This interview is a part of the Startup Superheroes series, a regular interview series that gives investors a behind-the-scenes look into each founder raising on Republic. In this week's post, we're speaking with Star Childs, founder of Citiesense, to learn how his background in urban design inspires his plan to improve downtown areas across America.
How did Citiesense get started?
I was working in urban design and planning for a number of years in Toronto. I loved working in the industry, but I was really struck by the process of getting to know a place in order to invest or to provide recommendations on how to draw out the local community. What I found was a lot of the data wasn’t available from the community itself, which I thought was a problem cities needed to solve.
So, I went back to school — I got a Masters in forestry and environmental studies at Yale. While there, I started talking to the GIS department and began thinking about Citiesense. After graduation, I launched pilot projects with a few cities and got all the way to working directly with some mayors’ offices before I realized that the cities weren’t actually the places to insert this solution, but it was the stakeholders below that: the businesses, nonprofits, chambers of commerce, etc.
In 2017, I got into Urban-X to kick start the development of the solution and test it in New York City with over 76 of these kind of organizations.
Did you always think you’d found a company?
I definitely wasn't thinking of starting a company. I thought I would work at a real estate development firm or in city planning. Grad school was my way to rethink things in general, but I didn’t go into school with this goal.
What was it like when you decided to make the jump?
As difficult as it is, having limited funding has actually been good for us and has helped us stay focused and be really pragmatic with what we are developing.
For instance, we made some mistakes early on, which could have been worse if we had invested more in a specific direction. We initially started building a platform for city government and had invested some of our money from Yale Entrepreneurial Institute to meet with city governments on mapping out local data. If we had more money to throw into that we may have gone down that path further, which would have been putting money into the wrong group. Instead, we looked at users who would be using this tool daily and decided to take a step back from city government and focus on a new market to build products with.
There was never really a moment of panic, but this helped us learn early on that it’s not always the company that says they have the solution; it’s the customer that will tell you what they want.
What do you look for in a co-founder?
Some people have their friends as co-founders. I’ve worked with friends before, which has never turned out badly, thank goodness. But it’s often not the easiest solution for the long term. When you start someone as a contractor, you can test a number of things about how you work with them. This gives you time to decide if this person is someone you can work alongside before you offer equity. It’s great if you are already connected to someone you know you work well with and are just as motivated as you are by your idea. I didn’t have that, so I found someone I could bring on and develop a relationship with.
Volkan, at a hackathon hosted by one of our tech partners, CARTO. They had a relatively new product on the horizon and were hosting a bunch of meetups and tech gatherings for folks who focus on mapping. I brought Volkan on as a contractor and overtime realized he would make a great partner. I was also running out of money to pay him, so it made sense to offer him equity and to bring him fully on board.I met my co-founder,
Has anything surprised you when launching the business?
One thing that we definitely found surprising was the level of detail downtown organizations go into when tracking local conditions around the neighborhood. When we started working with downtowns, we expected them to manage information about commercial real estate, small businesses and some of the improvements happening around the neighborhood, which they most certainly do. However, it's been surprising to discover that they use Citiesense track so many other hyper-local conditions.
For instance, we see them tracking everything from popup business activity and the amount of auxiliary space in commercial properties like basements, to the specific locations of private security cameras, annual planters, and even issues with bike racks that have abandoned rusty bikes chained up to them. We love it when we get asked the question, "How detailed can we get with your platform?". Because now our response is always, "As detailed as you'd like!" We love downtowns because of how complex these places are, providing livelihoods, entertainment, environmental infrastructure and homes to so many different people. So it's exciting for us to see our early adopters taking on such a high level of engagement with their local data and using Citiesense to keep track of all of the specific elements of a place that are each location specific and yet all related to how a place performs for all the people interacting with businesses, buildings and public spaces 24-7.
What’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome while launching Citiesense?
I’ve had other friends and professionals involved over the years who weren’t able to put their lives on old to launch a company. It’s one of the hardest things that my co-founders and me have done; we’ve given up years of our lives when we could have been earning more. It definitely took more time and endurance than I expected to get things off the ground. I’ve seen so many companies around me come and go with a flash in the pan idea and lots of funding, but they just run out.
Most startups fail. What’s your relationship with the risk?
I approach risk with lots of options. I like to make sure that I know at least several contingency plans that exist depending on where things go.
Throughout the sales process we’ve had contingencies in place. These can be specific plans, for example, if a deal might not work we want a plan to make sure we keep the relationship. They can also be more macro, like if we aren’t going to raise VC funds to grow the company, how can we raise enough through other means to get things done.
It’s really all about the contingency plan. This helps keep us sane.
Why did you decide to raise on Republic?
I had never really encountered crowdfunding until Republic. I knew you could fundraise from “the crowd” for real estate projects, but equity crowdfunding had not crossed my mind until I connected with someone from the Republic team. We’re actually neighbors and work in the same building in New York, and as I learned more about them, I realized this was a good option for us.
What is your superpower?
I can adapt to any situation. Some of my best meetings and presentations have been those that I haven’t prepared a lot for, so I’ve had to make a more organic delivery, almost more from the heart. For example, I once presented to a group of mayors from South America. I was asked to do it the day before and of course I said yes; I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity like that. It went great, despite me having little time to prepare and the entire thing being translated (something I didn’t know until I walked into the room and met the translator!).
What’s your kryptonite?
Things that are not well designed. I’ve always been a very visual person, so the way information is delivered is important to me.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I like to wear a baseball cap everyday. My grandmother always told me to wear a hat, so I never leave without a hat.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do?
I used to row competitively in high school and college. I still do that when it’s not freezing cold. I love rowing, and I also like ice hockey, skiing, and motorcycles. I still have a motorcycle — a 2007 Triumph Speed Triple.
Also, since I was little I used to love miniature fantasy figurines. I would paint and collect them, and it’s still something I do in my adulthood.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
Do it part time to begin with. Don’t feel like you need to jump in until you figure out what your product offering is.
In large cities, you may have lived there for 50 years, but do you really know what is or what is not in your large city. This can be the same when you moved to a new city. Today we require new technology for whatever to solve complex situation.
Data analytics are useful tools. As a business owner, I foresee how useful a company like Citiesense is. I'm thankful for their vision and hope to be part of their growth.
Star and Carl are what make Citiesense an awesome company! Their dedication to developing this technology and unique experience are what make me believe in the company.