Last week, when I started discussing the technology startup climate in DC (DC to Silicon Valley?), I started from a faulty premise, but not the one that trips up most. After reading a great historical analysis from SFGate and some further research and brainstorming, here's a slight correction to my previous post and some futher thoughts on how to improve things in DC.
Many people tend to peg the start of Silicon Valley to the foundation of HP in the infamous garage. True, the name wasn't attached to the area until 1971, so part of that is correct. Unfortunately, my linkage to the "Traitorous Eight" in the 1950's ignored the long and established history of the San Francisco region in the area of radio.
Long prior to the very existance of Fairchild Semiconductor – the creation of the Traitorous Eight – there was a vibrant tech community focused on and revolving around the creation and usage of radio. It brought brilliant researchers, government contracts, innovators, and investors from all over and began to sow the seeds for Silicon Valley. Oh, and this was in 1906…
I've already discussed what makes DC different from an investor/wealth standpoint, but I think there's also a fundamental difference in the mindset of developers and technologists in general.
First, while DC was hit by the dotcom bust, it wasn't hit nearly as hard as Silicon Valley. Yes, lots of us lost jobs. I know a number of people who were out of work for a long time. There's no dispute on either of those points. The difference is that throughout all of that, the government was still hiring and it was always a safe place to find a job. Not a criticism, I weathered the worst of it (2001-2003) with the Feds and don't regret it for a moment… it taught me what I don't want to do. But it tends to make developers a bit nervous about diving in again. Getting a government job can be difficult, keeping one is easy.
Next, the demographics are different. At my first company here – a company focused on providing tech services and development for the government – the average age was 47. At my first project there, my boss said "I have guitars older than you!" and all of his kids were older. Equating grey hair and expertise could work in many fields but in technology it's always the same. Worse, there are groups of 20-somethings around, but the vast majority of them work on the HIll and are policy-types. Many can tell you the value (or evil) of entrepreneurs/business but few have been there and tried that.
Next, most of us have been burned once or two. The environment around DC attracts people focused on Law and Public Policy, not on technology or actually running a business. And almost every one of these people has an idea. Some are good, some are bad, but the people behind them often lack the skills and experience it takes to bring the business-side to fruition. I can't remember how many "X% equity stakes, you do the development, I'll do the marketing" I've been offered over the years*. I've done two which were complete failures and currently in a third. The first guy had no clue, the second was even worse.
* Disclaimer: Last month, I took an equity stake in a startup. The decision was a hard one, but it was based on a number of factors including the CEO obviously "getting it". Pot, kettle, yes.
Finally, some of our developers just don't get business and networking. We've been swimming in the concepts and technology for years but the business types are only now being exposed to the concepts. They are just learning about it, generally don't get it, but are interested in learning. As people who understand these concepts, we have to educate and acknowledge that giving away a bit of our expertise isn't a loss… it's an investment in your business and your network. If you stay away from people because they're not in your field, don't understand your business, you will miss out on more than you can imagine…