The Entrepreneurs and the Local Government People should be friends

I wrote the following recently as a result of an invitation to do a guest post for Krista Whitley’s blog, KeepinUpWithKrista.com.  Krista is the CMO of a firm called Negrico and one of the mavens of the Downtown Project community in Las Vegas, which I wrote about here and here (with more in the hopper).  Krista’s audience is mostly entrepreneurs and small business owners, and ironically, the day I planned to start writing something was the same day I was doing a webinar on how local governments can more effectively support small businesses.  So one thing led to another, and it was pretty interesting to try to turn the explanation of how local government and small business thinking differs inside out from what I was doing later that day.  A little finessing later and I think I have something that makes a reasonable amount of sense.
So I thought you might be interested in seeing how one might explain the framework that community professionals live in to small business people — and if the small business people you encounter seem kind of foreign to you, perhaps this will help you make sense of them to.  And if you think my advice to them should have been different, please let me know!
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I don’t have a lot of entrepreneur peers in my everyday life.  Which is a little weird, because I’ve been either an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur for most of the last 20 years.

That’s also a little weird because I work with local governments and economic development people, and they all want entrepreneurs these days. Furiously.  I’m even teaching a class for local government people about how to better enable entrepreneurs and small businesses in their communities today, which is a topic no one was looking at five or seven years ago.  They’re finally starting to realize that the Magic Giant Employer with a Million Jobs is probably not going to land in their laps any time soon, and they are starting to come around to the idea that their best bets for a healthy local economy come down to you guys, the entrepreneurs and small business and startup types.

And that’s damn hard for a lot of them.  It’s not only a big shift in skill set, but frankly, y’all are… hard to deal with. Hard.To.Deal.With.
Sorry.
Here’s why:
Entrepreneurs and small businesses need a few key things to thrive (well, a ton of things, but here’s a few that are almost universal):
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Speed
  • Focus
  • Efficiency.
Sounds good.  But here’s the way I had to explain the world that you all live in to the local government people, who often wonder why their local small businesses are so hard to deal with:
  • Independence
  • Over Capacity
  • Impatience
  • Myopia
Before you get pissed at me, hear me out.  These are all the other side of the coin from the four items I listed before.
Independence/Self Sufficiency: We all know that an entrepreneur needs to be pretty tough to handle the rejections, the frustrations, the setbacks, etc.  But sometimes we over-estimate our self-sufficiency.  Don’t tell me what to do, I shouldn’t have to live by your rules.  We think we’re cowboys, masters of all we survey, rugged individualists who don’t need nothin’ from no one.  Until, at some point, we do.
Over Capacity:  Entrepreneurs almost always bite off more than they can chew.  Sometimes by choice, sometimes because they’re just like that.  Add things like families or day jobs or houses to maintain or other responsibilities, and you’re dealing with people whose time is massively overloaded.  And that means that we’re not often real patient with “unnecessary” things that get in our way.
Impatience:  What’s our mantra, at least our internal mantra?  Usually, NOWNOWNOWNOW.  Nuff said.
Myopia:  I’m not sure if that’s a normal word for most people.  It is for me because I’ve always been one, not just metaphorically, but in reality.  I’m badly nearsighted (as in don’t look through my glasses, you’ll get a headache type of nearsighted).  But I’m also nearsighted when it comes to my business.  You know where you’re focus has to be if you’re going to make this business thing work.  Things that aren’t impacting my core business…they’re distractions.  They get in the way.  They frustrate me.
All of that is well and good as long as all I have to deal with is myself.  But every once in a while you have to deal with your local permit-giving people, or you want the city to change one of their regulations, or you get contacted by the economic development people who want to help you, but you have a nagging feeling that they have no idea how to actually help you.  What gives?
When you hit that, it might help to take a look through their glasses for a minute.  What does their world look like?  Here’s how I described it to them. And they pretty much agreed.
Responsibility: They have a lot of people to report to.  A lot. Not only bosses and department heads, but city managers, council members, board members, mayors, etc.  Political types.  And in a lot of communities, many of the “bosses” that have the most say over their futures may not have much understanding of the world in which they have to try to get things done.  We have this bad habit in the US of not always electing the most knowledgeable types.  And even when our local government friends do get to work in an environment of well-informed leadership, they also have a deep and serious responsibility to the Public.  Most local government people I know take that responsibility very seriously.  And it’s like having a few thousand kids or pets that you need to look out for.  I have trouble remembering whether I fed my dog sometimes.  Being responsible for the well being of a whole city… yow.
Protecting: A lot of the justification for many of the things local government people do, like zoning and permits, comes legally out of something called “police powers.”  Police powers are given when there’s a need to protect people from the bad choices of other people (like robbery, or attacks, or buildings that are built crappy and fall down on people.) Those local government people are given the responsibility for protecting everyone in town. You may not feel like you need protecting (and you might be right, or you might be myopic, it depends), but it’s still part of their job description, to protect.
Scrutiny: Want to feel like you like under a microscope?  Go to work for a city.  Between your dozens or hundreds of bosses, the conventional media and the fact that everyone they meet is a potential amateur investigative reporter, you’d be looking over your shoulder, too.
Caution: One common theme of all of the above traits is that they all push hard against the idea of taking risks, experimenting, little bets, fail forward… all that stuff that entrepreneurs swim in every day.  When you ask them to give you a waiver, to bend a rule for your really cool project, to support a new program that you heard worked really well three states over, what you’re really asking them to do is take a big risk in about the most risk-adverse environment you can imagine.  They might even know they need to change something, and the person or department you’re talking to might even be more willing to take risks because they know that the old way isn’t working.  But they have to do that within a world that hates risk with a fury.
None of that is to say that you can’t get that variance or build support for that change in the law. None of that is to say that they are stuck in the 1930s, that they’re just a brick wall, that they can’t change.  But it is to say that if you want to get it done, you have to understand how to work with what they have and where they are.
You study a prospective market’s needs and issues before you start trying to sell to them, and you tell them about your product in a way that makes the most sense to the people you’re trying to sell it to.  It’s the same thing here.  To get what you want/need, it makes sense to understand where they are coming from and help them use what you have to offer to change their system.
  • Try to be patient.  They have a specific process that they have to go through, and chances are they don’t have a whole lot of control over that approval process.  And the people that they need to get that approval from (planning commissions, city councils, boards of directors) are usually volunteers who do this in addition to their usual jobs and lives.  Depending on what you need and who volunteered for those boards or commissions or councils, they may be flying by the seat of their pants, too.  Whatever touches them isn’t going to happen instantaneously.  Plus, some of that delay (maybe not all, but at least some) is actually baked into the structure of the process.  There’s limits as to how often they’re allowed to meet and how many weeks of public notice about a meeting have to happen before the even so that it’s legal.  That’s so that the Protecting and Scrutiny and Caution needs can be addressed.   When you have to make a big decision, you might say that you’re going to sleep on it.  Whatever you’re asking is going to make a change that could impact a lot of people, either directly or by changing the rules that future people have to live by.  If you had that Responsibility, and the purpose of your job was to Protect the community from things that could have a negative impact down the road, you’d want to think it over, too.

 

  • Be a partner.  Their rules may prevent them from being overly buddy-buddy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a professional partnership.  It’s in both of your best interests to succeed, although (like any good partnership), your exact needs may not be in total lockstep.  Make clear that you understand and honor their obligations and that you want to seek mutual benefit.  We sometimes treat government as a service provider, like a gas station or a Wal Mart, but that’s not what a partner does.

 

  • Give them facts.  It’s a lot more effective for a local government person to push their internal system to do something out of the ordinary if they have concrete data to back it up. Give them more data than the zoning process or petition or whatever asks for.  Don’t kill them with an inpenetrable file of factoids — put some of the thought into it that you use in communicating with your customers.  Make the information that they/you need as accessible and digestible as possible.

 

  • Listen.  You listen to customers, and you know that they don’t always immediately tell you their deepest concerns.  Put a couple of layers of responsibility and scrutiny on top of that, and you get the professional but inflexible stance that often makes entrepreneurs complain about “bureaucrats.”  So give your customer development skills a workout.  Listen, really listen — to the facts and the minutiae, and to the underlying issues and priorities to.  Try to understand what drives your local government person — the rules, yes, but also the organization priorities.  The strategic plan. The political realities.  If you can tie your project into their program’s goals, you’ve got a much better chance of getting some flexibility in the process details.
None of that is to say that local governments and economic development agencies and the like do everything right, or that they don’t need to change, and often change massively.  The strange thing about writing this post is that I’m usually the one telling those guys that they need to get it in gear, that they need to learn how to adapt and change more quickly and deal better with fast-moving issues like those that often face small businesses.  I don’t always make friends when I do that.
But like every relationship that matters, it’s a two-way street.  As our businesses get smaller and more flexible, and as our cities get more complex and more intertwined, we all have to realize sooner or later that we’re not cowboys — and that neither our cities nor our businesses can operate as islands.  Like it or not, we depend on each other.
I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know a lot of the folks involved in the Downtown Project in Las Vegas over the past few months (including Kristi!).  And one of the things that has fascinated me about the Downtown Project has been the Container Park.  When I’ve talked to both city staff and Downtown Project staff about that project, I’ve heard the joke that they used to call it “Variance Village.”  In the zoning and building code world, a variance is when the city waives or relaxes a regulatory requirement as a sort of special exception — usually because it would be impossible to meet that standard in this situation (lot’s too narrow, existing buildings etc.) and because it wouldn’t put anyone or anything at risk of getting hurt if they waived that rule in this case.
It took several months longer than someone had planned to get all the approvals in place so that they could start building the Container Park.   I’ve heard a few Downtown Vegas business people (not the people who were directly involved with the project, but sort of the regular residents of the area) attribute that to the stupidity or sluggishness of “government bureaucracy”
The Container Park is built of shipping containers.  The big metal boxes that roll around on the back of trucks and train cars.
Do you know how to build a three-story building out of shipping containers?  I sure don’t.  And given that no one else in the US has done this yet, I would bet there’s not a lot of folks out there who do.
Like pretty much any city in the country, Las Vegas had no experience with building out of shipping containers.  And the rules that had been set us to protect people from having a building collapse on their heads, or getting food poisoning from a restaurant, or any of the other things that we take for granted that other people won’t be able to do to us…. those rules were written for a completely different kind of place.
So what do you do if you want a good thing to happen, but your rules don’t fit and its your job to make sure that the public is Protected?  You work it out.  You figure it out.  Which is what the Downtown Project and the City did.  But of course, that takes time.
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Like it or not, we’re depending on each other.  You’re a huge piece of the economic and the general future of your community.  But you need them and they need you.
And if they give you a hard time, let me know.  I can make some hair curl if I have to.

 

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