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CityGrows Permit Platform Bets on Do-It-Yourself Simplicity

The former GovTech 100 company is still adding clients and functionality in an increasingly crowded market for government permitting software. Their bet to stand out includes simplicity and speed of deployment.

Entering a crowded marketplace for niche products, tech companies take different approaches to stand out. Some distinguish themselves on sophistication and AI, some by price point, some by specialization or interoperability with other tools.

For CityGrows, whose online portal for obtaining government permits has been adding clients since 2016, the key to replacing legacy systems across America is usability.

In her former role as a commissioner for innovation and performance for the city of Los Angeles, CityGrows CEO Catherine Geanuracos saw firsthand how difficult it can be, even for a city with resources, to procure and deploy new technology. She said the idea for a user-friendly government permitting platform stemmed from a quest for open data, when CityGrows co-founder Stephen Corwin, now the company’s chief technology officer, tried to collect information on building permits in Los Angeles and found data scrapers wouldn’t cut it. He thought a better solution would be to collect data from the beginning of the permitting process in a standardized, machine-readable format.

Geanuracos and Corwin shifted their focus from data collection to process improvement when they realized no tools would sell that didn’t improve the day-to-day lives of people working inside government. After winning Santa Monica’s “Hack the Beach” event in 2016, CityGrows started building out its permitting platform with input from local governments in Southern California, and it’s been evolving ever since.

“We’re trying to make this accessible to a much broader range of governments than have been able to use some of our competitors,” Geanuracos said. “We automate a lot of the things that are easy to automate for people, we’ve reduced the administrative time it takes for people to move permits through the process … so they’re able to do more with the same or less effort, and provide better service.”

Many of those competitors describe their products along similar lines, and there are no shortage of them. OpenCounter offers four online portals for citizens to acquire business, residential, special events and zoning permits, respectively. Camino launched a Permit Guide in 2017, which it plans to open-source for future innovators. Major gov tech players like Tyler Technologies, CentralSquare Technologies and Accela include permitting solutions in their product suites. CityLife tried to develop an app last year to fast-track consumer permits.

Comparing CityGrows to other permitting software, Geanuracos touted its versatility, do-it-yourself simplicity and low cost. The company offers a free platform that makes money by collecting a percentage of permit and license fees it processes, alongside a more premium software-as-a-service plan.

“We are pretty unique, as far as I know, in that our software is easy enough to use that non-technical people can set up those workflows themselves. We’ve had local governments, like an assistant city clerk at a town in Maryland, just find us online through Google searches … and then set up her own business-license processes and launch them without any outside help,” she said. “We’ve had governments go from finding out about us to having a live, working permit process in less than two weeks.”

Since its inception in Southern California, CityGrows has acquired clients in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Illinois, with no headquarters and a virtual team spread across several states. Geanuracos said clients run the gamut in size from rural municipalities to departments in the city of Los Angeles.

“We think we can bring the most value to small and medium-sized governments, but we’re surprised at the use cases we see in large governments too,” she said. “We tend to grow inside of each government that we work with, so we’ll start with one department, one or two permits or licenses, and then other departments will start to use us as well.”

Brittany Mello, assistant to the city manager of Monrovia, Calif., said in an email that her department used the CityGrows platform to build a new personnel evaluation system. She said the city had run into problems with another company in the past, because its platform was too time-consuming with too many bells and whistles. 

“The first time, it took over a year to build and had a contract and service fee. But we ended up making it too complicated, trying to do too many things at once … People were spending 10 hours to complete an evaluation,” she said. “So we worked to build a new system on CityGrows, and in a matter of a few months with staff brainstorming and building it ourselves as we went, we just recently launched it … and it’s dramatically cut down the time managers are spending to complete an evaluation.”

The city uses the software for other purposes as well, including digitizing the process of form submission and review. Mello added that CityGrows helps avoid a scenario where forms get lost or sit on someone’s desk for days, and both managers and customers can keep tabs on the progress of an application without calling city hall.

CityGrows has no state clients, but Geanuracos said they’re working on that. The company added a former ClearGov executive to its sales team this month and a former Erie County, Pa., councilmember as its business development lead in January.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with input from a CityGrows customer.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.
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