In contrast to the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneurship story involving recent Stanford graduates living off ramen and working nonstop out of their subletted Palo Alto apartment, the founders of D.C. start-up Spinnakr trace their origins to the area’s consulting industry.
Co-founder Mike Mayernick peeled off from federal consulting, having been an analyst at BearingPoint, and co-founder Adam Bonnifield was a digital political consultant who ran a political Web development shop and led Internet strategy for a congressman. The company, which seeks to optimize interactions between content and specific audiences, hired as its first employee 2011 Georgetown law grad Blaire Jones.
The D.C. tech community, arguably, has suffered from the younger child syndrome, living in the shadows of its more popular counterpart the Silicon Valley. There’s been a lot of discussion lately on how to spur growth in the D.C. tech community, largely centering on how to replicate the Silicon Valley model.
But following Silicon Valley’s example would be a mistake because D.C. has many unique qualities of its own that put it on a course to experience a future boom.
Some policymakers and tech entrepreneurs are seeking silver bullets to unleash the community’s potential — framing as obstacles things such as stronger university engineering departments in the region to foster tech innovation and even more tax incentives.
But are these people aware that D.C. has the highest number of lawyers per capita of any city, the most master’s degrees per capita and the second largest number of computer science degrees after New York City? What D.C. lacks in a breeding ground for traditional technology entrepreneurs, it compensates for in its ability to attract and aggregate the brightest people in the country. The combination of smart people feeling disempowered in their stated profession, along with an increasing flow of resources for building technology companies is powering the D.C. tech boom.
Yes, Washington is positioned for a sustained tech boom. From government regulation, to the availability of angel and venture capital, to its unique labor market, D.C. has all the essential pieces in place.
The D.C. government has signaled its intent to listen to the needs of the tech industry. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recently proposed the Technology Sector Enhancement Act of 2012, which would create a competitive capital gains rate. While the bill has not yet passed, committee hearings are moving forward. Moreover, the D.C. area is home to more than $1 billion in venture capital, and about 9 percent of the nation’s angel investing.
Those are positive developments, but here’s the main reason why this area will grow: Washington is full of young people with an alphabet soup of advanced degrees and sky-high aspirations. For many years, this combination of education and ambition powered the government and supporting services sectors. Now as millennials start seeing entrepreneurship as a real career path, and as other industries become less appealing, we’re beginning to see their migration to start-ups and the resulting boom of D.C.’s technology ecosystem.
For entrepreneurs, there are no more obstacles, no more silver bullets to seek. Washington is a petri dish cradling all the right ingredients. From labor to capital, from regulation to ecosystem, D.C. has the core things right. Now it’s time to get working.
Allen Gannett is a partner at Acceleprise, a Washington-based enterprise technology accelerator. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Allen.