Detroit-based startup helps customers to cut costs and conserve water
by Joyce Wiswell
Unlike many young entrepreneurs his age, Abess Makki isn’t in it for the fame and fortune. His simply wants “to literally make a mark on the world.”
He just might. Makki’s startup company, CityInsight, is already getting lots of attention for its new app, CityWater, which helps Detroit water customers monitor their usage. It’s a win-win, he says: customers aren't blindsided by giant water bills they can’t pay, and the city isn't spending time arguing with residents who believe they were overcharged but, instead, helping them establish affordable payment plans.
“There was a huge learning curve. I am not a technical guy and I didn’t understand what it takes to build an app,” admits Makki, 24. “But I just kept with the mission I believed in.”
That mission is to use technology to create better customer service, and, just as importantly to Makki, help raise awareness of the scarcity and value of water as a resource.
He became interested in the topic a few years ago after seeing actor Matt Damon talk about his organization, Water.org, on CNN. “When I saw how simple it was to get involved I immediately jumped on it,” Makki says. “You can go online, make a donation of $25 and give someone water for life. Think about it, it blows your mind.”
The CityWater idea came from the notorious Detroit water shutoffs in 2014. “Tens of thousands of people lost access to water, and I remembered how my parents always complained about the rise of their bill in the summer. It all came together – how do we fix this? Not necessarily to prevent the shutoffs, because people need to pay their bills, but to keep people in the loop on what is going on with their water bill.”
His idea was to use technology to make it as easy for customers to keep up with their water usage as it is to see how many minutes remain on their phone account and how much money is in their checking account.
“How come,” he wondered, “I do not have a tool that keeps me in the loop on something I pay for on a regular basis?”
Makki had already proved his mettle as more than a dreamer. As a student at Wayne State University, he co-founded and was president of the National Student Water Association, a non-profit that raises awareness of global water issues and provides water access assistance in poor nations. He completed the Summer Venture and Management Program at the Harvard Business School, and currently holds a fellowship at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. In the summer of 2014, he participated in DTX Launch Detroit, a program from TechTown that helps young entrepreneurs with their technology startups.
Makki says he appreciated how the program helped him develop CityInsight but admits he was not always the most obedient participant. “I was kind of a rebel. I have never been the guy who follows the rules,” he says.
For example, rather than wait until things were in place — as recommended in the textbook he received on steps to running a startup — Makki jumped right in and queried “hundreds of Detroit residents” to see how they felt about his app idea.
“They [his instructors] were like, ‘what are you doing?!’ but I took things into my own hands. I just walked around different areas of Detroit and asked people, ‘would you want this for free?’ They all said, ‘without a doubt.’ I said, ‘Would you pay a dollar for it?’ They said yes. But they shouldn’t have to pay anything; they are already paying for their water.”
It’s the City of Detroit that paid for the app, though Makki won’t disclose the sale price. “I don’t want that to be what this whole thing is about,” he explains. “I am really difference-driven.”
Robert Presnell, COO of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, says he liked how Makki and his team were willing to be flexible as they developed the app.
“Some people looked at it as, ‘you guys teamed up with a startup, are you crazy?’ That depends on the level of risk people are willing to take. I believe we can hedge on that risk on what we can deliver,” says Presnell, who joined the department after working on the city’s bankruptcy team. “We have been going through a very large transformation and a new priority is customer service. We looked at a lot of different options and didn’t like what we saw, which was a lot of off-the-shelf solutions that we didn’t have control over. I needed self-service that was extremely easy and accessible from a mobile phone, not a computer, because a lot of our population does not have computers. We got to really take control of how we wanted these things to work.”
Under the former system, Detroit Water and Sewerage had just three service centers where customers could pay their bills in person. Now they’ve deployed 32 kiosks in 28 locations where residents can make cash payments – the often-preferred method since many don’t have credit or debit cards. Customers can use CityWater to track their water use compared to the prior month, take action if usage unexplainedly jumps, and work out a payment plan if they can’t afford their bill. Through the app, the department can collect information like customer names and phone numbers, data it has lacked until now.
The app was launched in late July. “We don’t expect everyone to utilize it by any means, but our goal is 10 to 20 percent and then continuing to grow that number all the time,” said Presnell. “We’re telling people, ‘skip the line, conduct business on your own time.’”
Makki says he’s learned a lot along the way, especially the painful lesson of not taking things personally when would-be investors or advisors dropped out. “I am super passionate and a lot of people are not. One thing I have learned from all the successful people I have worked with is that you are always going to find your way. The attitude to have it, this will work but you have to be ready to pivot.”
For many entrepreneurs, the excitement is all in the creation; once a business is established the owner is ready to move on to other pursuits. Not so for Makki, who says he gets inspiration from his “extremely hard working” parents, who emigrated from Sierra Leone.
“My generation wants to work for Goldman Sachs or Google; everyone is just about getting to the next step rather than how can they make a difference,” he says. “My goal is to be running this same company for the next 50 years. I want to have a legacy. Rather than people saying ‘wow, this guy was super rich,’ I want them to say, ‘this guy literally made a mark on the world.’”