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Lessons From A Civic-Minded Startup: Lily Liu Founder and CEO, PublicStuff

"I'm From The Government..."And despite the classic Reagan joke, these innovators actually are here to help. But it isn't always easy.

Lessons From A Civic-Minded Startup: Lily Liu Founder and CEO, PublicStuff

Lily Liu

Founder and CEO, PublicStuff

Following analyst stints for New York and Long Beach, California, Liu launched an app that gathers citizens' geo-tagged photos of public issues (such as potholes) and organizes them for local officials.

1. Hire local talent

"By having a background working in cities, we got started a little bit faster. There are things most startups don't consider—how the permit process works in different cities, how to navigate the rules in each region—that are important to understand."

2. Practice patience

"The back end of our database system is just for municipalities, so we can't do the usual fast user testing with citizens. Instead, we rely on our cities to test things for us, which means getting used to not receiving product feedback quite as rapidly."

3. Offer efficiency

"Cities have no self-service option, so mobile fills a huge need. Self-service tools help lower the number of phone calls or visits that city employees get from the public. Every request we process through the app has saved, say, 10 to 20 minutes of a staff person's time."

4. Pitch yourself as a money saver

"When people called in downed tree branches in Philadelphia, for example, the city would send out a truck with a two- to three-person crew—which costs about $400 each time—only to find that the problem was tiny. That's wasted public funds, simply because there wasn't better information."

[Photo by Chuck Grant]

Fast Talk: "I'm From The Government..."

A version of this article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.