Tech Startup Transforms US City Services


After a successful launch in the US, Australian startup OpenCities is helping major cities go digital and improve the way they service their communities.

Every day people engage with their local governments in countless ways – from registering pets to paying parking fines. But according to 2016 research conducted by Australian startup OpenCities, many city websites in Australia, New Zealand and the US fail on a number of counts, including readability, data privacy and mobile readiness.

OpenCities is transforming how cities deliver services to their communities. Through out-of-the-box digital solutions, OpenCities helps local governments move from paper-based, 9–5-style interactions to 24/7 mobile-friendly online services. It is a product that has been validated at the highest level, with the company recently forming a strategic partnership with Microsoft.

Founded in 2011 by Alex Gelbak, the company (under a previous name) initially provided customised services and consulting to local councils in Australia and New Zealand. Over time, Gelbak realised the issues faced by government clients in transitioning to digital were very similar, and in 2015 he re-launched the business as OpenCities.

With local governments all over the world experiencing the same challenges, global markets presented a big opportunity – particularly in the US where there are 30,000 local councils, compared to approximately 600 in Australia.

In 2016, OpenCities hired two team members in San Francisco to lead the new US operation. In a case of perfect timing, Gelbak became aware of the Landing Pads program and in July 2016 the OpenCities team arrived at the San Francisco Landing Pad.

Landing in a world-leading tech hub

Landing Pads provide market-ready, high-potential Australian startups/scaleups with access to some of the world’s most renowned innovation and startup ecosystems. As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, Austrade has established five Landing Pads in Berlin, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore and Tel Aviv.

Participants are given an operational base at a Landing Pad for up to 90 days, where they benefit from Austrade’s extensive global network of contacts and tailored business development assistance.

‘The Landing Pad team tapped into their personal networks to open doors for us,’ says Gelbak. ‘They also provided a resource to support us in doing some research and producing a benchmark report of over 3,000 US cities, so that was incredibly valuable.’

The OpenCities team was based at RocketSpace, a tech hub home to industry-leading startups and entrepreneurs, with alumni including Spotify and Uber. Gelbak’s US team was based there full-time and he visited from Australia several times throughout the 90 days.

‘Being on the ground, I learned more about the intricacies of the US market,’ says Gelbak. ‘Having my US team there meant they were surrounded by Australian companies and learned how we do business here. So it was a bit of cross-pollination.’

One of Gelbak’s most eye-opening lessons was the cultural difference when it comes to sales and marketing.

‘What we would consider by Australian standards to be beating one’s own chest or being too loud or self-congratulatory is actually perfectly normal business practice there,’ he says. ‘You have to make some big, bold statements and be loud to get your voice heard. You have to ask for what you want.’

Digitising services on a global scale

Since starting at the Landing Pad, OpenCities has won several large full and beta clients, including City of Miami, City of Orlando and the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

‘Having a base of operations in the US, particularly when you’re dealing with government, is absolutely critical,’ says Gelbak. ‘We wanted to enter the market strongly by securing a large, recognised city. Having the Landing Pad as our US base helped us do that.’

One of OpenCities’ biggest wins since the Landing Pad has been securing a strategic partnership with Microsoft. After holding the introductory call while at the Landing Pad, Gelbak and his team have now started working with Microsoft to help US cities deliver better services.

OpenCities was also accepted into and has since completed a SUPERPUBLIC accelerator program run by San Francisco’s City Innovate Foundation, which aims to solve urban problems using open innovation and public-private partnerships.

Another key benefit was the money saved by avoiding the cost of a traditional office space.

‘That’s money that we can now reinvest in sales and marketing, which is really important in your first year of operation in a new geography,’ says Gelbak. ‘The Landing Pad helped us focus on the tasks most important for achieving success, rather than on the operational things you’d have to pay for and think about if you’re going solo.’

Having signed up some major US cities, OpenCities is now focused on expanding its reach. Gelbak plans to use that success as a platform for launching into the Canadian market.

OpenCities has also attracted interest from Asia and Europe, and Gelbak says Austrade’s ongoing support will be valuable as they go global.

‘Austrade has invited us to consider some of the other Landing Pads when we’re ready to tackle those markets,’ he says. ‘I think it will be a great thing to continue the dialogue and the relationship.’