Washington may be a government town, but it's becoming something else, too: an entrepreneurial haven.
Across the region, tinkerers are in their basements dreaming up high-tech firms, government workers are leaving jobs to hang out their shingles, immigrants are building businesses that help the immigrant community and professionals of all kinds are finding new ways to make a living on their own. Most of these hopefuls have nothing to do with the government -- but everything to do with the entrepreneurial fever sweeping the nation.
The national boom in business start-ups saw almost 900,000 companies created last year, according to the Small Business Administration, up from 725,000 in 1991. But the Washington area has become a particularly active market for entrepreneurs, with groups of all kinds popping up to help them, serve them and finance them.
"Whereas 15 years ago I would have characterized this area as a very transient, government-oriented town, it's about the exact opposite today," said Suzanne Richardson, president of FBR.com, the online arm of the Arlington investment bank Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. "Today, you have young people who want to work here and it's a very dynamic atmosphere."
The most powerful force in Washington's start-up culture is, of course, the high-tech firm. Washington is rich with former employees of government contractors with knowledge of communications or technology, and many have the itch to do it themselves. The rapid ascension of companies such as America Online has injected yet more potential entrepreneurs into the area.
There also is a growing list of investors willing to finance and coddle these infant companies -- like FBR, which is one of several groups in the area starting high-tech business "incubators" where start-up firms can learn and grow.
But the drive to start a business here goes beyond bits and bytes.
"No matter what goes on with technology, there will still be the nuts-and-bolts businesses," said Linda Bolliger, founder of the Small Business Incubator, which will open next month in Adams-Morgan to house and help businesses in the fields of day care, hospitality and, of course, technology. Bolliger said she hopes to offer services in both English and Spanish.
Local business information centers -- operated jointly by the Small Business Administration and regional economic development offices -- also are teeming with hopeful business owners looking for advice. Often, it's the most basic stuff they're looking for.
"We're seeing, I'd say, almost unsurpassed demand for assistance into our centers," said Bob Wilburn, business development director for Virginia's Department of Business Assistance. "The big one is always money, `How do I get money?' "
What follows are six stories that illustrate the challenges, the pressure, the excitement and sometimes the disappointment that face all entrepreneurs as they try to build a business.
FOCUS ON SMALL BUSINESS
In Washington Business ...
Next week Washington Business debuts a column exploring the challenge, risk and excitement of starting and building a small business. We will delve into this burgeoning segment of the economy through the experiences of entrepreneurs, while capturing their perspectives on business, money and life in general. Know a business or an entrepreneur with a great story? E-mail Presslerm@Washpost.com.
... on the Internet
Go to washingtonpost.com each day this week at 1 p.m. to participate in one-hour discussions with Post reporters and old hands in the world of business start-ups.
Margaret Pressler hosts Jonathan Silver, a Georgetown University business professor who owns the Commonwealth Fund, which invests in local start-ups.
Judith Evans talks with Scott Shane, associate professor of entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, about how to match skills and interests with the right franchising opportunity.
Picking a Partner
Sarah Schafer hosts Peter Wylie, a local psychologist who counsels entrepreneurs.
Leslie Walker hosts David Gladstone, vice chairman of Allied Capital Strategies and an active angel investor. He's the author of "Venture Capital Handbook."
George Hager talks with government relations consultant Rick May, who was chief of staff for the House Budget Committee under Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio).