Startup DC to entrepreneurs: Don’t just network, do something


Jonathan Aberman from Amplifier Ventures tells D.C. entrepreneurs to seek partnerships with large area corporations. (Creative commons licensed from Flickr user Lisa Byrne)
February 1, 2012

Speaking at Startup D.C. Tuesday night, United States Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra marveled at how fast-thinking Internet entrepreneurs can improve government services.

During a Jan. 17 meeting with the San Francisco cloud communications firm Twilio, Chopra mentioned that he and Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, were hosting a showcase of apps for veterans the following day. Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson asked Chopra if the company could hold a developer contest and submit the winning entry to the showcase. Chopra was initially apprehensive because of the quick turnaround, but he agreed to let them try.

Twilio immediately tweeted the challenge, and within an hour, San Francisco developer Tony Webster submitted Hero Jobs, an app that helps veterans find job openings for their skills.

“How many of you will build education apps that kids can download for help with math problems they don’t understand?” he asked the room of entrepreneurs, investors and D.C. policymakers. “Please, innovate at the intersection of policy and these markets.”

Startup D.C. is one of the 17 regional branches of Startup America, the Obama administration’s push to provide resources and funds for people who start businesses, and was part of the flurry of events held to celebrate Startup America’s one-year anniversary this week.

Elsewhere, Startup Virginia announced Tuesday morning that it was launching a branch. Startup Maryland is preparing to start its own in the coming weeks.

At Startup Virginia, Steve Case, the former chief executive of AOL and chairman of the Startup America Partnership, told an audience at George Mason University that the Washington region has grown far more hospitable to high-growth companies since he helped build his Internet company in the early 1980s. The investment dollars he sought from Chicago, Toronto, Silicon Valley and other pockets of the country can now be found here, he said. Case also used his time behind the lectern to advocate for policy changes that he and other business leaders have said could promote entrepreneurship, such as granting visas to foreign-born students who graduate with advance degrees in math, engineering and science.

Working is better together

Collaboration of all kinds—between groups of entrepreneurs, between start-ups and government services and between small and big companies—emerged as a theme at Startup DC, which was held at the co-work space Geekeasy near U Street. The event consisted of seven-minute talks by speakers outlining ideas on how to ramp up Washington’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The group then voted on the ones they liked.

As the government trims its budget, Microsoft director of innovative engagement Mark Drapeau suggested that federal agencies might turn to entrepreneurs for solutions to public problems. He introduced something called the National Piggy Bank, currently a beta site, as a platform for entrepreneurs to take a crack at issues like safety or environment and to receive funding if their ideas are adopted.

Other speakers proposed establishing better venues for entrepreneurs to gather. Currently, there are dozens of groups for entrepreneurs and developers in the region operating on the meeting site Meetup, but traffic and space constraints dictate that any given meeting is inconvenient for at least part of the community.

University of Maryland doctoral business student Robert Vesco proposed that entrepreneurs work with the city to make downtown D.C.’s MLK library the official new entrepreneur meeting point.

“You can get there without having to get on the Metro,” he said. “And since attendance at the library has been declining, D.C. is having discussions about what to do with it. We can make this a public space for tech and entrepreneurial meetups, gatherings and clubs.”

One of the most pronounced needs for collaboration is between local entrepreneurs and large, well-established companies, said Evan Burfield, co-founder of the tech consultancy Synteractive and chair of Startup D.C.

“We need large companies to look to start-ups in the region as providers of technology,” Burfield said in an interview. “We need them to communicate what their needs are, because we have a lot of innovative people who can help.”

To that end, Jonathan Aberman, an investor with Amplifier Ventures and chair of Startup Virginia, said entrepreneurs need to stop networking with each other and get into real, directed discussions with large businesses about working together.

“D.C. entrepreneurs don’t need more networking,” he said in an interview. “The only way to solve this is to get CIOs to give round-tables and seminars about what their tech needs are.” He proposed reverse venture fairs, in which large companies could present their tech roadmaps to entrepreneurs.

Because small companies are more likely to be bought by large companies in their same geographic location, he also suggested that D.C. entrepreneurs should build applications that target prospective local acquirers, not Silicon Valley ones.

“A lot of local entrepreneurs don’t realize that they’d be better off building a company that would be interesting to Marriott and not Google,” he said. “Why would you build something that would be attractive to someone halfway across the country rather than across the street?”

Capital Business staff writer Steven Overly contributed to this report.

E-mail Olga Khazan here. Follow Olga and OnSmallBiz on Twitter.

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