How Maury Blackman built Accela to reconnect the people with their government

Maury Blackman wants to restore the trust that people have in government at all levels, from the local municipalities all the way up to the federal government in Washington, D.C. It’s an ambitious goal, one that many would consider to be an impossible task. But Blackman doesn’t see it that way.

“Local governments need to be able to communicate more effectively with citizens and gain trust to show that they are working for you and spending your tax dollars in a way that is efficient, makes things run more smoothly and makes your lives more effective,” Blackman says.

The opportunity to create Accela Inc. 15 years ago gave Blackman a chance to focus on two areas that were of great personal interest: technology and government. Along with the other founding team members, Blackman’s goal was to use technology to change the way citizens are able to communicate with their government.

“We started out with the notion that this country was based on technology,” Blackman says. “The technology at the founding of the country was the printing press. It enabled people to mass produce documents and talk about what really good government was about. It allowed them to set up the institutions of government through forms and paper-based systems.”

But as the country has grown over the past 240 years, the government has become more and more complex, as have the tools available to communicate with the people.

“We saw it as our mission to use technology to bring city hall to the peoples’ doorsteps, to connect them to government and restore trust and be transformative in that way,” Blackman says. “That’s the big vision and those are the things we map out in a business plan. But when it comes down to the execution of that, you definitely have challenges.”

After 15 years, Accela has made great strides. It has more than 2,000 customers worldwide and provides cloud-based civic engagement solutions for government.

The company of more than 650 employees has a Civic Platform that includes solutions for land and asset management; finance and administration; licensing and case management; legislative and citizen relationship management; right-of-way management; recreation and resource management; and environmental health.

The first step to making all that happen was a difficult one to take. It was a new product, and Accela had to convince someone to step out and be the first to try it.

Establishing credibility

The primary customer for Accela is government agencies, and Blackman quickly learned that government agencies don’t like to be the first to try anything.

“They want to see that someone else has used the technology and see that it’s been tried and battle-tested,” Blackman says. “In the private sector, you can wow people with fancy technology and show them how it will be a competitive advantage for them. Governments don’t necessarily think that way. Once they put in a service, it has to stay there forever. Governments can’t fail.”

One of the mistakes that companies often make when trying to establish credibility is to reach out to anyone and everyone they can think of in an effort to build up their customer base.

“We spent a lot of time trying to sell everyone on the technology,” Blackman says. “You often end up spinning your wheels if you’re trying to sell to people who don’t have that first-mover tendency.”

Blackman needed to develop a profile for candidates who were more comfortable stepping into the unknown and didn’t need to wait for someone else to try an idea before taking their own shot.

“That’s who you have to target,” Blackman says. “You have to build that profile in your mind. Once you get that profile down and start to identify the characteristics of those like-minded people, you can partner with them and build forward. The mistake people make is they are too scattered in their focus. They are just trying to land everybody instead of building a profile of who that first-mover customer is.”

Ideally, you want to find people who are going to believe in your product enough to talk about it with others and provide the momentum necessary to grow your business.

“You want to partner with an early adopter who is going to evangelize your product for you,” Blackman says. “Often, that’s a very special type of person. They almost become a salesperson for your business. Approach that early adopter from the standpoint that you’re investing in the person, as if you’re hiring them to partner with you. If it doesn’t seem like someone you could hire who could sell you on your product, to me, that’s a red flag.”

Focus on the customer

The partnership has to be a two-way street. You want the customer to help you broaden your reach and gain new customers. In return, you need to demonstrate to the customer that you’re going to work with them, listen to their feedback and do what is necessary to keep making your product better.

“Zero in on the customer experience,” Blackman says. “Once you start mass producing the product or touching a lot of people, you’re depending on them to have a clean and fun experience with your product or service. If they had that, they’ll talk about it and you’ll get repeat customers.”

It all had to come together to help Accela reach its original goal, which was to restore trust and open communication channels between citizens and their government.

“Government is very constrained because they have to be very careful about services they bring up,” he says. “If they bring up a service that doesn’t meet expectations or fails, they are held accountable to that in the public eye. So what we do at this business, and I think this is a lesson a lot of other CEOs can learn from, we really speak two languages. We speak the language of citizens and we speak the language of government. We want to bridge those two communities together so they can operate more efficiently.”

The construction sector provides a good example to illustrate Blackman’s point of needing to speak two languages.

“If you talk to the construction community, one of the unknowns for them that determines whether their projects fail or are successful is getting aligned with the government agency that is doing the permitting and the regulations and making sure they are able to do it on a timely basis,” Blackman says.

“What we’ve seen is by enabling contractors and construction groups to connect directly with city hall through mobile and Web-based technology, it really accelerates the construction process by as much as 100 percent. It enables both groups to move forward.”

Evolving as a leader

One of the challenges for Blackman was when Accela went from startup mode to a more established business that needed to scale.

“When we were in that entrepreneurial phase and startup mode, I was very close to all of our customers,” Blackman says. “I knew pretty much everyone. We started out and built up to 50 customers and now we have over 2,000 — and I don’t get the time to spend with each account. That’s tough for me. I like having that personal touch with all our customers, but I have to divorce myself from that and take on a different role.”

It’s a step that many leaders struggle to take, but an essential one if you want to keep growing your business.

“My new role is more dealing with board members, dealing with the investment community and managing with dashboards and trying to steer the business from a 50,000-foot view instead of on the ground doing hand-to-hand combat,” he says.

Blackman acknowledges that entrepreneurs tend to be very driven and very stubborn and many of them want to do it themselves. Maybe you get lucky, but often that turns out to be a big mistake.

“It’s important for people in leadership positions to really seek out board members and other mentors who can help give them advice on how to continue to evolve the business,” Blackman says. “If you just sit back and internalize things and only do it from your own gut, you’re limiting your own personal growth as well as the growth of the company.”

Another key part to growing your business, in addition to your own development, is your ability to identify people who can bring their own brand of passion and energy to your organization.

“I want to find people who have a passion for government and want to change the way citizens connect with city hall,” he says. “Not everybody has that same fire to say I want to change the world in relation to the way government works with citizens. But they are out there. So what I try to do is identify those people pretty early.”

In addition to passion, Blackman needs people who don’t fear technology and share the same values.

“You have to have that chemistry and trust with your team, otherwise it’s ineffective,” he says.

Blackman believes the pieces are in place to continue building Accela and fulfilling the company’s mission.

“If you look at our space, there will be a handful of leaders and we think we’re in a position to be one of those,” he says. “That’s our goal. Impact this business in a way that we’re transforming government. That’s what we’re all about and that’s where we think we’re headed.”

 

Takeaways

  • Develop an accurate customer profile.
  • Help your customers grow with you.
  • Allow your self to evolve as a leader.

The Blackman File

NAME: Maury Blackman
TITLE: President and CEO
COMPANY: Accela Inc.

Born: Houston

Education: Bachelor’s degree, political science, University of Houston.

How much did your experience as an officer in the U.S. Army shape your approach to leadership? I had experience standing up and briefing battalion leaders, colonels and lieutenant colonels who are basically the same age I am today and getting some real feedback about how I was doing. That experience gave me the capability and the confidence when I was in the business world at 26 years old to stand up in front of people and make a presentation and make a really positive impact.

The management of people: As a young officer, you are paired with a noncommissioned officer who has been in the military for 10 or 15 years and has a lot of experience dealing with soldiers. That noncommissioned officer will say, ‘Hey, that’s not the way you do things.’ So you get a lot of feedback both from a leadership and a managerial standpoint that really shaped the type of person I am today.

What about your experience competing in the Ironman Triathlon? It’s a 2.5-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. There’s no way to cheat. You’re either prepared for it or you’re not. You have to consistently prepare yourself on a daily basis for a year leading up to that event in order to successfully finish.
Some people say how do you have the time? But it’s not the time that is the gating issue. It’s the discipline to say, ‘It’s 10:30, I need to be in bed. It’s 5:00, I need to be awake.’ You do that every day for a full year and it just builds a lot of discipline.