on existing global examples that support your case.

Demonstrate how and where your technology or idea can deliver results by pointing to similar success stories in your industry, around the world.

Where you can, provide hard facts to back up the case for collaboration. A recent public survey, overspending, underspending, or unrealised revenue opportunities.

Be in it for the long haul

Trust me, there is red tape everywhere and bureaucracy abounds. You need to be committed to a long-term solution, not a quick fix.

When you’re working with government — whether it’s your local council, NSW Transport or the minister for innovation, it’s vital you can see the relationship continuing, and making an impact, over the years to come. The government is responsible to its citizens.

Quick change can create major havoc, so you need to understand their audience.

This also applies to your networking. While scoring an interview with the relevant minister is a massive achievement keep in mind that while government may have a reputation for moving slowly, roles change very quickly. Make sure you invest time and resources into developing your relationships with the broader team. They are the gatekeepers to the office after all and they can be extremely knowledgeable.

Always look for opportunities to widen your network, share your ideas and get on people’s radar, whether that’s through a casual coffee, or organised speaking engagement.

Government bodies and ministers should be actively seeking out startups in their portfolio, meeting with them, and exploring the opportunities they present.

If Australia is to compete globally, it’s essential the government work more closely than ever with local startups to leverage the great ideas emerging from this scene.

Technology is key to tackling the biggest challenges facing the country — across infrastructure, transport, employment and health — and these solutions are being researched, developed, and tested in co-working spaces by young and eager entrepreneurs looking to improve the way we live.

In Boston for example the Office of New Urban Mechanics exists to connect the city with startups working on solutions to city problems, including an app that uses crowdsourced data to identify required road repairs.

If these partnerships are successful, it’s a win-win situation, but different work cultures, priorities and stakeholders ensure that the road is long, and rarely straight.

As a startup, it’s essential you take time to understand existing agendas, and are prepared to contribute to a long-term solution if you want to play the game, and most particularly, if you want to be taken seriously.

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