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Networking Franchise Ready to Hook Up City Circuits

By Kim Hart
Monday, March 2, 2009

There's no shortage of events in the Washington region that bring together tech-minded people to mingle and hopefully make deals. But once they arrive at a crowded venue and obtain a frothy beverage, how do they make sure they meet the right people and get the most out of the evening?

Frank Gruber and Eric Olson, who put on Tech Cocktail events in various cities, held an informal "town meeting" last Thursday in Adams Morgan. It was the 19th event the duo had organized -- the fourth in Washington-- and they realized that it was time to figure out the next steps for the franchise they've created in cities such as Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati and Boulder, Colo.

"Our whole point is to help amplify what the local scenes are doing," said Gruber, product strategist in AOL's social media group and the author of the SomewhatFrank blog. "But I know we need to do a better job of connecting other cities and get some cross-pollination going on."

Gruber, who lives in Arlington but spends a good part of his time traveling across the country speaking at Web 2.0 conferences and meeting techies, said he hopes passionate attendees will become "ambassadors" to take some of the pain out of meeting new people at the events. After all, engineers aren't always the most outgoing on the tech party circuit. He spent a lot of time making introductions so that everyone might be part of productive conversations.

A few deals have come out of the gatherings. Gruber met the founders of lifestreaming service Socialthing at a Boulder event. It was acquired by AOL for $6.8 million in August.

"You know, 70 percent of the people here just want to get some beer, but there are some people who really want to help the community," said Nicholas Tolson, who runs DeGeeked.com, a site that gives answers to technology questions.

Start-ups including DubMeNow, GeniusRocket, OtherInbox and SB Nation demoed their services at Thursday's event. It was broadcast live through UStream.

Tolson said there should be other get-togethers between the semi-annual parties to promote business planning and idea exchanges. Maybe even a softball team?

"Hey, if a softball team comes out of this, that's great," Gruber said. "Who knows, maybe you'll even hit a few home runs."

No pun intended.

New Class of Businessmen

Across town, another shindig was underway at the Verizon Center. As the Washington Capitals played for a sold-out crowd, the new class of MindShare, a yearlong, invitation-only crash course for promising entrepreneurs, held a kickoff party.

Just before the game started, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis shared a few words of encouragement to the group. It was difficult to hear the elevator pitches over the sirens with each goal scored on the rink below, but I met about a dozen of the 51 chief executives who are part of MindShare's 13th class.

Some, like Shane Lundy who founded online advertising service Sponsor Select in Germantown, officially hung their shingle less than a week ago. Others, like Chantilly-based PC Recycler founder Jeremy Farber and D.P. Venkatesh, chief executive of mobile firm mPortal in McLean, have been in business for eight years. They started their companies during a recession, so they're used to tight budgets.

So, are they worried about the ailing economy's effects on their businesses?

"Nah," Farber said with a shrug.

"It's not like we had to get rid of our corporate jet," Venkatesh said.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

During a visit to our office last week, a few board members of the Arlington-based National Venture Capital Association gave us their assessment of the region's entrepreneurial community. When asked why Washington hadn't reached the stature of Silicon Valley or Boston, the venture capitalists hailing from those high-tech areas said it was largely due to a cultural difference.

The local economy is stronger than most areas of the country, so many engineers and other tech-oriented workers opt to find other jobs instead of going out on their own. But perhaps the largest difference between workers here and in larger tech hubs is a general aversion to risk, they said.

"The idea out West is, if you haven't had a few failed companies, you haven't been trying hard enough," said Ray Rothrock, partner at Venrock in Palo Alto, Calif. But in Washington, he said, people are less willing to give up a steady paycheck.

Dixon Doll, general partner at Menlo Park, Calif.-based DCM, said entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley also are willing to take stock options in lieu of a sizable salary.

But a few local venture capitalists say the Washington region is making big strides.

"Some of that may have been true in '98 or '99, but engineers out West are still asking for enormous salaries," Mark Frantz of RedShift Ventures said. He added that local salary demands may be a reflection of the fact that this region is home to a few of the wealthiest counties in the country. "There's a perspective of keeping up with the Joneses."

He said investors from other regions may not be investing as much in Washington because the region has a more mature venture capital industry. Last week's entrepreneur boot camp put on by the Business Alliance of George Mason University was "standing-room only," he said. "What part of that implies there aren't entrepreneurs?"

Julia Spicer, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association, said local technologists see opportunity in the new emphasis on broadband access, health-care information technology and green IT. "Those are good matches with the legacy sectors that have been big in our area," she said.

John Backus, managing partner at New Atlantic Ventures, said the community is simply younger than others.

"It's a matter of time," he sad, "not a matter of attitude."

Kim Hart writes about Washington's technology scene every Monday. Contact her at hartk@washpost.com.

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