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SaaS Cities: Where You Live Is A Product
A case for more deeply evaluating where you live.
As I walked out of the Times Square subway station - the point at which I decide if the day is nice enough to forgo the S and walk the 12 minutes past Bryant Park to the office - I noticed a crew of workers painting the outdoor façade of the station entrance.
In a city that is so constantly renovating that they held a competition to design a better-looking scaffold, these painters stood out. They were city employees, painting a publicly-owned building. This was my tax dollars at work. Someone had decided that this was the best next thing to spend money on in a city full of projects. Leaving the important discussion aside of how dollars distribute to wealthy vs poor neighborhoods, in this specific context, someone decided that as the city was coming back after Covid, Times Square, the tourist mecca, needed to be spiffed up.
As I’ve started to deeply research what makes a city a city, scenes like those painters have stood out far more distinctly than in the past. You start to see it everywhere. Does that bulb in the streetlamp get replaced or is there now a dark corner? Is that derelict pier transforming into a new park or staying unused? Each city employee, each project, is the pointy end of a collection of tax dollars being put to use. The place that you live is the result of a series of daily decisions to improve and change to keep residents happy. Those residents then vote: both with their decision to stay in that city, and then with actual votes for politicians at the city level.
To push this example to a full (hopefully not too stretched) metaphor - a city is like a SaaS (Software as a Service) product. The more we view where we live as akin to a software product we use personally or at work, the more we can understand that we are paying for solutions to our problems, scaled to our entire daily life.
Product = City
Subscribers = Residents
SaaS: Base subscription + usage revenue
City: Residents pay a base rate tax and then sales tax on what they buy
SaaS: Dedicated team for consistent bug fixes and normal customer service + Community of other users on forums to help with problems
City: No matter who you are and what you’re paying, there is a base level of service like filling in potholes or councilmen answering requests to fix problems across the neighborhoods.
City: Your neighbors have recommendations for how to get the most from your neighborhood - where to eat, where to shop, where to find the best plumber
SaaS: Pay more for higher touch service or a higher tier of product
City: Opportunities exist to buy better real estate in more expensive parts of town
New Version Rollouts
SaaS: Products must be iterating constantly based on the needs of the users and what competitors are starting to bring to the market feature-wise or price-wise
City: The overall experience must be consistently upgraded so people don't leave for another city. These include public works, infrastructure upgrades, and parks upkeep
SaaS: More users brings new users; the more a community builds around a product, the more network effects help growth
City: The more of any type of desirable person - young people, smart people, athletic people, arts people, business people - the more others of that ilk will come to be with their niche communities
SaaS: Need to market heavily, but building a cult following allows for influential people to sing a product’s praises for free; creating a platform for developers to build new apps for your service starts a flywheel
City: Place marketing by tourism boards aim to bring in tourists and new residents, while books, movies, documentaries, and social media give free marketing to especially appealing locations
SaaS: clients fund new features that they want specifically, but that can be shared by all
City: Public-private partnerships create new works that a city couldn’t afford on its own, but that are available to anyone who lives or visits there
What does this view change for me? Well it immediately changes the conversation about moving somewhere to avoid taxes. I’ve never spent much time in Austin, but this whole conversation about moving somewhere purely for tax reasons seems to miss the point. Taxes are part of rent, it’s the cost of admission to see the show.
If the show’s not worth watching, then you’ll gripe, but most importantly, you’ll move. If the product you’ve been paying for starts to degrade or gets outpaced by something else, you’ll switch products. If you think your taxes are being misspent, then that should show up in your quality of living in that area, and then you’ll move. If you’re still living there, you inherently think it’s worth it.
Moving somewhere else for the taxes should mean you are getting more value in your overall living. This argument might not work for those with a ton of money who travel between numerous homes, but it works for most people.
As we near the final vote for the NYC mayoral race, it also changes how I evaluate candidates. In its purest form, product development is all about specific choices made by the product manager to best solve the problems of the most users (I acknowledge this metaphor can get perverted by saying companies solve to maximize revenue, just like cities focus towards the rich).
Mayors are product managers. What decisions do I want them to make? I need to consider what exactly it is that I love about where I live. Do I love a certain park? How does a candidate feel about park funding? Is there a problem with homelessness that affects the quality of life for those who are and are not homeless (this is always a two sided problem)? Then I would look at a candidate who puts that as a priority.
Every on-time or late subway is the result of a decision made by a government trying to accomplish certain goals for their constituents. Every feature and bug in a product exists because the company has a set of priorities to best solve the problems of their users. What each prioritizes is what they think residents and consumers want. Next time you walk through your street or use a software product, notice and question the intentionality of what you are experiencing. How does your viewpoint change?