District economic development officials were finalizing plans last week to attend the annual South by Southwest entertainment and technology festival in Austin, a trip they hope will heighten the city’s profile as a hub for technology entrepreneurs.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray was among the District representatives slated to attend events scheduled for this past Saturday and Sunday, including a D.C. tech meetup and roundtable dinner. (Capital Businesswent to press on Friday evening.)
“It’s really a way of saying we are open for business. We see technology as one of the areas where our city will grow in the years ahead,” Gray said in an interview Friday before a Saturday morning departure to Austin.
The trip is a significant step for Gray, who was still a new face at local technology events little more than a year ago. His administration has taken steps to foster the city’s budding tech scene as it hunts for economic engines beyond the federal government.
In that vein, the city hired a liaison to work directly with the technology community, provided grant money to establish two start-up accelerators called Fortify and 1776, and created a $32.5 million tax incentive for LivingSocial.
Before now, members of the local tech sector had done much of their own marketing, trumpeting D.C. as fertile ground for technologists looking to start or join young ventures. Those enthusiasts include Peter Corbett, the chief executive of digital marketing agency iStrategyLabs.
“We’re the ones trying to pull people in. We’re just citizens. And that’s been cool and organic and grass roots, but if the city tries to do more, formally and intentionally, I think that’s great,” Corbett said prior to the South by Southwest events.
Other local industry figures scheduled to attend were investor and Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein, Blackboard co-founder and former executive Michael Chasen and Evan Burfield, the co-creator of 1776.
The District’s recent renaissance — the decline in crime, boom in apartment construction and rise of more cosmopolitan neighborhoods — has helped make the city a more desirable place for young people to live and work.
Gray said he hopes that will serve as a selling feature for technology entrepreneurs and give the District an advantage when compared to Maryland and Virginia, which have long outperformed D.C. in attracting businesses.
“For decades the city has perceived itself as the federal city, and it is of course,” Gray said. “I think so much focus has been how the city pitches itself to the federal government that it hasn’t perceived itself as potentially being viable in other economic areas.”
While any form of economic development comes with risk, betting on young technology companies can be all the more so. There’s perhaps no greater example than the District’s own LivingSocial. The daily deal purveyor saw explosive growth in its earliest years, only to lay off 160 employees in the city and report steep loses last year.
(LivingSocial chief executive, Tim O’Shaughnessy, is the son-in-law of Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham.)
What’s more, the D.C. tech scene has struggled at times to retain some of its own entrepreneurs. A handful of start-ups have left for Silicon Valley, a mecca for technology companies, as well as New York, Boston and Las Vegas.
Participation at industry conferences isn’t a new effort for the city. For years officials have attended the International Council of Shopping Centers Convention in Las Vegas, a retail and real estate conference. The District sets up a large booth with meeting rooms there each year and sends a large delegation of public officials.
The District’s presence at South by Southwest will be more subdued and informal, organizers said. The festival is know for its laid-back, more-party-than-work atmosphere.
Keith Sellars, president and chief executive of the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership, attended on his own last year. The group is orchestrating many of the city’s plans there this year.
“It was like no conference I have ever attended,” Sellars said. “It was very energetic. The exchange of lots of ideas. The panels were very well put together, as far as the speakers and the content. Content kind of drove everything.”