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The Download: Two moms, a persistent problem and a budding business

When Lisa Friedlander and Ilene Miller decided to go into business together, the Bethesda residents read that entrepreneurs should look to tackle problems they’ve experienced firsthand.

With five young children between the two of them, these moms-on-the-go didn’t need to look very far.

“One of the things that kept coming up over and over and over again was this whole process of finding and scheduling after-school activities for kids,” Friedlander said. “Not even the Yellow Pages ... had every Montgomery County provider of after-school activities for kids.”

That’s the gen­esis of Activity Rocket, an online directory for parents to find child-appropriate activities, schedule them and share them with others. It began three weeks ago for Montgomery County residents and has attracted 2,500 unique visitors to date.

The process of starting a business wasn’t always smooth, even with their backgrounds in law. The duo spent six months on the business plan and they met with nearly 100 mentors or prospective users to assess market demand.

From left to right, Rep. Jim Moran, Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Secretary of Technology Jim Duffey and Opower co-founder Dan Yates cut the ribbon at the energy software firm’s headquarters. (Steven Overly/Capital Business)

The added demands of managing a busy suburban family also weighed on the women, a balancing act that they said many mother entrepreneurs have to learn. Still, Now that their company is off the ground, they see opportunities to expand into new jursidictions and age groups.

“We were fearful of what it would mean to green light this project, and we just looked at each other and said we weren’t going to know until we did it,” Miller said. “Ultimately there is just a moment when you have to jump.”

Bang the gong

The growth story at energy software firm Opower can be told through the large, Indonesian gong that hangs in the company’s Arlington headquarters. It has moved with each office expansion and gets rung whenever the firm makes a new hire.

And that gong is always ringing.

Opower cut the ribbon on its seventh and eighth floor offices at 1515 N. Courthouse Rd. on Friday. The firm has long called the office building home, but has slowly enveloped more space as it’s grown.

The 42,600-square-foot space was designed entirely by in-house staff who worked with architects on structural elements, but chose the furniture, wall colors and light fixtures themselves.

Like many technology companies, Opower’s office features an open-concept layout with desks clustered to gether and small conference rooms for collaborative work. The wall-to-wall windows offer sweeping views of the District, including Georgetown University and the National Cathedral.

The company now counts 200 employees in Northern Virginia with an additional 30 in San Francisco.

The company licenses its energy software to utility providers that in turn make it available to homeowners who want to monitor their energy consumption.

The software is set to be in more than 10 million homes by year’s end.

Done deals

Investors at Vienna-based Grotech Ventures and the District’s Revolution led a $13.25 million round in New York-based GramercyOne, a software firm that provides tools for spas, hotels and gyms to manage clients and bookings.

Grotech associate Bobby Ocampo said investors were drawn to the company’s software because it solves a problem that they’ve seen businesses encounter after running discount deals with LivingSocial, another portfolio company.

Establishments typically see an influx of patrons after selling a deal on the Web site, which can create logistical headaches for the business owner in terms of managing inventory and client demands.

“A lot of these businesses don’t have an all-in-one solution to do all the things they need to do,” Ocampo said.

The deal was one of two that Grotech inked recently. The venture firm also led a $1.2 million investment in Georgetown-based WiserTogether, an enterprise software firm that aims to help corporations lower their health care costs.

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.



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