Ben Berkowitz | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Ben Berkowitz

Background:  

In the fall of 2007, Ben Berkowitz tried to get graffiti removed from a neighbor’s building on State Street in New Haven, Conn. In the middle of one of his calls to City Hall, he “got the sense that there was a more accountable and efficient way to communicate with government.” And thus, SeeClickFix was born. Now citizens anywhere in the world can publicly document a service request in their community on the communications platform – for example, fixing a pothole on their street – vote on their neighbor’s service requests and send alerts to local officials. The company also built tools for local governments to manage and effectively respond to those requests, and the tools morphed into a software-as-a-service offering used by more than 300 organizations currently.

The Mistake:

In March 2010, after I was interviewed on NPR by Melissa Block for "All Things Considered," SeeClickFix was exposed to a much larger audience. The suggestions from cities, citizens and governments were a bit overwhelming for a small team and we overlooked some of the insights that were coming our way. But I wish we were able to act sooner on three main suggestions.  

First, private sector opportunities. We had in-bounds from Best Buy to United Airlines requesting that we apply our software to their facilities. At the time we were explicitly a public communication platform and the paradigm of full transparency would not have been a fit for the private sector.

Second, local governments suggested that we prioritize their  internal communication, workflow and work order opportunities. Because SeeClickFix was built to handle public requests, we felt that we were not a good fit for internal work order and workflow communication for cities that were not comfortable exposing all of their processes. But we were getting requests far and wide for replacing existing systems managing these processes.

Finally, there was a question of using the word “issues.” The day after the NPR interview, I received a passionate call from a listener who insisted that our use of the word "issue" – which we subsequently changed to public request – was misappropriated. We kind of understood this as well but we wanted a noun abstract enough and unique enough that enabled our users to think creatively about different types of uses for the platform.

I wish we were able to act sooner on three main suggestions. 

The Lesson:

It turned out that private sector opportunities and internal government communication were actually solved by building the same features. It also turned out that the features were not a huge lift for the product team and they were core to creating more value on the public side of the platform. If more people were able to use the platform on the backend, more requests would get fixed on the front end. Enabling the private sector to use the platform also allowed campus managers at universities and private building owners to help maintain their facilities as well as become a greater contributor to the public space. In the end, enabling private sector use and internal government communication led to more public participation and more conversation. It also helped our revenues grow a bit quicker, which in turn helped fund more development for the platform as a whole.

Finally, changing our use of the word "issues" to describe the core transaction at SeeClickFix to "requests" makes an impact because it’s the language our city clients and private sector clients use. It allows our clients the ability to separate this transaction from another new transaction type we just released: work orders. Where a request has a customer or constituent attached, a work order may not. "Request" is what potential clients and users search for when they are going to buy something. While the term "SeeClickFix" has a substantially higher search rank than "request management," it remains important to reach potential customers where they already are. Since we’ve only recently made the change from "issues" to "requests" in the back-end customer request management system, it’s possible that I discover that we were wrong or it just didn’t make an impact. The next step is to make the change on the public side of the platform.   

I’m glad that we built a wall and stayed focused early on, but I always wonder what it might have been had we taken more money early on to enable faster product growth or focused on some of the easy and somewhat obvious things that might have moved the needle. Would we be bigger and making more of an impact today? Who knows? I’m very proud of what the team has accomplished thus far.

Follow Ben Berkowitz on Twitter @benberkowitz

Photo courtesy of SeeClickFix

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