The DC Startup Complex

Over the weekend, a fellow DCian and friend – Jimmy Gardner – asked a simple question that I've been kicking around for a while. Since he put it so eloquently, I'll use his words:

There is obviously a lot of good things happening here in the DC area with regards to our local tech community and some of the startups that are being born out of it. But I can’t help but feel that many of us here have developed a bit of a complex, whether we know it or not.

This was just a couple days after Aaron Brazell aka Technosailor said something else that sparked my interest:

As I made the drive home from DC back to Baltimore, the phrase “Grow Where You’re Planted” kept turning over in my mind. You may not particularly like where you’re at, but you can make a difference in the community that you find yourself in. My take away for the weekend is that, as social media types, you should be doing everything in your power to get out of yourself and help the community grow.

When I got to DC in July 2001, the area was in bad shape. It wasn't quite the bottom – more layoffs and 9-11 were both still in the future – but the tech community was minimal. I happened to find NoVaLUG pretty quickly but that was about it. Fast forward a few years to 2005 and the hardest part of the slump was over. Everyone was hiring, rates were going back up, and groups – both technological and entrepreneurial – were springing up all over the place. I've done my part by making introductions, sharing events and groups with others, and organizing things like the DCPHP Beverage Subgroup. Yes, it's exactly what you think it is. 😉

Despite everyone's ideas, interactings, efforts, etc, the one that is stil missing in the investment. There are a few happening here and there, but just a fraction of other places. In my pitching and discussions for WhyGoSolo, we've been told on an almost weekly basis that we'd have better luck in San Francisco, NYC, Boston, or a variety of other places.

Then LaunchBoxDigital shows up with the mission of encouraging startups in DC or at least bringing them here. I thought "finally, something that can potentially drive interest and investment in the DC Metro area! Woohoo!" Then their first investment came out… Lookery, based in San Francisco. Even more ironically, it appears that their recruiting in San Francisco is facing difficulties and they've branched out to people in Boston and DC…

Can they fund companies elsewhere?

Of course, they'd be dumb not to take the best options available to them.

Can they gain credibility in the DC Metro area this way?

Not a chance. This just serves as another reminder (and encouragement) that DC is not the place to be to get funding and/or the attention a startup wants and needs. Even more damaging, it could create the perception that LaunchBox's requirement that startups move to DC for 12 weeks is actually damaging…

So I guess in summary… do DC startups have a complex?

Personally, I think so.

First, our community is still embryonic. While I can't put a firm date on when it began – mid-2006 is a reasonable guesstimate – but I'd say things have really caught fire in the past 9+ months.

Next, there are asinine policies like Maryland's new "computer services tax" that discourage investment and involvement there.

Finally, there's the steady drumbeat explicitly telling entrepreneurs that DC is not the place to be… whether it's the Washington Post lamenting the end of the DC tech community with the AOL move or a local incubator investing elsewhere.