Bring Different Innovation to Washington

A few weeks ago, I received a call from my friend Robert Neelbauer at about 11 pm. He wanted to talk about innovation and technology startups in DC. For those who live around here, you know there’s not a lot of them. Mostly project-type things that entrepreneurs who work day jobs have cooking. And of course, even though DC is home to Launchbox Digital an accelerator program in the order of Techstars or Ycombinator, there remains a dearth of Silicon Valley style startups.

This call got me thinking about the landscape in DC. It is, as it always has been, a center of government. Those of us who live here joke about the difference between Washington, the center of government, and the District, a wider culture of arts, nightlife and activity outside of government. The reality is, however, that the two are inexorably fused at the hip. Spending Friday nights enjoying nightlife inevitably means spending time among people connected in Washington, on Capitol Hill or other parts of government. It is difficult to live in this city without being part of the Washington-culture somehow. More after the jump.

3531416607_3e8e066127Today, with the Obama administration and its embrace of internet culture, the advent of “Government 2.0” has come about. Government 2.0, a term describing the second generation of government using the faux-fashionable way of versioning, describes an embrace of web technologies and culture to advance the mission of government. Without getting into my feelings on Government 2.0 as a whole (my thoughts are well-documented), it’s difficult to escape the reality of enterprise in DC.

DC is not a city lent to Silicon Valley-style innovation. We will never house the next Twitter and Google only exists here as a lobbying arm of the Mountain View, California search giant. It is a city dedicated to practical innovation. We will never have the sex appeal to attract the innovators in California here. It’s not our style.

What we do have is an opportunity for innovation as it pertains to agency mission. We do have the opportunity to develop products that meet the needs of elected government, established government and citizens in a time of economic uncertainty. We do have the ability to build products and services that meet the needs of Washington, but as long as we try to meet the needs of the country and the world, we run the risk of barking up the wrong tree.

Yahoo made a massive move last week, announcing a search deal with Microsoft. Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo, suggested that Yahoo could not compete with Google anymore in search and the deal would allow Yahoo to focus and innovate in the areas they could compete. If you haven’t been paying attention to me since 2007, then you would have missed my thoughts on this. Yahoo came to grips with the realization that they couldn’t compete with Google but they could own another niche. This is the same realization that DC has to come to for itself. We can’t (nor should we) compete with Silicon Valley. Besides the fact that they are dwindling in relevancy as the spotlight shifts to other cities and reasons, we have something they can never have.

And while Silicon Valley warlords aimlessly try to find their relevancy and foothold in Washington, we have the ability to use our real connections, our real knowledge of the inside-the-beltway world, and our real grassroots abilities that we displayed in getting our President elected to bring new and relevant innovation to government.

By the way, the first person who suggests government agencies need wikis and Twitter to be relevant, is banished back to California.

30 Replies to “Bring Different Innovation to Washington”

  1. Perhaps I have been spanning these two worlds…so my perspective is different but I want to look at one line you wrote and ask for a deeper explanation if I may:

    “Silicon Valley warlords aimlessly try to find their relevancy and foothold in Washington”

    From my meetings and conversations with these ‘silicon valley warlords’ I would say the following:

    a) They are not ‘aimless’. Rather, they are very purposeful and clear in their mission: to help our government better use technology – and therefore better the lives of all Americans. Perhaps they’ll make a buck along the way I suppose – which is very American as well.

    b) Their relevancy is obvious – they know how to drive innovation. Period. And DC needs that with a capital I.

    c) The foothold was taken long ago – they’re taking the LEAD because they’re qualified to do so, and they’ve been invited to the table unlike before.

    So my question for you is this: Why do you see this as an effort in battering down doors or an “inside the beltway” vs. “outside the beltway” issue?

    Nothing is begin forced here. What is occurring is simply the brightest and most talented minds coming together to make a better government. We should all applaud and support that.

    1. There’s a different story I’m working on (still sourcing) that will go into that further but I think your definition of “qualified” and mine are different.

  2. Interesting take Aaron – I think your sentiment is well taken by those in DC who Innovate in the government and political spaces but don’t have the next twitter or can’t figure out how to make a buck off of facebook.

    To expound on that, I think the start-up community is already quite vibrant here in DC.

    Where you say DC has the “opportunity for innovation” I would say there are many who have already embraced that opportunity, its just that those people don’t try to get written up on TechCrunch or get Sequoia money – which seems to be a big part of measuring success in the valley (clearly I am speaking very generally here but how many people say “venture-backed” with pride or have they’re techcrunch article linked in there email sigs).

    I think the startup community focused on “agency mission” products is here already, its just they aren’t as sexy as twitter, as profitable as google, or as widely used as Windows.

    For those who don’t believe me, head out to Tysons and check out all the 10 person offices who have massive contracts with the alphabet soup of government agencies ranging from Dept. of Agriculture to the NSA. On the political side there are numerous software and hard technology firms who were doing well before the “Obama technology revolution” and are killing it now. The non-profit “industry” (DC is the non-profit capitol of the world) is booming and going through a transformation where they need everything from donor CRM software to grassroots organizing to information management products that are tailored specifically to they’re unique needs.

    To sum it up, I think your article is right-on, but I think people have wanted DC to be like Silicon Valley when it came to prestige and fame, which you allude is not coming, and when that prestige and fame don’t come we call it a failure. Because of that mindset many have missed the vibrant community already here.

    1. I could be wrong but I think I’m generally pretty attuned to the tech world in DC. I can probably name 5 known successes in this city starting with Clearspring and not considering the Matchbox Digital companies. Is VC-backed necessary for success? Not always… but it’s hard to be nimble and move quickly (think about the 90 day window the contractor has to develop and implement the new if you don’t have money backing somewhere. So to that extent, yes VC or at minimum angel funding, is necessary to be a success in this environment.

      VC backed does not necessarily equate to TechCrunch-interested though.

      1. You use the phrase “known successes” and that is where I am driving my point – “known” should not be a pre-requisite to being successful and having a lot of “known successes” should not be the metric in which we measure the success of DC as a start-up town – which I think we agree on except for the last point?

        I think DC is already at the phase in which you saying it should be at – ” …the opportunity to develop products that meet the needs of elected government, established government and citizens.”

        Take Ben Venzke of IntelCenter (, probably few if any of us reading this post will ever use any of the products he pioneered but I guarantee we have all seen it. His start-up analyzes foreign news feeds for open source terrorist footage – most notably all the Al Qaeda video for the DoD and CIA. Using both proprietary and off the shelf technology along with his methods of analyzing video he has a blockbuster product that by all standards is as significant as twitter (in his field and definitely makes more money) yet isn’t as sexy.

        While IntelCenter isn’t known the pages of Techcrunch, Socialtimes, East Coast Blogging, or the WaPo Tech column and Ben isn’t a co-sponsor of TechCocktail nor a regular at NVTC and he doesn’t hire people he met at Socialmatchbox – sorry Robert : ) – he in my opinion is an embodiment of the success you speak of and is an example of dozens of other start-ups in the DC who are successful but may not be “known.”

        Anyways, I very rarely go Web 2.0 and participate but I think you make a very good point about DC’s startup community and glad to see you write it.

        1. I agree about internal innovation. It actually is happening. No doubt about it. The problem is that…. well there are a few problems.

          Without external innovation, the outside world is not encouraged by what they see… because they can’t see it.

          If the government was so good at innovating, we wouldn’t have a bunch of gov20 people, many of whom are internal, trying to figure out how to adapt.

          External innovation brings external dollars that are sorely needed when internal budgets are being slashed to make room for TARP and other stimulus activity.

          Fuck the blogs. I’m inside the Beltway (well, technically I’m about 1.5 miles outside, but you get my point). The blogs aren’t covering the potential here. They are covering the potential elsewhere because they are trying to be TechCrunch.

          My point remains. While the real juice will happen internally, we need the people who are not Clearspring, who are not Summize type people hoping for a SV-acquisition to step up and start thinking about this community – a government community – a start figuring out products and services that will meet real needs. Many of these innovators will need to come from the weekend warriors who innovate in evenings and weekends because they work for the government during the day. Many will come from people who formerly worked for the government. The people who have a clue how government works and can put a few ideas together to create a business model and a product.

  3. Innovation – other than weapons/tools of war – is *far* beyond the government. For every so-called “advance” they have, it’s attached to 5-6 setbacks like sharing static csv’s and calling them API’s or building an $18M “Web2.0” Sharepoint site. With all due respect to the successes of Corbett, the Apps for Democracy/America contests were nothing more than the government outsourcing innovation.

    I’ve talked with Seed/Angel investors – not all DC-based in the last couple years – and they have all been consistent about DC… that doing an Angel roud here costs 3-4x as much (minimum) because the dayjob people don’t want to leave their govt-contracting positions and take a risk. They want their same salary, the same benefits, and by the way, they want equity too.

    On the smaller startup front, we have numerous successes of small firms turning out great ideas and great products… but between the local media’s lack of interest – the Post said DC tech was going to die with AOL leaving – and the changing economic conditions, I wonder how much longer that will last around here.

  4. Good points Keith. I just want to be clear on one thing:

    I am by no means implying that GOVERNMENT will innovate. In fact, a couple hours ago I wrong the following:

    “You could also say that we’re very passionate about citizen engagement as we see the future of innovation being driven by citizens empowered by their government and other institutions to do great things. That’s what our experiment Apps for Democracy is about.”

    From this post:

    In my view part of Gov 2.o is about the government engaging citizens to let them innovate. If it takes some veteran Silicon Valley technologist to help break own the vaults – so be it. GREAT I say. We need to put the power and mean in the hands of the people as much as possible.

    1. It won’t be a veteran Silicon Valley technologist because they don’t understand the nuances of government. Period. Stat. End of day. Ask Craig Newmark, a guy I love and respect, how he fared at State. No don’t… it irks him.

  5. Aaron – great post. I would agree with others in that a community heavily dominated by individuals heavily focused on the recession-resistant government services industry isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m curious as to why you think this hampers innovation, or the Techcrunch-yearning consumer startup industry.

    Among many other reasons, it brings and retains a surplus of excellent talent. Having done a tour of duty in a gov’t consulting firm as so many others have in DC (including yourself), I know they have some of the brightest minds in tech. Yes, the golden handcuffs and the lifestyle it provides makes it hard to leave for a meager startup and “equity” – but it’s also the magnet that brings the talent to this area, and keeps them here.

  6. I don’t think it’s possible for Aaron to get what he seems to be stating that he wants (in this post).

    Much of it has to do with the risk aversion that Keith mentions. How hard is it to get fired from the government? How willing are most people to give up $120,000+ cleared jobs, unless they’re going to the next cleared job paying $130,000+?

    I grew up in PG county. I majored in electrical engineering at Howard. I grew up during the original Dot Com bubble, and mostly avoided the downsides of it. For the last 3 – 4 years, I have avoided leaving this area to pursue startup dreams in Silicon Valley, preferring to stay local and attempt to plug into “the scene” here. I found and attended many events, and will continue doing so, meeting many people in the process who are interested in growing the tech ecosystem of this region. (I’ve run into Rob, Peter and Aaron at various events, though they may not remember me.) What I have found is that, while the ecosystem is growing, it is still a shade of what is available or possible in the SF Bay Area. This fact saddens and disheartens me.

    Why is this so?

    Beltway Bandits.

    What Aaron seems to think are advantages of this area are, in my opinion, actually huge disadvantages. The “infrastructure” that exists here is about serving government, and not efficiently. It is about profit maximization, and exploiting the inefficiencies inherent in the machine which runs this local economy. That means keeping talent locked up in large companies behind the race for cleared people, where a monkey can gross 120K annually. (Heaven help you if you don’t have a clearance, or lose it. A girl I went to college with who is cleared told me that her firm stopped sponsoring people recently. Talent supply decreases while the demand increases. How is this efficient, considering this phenomenon is being driven by government? They are legitimizing and enabling being gouged by their suppliers.)

    It means providing the equivalent of technology custodial jobs. That means limiting the interesting and “cool” work to the people with the right titles, degrees or networks (e.g. those who attended the right schools or are members of the right political associations). It means being able to service GSA schedule and making sure your firm is 8A, minority or female owned, versus creativity, invention and innovation. It means academics who could and should be on sabbatical, starting companies or advising, employing their students, and participating in technology transfer INSTEAD putting their energy into getting government conslutting contracts. (No, that was not a typo.) I speak from experience, for I paid for 1.5 years of undergrad by providing Unix system administration to a professor with a hefty contract from NOAA or some other government organization.

    Now, this ecosystem is what it is. I accept that. However, there is little DNA in the government that fosters the kind of thinking that creates great tech hubs. With this kind of sclerotic, inefficient, uncreative thinking, what natural inclination is there for people to build companies at all? The few who do, who are at the nexus of innovation and government service, are usually there because they had the “right” something – network, degrees/titles, politics, etc. Since we don’t hear about those few, rare successes, there is no one to emulate or provider inspiration to others, never mind the lack of mentoring, advising and investing these people do. (Maybe this is due to the “secretive” and “national security” implications of their work, but there’s no transparency in that. Again, I get it, but it’s a strike, not a plus.) All of this energy is spent feeding this machine which, outside of select services that it is uniquely qualified to provide, does little to foster the kind of real technology development that will lead the national economy forward. Even in those areas, the spending has been and continues to be cut back and/or politicized, rendering it less effective. (Defense, healthcare, and I’m sure I missed some.)

    This is not a town where it is easy for a regular guy with ambition to pull off something great in the technology space (blogs don’t count), with the aid of a great supporting cast. The infrastructure – legal, VC, angels, entrepreneurs, dreamers, academics, advisors – just doesn’t exist here! Whatever “great” does come out of this area is obscured by all the political background noise, unsurprisingly. So I have to disagree with Aaron that it should be done, and even fundamentally question how possible it is to do. This is why I have started applying to firms in the SF Bay Area, after years of being in denial. It is possible for someone like me to make a good living here in technology, just like it is possible for a pig to fly – briefly – if given enough launch velocity.

    The funniest, and saddest, part is that many of the pieces are here but they are so focused on squeezing the Federal Government as opposed to actually creating something with and for a larger audience. The ecosystem withers as a result, especially Aaron’s idea, which requires thinking more akin to Silicon Valley than not.

    Anyway, I hope that makes sense.

    1. Totally makes sense. The contracting ecosystem is ridiculous and has been built by the bandits to serve the bandits over many years. Part of the Gov 2.0 movement, I think, should be about opening up the contracting vehicles to more than the few who have been “approved” – the Alliant 59 doing $50 BILLION dollars worth of business (at least).

      But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for outside innovators and I think assuming that the environment can’t be changed is defeatist.

      1. But Aaron, aren’t those outside innovators the ones you’re railing against? It sounded to me like you were ranting that the most unnatural of answers – innovation among the people already here, already tied to the system, already sucking from the government teat – was the answer.

        Yeah, that response was a bit defeatist. I don’t like being that way. I am still working on my own projects, working to foster so degree of thinking and action in the arena of innovation. I run my own personal hackathons with friends (when they bother to show up). You can’t imagine how this place attracts people who are either spoiled (being coddled by big companies) or risk averse (same), or both; those friends of mine fall into that category, which probably explains (partially) why they won’t even come out to work on new, cool stuff with me. (The one who came out most consistently just got snapped up by Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean. Doh!) I mentor students at Howard, working to spark their creativity and interest in entrepreneurship and technology. Not sure how well that works out, since many ended up on Wall Street prior to last year.

        We need more wins, first and foremost. We also need more visibility. We need more academics being involved, and transplanting the DNA back in their classrooms, among their students. We need a culture that isn’t afraid of failure, that isn’t interested in impressing people (women?) with their Rolodex, and really wants to create for the sake of creating. We need more money NOT tied to the government. VC money, M&A money, IPO money.

        This is a process. I’m glad Peter has taken up the charge. I would love to be able to do so, full time, but hey, a man has to eat. I’ve even kept my life simple a la Richard Stallman just so I can have the bandwidth to join “the next great thing”. But the path to “the next great thing” seems to point out of DC, at this moment in time. And let’s face it – this will take a lot of time. More time than this Administration will have in office. (I’m not entirely convinced they know how to stimulate and generate the necessary thinking either, just like the bang up job they’ve done on financial reform…but I digress.)

      1. Here’s what you can do:

        1) Don’t leave
        2) Build a community around you passionate about innovation
        3) Build a bigger voice through that community
        4) Bust down some doors
        5) Be the change – empowered by the old infrastructure – that you want to see

        Simple to outline it that way…but requires years and years of very hard work. We’ll get there.

        1. My only criticism of these points is time…

          Should someone spend time building their product/business (here or elsewhere) or spend time breaking down those doors? If you’re seeking (or have gotten) investment, it’s borderline irresponsible to spend a significant amount of your time on something that doesn’t have a direct and positive impact for your investors.

          I’ve had opportunities to move to NYC, SF, and Austin in the past 18 months. When comparing options, DC lost out every time except on community and my growing roots. Luckily, my current operations are location-independent for the time being but most don’t have that luxury/flexibility.

          1. Indeed.

            I can agree with Keith here. That would be irresponsible. The flip side of the coin is how long are you willing to wait to achieve your goal while busting down those doors and building your business slowly. Most people want to achieve a goal as quickly as possibly, not as slowly as possible.

            In my case, I’m tied to a lumbering employer while I search for new opportunities with dynamic, small firms. That explains why I’ve been with the same lumbering employer for so long. :(

            In fact, DC is the best place to be in this economy precisely because it LACKS the innovation these other places have. All these non-driving out-of-towners we see on the roads now are here because this place is growing – in that slow, government kind of way. They’re here to squeeze out their place on the teat, not to innovate or create. They’re not here for the pursuit of commerce and business, but in the pursuit of increasing the size of the welfare state, in some sense to get their piece of the welfare state.


            Oh well.

  7. Hi Aaron,

    You may want to look at the blooming Affinity Lab space, housed on 18th ST and soon to move to a huge new location on U Street, to understand start-ups in DC. This program/project/community has spawned many a tech entrepreneur. It’s not yet everything it could be but it is surely a starting point.

  8. Funny, with these massive internet innovation budgets in Washington – I am positive that some local talented programming and innovation agencies will flourish – simply because they are local.

  9. As one of those evil, lazy, overpaid contractors who actually does the work while 3 civilians who “supervise me” sit around chatting, I can assure you that the current civilian workforce doesn’t have the highly technical skills to do my job simply because the government does not do the training required to keep them up to date :-)

    1. Well, SC, it’s nothing personal, but all of your ilk AND those 3 civis are vampires, sucking the blood out of the innovation ecosystem here.

      As I said earlier, there are a few specific areas where government excels or is the only reasonable provider. A few. Maybe you work in one of those, but given probability, I’m going to bet against that. It’s just a matter of numbers. (Even those areas tend to be bloated, having more people being paid to do the work that fewer competent people could easily do. That gets into how to generate demand for competent people and not just warm bodies, and $$ and hiring are a big part of the answer in any field though other factors count for a lot.)

      I shed no tears for anyone who is automated out of a job, or otherwise unemployed by virtue of adding little value to the organization. Any organization, including government. Government is where talent goes to die.

      That said, I’m not sure Aaron ever came back to address the question of what he DOES want to see develop here. I think we get what he doesn’t want. Innovation around what this area is good at will not add a lot of value to many (most?) people’s lives. That’s why other industries need to be nurtured and built, and unfortunately, the best model (so far) is Silicon Valley.

      Aaron, have you another model for this region to emulate? If not, fine. But just saying “be different” without going into “how” or “in what way” or “here’s a vision” or “let’s conduct a thought experiment” leaves us where we were at the beginning. I’m thinking beyond the Gov2.0 space here. I’m talking about sustaining a nation, not just a geographic region. Let’s go big or go home. What do you, or anyone, propose to help create the country that we want and need, beyond Gov2.0?

      Oh, and SC, you may be overpaid, and probably rightly so. I don’t doubt that you should be getting what you get while those 3 civis are dead weight needing to be thrown overboard. Hey, it’s good work if you can get it. But government sucks the air out of the room, and that’s why we are how and where we are. How do we put the air back in the room?

      1. “But government sucks the air out of the room, and that’s why we are how and where we are. How do we put the air back in the room?”

        I would disagree with this just a bit… they don’t suck air out of the room, they fill it with flatulence and poison everything around them in a variety of ways. The new health insurance bill requires employers to track *every* employee’s coverage status As a company with limited resources, do you want to spend time/money growing and innovating or asking your staff personal health-related problems?

        1. Hmm, a bit graphic.

          Sucking the air out of the room meant sucking up resources that encourage growth and development of other industries, and thus innovation. Talent, personnel, energy, etc. Money chases the government instead of chasing opportunities to create. (To be specific, there is invention — creating something new where there was nothing before, creating in a vacuum — and innovation — creating on the back of something which already exists, building a new product/service out of or around existing products/services.) That is the problem with this area as an innovation center. The other industries don’t even really get a chance to be strangled by that flatulence and poisoned to death; they are stillborn.

          I can see that I’ll have to spend a lot more time working on OpenSolaris projects going forward.

          Any startups looking for a Unix sysadmin with 13 years of experience and who doesn’t want to move back to CA?

          1. This rhetoric only is valid if you believe that there is nothing beneficial that can come from the government ecosystem. While I agree with both you and Keith to a degree, I see the ecosystem around government as not only important but the catalyst for innovation (or invention). As long as you guys keep expecting innovation to look like someone elses innovation, then you lose. Take advantage of the rare environment that only DC can claim and all of the suddenly you realize that there is business potential here and, oh yeah as a bonus, you eliminate competition from most other cities.

  10. Khyron, thanks and good point on sucking up the good talent.

    Aaron, I don’t expect our innovation to look like anyone else’s but I don’t expect innovation to come from government either. I’ll give you a tip… there’s a reason why few startups form in DC or quickly flee for Virginia. Or why so many startups are fleeing California/SF for Austin.

    More so than ever, government is smothering these efforts. Whether it’s through new and creative taxes… er… fees or just ridiculous paperwork. For example, I get nasty letters from Virginia chastising me for canceling CaseySoftware’s workers’ comp insurance… which they *strongly suggest* that I have yet – as owner of the company with no employees – I’m not allowed to use.

    Or how Fairfax County requires me to submit an annual report detailing how much garbage I’ve thrown away (in pounds) and how much of it was recyclables and how much of that was actually recycled. And asking me to sign the form to attest that it’s all accurate and accounted for.

    Or how the State of Virginia requires me to submit a form *every month* detailing how many physical products I’ve sold, the cost of the physical products, and the sales tax on said products. I’ve submitted the forms for over 3 years with straight zeros. I’ve paid more in late fees ($10 three times) than I’ve actually paid in sales tax.

    And Virginia is considered one of the “best” in the region.

  11. During the time that this comment conversation has been going on someone from Chicago, who attended our community event for DC Startups on Thursday that most of us were attending, pointed out that DC has something on par with the bet of SF and better than Chicago. Read all about it here: – maybe we should be talking about the lighthouse effect instead of the government can see the light with the help of “social media” consultants, etc. Also, during the same time period Scott (above) and I managed to convince a web developer friend of his from CA to move to DC. One more thing. Austin has this bumper sticker that comes to mind: “Keep Austin Wierd”. I think DC needs to to be thinking along the same lines. A lot of great people are here, more are going to come here, and all of them are going to contribute to the overall ecosystem. Let’s spread the word about how DC is a great place for startups, techies, creative types, etc. and keep adding to the mix.

  12. I agree, DC is never going to be Silicon Valley. There are too many lawyers, too much regulation and constant media attention make it a pretty unforgiving environment for innovation. If you experiment and screw up, you’ll end up in the Washington Post.

    I’ve worked in government and there are pockets of innovation there that need support. These are talented people who could make government easier to use. And more efficient and transparent, which is in the interest of everyone who pays taxes. Two things need to change to make that happen:

    1. Outdated rules and regulations need to go. In government, there’s always a rule to stop you from doing something, whether it’s cookie policy, security concerns, privacy issues or some other obscure regulation. Many of these stultifying rules come from the age of the typewriter. They need to be updated. Personally, I’d like to see these all-inclusive rules replaced with some general principles, like Google’s, “Don’t be evil.”

    2. Leadership is needed. People take their cues from their department directors. Do they let people innovate or do they get nervous and scared?

    There are plenty of talented and creative people within government. They just need to be freed to do their jobs.

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