Loudoun meet-ups help high-tech entrepreneurs share ideas

September 26, 2012

It was almost 6 at Sweetwater Tavern in Sterling, the end of the workday for many of the restaurant’s patrons. In one corner of the bar area, about two dozen people had gathered, in attire ranging from jeans and untucked shirts to dark business suits.

Over the din of the happy-hour crowd, one could hear snippets of fast-paced conversation peppered with terms such as “destructive technologies,” “online-enabled,” “bootstrapping” and “angel investors,” suggesting that these people were still on the job.

This was “Idea Fusion,” an informal meet-up of high-tech entrepreneurs, most of whom are based in Loudoun County. Idea Fusion is one of a growing number of local meet-up groups that have been organized recently to bring entrepreneurs together to share ideas and experiences and to meet business advisers and potential investors.

Meet-ups such as Idea Fusion are a natural fit in Loudoun, which is widely viewed as a technology hub because it’s close to the high-tech corridor around Dulles International Airport. But, until recently, the county has lacked networking opportunities for high-tech entrepreneurs.

Susan Henson spearheaded Idea Fusion in partnership with Loudoun County Economic Development, the Town of Leesburg and venture investor Dennis Webb, to pull together several meet-up groups. Henson is the regional manager of the Mason Enterprise Center for Leesburg and Loudoun, a business incubator affiliated with George Mason University.

Technology entrepreneurs Tom Coleman, left, and Ryan McGeary at an Idea Fusion meet-up in Sterling. Until recently, the county lacked networking opportunities. (Jim Barnes/ For The Washington Post)

We’re “trying to really pull some synergy around various meet-up groups that have very similar goals in terms of trying to have a place where technology entrepreneurs and innovative entrepreneurs can come together,” Henson said.

Webb, chief executive of Broadlands Capital, started one of the meet-up groups, Loudoun Startups, in the spring.

“I see a lot of [business] start-up activity in the D.C. area and the Baltimore area and Montgomery County, and I’m not seeing as much in Fairfax County and Loudoun County,” Webb said. “I kind of questioned, ‘Why is that?’ So I started a meet-up group back in May.

“I think we’re seeing some demand,” he said. “We don’t quite have the organization yet, but I think we’re all working toward that end.” He said that he had invited his Loudoun Startups group to attend Idea Fusion.

Ryan McGeary, 33, a software developer and consultant based at Mason Enterprise Center’s business incubator in Leesburg, said that he came to the meet-up to collaborate, meet people and network. He recently developed software called BusyConf that helps conference planners organize speakers, scheduling and registration.

“A lot of the best connections you have, or the best business generators, are sometimes the weak connections, not necessarily your best friend,” McGeary said. “It’s more along the lines of the person you met at the one particular gathering knows somebody who knows somebody.”

Like Webb, McGeary started a meet-up group for technology entrepreneurs, 9starts, based in Leesburg.

“Basically, we talk about our ideas; we talk about our business plans; we talk about challenges we’re having, and just bounce ideas around,” McGeary said.

Webb said that meet-up groups provide a good setting for investors to meet entrepreneurs who are just getting their businesses started.

“One of the functions of [Idea Fusion] is to get together people with the ideas with the doers, with the financial supporters, and bring all that together,” Webb said. “I just haven‘t seen that forum exist until we started Loudoun Startups.”

Afterward, Henson said she felt that Idea Fusion had met its objectives.

“I felt like people were very engaged and motivated to talk with each other,” she said. “As soon as one attendee came in and told me who they were and what their interests were, I was able to steer them to someone who could be of potential benefit to them.”

McGeary said that he met someone at Idea Fusion who had been part of a very large conference planning committee and who offered to give him advice about his conference organizing software.

Business consultant Bill Hornbeck said that he met potential partners for a new venture at the meet-up.

“Our mutual interest moved to a serious discussion, which led to an agreement to fix the first planning session date,” Hornbeck said. “Had I not attended the . . . gathering, that connection would have definitely been delayed or lost forever.”

Jeff Thorner of Piedment Investment Advisors also thought the event was worthwhile.

“There’s nothing like meeting other entrepreneurs and talking about great ideas,” Thorner said. “When there is a passionate entrepreneur executing on one of those ideas by starting a business — which is one of the hardest things to attempt, by the way — you can see and feel the success coming.”

Henson said that the events have been successful partly because they allow a free-flowing exchange of ideas between technology-savvy entrepreneurs who are “of similar minds.”

“We’re [also] looking, in the next few months, of pulling together an Idea Fusion speaker series in which we would probably do a little networking, and also have a successful entrepreneur who could come in and talk about their experience and answer questions from fledgling entrepreneurs,” she said.

For information about Idea Fusion or other meet-ups for entrepreneurs, contact Susan Henson at the Mason Enterprise Center, 703-466-0466, or go to http://mec-leesburg.org.

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