For the last 14 weeks my colleague Lucy Knight and I have been lucky enough to be on the Public Service Launchpad Accelerator. It’s been a massive revelation and I want to just take some space to blog about what it is, how I’ve found it, what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, and what we can take away from it to help us in our day jobs and benefit local government as a whole. Since that is quite a big chunk of stuff I’m splitting it up into several posts.
So what is an accelerator programme? Well, the concept has come from the private sector world and started out as a way for startup businesses, usually in technology-related fields, to get over some of the initial obstacles of getting started and refining their product and market thinking. They provide a mixture of seed funding for a business, mentoring, office space, taught programmes, and a network of contacts in exchange for some part of the growing business. The people who run these programmes calculate that enough of the businesses that go through their programmes will become successful that their stake in them (either equity or a revenue share) becomes more valuable than their initial seed investment.
These startups – small, early stage businesses that may not have discovered their ideal product or market niche yet – benefit from an intensive programme that is designed to help them get oriented. In fact the idea that a business might not know what it’s doing is considered a bonus in some areas as it encourages experimentation: in the words of Steve Blank, a startup is “.. essentially an organization built to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Not every freshly-formed business is a startup, however – they are characterised by having the potential to scale rapidly and so the companies on these programmes tend to be digital ones.
Businesses that have “graduated” from accelerators and gone on to become wildly successful include some very large companies like Reddit, Dropbox, and AirBnB as well as a multitude of smaller outfits.
Here’s a list of the top 15 accelerator programmes in the US and another one of programmes in the UK. There are similar features to most of these programmes, centred around a routine that aims to keep the teams on the path to finding their business model. (Here’s a good Mashable article on the subject if you are looking for another view.)
That sounds – and is – a million miles away from anything that might ever happen in local government in the UK, right? I mean, local government services are the very definition of “established” and have a very long history. So how do you bridge the gap between these types of programme, and why would the likes of Cabinet Office, Capita and FutureGov ask Solve to run a public service accelerator and canvas local government types like me and Lucy to join it? And more importantly, for me anyway, is this in any way compatible with having a day job at the council and is it a good use of my time as a council employee?
Lots of valid questions to be asked here, and it took most of the programme to answer most of them. That’s partly because as far as I know this is the first accelerator programme to actively pursue local government teams, partly because this was the first cohort of those teams, and partly because the PS Launchpad programme is itself a startup and still searching for the best way to structure itself and its programme.
But one thing was clear from the outset – here was a startup wanting to try and coach startups in a local government space where there had never been startups done before.
I couldn’t resist that. When Lucy first stood by my desk and asked me if I wanted a shot at it, there was only ever going to be one answer. It’s not been without its risks and hazards, but they’ve been outweighed by all the positives.
Next: what’s in the PS Launchpad programme