At the end of the year, Washington's preeminent technology networking group, the Netpreneur program, will fade away. It's a sign of the times: Netpreneur simply couldn't raise the funding it would take to keep going.
The program's executive director, Mary MacPherson, said in announcing the demise that she hoped some other local groups would take up Netpreneur's mantle. Meanwhile, other organizations are trying to figure out how to change to meet new needs of members.
Netpreneur disappears as the technology bust enters its third year. The local associations and networking groups left standing need to do more than survive. To compete for more valuable entrepreneur time and sponsorship dollars, they will have to transform their missions to find relevance in the changed world.
Some have begun to adjust. Schmoozefests have given way to resume-building workshops and hot topics have morphed from how to build a stock-options plan to the intricacies of corporate governance.
Still, in finding the best speakers, audiences need less "visionary" talk and more about "what I've learned," especially from people who have messed up and are willing to discuss it.
Some groups, such as Women in Technology, keep growing in number and always put on interesting programs. Others, such as the Indian High Tech CEO Council, seemed to peak a few years ago and have not quite figured out how to meet the needs of the day. Still, Indian High Tech was once the hottest networking group in the area, so perhaps it will figure out how to recapture its glow.
It will be interesting to see where particular parts of Netpreneur end up, if they do find a new home. The comprehensive and witty Netpreneur News, a weekly e-mail, has competition with Potomac Techwire and The Washington Post's TechNews Daily Update, but it specializes in the promotional and has an insider flavor. The Ad-Marketing list, run by Mitch Arnowitz, is read by those who are involved in the advertising and marketing end of entrepreneurship. Arnowitz put out a note to his group asking for suggestions about the mailing list's future.
Here's a totally arbitrary look at five networking groups in the area I think have a shot at being the most influential in the coming year. None has the unusual attribute of Netpreneur -- funding that came from one person, former software executive Mario Morino. Netpreneur's setup allowed it to be agnostic in terms of geography and mission. But it was easier to close when its benefactor decided to turn his focus elsewhere.
Mid-Atlantic Venture Association
Membership: Venture capital firms, service providers such as lawyers, accountants and bankers who work with young companies.
This year, the group was scandalized by the sudden resignation of its longtime executive director, allegations that she had taken money from the group's coffers, and a settlement in which the cash was returned. But MAVA's newly appointed executive director, Julia Spicer, is well known and connected in Washington technology, and she is likely to help the group to refocus on more positive issues. Spicer was most recently a vice president at Alexandria venture capital firm Columbia Capital. Before that she was a vice president at GTE.
Spicer will have the opportunity and challenge to shift MAVA from the go-go-days mentality of expanding venture capital to the current environment, in which funds are struggling and some firms shutting down. MAVA's signature annual event, a venture capital fair called Capital Connection, will be held in Baltimore this May, a nod to high tech in the next-door city.
Northern Virginia Technology Council
Membership: Technology companies of all sizes in Northern Virginia.
The NVTC is the granddaddy of the networking groups, and it still draws huge crowds to its breakfast seminars and evening events, such as this week's Tech or Treat banquet, which featured Gov. Mark R. Warner and the Capitol Steps. With 1,700 member companies, it has developed enough of a following and familiarity to keep the techies coming. Of all of these groups, NVTC has the best infrastructure to take over programs that had been Netpreneur's. The NVTC could use Netpreneur's shuttering as a chance to get more mid- and lower-level technology workers involved in events and make some of the gatherings more start-up-oriented. It's harder, however, these days to find successful role models to give speeches and inspire the troops. It would be even better to hear from some of those who have struggled, especially those who have failed publicly, on what happened and what they have learned.
Membership: Invitation-only for start-up CEOs.
Every month at the Tysons Corner Clyde's, several dozen start-up execs gather to share war stories. Mindshare board members who advise these companies include Mark Esposito of Nasdaq, April Young of Comerica Bank and Harry Glazer of Sherwood Partners. It's a rite of passage for young Washington companies to join the group and "graduate" after one year. Meetings these past couple of years have been more sedate than celebratory, but they are consistently one of the best places to identify promising new companies and hear the latest from-the-front sagas.
Washington DC Technology Council
Membership: Technology companies, primarily in the District.
This group, designed to showcase downtown tech, started strong but fell off the radar screen in past years. I've often been asked lately if it's still in existence. The group, however, could become much more important in the coming year. Like MAVA, the DC Tech Council soon will have a new leader, who probably will change the tenor of the group. When past president Charlotte Hayes resigned in August, the group appointed John Sanders, a local technology executive, to be interim president. It's now looking for a permanent replacement.
Membership will be one of the big challenges of DC Tech's new president. The group, which now has about 200 members, has seen about 100 drop out in the past three years.
Potomac Officers Club
Membership: Current and former top executives.
This group is the newest of the crop I write about today, although not the only newcomer in town. POC was founded by Jim Garrettson in January with the idea that out-of-work top executives needed a place to network on a high level. People who still have their jobs joined in, and the group has become a gathering place for the experienced. POC counts 200 members. Because the group emerged from the bust, the topics discussed are powerfully relevant, from the obvious job-searching tips to advice about how people running companies can get by on less. Last month, POC launched a resume-forwarding service in which those who are looking for positions can have their information sent electronically to 11 of the top executive search firms in Washington.
It's too soon to tell how successful POC will be with that service and its employment-focused gatherings. But in today's environment, networking with a clear goal in mind is worth all the wine and cheese in the world.
Shannon Henry's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.