Editor’s note: Startup Spotlight is a regular part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package which also includes our Triangle Startup Guide updates, our list of Triangle area meetups, multiple calendars of events and Startup Rewind – a recap of the previous week’s news.

RALEIGH – Having closed recently on $6.1 million in funding, Raleigh startup Public Input is making news with its unique business approach. WRAL techWire’s Jason Parker talked with Jay Dawkins, co-founder and CEO, about the company’s evolution and future.

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TW: Tell us about the origin story the company, and what was important to the future of Cityzen, and how it became Public Input.

Dawkins: After graduating from NC State, I was working as a transportation engineer at a consulting firm here in Raleigh. A lot of the big infrastructure projects had a requirement to get input from the public before plans could be finalized. That usually involved an antiquated, in-person process that few people attended – but it was the primary thing shaping our physical world.

I knew it had to change, but it seemed far-fetched to think a transportation engineer could do much about it. Then one weekend I went to this talk hosted by Christopher Gergen, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist. He pitched this concept of “Life entrepreneurship” – integrating what you’re good at, what you care about, and what the market is willing to pay for into a core focus for a business and a life.

That really got the wheels turning, and I was fortunate enough to fall into an amazing community that he, Jason Widen, Jes Lipson, and Brooks Bell were building in Hub Raleigh, now Raleigh Founded.  That led to moving into a live-in company incubator called ThinkHouse, and before I knew it, I was quitting my job and starting a company.

TW: What happened next? 

Dawkins: It quickly became clear that I should not have quit my day job. Although Raleigh and Charlotte joined as customers in the first year, the product was still new and monthly revenue was under $2k per month. I was racking up credit card debt, eating sweet potatoes for meals, and working absurd hours to learn to code and sell software. There were many low points where I doubted myself and the company, but I had supportive co-founders like Graham Stone, putting in long hours nights and weekends. Also a very patient, understanding spouse!

The early product was essentially a better survey widget for government, but that evolved into flexible tool that could gather input from a lot of places, including news articles.  WRAL became a customer to embed polls into news stories, and you can still see those today.  We also partnered with nonprofits like EducationNC to do statewide text and email outreach, and along the way built out a platform that communicates and gathers input across wherever people want to engage – be that email, text message, online, in a virtual meeting, or in person.

TW: The company just closed its $6.1 million fundraising round.  Why seek funding, and why now?  

Dawkins: Those lean early days really created discipline and focus on solving problems for customers. Happy customers helped us organically grow, doubling year over year and stay profitable through the pandemic. So raising a round is less about survival and more about accelerating towards the potential we see for the company.  From our roots at Raleigh Founded, that potential is measured not only financially, but in the positive impact a company can make on how government listens and becomes more responsive.

We chose to work with Growth Street Partners because it was clear that they shared that philosophy of positive impact and value creation going hand-in-hand. They also have a ton of relevant experience in vertical software spaces like govtech – which we need to take things to the next level.

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TW: What are the primary challenges that public sector organizations face today?  What trends exist in providing software for this sector?

Dawkins: As our world goes digital, people expect their interactions with government to follow suit. Simultaneously, federal funding is increasingly contingent on local agencies proving that they are effectively reaching and serving historically underrepresented groups like people with disabilities, older individuals, low-income, and non-English speakers.

Those increased expectations and growing number of interactions make it very difficult to manage public engagement without the right technology stack.  So we’re seeing more interest in the backend systems to manage and automate the thousands of interactions that happen between local government and residents.

TW: What does the future of public input look like?  

Dawkins: Right now, much of our work is in centralizing a lot of resident touchpoints into one platform, with a big focus on a better resident experience.  Better experience is hard to measure, but we’re seeing data that shows agencies who adopt PublicInput are more than doubling the number of people engaged in public meetings, surveys, and communications.  That’s been the case for nearby cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, and Asheville – and similar things are playing out now in over 30 other states.

One interesting thing that’s emerged – now that agencies are standardizing how they collect demographic data and comparing it with the latest census data, it’s clear that “more” engagement isn’t always “more equitable”. But there is power in being able to understand where there are gaps so staff can do more targeted outreach – be that through high-tech approaches like geofencing, or low-tech approaches like working with community partners.

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TW: How might software like Public Input’s be used to streamline or better facilitate something like, say, zoning ordinances or new residential developments or transit projects?

Dawkins: Here in our backyard, that looks like GoTriangle and the City of Raleigh doing online and text surveys on things like bus rapid transit, Raleigh’s zoning text change portal, and even digital voting on new neighborhood sidewalks.  Further upstream, NCDOT uses the software to collect public comments on road projects and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning agency gathers input on their long-range plans for greenways, highways, and transit.

Digital transformation for government is just getting started, and there are many opportunities beyond public engagement. We believe the Triangle could become a hotbed of innovative govtech companies, as we’ve already seen a number of them start here, including PublicInput, ArchiveSocial, Acta Solutions, and Neighborland (now part of NextDoor).