DC Tech and Startups – Ready to Breakout

I attended the DC edition of Startup2Startup this past Friday. The details of the event and the panelist are on Eventbrite.

All of the panelist had a focus on early stage investments and engaged with their companies as angels or incubators. Since the event was focused on the government, Errol Arkilic of the NSF had the most relevant experience understanding the way it operated and how his organization functioned more along the lines of the private sector. Errol was proud of being able to do deals in four months to Dave McClure’s surprise, where he stated something along the lines, “I might die in four months.” More details about the event are on the GOAP blog.

The difference in perspective between celebrating or cringing at the four month investment cycle might be marked by Mark Walsh’s observation of the modus operandi of DC and Silicon Valley,

“The difference between DC and Silicon Valley is inertia versus urgency.”

That comment holds true when generalizing the DC area to be represented by the mega bureaucratic federal government. In the context of the event, it makes perfect sense. But I feel that it reinforces a stereotype of those who live outside DC, one perpetuated even by the event itself, that the only interesting innovations for this region are related to Gov 2.0 and helping the government adapt the ideas and models of Silicon Valley.

Having spent time in Silicon Valley and previously living in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and now DC since 2003, I could generalize each region, as DC is often generalized. There are typically truths in generalizations and stereotypes but they often purposefully and sometimes ignorantly miss the details to simplify or support a point.

Being in the weeds, I can tell you that innovation and entrepreneurship have been happening in DC well before Gov 2.0. It’s highlighted in the strength and success of groups/events like TECH cocktail (co-founded by local Frank Gruber), Ignite DC, Refresh DC, Twin Tech, The Capital Cabal, and Social Matchbox, as well as in people and companies getting recognition outside of this region. I believe the DC metro area is uniquely positioned to breakout from the pack and become an increasingly important area for startups and technology innovation…aside from Gov 2.0. Here’s why:

For those unfamiliar with this area of the U.S., read some background on what demographers consider the Washington Metropolitan Area. I’ll use “DC” to represent this region, which consists of parts of Maryland, Virginia (referred to as “Northern Virginia”), and Washington, D.C., due to their close proximity to one another.

  • DC has money. Five of the top ten highest income counties in the U.S. are in Virginia and Maryland, with three of those five in the top five. That’s mucho mula.
  • DC has talent. Georgetown, George Washington, University of Maryland, and American University represent the established well-known schools, while George Mason was recently selected by U.S. News and World Report as the nation’s top “Up-and-Coming School.”
  • DC has innovation. For the past five years, the DC metro area ranks as number six on the percent of startups distributed per state. LaunchBox Digital is a startup incubator program, much like Y Combinator, that just completed its second successful class of startups. The Northern Virginia Technology Council has 1,050 member companies and enterprises representing approximately 186,000 employees and is the largest technology council in the nation. And yes, we do have Gov 2.0.
  • DC has history. No, I’m not referring to the kind you find on the National Mall (that’s not a place for shopping, btw). Remember a little company called AOL? Maybe you are trying to forget about them or still using their CDs as coasters. No matter how you feel, they brought the Internet to the common man. Now, that was a world (or country) changing idea.

The growth in DC in the six years I’ve been here has been incredible. A massive project, which will continue to fuel this momentum, is the extension of the rail system to the Dulles Airport. The result will be easier access from the exurbs of Northern Virginia through DC proper and up into Maryland.

It’s an exciting time to live in this area. The foundations have been laid for DC to become a major center for entrepreneurship, startups, and innovation. Get in on the ground floor, or as close to it, while you still can.