How Startups Can Work Better With Government To Solve Pressing Problems


CEO and founder at Atarraya Inc.

Working with the government is often an afterthought for most tech companies. Instead, tech companies typically follow a predictable trajectory: funding, growth, exit and then onto the next startup. It’s a shame.

When countries like the Netherlands get behind tech and innovation and startups work to solve civic problems, the results are phenomenal—and they benefit everyone. There are so many places where tech companies could work with the government to solve problems, from food security to public transportation to tracking and containing viruses like Covid-19.

My startup worked closely with the state of Indiana and its economic development council (IEDC) to bring the first urban aquaculture farm to the U.S. Here are some lessons we’ve learned so your startup can make the most of a potential partnership with a local, state or even national government agencies—and help build a better world.

1. Build something that fixes a problem.

Government wants to work with ambitious companies with a vision and a solution for our most pressing social problems. Early in my career, I knocked on doors for more than a decade without much feedback. When I fine-tuned the idea for the plug-and-play Shrimpbox, there was suddenly a lot of interest in our small Mexican startup. Governments are always looking for fresh ideas that can help boost the economy. The first step is to have a working solution for a problem, particularly in infrastructure, health or farming.

2. Know your story.

Storytelling is one of the most important skills for working with the government. If you work for a startup, you might be accustomed to talking about your tech to people who work for other tech companies or savvy investors. Governments want to know how technology will add jobs, improve traffic or help the myriad of policy problems they face. Can you explain how your tech does this? When we started working with Indiana, we focused on a pressing issue: Farmers are having a tough time making ends meet because of climate change and the hegemony of corporate farming. At the same time, it’s getting harder to produce healthy, sustainable protein sources. We had an answer for both issues.

So while our mobile shrimp farms are powered by cutting-edge tech like artificial intelligence, the most important takeaway is that mobile shrimp farms create jobs and a sustainable food source. Your startup must have a clear focus. Strip it down to essentials. Learn to talk about how your product will make a difference in everyday lives, and don’t focus on bells and whistles. If you need help with this, consider hiring a communication or PR firm to focus on your story and message.

3. Think about constituents.

If you work for a government, your customers will be the residents of that city, state or country. We knew Indiana was a huge farming state when representatives first approached us. Their goal for Indiana to become the agtech capital of the U.S. matched where we wanted our tech to go. It’s crucial to find similar alignment with potential government partners. You will not be able to sell government officials something they aren’t looking for, so do your research. Reach out if there is an issue or problem in a state or city and your company has an answer. Think about how your technology can affect constituents and make their lives better.

4. Treat the government like your investor.

Startups are familiar with working with investors. Working with the government isn’t much different. The government trusts you, puts its reputation on the line and believes you can make something better or fix a problem. Treat government officials like they are investors because they are investors with infinitely more connections and stakeholders than a VC firm.

Secrecy is common in the tech industry because everyone is trying to protect intellectual property. Be transparent. If you made a mistake, let your partners know. It’s also imperative to understand how the government works and how long things often take to be approved. Understand the process and how the government works, and don’t get frustrated if it takes longer than you expected. Remember: The government will continue to exist after countless startups come and go.

5. Park the politics.

Politics is unavoidable in working with a government. If you engage with a local or state government, you might work with people with differing opinions on hot-button issues. If you plan to work with the government, it’s best to put personal feelings aside and focus on common ground (like jobs, clean water or sustainable energy and farms).

Politics in many countries has become hopelessly polarized, but I believe most people can still find common ground. The state of Indiana is conservative and prizes traditional values. I’m a Mexican entrepreneur and never felt more welcomed than when I worked with Indiana residents. If you can find consensus on how to fix a problem—even if you have differing viewpoints on other issues—you can help humanity move forward.

We can achieve so much good in the world if we work together. As we enter 2023, let’s look for opportunities for tech to help the government make life better for everyone and vow to work together toward the greater good. It’s not just a business opportunity; it’s a chance to make a long-term difference.

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