It’s been a little over a year since we held the first DC Tech Meetup, and a little over a year and a half since we launched ProudlyMadeInDC, which can be considered a catalyst for the Meetup. One can confidently say that everything has been up and to the right with all aspects of the greater DC startup ecosystem; more startups, thriving startups, investments, acquisitions, M+A, etc. For actual community resources, we’ve seen a lot of that grow. New events and organizers are coming about, and new people are attending them all the time, with demos getting better and better. It’s remarkable how I can walk into a DC Tech Meetup (which, thanks primarily to the hard work of fellow organizer Peter Corbett, is now one of the biggest meetups in the country), or a Lean Startup meetup and the first reaction that pops into my mind is how many unfamiliar faces there are.
More recently, I’ve pulled back a bit as my primary focus is putting all my passion and energy into making Contactually “blow up” to quote Paul Singh. We still operate ProudlyMade, which continues to grow despite having never spent anything in marketing, and generally really sucking at PR. I still assist with DCTM, and help run each show. I have no regrets about pulling back, as I believe the best community organizers are those who are deeply entrenched in the startup battle. It’s also great to see new resources pop up and provide a lot of auxiliary support for those in the greater community.
There has been a lot of attention among the entrepreneurial blogosphere towards fostering strong startup communities, as more and more “hubs” pop up, galvanized by the knowledge that a startup can exist and thrive outside of the Valley Mecca. As I think about my involvement and passion for growing a strong community, and what would provide the biggest returns for the region in the little amount of time I’m able to provide, that leads to what I believe the primary goals are for a community, and what DC needs.
What qualifies a strong community?
More startups going through the full life cycle – inception, prototype, funding, pr, growth, liquidity, recidivism.
A swirling pool of talent, jumping into and among nascent and growing companies.
A strong support base of resources, professional services, investment cash.
An active sense of community and camaraderie among founders and employees. Whatever will end up with the first-time entrepreneur with the glint of an idea in his mind to connect with the battle-hardened serial entrepreneur/investor and get enough of an ass-kicking to get him on the right track (Glen, Aaron, I love you guys).
What should the priorities be for the community as a whole, especially any self-proclaimed “leaders”?
Kill the wantrepreneur. Whatever it takes to get the guy with an idea off the sidelines and into the game. Vet their idea, help them find their team, give them the crawl-walk-run(thanks for letting me steal your phrase, John Casey) steps they need to take, with a “I’ve been there, let me help you” attitude.
Build better companies. Help those already on the path, and their companies, kick ass. Throw resources, mentors, investors, press at them. And ask for nothing in return, other than hoping they pay it forward.
Keep swirling and feeding the talent engine. Connect those hiring with those looking. Get people out of their government/corporate cubicles and into startups, sometimes even before they gradute. Encourage them to take a risk. At the same time, build confidence that if a startup fails, that’s not game over for the employees and a sign that they should run back to their golden handcuffs. If you know that you can easily attain an open position in any number of thriving startups, you have enough of a safety net to take a bigger risk with your own.
But what can do more harm than good?
Event overload. Already if you look at Ross’ excellent and long running DCTechEvents, every night is loaded with events geared towards entrepreneurs. While networking is great, and the content is always a value-add, the best thing one can do is work on your startup. I’ve found the the best events inspire me to the point that I end up leaving early, hungry to get back to work. When people ask me why I don’t go to many events at night anymore, I normally respond by saying that the best thing I can do for the DC community is ensure Contactually is a success.
Incite dependence on resources. Again, there’s a trend that going to an event and talking to one of the organizers will be your solution. I can maybe point you in the right direction, give you some advice based on my limited experience, and if I can think of a possible introduction, make it. But I’m not going to help you find your cofounder. I’m not the one to judge your idea. I’m not the one who will spend my day helping you, solely because you happen to be in DC. I and many others have recently become overburdened with requests like this. More than once I’ve been confronted by someone at an event, furious that I can’t find them a ruby instructor, or that unicorn-like technical cofounder.