Matt Tomasulo Walk Your City

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Matt Tomasulo is not a politician.

He's a designer, an urban planner, a landscape architect, a city dweller, a business owner and increasingly, a thought leader.

But his experience building a startup that unintentionally grabbed the attention of city leaders around the world thrust him into the municipal world. 

It also made the opportunities and issues in his own city of Raleigh all the more evident, and incited a passion for taking entrepreneurial lessons he learned building CityFabric and Walk [Your City] into practice in government.

October 6, Tomasulo hopes Raleigh voters give him a shot at infusing startup into City Council. And he's got a growing following of local startup leaders behind him. 

Throwing his final fundraiser Thursday night at HQ Raleigh is a team that includes Justin Miller of WedPics, Matt Whitley of Happy & Hale, Jason Widen of HQ Raleigh, angel investor Bill SpruillTrish and John Healy of Hyde Street Holdings, Niall Hanley of Hibernian Irish Pub and the Raleigh Beer Garden and startup lawyer Mital Patel

Matt Tomasulo Walk Your City Six Forks sign
Matt Tomasulo and a Walk Your City team member hang a sign on Six Forks Road in Raleigh to encourage people to walk to the nearby grocery store. Credit: Walk Your City
Patel is a fan of Tomasulo because of his entrepreneurial bent and use of technology, data and creativity to solve community problems. Plus, he finds recent moves by the existing Council "concerning."

"We need someone like Matt that understands the way the world works in 2015 and can help the city lead rather than react and try to keep up with issues," Patel says. 

A startup-minded plan for Raleigh

Patel is referring to hot button topics like a crackdown on Airbnb rentals and patio noise, zoning issues (like where a startup can operate) and the broader question of how the city can support the startup community. Those issues—along with better transportation and affordable housing options and new ways of handling Raleigh's fast growth—are top of mind for Tomasulo. The issue that really prompted his run for City Council was the seemingly casual dismissal of a plan to create a bikeshare program in Raleigh. He heard from likely funders that they hadn't even been asked to help finance it.

"Everyone talks about attracting talent and I am one of those people they talk about attracting," he says. "I saw decisions being made that I was confused by."

Tomasulo calls it a breakdown in communication at the Council level. He felt like the voice of Raleigh's fastest-growing demographic—the 32-year-old transplants like him—was missing. 

WedPics CEO Miller agrees. 

"If we're spending our time trying to attract new talent and new companies for the area, we need to have the right leaders in place that share the same visions," he says.

Getting to know Tomasulo

Entrepreneurial spirit and understandings are also draws for Miller. "Running a city is nothing shy of running a business," he says.

And Tomasulo is a serial entrepreneur specifically interested in startup projects that impact cities.

A Connecticut native and University of Richmond graduate, he moved to Raleigh in 2008 to attend NC State's College of Design. He completed two master's degrees, in landscape architecture and city and regional planning, between 2008 and 2012. 

What shaped his interest in urban environments was six months studying architecture abroad in Copenhagen in 2003. He discovered that his passion was more about the social, cultural and environmental dynamics of spaces rather than the actual buildings. 

At NC State, Tomasulo was encouraged to get involved in the community, to take risks and do experiments that have impact in the real world. His first project was a line of t-shirts displaying the Raleigh city grid on a map. In 2010, he made 70 shirts, set up shop at a downtown arts market, sold out of the shirts, launched a Kickstarter campaign, surpassed his crowdfunding goal by 236% and started an e-commerce company. 

T-shirt sales took off because, according to Tomasulo, "Cities weren't really a thing at that point." 

But he wasn't interested in being a t-shirt designer and handling all the fulfillment and logistics of the business. He was, however, interested in being an entrepreneur. CityFabric transitioned to designing and selling posters and canvases featuring grid maps of 30 global cities. They're now sold around the world.

Tomasulo hired a designer to take on that business and moved on to another passion project, WalkRaleigh. He'd attended the inaugural Innovate Raleigh Summit in January 2012 and heard the city's younger generations talk about the importance of collisions and chance encounters in an urban environment. He also heard the astounding population growth projected for Raleigh over the next decade or more. To accommodate that growth, people couldn't be driving to make every trip.

He'd started a research project during that time about the perceived barriers to walking. Turns out that in auto-oriented communities, most people perceived the time it'd take to walk a distance as longer than reality. And when they found out a walk to a grocery store was just 12 minutes, they were surprised and willing to make it.

As Tomasulo thought back to his time in Copenhagen, where he learned to use bikes, trains and in many cases, his own two feet to get from here to there, he brainstormed a way to embrace pedestrian lifestyles and walkability. He began to design very simple brightly-colored signs that could be hung at important intersections informing people of the time it'd take to walk from one landmark to another.

He started at three intersections in Raleigh, and used common names for the landmarks. He hung the signs at eye level so they looked different than typical street signs. He began to solicit feedback. And that he got. 

The Atlantic, BBC, Bloomberg Business and more published stories that went viral globally. Locally in Raleigh, the signs (eventually, after they were initially removed) encouraged a change in law. Today they're sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

"It catapulted me into this whole conversation about how we are changing our approach to city building and policy development," Tomasulo says. 

Walk Your City Signs in San Jose
Walk Your City signs were hung earlier this year in San Jose, Calif. Credit: Walk Your City
It also aligned with grassroots community-building efforts happening in cities like Brooklyn, San Francisco, Chicago and others, and cities began to inquire about putting Walk [Your City] signs in their towns. 

Taking startup lessons into office

A key lesson from WalkRaleigh and now Walk [Your City] is a "test before you invest" model. Specifically, Tomasulo believes in test, iterate and prove before you invest. In too many cases, cities spend $100,000 to study something for a year and it becomes irrelevant six months later. He believes in a short-term inexpensive test in order to make a more informed decision.

It's "lean methodology to policy and place shaping," he says. 

A more recent example was The Wander Box, a pop up beer garden that happened last summer in front of the Contemporary Art Museum downtown. It was initially envisioned as a "Raleigh beach" to cool off on hot summer days. But he started with a scaled-back version, and it was a huge success. Still, regulatory hold ups prevented it from happening again this summer. Tomasulo hopes to find a way for the city "to operate in the gray area."

One city he hopes to mirror is San Jose. The city fast-tracked Walk [Your City] with participation from economic development, transportation, engineers and lawyers to get authorization in a week and signs hung in a month. Tomasulo calls that "exhilarating". In that month was the collaboration, troubleshooting and hacking that he so often experiences in the startup world. He hopes to bring that spirit to Raleigh city government. 

Tomasulo also believes in taking best practices and ideas from other cities. He's well traveled and connected due to his businesses, so he knows about Pittsburgh's use of land trusts and experimental housing prototypes to test new models of affordable housing and the way cities are using software like EsriCommunityViz and FLUX to help visualize the impact of development or collaborate with each other and/or citizens.

"I have this international network of knowledge—I get to go and meet the cities who are innovating at the national level and I see these opportunities I'd love to bring to Raleigh," he says.

Finally, he views residents as his best advisors just like a startup would lean on customers to provide product feedback. A goal is to build better connections with Raleigh residents by appointing people within the city's divisions to translate everything that is going on to the public. 

It would be that "customer support rep's" job to help the city and its residents "get to a yes," Tomasulo says.