Crafting a Winning Urban Strategy: How to Partner with Cities as a Climate Startup or SMB
Building partnerships with city government and related stakeholders can bring tremendous value for climate startups, whether by directly driving revenue, supporting fundraising, increasing brand awareness, or enabling other key goals. But for founders without previous experience building these types of relationships, the questions abound. Should you work with cities? Where should you start? What are common funding and partnership opportunities? And, how can you navigate public procurement processes?
To help you better understand the rapidly evolving landscapes in cities and craft a well-researched, winning strategy for your climate business, we sat down with Chante Harris. Chante is a veteran climate tech operator, spearheading strategies for catalyzing institutional investment and catalytic capital across the globe.
City government is your friend
Your level of engagement with city stakeholders will depend on your product. If it's physical (e.g. EV charging stations), you will have to work with city governments no matter what; they will be the entities responsible for approving or disapproving your deployment via permits, reviews, and other regulatory frameworks. If you sell software and services and you have customer segments located in urban areas, you may need to engage city governments at some point depending on your sources of data, your impact, and your go-to-market strategy.
Many early-stage founders overlook this. Understanding how your tech will interact with city entities can give you a competitive advantage over your peers. Done well, it will impact the way you approach development and how you ultimately build and scale your product (versus just building it without considering the physical and regulatory environment and hoping everything works out).
To engage cities directly, first understand what locations to start in
While there are several entry points into urban markets, sooner or later you will want to work directly with cities (i.e. city government). But, which cities provide the best opportunities for your market? Again, look to public data to identify opportunities and enabling policy environments. For example, let’s say you are focused on hydrogen fuel cells. You can search databases like the CDP-ICLEI to see, in real time, where policies are in place that might fund hydrogen technology development, deployment, or procurement. This will help you quickly narrow in on a few top states where you’ll likely get the greatest, and fastest, traction.
Starting with a private actor is one of the single best ways to get into urban markets
While it's likely or even inevitable that you will have to engage with city governments at some point, as an early-stage founder you don’t have the know-how, resources or relationships to successfully navigate government bureaucracy and process. Start with the relationships you have in your industry. While you of course have to do your own homework, initial conversations with people that know about city procurement processes will give you an important jump start (there’s a lot to learn).
Build a partnership with another company or non-governmental organization with a proven track record of success in government partnerships or procurement. They will know when proposals are due and have the right frameworks and templates you need to be competitive and respond to solicitations as quickly as possible. Also keep in mind that there may be opportunities for partnerships with other startups that can help you win different funding options where a joint application might be stronger than an individual one (this is generally the case).
Research previous public contracts to build an urban strategy
Look at public contract databases (e.g. Checkbook NYC) to see where previous contracts have been awarded, when, how frequently, the dollar amounts and to which contractors (and subcontractors). Analyze how cities have spent their dollars over the past three, five and ten years. Understand where they spend their money and also through which entities. For example, the public health, transportation and economic development departments often have large budgets and also tend to think about doing pilots. You can’t talk to all the agencies in a city so find the top ten that clearly have funds to award. Look to see if they have posted any write ups on LinkedIn or other platforms recently discussing your field.
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for doing your homework. This will help you craft a winning strategy to build the right product and work with city governments.
Subcontracting is a great entry point
Leveraging public data, look for opportunities to partner as a subcontractor. Reach out to companies that have bid on contracts to see where they might be missing critical expertise and technologies for future RFPs. Offer them capabilities they otherwise would not have: this could save them time and money, making their bid more competitive, while providing you with an invaluable learning experience (without first needing to learn how to navigate city contracts yourself).
Engage cities for customer discovery
Let’s say you are building an EV charging solution for urban areas. Even if you’re not selling directly to government, you should speak to local departments of transportation and staff at regional planning organizations that understand the different infrastructure investments needed over the next five years. Make sure to review previously published reports or contracts to come to your conversations prepared; this type of homework can go a long way to building trust and giving you an edge.
If you’re actually building a product for government “consumption”, a common mistake is to approach cities with a fully-baked product and deployment plan. The opposite is actually true. You are likely to build the wrong product and misunderstand the urban environments you need to deploy it in if you take this approach. Give city players the opportunity to co-develop your product through early, and consistent, engagement. Share product specifications and requirements, invite government employees into your Beta, etc.
Build relationships to create opportunities
Selling to, or partnering with, government is very much a relationship game. In addition to customer interviews, reach out to decision-makers in key city departments, even just to introduce yourself and your work. You can ask people in your network who to talk to, or find contact names on Requests for Expression of Interest (REIs) (without having to actually dedicate time to responding to the REI). Email the contact to put yourself on their radar for future opportunities.
Building these types of relationships can even lead to city staff custom-baking solicitations for you. They may even ask you to help them craft solicitations to fit your needs. While cities may look like big bureaucratic machines from the outside, like any organization there are specific people making decisions. If you build trust with them and demonstrate your value in helping them solve their challenges, they are more likely to want to partner with you.
Once you have built trust in your local region with successful pilot or other projects, these cities can then speak for you in other regions. This will give you an invaluable leg up in other urban markets.
Be in the know
Finally, stay on top of the quickly changing landscape of opportunities by signing up for email newsletters from key government agencies and creating accounts on different agencies’ procurement portals. You can also follow key decision makers and agenda setters on LinkedIn or Twitter to see what they are thinking about and where there may be upcoming opportunities for contracts and partnerships.
Now is a critical and exciting time as city and state governments consider ways to attract and support climatetech companies given the benefits expected from the Inflation Reduction Act. There is increased discussion and interest around innovation islands or hubs created for testing and piloting solutions that will help cities meet their climate goals at scale. This presents a unique and timely opportunity for climatetech startups to position themselves for market expansion informed by calls for innovation across the country.
Chante Harris has spent her career scaling nationwide campaigns, technologies, and ideas for the Obama Administration, Fortune 500 companies, and startups championing the energy transition.
Named by Forbes as a 30 Under 30 in the Energy Category, NASDAQ as a Woman to Watch in 2022, ACEEE as a Champion for Energy Efficiency, GreenBiz as 30 Under 30 Leader, America on Tech as an Innovator and Disruptor, and Women Enews as a Pioneering Woman in Sustainability, Chante is at the helm of driving climate innovation, advancing the energy transition in cities, leading cross-sector collaboration, and tapping into new models for financing climate technologies. In addition to her work leading in climate tech and investment, Chante launched and built the only global digital collective and community that is 100% dedicated to advancing women of color working across the sustainability industry. Since its launch in the summer of 2019, the community has brought together over 5,000 women of color through virtual and in-person events, social media channels, a digital community, and online publication. Chante is on the advisory committee for the first-ever global Climate Center being built on Governor's Island and sits on the Board of Summit Impact.