Florida Ave. incubator Geekeasy offers office space, camaraderie for startups

October 9, 2011

The technology incubator on Florida Avenue is a no-frills kind of place. ¶“Hi, welcome to Geekeasy,” Jamey Harvey says into his cell phone. Harvey heads up the office, but tonight he’s doubling as the receptionist. The incubator doesn’t have one, and someone needs to let guests in for the open house.

“We’ll be right down.”

Many incubators in the Washington region are housed within universities or organized by municipal governments and economic development agencies. Geekeasy, however, is a startup in and of itself, with all the uncertainties that lie therein.

The idea was born during meetings with the city’s digital enthusiasts as Mayor Vincent Gray (D) transitioned into office. Harvey, an entrepreneur, and a corps of other organizers repeatedly heard there was a need for cheap office space where upstarts could cohabitate.

“You begin to have a group of people around you that believe in your vision with you in a way that makes you brave enough to do it,” Harvey told a group of about 20 visitors last Thursday evening.

The incubator has just begun fielding applications from startups that will pay a monthly fee that varies based on their space needs. Drop in and grab a chair for $30 a month or have a private office for as much as $1,200.

But like any startup, the endeavor comes with the risk of failure. Without government funding or other financial support, the incubator will close if it can’t pay rent when the property owner, Douglas Development, sends a bill.

“If we’re not at break-even pretty soon after 90 days, the space won’t survive,” Harvey said. “There have been people talking about an incubator for years. We’ve basically taken a chance. We’ll bootstrap ourselves, and entrepreneurs are the right people to do that.”

The office isn’t a lot to look at, at least not yet. Housed in the historic Manhattan Laundry building, Geekeasy shares the property with charter schools and a nonprofit. The decor feels retro with glass-block walls, purple carpet, and peach and white paint.

The space comes free of charge for the first three months as the incubator gets off the ground and attracts participants. Douglas Development then will begin to charge an “aggressively low” rent.

Tech firms have brought success for Douglas in the past. District-based daily deal purveyor LivingSocial has swallowed up office space as it grows. Online backup service SwapDrive also expanded before being sold to Symantec in 2008.

“We’ve seen explosive growth from some startups in technology,” said Norman Jemal, principal at Douglas Development. “I can’t tell you how many companies started out in spaces of ours where it was just a few people and the growth was outrageous.”

For a developer, that’s the business proposition. Free space and cheap rent now could give way to more business down the road should one of the startups go on a tear.

“He knows what that means for the ease of filling space,” Harvey said. “It’s a pretty savvy business decision on his part if it works out, and if it doesn’t, he’s built some goodwill.”

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.
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