SIF Impact Investing Fellow Marissa Silapaswan interviewed Chris Bullock, founder of ClearGov about entrepreneurship, making government data accessible to taxpayers, and his experience in the SIF Social Business Accelerator.
Tell me a little about your background. What were you doing before ClearGov?
My background has been in SaaS and data analytics for about the past 15 years. I started in the financial industry, where I was a product manager for an analytics software company that helped large public companies understand which mutual funds were buying and selling their stocks.
About 4 years ago, I co-founded a company called Sky Analytics that analyzed legal invoices for large public companies to help them benchmark attorney rates and matter costs. We created a benchmarking database of close to $10 billion of legal invoices from clients that included JP Morgan, Apple, Johnson & Johnson, RJ Reynolds Tobacco and many more. That company was successfully acquired in January of 2015 by Huron Consulting Group (HURN).
SIF’s community of mission focused mentors and investors struck us as something great from the start.
What inspired you to start ClearGov?
I have a passion for transforming very complex data into easy-to-understand interfaces. Numbers by themselves misleading, so it is a unique challenge to help people understand a story with numbers.
I’ve also always had an interest in government efficiency. I’ve often tried to look at where my tax dollars were going at a federal and state level. There’s often a lot of accusations in politics and they never seem to be based on rigorous, comparative figures.
People just throw out huge numbers, like that we’re $17 trillion in debt. However, if you peel back the numbers, the U.S. makes $3.5 trillion (revenue) in every year. This is akin to someone with a $100,000 salary and a $550,000 mortgage. Now the debt figure becomes much more approachable. This is obviously an oversimplification, but it helps to put the numbers in a personal context.
It was these passions and interests that led me to start ClearGov, a financial transparency platform for local government.
What were some early milestones for ClearGov?
We launched the site in late June of 2015. At that point we didn’t have a clear direction. At first, I was thinking about focusing on the state and federal level, but I couldn’t figure out a sustainable business model because there are only 50 states. I soon realized that focusing on local government would lead to a much larger market opportunity. This realization led to the refining of our business model.
When we launched, I thought this would only be a side project. Right away we got social media buzz and almost immediately town officials reached out to us and we started talking with them about a premium version of the site.
Since then how has ClearGov done in signing up towns?
We sketched out a concept for a new service where towns would be able to upgrade their ClearGov page for an annual fee. Upgraded pages we be able to show more current and granular financials, add commentary to the site, and activate many other features. Based on this initial concept we were able to sign up five towns within the first two months of announcing this beta program. On December 6 2015, we launched our first client, the Town of Easton, and we were featured in The Boston Globe shortly thereafter.
Last February, we also signed our largest town to date, Framingham. Massachusetts Lt. Governor Karen Polito then signed a compact with the Town of Framingham, where they specifically highlighted ClearGov as a positive use of technology providing insights into town governments.
So it sounds like ClearGov has experienced a lot of recent success. What are next steps?
Our next steps are to raise a seed round of funding so that we can bring on a full time sales team, and repeat the success we’ve had in Massachusetts in other states.
What is the long-term vision for your business?
There are 89,000 municipalities in the U.S., and in the long-term we’d like to have every one of them on our platform. The business opportunity is huge, even if we tap into 2% of that number.
How will the country change if every town does use your platform?
Today there is an increasing level of distrust towards government. A lot of that distrust is fueled by misunderstanding. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. We’re helping governments tackle this problem and take a more proactive stance in communicating their performance. On the local level, there are many towns out there that are really proud of their government performance, and they want to communicate this performance to their constituents. They also want to make the governing process more efficient, because distrust often causes people to block or slow down important initiatives. ClearGov’s goal is to drive understanding in order to drive trust, which in turn will drive local and eventual broader progress.
Who is your favorite entrepreneur?
I’m a big fan of Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. I love the fact that he is not afraid to go after big problems. He’s not afraid to look at societal issues and go after them.
Can you tell me what drew you to SIF and a little about your experience here so far?
We came to SIF because we were looking for mentors and others to help us grow during these initial business stages. We also wanted to surround ourselves with good, socially focused people. SIF’s community of mission focused mentors and investors struck us as something great from the start. We were very excited to be part of the 2016 SIF cohort.