By Kim Hart
Monday, January 26, 2009
Just after 4:30 on Thursday afternoon the first cork was popped and cups of wine were passed around to riders of the bus. Then came the chips, the cookies, the beer.
Making stops in Reston and Tysons Corner, the bus shuttled about 50 technology mavens based in Northern Virginia to the third Twin Tech party at Lux Lounge in downtown Washington. The three-story building was nearly bursting at the seams with more than 2,000 area tech executives, entrepreneurs, software developers and investors, along with the lawyers and marketing and business development folks who wanted to meet them.
The biannual Twin Tech parties have quickly become must-attend events for technology professionals since the first one was organized last year by Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs and the Northern Virginia Technology Council to try to merge the start-up scene with the government contracting community.
But with so many people crammed into the nightclub, mingling through the crowd and having audible conversations was difficult. The bus riders, who originally signed up because they didn't want to deal with traffic and parking during rush hour, said the best networking opportunity was on the hour-long trip down Interstate 66.
"I think it really capitalized on the fact people would need to get in from the suburbs," said Shashi Bellamkonda, whose title is social media swami at Reston-based Network Solutions. "People got a lot of value out of it, and I'm always a big proponent of public transportation." He sent messages on Twitter and took photos on his cellphone during the trip.
The shuttle was organized by Larry Roe of Leverpoint, a software outsourcing company; Cheryl Dickison, who heads business development at digital marketing firm R2integrated; Elizabeth Shea, co-founder of public relations firm Speakerbox; Bob London, who runs marketing firm London, Ink; and Marc Gonyea of Memory Blue, a Fairfax lead-generation company.
They each invited up to 10 people to go along for the ride, and Reston Limousine provided the bus.
"If you meet someone once or twice, they may recognize you or remember your name, but it's the 10-minute conversation and the ability to tell your story and what you do that makes the difference," said London, who drove from Maryland to take the bus ride into the District.
He called the bus a "mobile hospitality suite."
"I was dead-set on not going at all" to the Twin Tech party, said Jeff White, founder of MySBX.com, a site that enables government contractors to exchange business opportunities. He changed his mind when Dickison told him about the bus. "It's way more of an intimate setting that lets you have meaningful conversations rather than promiscuous networking."
Once the bus departed from Reston, White and I had a chance to talk about his eight-month-old company that matches contracting firms with subcontractors. It's like an online dating site for government contractors. Large firms that need a smaller company's help on a project can use the Web portal to find consultants with the necessary qualifications. For example, if ManTech needs to find a subcontractor owned by a woman or veteran to work on a contract for NASA, the site provides possible candidates.
Many large contracts require the winner to partner with smaller or minority-owned firms to ensure that business trickles down from the biggest players. But finding companies that have the necessary technical skills and security clearances for particular projects can be daunting. And for small firms, getting noticed by the dominant contract bidders is a significant challenge.
White said the ailing economy has driven more companies to experiment with the site, as a lot of commercial firms are trying to break into the government sector for a more reliable stream of revenue.
"It's a bewildering task if you don't know where to start looking," White said.
The site launched in May and now lists more than 1,000 companies, ranging from firms with 40,000 employees to one-person shops. Last week, MySBX.com signed Lockheed Martin as a client.
White founded Blue Canopy, a Reston-based government consulting and information technology firm, in 2001. He's familiar with how hard it can be for a smaller firm to find projects through the top-tier contractors, and how costly it is to have employees "sitting on the bench" due to a lack of billable work.
White sold Blue Canopy in 2005, and the company's new chief executive, Bradley Schwartz, is a co-founder of MySBX.com.
Companies such as Lockheed often miss bonuses and other opportunities because it doesn't meet its small-business goals, White said.
"Now I'm watching all these companies come together that never would have found each other before," he said.
Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.