1776 Cofounders Open Up About the Purpose of Their DC Startup Campus

October 21, 2013

11:00 am

Tech Cocktail is a partner with 1776 for their Challenge Cup competition. 

In July, a long and intense debate arose over the role of 1776 in the DC Tech community. 1776 is a coworking and education space, incubator, and accelerator that was founded in January and received $200,000 from the DC government.

Glen Hellman, a local management consultant, angel investor, and sometimes Tech Cocktail contributor, ignited the debate with a post called “What about DC’s 1776.” Among his criticisms: the government funding could have been better used elsewhere, and 1776 isn’t providing much that isn’t already available in DC. Responses to his post accused 1776 of overshadowing other DC Tech institutions and claiming to represent DC Tech without enough input from the community.

In short, everyone debated, did DC Tech need another coworking space/incubator/educator? Was creating 1776 the best use of resources to help DC Tech?

But I think those are the wrong questions to ask, because they assume that the goal of 1776 is to help DC Tech. And while 1776 is helping DC Tech in many ways, its overriding vision and mission is slightly – but importantly – different.

The goal of 1776 is to help particular sorts of startups make use of the resources that DC has to offer. In regulated industries like education, health care, and energy, 1776 says, DC is the place to be. Embassies, lobbyists on K Street, and major corporations converge in Washington because it’s where the laws get made. Startups in those fields should be in DC, too.

“This isn’t fundamentally about building an incubator platform for DC; it’s about building a platform to really help startups around the world access what is unique about Washington as the nation’s capital,” says cofounder Evan Burfield. “And if we did that right and we did it well, it would ultimately have a tremendously positive effect on startup activity in the region, but it’s an indirect play more than a direct play.”

As such, about 60 percent of the startups at 1776 are what they call “regulatory hack” companies, disrupting regulated industries. Over 100 of the 400+ applications they received were from non-DC startups. If their goal were simply to help DC Tech, they would be more focused on DC and less focused on particular industries.

Community

Seen in this light, the criticisms can be addressed more clearly. 1776 may be an aggressive marketer, but much of the audience they’re marketing to is different from the audience of other local hubs like PunchRock, Affinity Lab, and Canvas. Burfield often talks to corporations who have never heard of the DC Tech Meetup, and mentors who never participated in the DC startup scene before. 1776 has hosted delegations from Germany, New Zealand, and China, and its cofounders often travel internationally to make connections. Only a small portion of 1776 members identify as “DC Tech,” Burfield says. In his view, 1776 is looking for attention in places where others aren’t, not taking over the spotlight.

“We were networking with ourselves, we were figuring out how we helped each other instead of opening up our horizons to saying, ‘What other swim lanes exist in this community and how can we draw from those other lanes to make our lane larger?’” says cofounder Donna Harris.

Burfield adds, “For the Washington, DC, region to really maximize its potential given the assets that it has, it can’t continue to be that the startup community is kind of a cool, underground thing. It needs to become central to the business fabric of the region, and that’s a different kind of visibility, it’s a different kind of engagement.”

And even where they do overlap with other DC Tech institutions, says Harris, there’s plenty to go around. As former managing director of Startup America, she knows there are hundreds of startups trying to grow in DC and more that could be done to help them. She says 1776 is happy to partner, collaborate, and promote other members of the community. “We certainly by no means think that we are the only place in town that people can get help,” says Harris.

As for the question of whether 1776 is trying to be a “hub,” the answer is yes – but not the same kind of hub that other organizations are building. A hub for DC Tech would be a place where everyone in the community goes to meet. But the hub that 1776 is building – a hub for tech in DC – is also a place where outsiders go to understand what’s going on. And those outsiders include not just visitors from other cities and other countries, but people from different industries ranging from health care to government.

“We didn’t necessarily say, ‘Hey let’s create a hub for DC Tech,’” Harris explains. “We’re really pleased, though, that what we’re creating is creating a hub that brings the ability to convene the community and bring more attention to the community.”

Funding

1776 critics wonder why the DC government invested in another coworking space. That’s a question to ask the government, Burfield said in his long response to the debate. But (my opinion now) it’s highly possible that the government wasn’t investing in just another coworking space. 1776 is selling itself as the middleman between startups and the regulated industries, a goal that could draw many startups to DC if it succeeds. And that’s surely something the government wants to encourage.

To set the record straight, Harris also emphasizes that the government funding is only a small portion of 1776’s backing. It was used as a deposit on their 15th Street space, and corporate partners have since contributed around eight to ten times that amount. 1776’s sustainability doesn’t depend on future government grants, but on donations from corporate partners and rental fees for its events space.

Some criticized the ability of Burfield and Harris to run a fund – something that’s in the works – but that discussion seems premature until the details are revealed: who exactly will be running it, how it will be structured, etc. Apparently, details are coming soon.

“There’ve been a couple of stories published about the fact that we’re launching a fund, and the only thing I could say there is that the facts in those stories are not accurate,” says Harris. “But we’re not yet ready to talk about the exact structure of what we’re doing.”

Conclusion

While 1776’s raison d’etre is not to help DC Tech, it’s clearly one of the side effects and something they think about. Each time a visitor comes, 1776 gathers relevant startups in a roundtable to meet them; when media come knocking, 1776 refers startups to be quoted in the news. Organizations who help startups can rent out 1776’s events space at a reduced price, and 1776 is working on a virtual program so non-members can take advantage of their educational programs.

“This is not about Evan and Donna marketing for Evan and Donna’s sake,” says Harris.

Asking if 1776’s goal should be to help DC Tech is a pointless question. You could ask the same of all the other startups in DC: if they care about the community, shouldn’t they be focused on promoting it instead of working on their own goals? I think the confusion happens because 1776’s mission is similar to helping DC Tech, and they invoke the community in their marketing. And perhaps that’s a valid question: should 1776 change the way they market themselves, with less emphasis on DC Tech? Perhaps. Or even better: is there more that 1776 could do to help DC Tech that wouldn’t detract from its own mission? Those questions are more valuable than debating whether it should exist or not, because it does.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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