The Seduction of the Startup

Last spring I co-founded a tech startup company called Beyond 2.0. Our mission: to build innovative products and services based on open data. Around the same time I was returning from language training to Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) where I was taking on a new challenge managing the team that runs the Government of Canada’s internal collaborative platforms, GCpedia and GCconnex. I was putting in long hours with my public service job, while my early mornings, late nights and weekends were filled with trying to get the start-up off the ground. This was never going to be a sustainable arrangement in the long run and I had given myself a year to pursue both paths and make a decision as to if I would stay in the public service or leave to run the startup full time.

As I was going through this journey something very interesting became apparent to me: most people in my life were rooting for me to leave government and take the startup path. Friends, family, and colleagues alike. Over the course of that year whenever I would go to social events, family get-togethers, or catch-ups with professional contacts, when I would tell them what I was doing with Beyond 2.0 their eyes would light up. They had a million ideas. They had people I needed to talk to. They would send me articles they clipped from newspapers or tell me about the latest episode of Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank I needed to watch. They were all rooting for me, and it was a great feeling.

Yet here is the rub: by any reasonable measure of contribution to the public good and society at large, my work as a public servant is at least an order of magnitude more important and impactful. My team and I are putting in place some of the infrastructure that will enable government to stay relevant and agile in a modern networked world. We are empowering public servants to find and connect with each other in ways they simply couldn’t do a few years ago. We’ve grown our internal collaboration ecosystem beyond just the early adopters and tech enthusiasts and now have tens of thousands of mainstream public servants logging on to these social networking and collaboration tools for the first time. These are big moves that will have impacts on the public service for years to come in ways we can’t even envision right now. For our work my team and I won the TBS Award of Merit last year. Yet for most people in my life, all they really wanted to know for the past year was what was happening with the startup and how soon I was going to leave government.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”
Jeffrey Hammerbacher, data scientist and early Facebook employee

Recently I had the great pleasure of being back on the Harvard Kennedy School campus to take part in the IDEASpHERE conference. One of the sessions I attended was a discussion by my former thesis advisor Nicco Mele, whom I have known since my time at the Kennedy School and whose work I follow closely, and fellow communications and internet innovator Morra Aarons Mele who I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time. During their panel about the “promise and peril of the internet” Morra started a great discussion about what she termed “entrepreneurship porn”, namely how the excessive value that our society is putting on startup culture is causing a serious brain drain for traditional institutions like government.

It clicked for me during her talk that I had been living this exact scenario for the past year. Moreover, I am not alone. In the four years since I moved back to Ottawa to join the federal public service I have met countless passionate, dedicated, innovative public servants who to their very core want to improve how government works and serve the public. Yet almost to a person, they are battling a constant crisis of faith in a public service career and considering if they can accomplish more or be more fulfilled working outside of “the system”. Much has been said about the challenges with government HR processes to recruit and retain talent, and those issues are still as valid as ever and need to be addressed. But what is now becoming clearer to me in a very personal way is that at the same time we also need to address the equally detrimental stigma that exists around working for government. The poisonous attitude that I hear from far too many, even from those in the public service itself, which says anyone who is good at what they do wouldn’t be working for government.

As the session with Morra and Nicco wrapped up, we started talking about where we go from here. One concrete idea was the notion of encouraging public sector entrepreneurship, specifically allowing startup-type organizations to be born, grow and, sometimes, fail inside of government itself. As a friend of mine later put it, creating (and in some cases preserving) enclaves of awesomeness. There are of course numerous other ideas and initiatives that need to be part of this conversation, but what I do know is that this is a conversation that we need to start having. I’m encouraged that the recent Destination 2020 report recognized this in the recommendation to shape the brand of the public service. This is critically important for anyone who cares about public policy, because the alternative is that we run the risk of losing a generation of our best and brightest public servants to the pursuit of building better click-bate.

In case you are wondering, I decided to stay.

20 thoughts on “The Seduction of the Startup

  1. You have voiced many thoughts I’ve recently had Ryan and I’m glad to hear you have decided to stay in the public service. I would cheer you on whatever route you would have taken because I know the passion in you is strong and have seen success in wake of your efforts. We public servants in Canada live in interesting times, and while some consider this a curse, I see the potential of incredible good that we can evoke to make this country of ours even better than it already is. And some may think it impossible, to them I can only say “just watch us.”

  2. Thanks Thom and Cezary – really appreciate the support from both of you. It has been a pleasure getting to work with you both in various capacities over the past 4 years, and I have no doubt that the best is yet to come!

  3. Your influence with a start-up, entrepreneurial mentality will be important to your colleagues and probably provides the drive you have needed to innovate and inspire others. Congratulations on your many accomplishments and we’ll keep following your path and those in your pocket.

  4. Ryan- Great Blog, I am glad you decided to stay with the govenment.
    I have not doubt in my mind that your leadership, vision and dedication will make the public service a better place.

    • Thanks Rima! It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with you as we push to roll out the GC2.0 Tools across the GC.

  5. Ryan:
    Thanks for sharing via this blog. It’s interesting to see similarities in thought processes no matter where you are in your work-life continuum. I happen to be nearing the 35-year point in my public service career and I’m casting about looking for ‘what’s next’ and where I might be able to contribute based on my experience and my interests rather than simply finding a spot to sit and contemplate. Family and friends have both interesting and infuriating questions and comments – both for and against leaving public service, moving on to other ‘socially redeeming’ public service or tackling a complete change of direction post-public service. I too am glad you’ve decided to stay and play (and it does have to be some fun to be worthwhile) for the good of the cause. I think you’ve read the signposts correctly. Now, if only I could find the paths for me!
    Cheers,
    Rod

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective Rod. I’ve appreciated all of your support and I have no doubt that you will continue to find a way to serve the public good in whatever capacity going forward!

  6. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks very much for sharing this. I’m also extremely glad to hear not only of your thoughts, but also of the positivism you feel towards the public service – in the face of not infrequent pessimism. Fact is, public servants do amazing things every day and make a huge difference in the lives of Canadians. You and your team are improving the actual public service itself – helping us to become better and more capable of meeting and surpassing the high expectations of Canadians in a digital world.

    I’m thrilled we’ll be able to keep collaborating (along with the others who wrote back above!) and keep pushing this somewhat large boulder forward. 🙂

    All the best,

    Chris

    • Likewise Chris, it has been a pleasure to get to know you and I have no doubt that we can continue to have a big impact. As a friend of mine once told me, trying to create change working for an organization like the federal government is like trying to move a mountain. It is really hard, but once you’ve managed to move it, even if only a few inches, you’ve moved a mountain! Pushing along side people like you (and the many others in this thread), I have no doubt that we can move it more than just a few inches 😉

  7. Great post, I think you’ve touched on a really important issue. What I’ve come to realize is that as public servants we do have to opportunity to innovate and develop new directions for the Public Service, the difference is that we need to be more patient. This is hard in a world that is as fast paced as ours has come to be, but I agree with you public service has the potential to be much more impactful, and therefore it is important that we recognize the opportunities we have and persue these opportunities just the same. It may never be as easy as leaving for a start-up, but nothing worth doing or having comes easy! I’m glad you desided to stay too – we need people like you around to make sure that we keep on trucking, no matter how much it tests our patience!
    Amanda

    • Thanks Amanda – really appreciate that and I think you are absolutely right about the patience issue. There are huge opportunities to make a big impact, but they require sometimes engaging in work that isn’t glamorous or with instant gratification and as a result needs constant readjustment to make sure you are staying on course. That’s why it is so important to have people like you to work with on these issues!

  8. Fantastic post Ryan. The public service world-wide needs the very best people. We’ve just launched an initiative out of New Zealand, involving some of the very best people we can find around, public value management, and its most critical element – people. Already it is an inspiring project to be involved in; we are all giving of our time and experience, and we hope to involve folks from all around the world. It’s far too important a topic not to go as wide as we can….as fast as we can. I applaud the sentiments outlined in your blog…and the spirit you display. Keep it up.

    • Thanks Tony! I’d love to learn more about what you are doing in New Zealand on this front – if there is anything you can share with me please send it my way.

  9. Ryan…great post. How did you tap into my mind to discover the very existential dilemma I’ve been struggling with? 🙂 Glad the PS gets to benefit from your fabulous mind for another while…!

    BTW – related to this, one of the other things that’s like nails on a chalkboard for me is the fact that when there’s a problem to solve, so often I hear that we need to ‘bring someone in’. Why is our assumption that no one already in the room has anything to contribute?

    • Appreciate the comments Pam. The issue about the reliance on outside expertise is a real one, but I also think it is a very human one as well that is not limited to only Government. There is a fitting quote that I was thinking of recently, which while a biblical quote I actually first came across at a leadership course at Harvard: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”

  10. Pingback: Transforming government, one digital inch at time | Ryan Androsoff

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