4 Things We Learned About Building Tech Communities at #PTW2016

Posted May 10, 2016 by office

Greetings from Philly, the City of Brotherly Love, and home to many of the tech industry’s movers and shakers at Philly Tech Week 2016. The week-long event ran from April 29 to May 7, and included some of the nation’s most influential technology leaders.

This year, we hosted an exciting panel, From Philly to DC: Building Powerful Tech Communities, in partnership with Philly New Technology Meetup at MakeOffices Center City. At the event, DC tech leaders discussed learnings from working in DC’s unique ecosystem that can be applied to the I-95 Corridor.

Our powerful speaking lineup for the event included: Tiffany Thacker, Senior Director of Technology and Entrepreneurship, Washington DC Economic Partnership (WDCEP), Alan Clifford, CEO, Galley Foods, and Jereme Holiman, Co-founder, UrbanStems, and Shana Glenzer, MakeOffices CMO, founder of DCFemTech, and DC Tech Meetup organizer. The panel was moderated by Mike Krupit, co-founder of Philly New Technology Meetup and CEO/co-founder of IntroNet.

In case you missed it, here are 4 things we learned from the event:

1. DC and Philly startups rely on the strength of the tech community

Tech is an underdog industry in the government- and policy-focused Washington, DC area. To compensate, startup founders and innovators in the area have a bond, and often rely on each other for support and mentorship. The strength of DC tech lies in the community and camaraderie of the network.

When asking startup founders why they chose DC, Tiffany Thacker of WDCEP notes, “the answer that I hear most often is that DC is a very inclusive and supportive city,” and that “as the community has grown, more resources have become available. There are mentoring programs, there are coworking spaces…which also helps to grow the community that supports each other.”

Shana Glenzer, whose DCFemTech coalition of female leaders helps foster an inclusive community, and whose involvement in DC Tech Meetup brings the innovation community together, agrees. “I find [DC] to be a really accessible town, and if you excel at what you’re doing, you’re able to rise to the top and make the connections you need to either find funding or find the support and the people that you need to get you through when the times are really hard.”

Rather than being daunted or deterred by the government industry dominance, the tech community – and GovTech startups – actually help tackle some of the city’s biggest challenges. The Federal Government, added Tiffany Thacker, “really tried to capitalize on that and our DC tech community has grown around that presence.” The connections due to the proximity of the most influential government officials in every sector is something that would only be possible in a city like DC.

Like DC, Philly is also a very connected tech city, making building a network easier than expected. In these “underdog” tech communities, startups form connections and camaraderie, which is far more beneficial than being in competition with one another.

2. Off the beaten track can be the best decision

There are benefits to founding a startup outside of the tech hubs of San Francisco and New York. Acquiring funding and attention in an oversaturated city can be near impossible, so DC and Philly, as up-and-coming tech scenes, can be better cities to start off in. UrbanStems co-founder, Jereme Holiman, decided to move to DC to start his company, knowing his home base in NYC would be a tough market to infiltrate. He says, “When we did finally launch in DC, all the other startups were so helpful in guiding us.” Going to the less-saturated Mid-Atlantic region helped to increase brand awareness when just starting off.

The smaller DC tech community was also able to band together to promote itself at the South by Southwest Festival, which started off small and grew within the last couple of years. The festival, added Tiffany Thacker, “allowed us to not only market DC’s technology companies, but it allowed us to provide them a platform to market themselves.”

Others are also following suit and promoting cities in off-the-beaten-track locations. Alan Clifford added that with many companies doing great work in major metropolitan areas outside of Silicon Valley and Manhattan, influencers like Steve Case – recently through The Third Wave book tour – have been working to gain recognition for these startups.

3. Be open to unexpected possibilities

Help can come sometimes from unexpected places. Panelists said that funding and support sometimes came from people outside of the tech scene and was made possible by keeping an open mind to the diversity of industries and backgrounds. “A big part of fundraising for early-stage startups,” added Alan Clifford, “is starting to be less and less traditional institutional firms…it is starting to be more of people who are genuinely interested in what the companies are doing.” He added that sometimes it’s worth the risk to go out and find those who have never done a startup investment before. They just might be willing to take a chance.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help – even from the government. To help make running a new business in DC more affordable and to attract new companies into the city, the government offers great incentives. Tiffany Thacker noted, “the DC tech incentive really is an attractive incentive program for DC tech companies…it offers $10,000 wage reimbursements, 0% corporate tax, and relocation reimbursements for new employees.” Additionally, there is a mentorship program with over 100 veteran serial entrepreneurs who help early-stage startup founders connect with investors in the area.

Creating a network of supporters, mentors, and champions can be a daunting task no matter the city. By learning from those in similar industries and those well outside the technology sector and building community, startup founders can find success. None of this can happen in a vacuum of isolation – strength lies in the unexpected benefits of the network.

4. Embrace the city you’re expanding into

When expanding to a new city, it is important to understand the fabric and tendencies of the area, and to embrace those qualities rather than trying to fit in a mold that won’t flex. Alan Clifford of Galley Foods noted that finding a General Manager for his Philly location was a quick process because of the highly qualified pool of talent in the area. When hiring GMs for his Philly location, Jereme Holiman cited on-the-ground recruiting as his preferred method. One of the qualities most crucial in a potential GM would be the innate understanding of the city and what its people need.

When SocialRadar – Shana Glenzer’s previous company – expanded to Philly, it was easy to map out the CEOs and influencers in the area and understand the tech world due to the inherent connectivity of the community. By bringing the local community from DC to Philly together while expanding, the panelists were able to understand the city and raise awareness for their companies.

Startups from the DC area as well as the surrounding Virginia and Maryland areas have adopted a holistic view as a unified tech community. With high-profile exits from companies in the Virginia area, startups have embraced the funding and innovation, uniting as a larger region. Big exits often help bolster the community and keep it going. There are challenges and benefits that come with each city, and understanding the landscape can help spur success.

Connecting with like-minded individuals through networking outlets like Philly New Tech Meetup and DC Tech Meetup is a great way to find support. MakeOffices’ coworking space and monthly events can provide a supportive community in DC, Philly, Chicago, and beyond. Interested in scheduling a tour or learning more? Book a tour today!