From the time outgoing Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn took office in 2010 until today, Seattle’s startup scene has continued to grow.
In those four years, McGinn has tried to figure out how government can support entrepreneurs in the area. He brought together industry leaders for an interesting roundtable last year, and then launched a “Startup Seattle” initiative one year later to support the Seattle tech startup community and make the city recognizable around the world as a thriving startup ecosystem.
Now, as State Sen. Ed Murray takes office next month, McGinn leaves behind his “Startup Seattle” project — one that nearly had its $151,000 in funding slashed before City Council voted against a budget amendment last month.
We caught up with McGinn earlier this week inside his City Hall office and chatted more about this, broadband in Seattle and startups in general. Here’s our edited excerpts from the interview:
GeekWire: Thanks for taking the time to meet with us. It was interesting to see how funding for your Startup Seattle initiative was nearly cut. Now that it is moving forward, what are your thoughts on it?
Mayor McGinn: I’m really pleased the Council approved the Startup Initiative. It was a modest investment of dollars. It’s the kind of work the Office of Economic Development does already, but this is just with more of a focus on the startup sector. I think what I’m really pleased about is that this is now not a “Mayor McGinn initiative,” but it’s a true city initiative with champions on the Council and champions in the community. So that’s really good.
[The startup initiative] also makes sense for a lot of reasons, but one is that for small startups that tend to be really focused on their own business and how to make it go, the role of a city in creating an environment in which they can succeed is important. It’s very similar to the model we use for the film and music industries, which has a lot of entrepreneurial activity.
I think it’s really going to be a success. It’s a modest use of resources, but it’s more just leveraging city resources and support of the startup community, so I’m pretty pleased with where it is. I even would have liked it be launched sooner because I think in order to remain competitive, we need to have a focus on startups in government.
GW: As you’ve been in office these past four years, Seattle has certainly grown as a startup city. What have you learned about how city government can help startups succeed?
McGinn: Let me start with positives. The city as a whole — not just city government — can create a really favorable environment for creative and innovative people. The fact that, for example, Amazon wants to locate downtown is an example of the attractiveness of urban places to folks. That’s why arts and culture, music and nightlife, historic buildings, transit, are more than just that — you put all those things together and you start creating a place where creative people can interact. That’s a very desirable thing. That’s something we are fortunate to be pushing on.
The challenge is, government probably shouldn’t be in a position of trying to identify specific companies that deserve funding or don’t deserve funding. The funding issue I know is so huge for startups, but we can try to reduce the transactional costs in city government by having a dedicated service.
More mature companies and industries find great benefits to having trade associations for the exchange of ideas, so they can push for common policy objectives. It’s not realistic to expect startups to do that, so in a way, the city becomes their trade association. We help with the convening function, with identifying issues — regulatory issues or tax issues or other policy issues. We do a similar thing for film, and I think we did it successfully for nightlife in city as well. That’s a role that a city can play — not just for this sector, but for many sectors. And, we do it for many sectors, but the startup sector in particular needs a little more of that assistance just because of their nature — they’re small, understaffed, and trying to figure out 50 new things at once.
GW: Are those some of the reasons why you dedicated money to the Startup Initiative? How do you respond to people, like councilmembers Nick Licata and Jean Godden, who question why the City is putting money toward this effort?
McGinn: Here’s what we do already. Right now, if you look at the Seattle Jobs Plan we launched in our first year, we took a sector-by-sector strategy and it operated on the premise that, let’s identify not just our weaknesses as a city — because we have weaknesses in education, transit, infrastructure — but what are our strengths? We have multiple economic sectors that are strong. Then, the question is, how do you support where you are strong, because that’s where you’re most likely to generate new business and most likely to to generate civic identity.
So for the startup community, we kind of used that model, and we use the same model in every industry sector that we used with startup sector. We brought in a bunch of leaders from the sector and said, “what do you need?” For example, the maritime industrial sector wanted a smart updated shoreline management act. For our biotech researchers, they wanted to be able to change the fire code for upper stories of buildings so they could do lab work in upper stories. For the startup community, this is what they told us they needed. They needed someone to help with the convening function, someone to help with the connecting function, as well as helping new business people navigate the city.
So that’s what we’re doing. We did it for every sector, asking them what they need and try to support it. And we try to do it by identifying the bright spots and supporting the bright sports because that’s how you build upon success.
GW: With Ed Murray taking over for you next month, what advice would you give him in terms of how city government can help and interact with startups? And where would you like to see the Startup Initiative end up? I mean, this is something you created.
McGinn: There’s ownership over it now with the Council and community. I played a role in starting it, I pushed hard to get it going, so now the community and Council have to take it to the next mayor and really keep building on it.
People shouldn’t automatically assume that there will be a change in direction with a new mayor. When Greg Nickels started the race and social justice initiative, we expanded it. It’s a good thing.
The most important thing is that listening to people about what they need is a really critical element about all of these things. Whether it’s startups or other industries, you have to really listen to what people need. It can be hard because people can be very critical if they think their needs aren’t being met. But you just have to keep going out and listening.