Washington Post

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The greater Washington business community is suffering from the story it is telling about itself, that it is in an old-fashioned government town, dependent on federal contracts, and lacking innovation and fresh ideas.

The reality is very different. Over the past six months, I worked with a multidisciplinary team of data scientists, economists and entrepreneurs to critically and objectively describe the state of technology entrepreneurship here for the 2030 Group, a civic and business organization working to plot a new path forward for the region’s economy.

Our findings suggest much more possibility. Since 2004, this area has created more new businesses than have parts of the United States commonly considered entrepreneurial hotbeds. Over the past 20 years, our region has had the largest number of companies on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing businesses.

This is a place where entrepreneurs, employees and investors are generously rewarded for growing successful businesses. Over the past 20 years, 6,000 businesses have been sold in the region, including 105 deals with sales prices exceeding $1 billion. Business sales create significant wealth in our region for subsequent investment.

This good news is mitigated by the reality that…

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As I take part in panel discussions on the investor’s perspective on startup financing and growth, it strikes me how formulaic these events tend to be. A group of investors provides insight to a room full of rapt entrepreneur attendees. Sometimes the entrepreneurs get to ask questions, and sometimes they don’t.

The power dynamic is fascinating: We the investors share our knowledge and the audience is there to listen, and, if they are able, to pitch investors on the panel for a brief moment. But, only if we let them.

Investors are in the driver’s seat, and that is the accepted norm. The person with the gold makes the rules, indeed. Yet I see this very same dynamic when entrepreneurs are the experts; they are on panels because they are “successful.” Success generally being defined as someone who has grown a large business and sold it — often for a very high, life-changing amount and using investor capital. Again, those with the most money are respected.

It makes me wonder. How have we ended up with an entrepreneurial ecosystem where the center of the discussions are gatekeepers with the money?

My own experience in the venture industry might…

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According to a recent Harvard University poll, 51 percent of millennials in America don’t support capitalism. The respondents didn’t have a specified alternative such as socialism, communism or otherwise. They just didn’t like capitalism. This struck me as highly revealing.

For years, our nation defined itself by what it was not. We emerged into the world as a counterbalance to monarchy and aristocracy with our democracy. We defined ourselves by our political lives. Over time, democracy became the dominant organizing rule book for much of the world. Democracy won.

Competition between nations became a struggle of capitalism – largely supported by democratic institutions. And the struggle was against collectivism – whether it was fascism, communism or socialism.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s move toward a more capitalistic approach to economics, the world has not provided a competing economic ideology to capitalism. Capitalism won.

Even socialist approaches to organizing economies generally have capitalist aspects to them — especially if they wish to engage in foreign trade and share economic prosperity. The ideological belief that capitalism was the best type of economy became …

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A local “overnight success” (17 years in the making!) is being acquired for $1.65 billion by a leading private equity investor and its story is chock full of lessons for business in this region.

The best time to sell a business is when you are not looking to sell, and that was definitely the case for Cvent. The price per share offered in this deal — a 69 percent premium on the trading price immediately prior to the deal announcement — demonstrates just how much the buyer wanted Cvent. First lesson for entrepreneurs to remember: The best time to sell a business is not when you say it is, but when the market says it is.

Cvent is also a story of individual entrepreneurial success. The company was born during the Internet wave of the late 90s and managed to survive the subsequent downturn in the venture capital markets and engage in a long-term strategic growth plan. This is a lesson in the power of sticking to a plan and grinding it out as an entrepreneur.

Chief executive Reggie Aggarwal is a terrific example of how the entrepreneurial characteristics of commitment, optimism and failing upward combined to help him lead his business to this point. Aggarwal was resourceful, irrepressible and willing to be accountable — and he still talks candidly today about devastating failures that…

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There’s a general consensus that in the future, our region’s jobs will largely mirror today’s. However, my work with tech innovation has convinced me that the future is going to be very different from what we imagine.

Education and infrastructure needs will be challenged in significant new ways and even entrepreneurs will have their worlds rocked.

Advances in robotics and software are already eliminating human jobs. Banks are phasing out tellers in favor of kiosks that use intelligent software. In Europe, a convoy of autonomous trucks recently completed a cross-European trip without human intervention. Amy Ingram is all the rage; she is an artificial intelligence-enabled app who organizes meetings for a growing number of small businesses.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are developing business models that center around using DNA to build new life forms, or as a medium for data storage to replace magnetic hard disks. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson compete to create new businesses to transport tourists to space, while Boeing and Lockheed Martin develop tourist habitats for spacefarers. Facebook and others will unleash virtual reality later this year and, closer to home, Inova in Fairfax is making strides in cancer treatment on a personal genetic level.

All of these technology trends, and many others, are well under way and have taken root. Quite arguably, our society will…

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The greater Washington region has an accelerator problem and we have to fix it if we want to grow the next generation of technology businesses.

A business accelerator is a term used to describe a broad range of business models that share characteristics: assisting a founder form a new businesses through mentorship, partnership connections, access to related expertise (for example, how to set up a limited liability company or a sales team) and access to investors.

Many accelerators get equity ownership, licensing revenue, rental fees or membership dues from the fledgling businesses. Accelerators tend to be of more use to inexperienced start-up founders since experienced entrepreneurs often already have the skills and networks to cultivate a smart idea.

Steve Case, one of the region’s most forward-thinking innovators made headlines last month by teaming up with others to invest $7.2 million in start-up incubator 1776. Accelerators help businesses scale while incubators often focus on innovation. Both are life-lines for many brilliant young local companies, and we should be doing more to follow Steve Case’s lead.

Because accelerators and incubators serve…

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A friend of mine asked me to share my opinion on where the current presidential candidates stand on entrepreneurship. It struck me that despite the 24/7 political coverage, there is surprisingly little information to be had on this topic.

True, there is some campaign talk on topics entrepreneurs should care about such as lower taxes, less regulation or immigration reform. There are plenty of red meat issues being provided by both sides of the political spectrum that are emotive and many of them are expressed through a prism of business and entrepreneurship. For example, references to “job-killing regulations,” or universal college education to create an educated work force are uttered often by politicians campaigning for a job in the White House.

Even though those issues definitely relate to an entrepreneur’s life — taking a stance on them is very different from creating policies that support and reward risk-taking, small business formation and entrepreneurship.

This matters because most job creation in…

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I interviewed more than 100 entrepreneurs over the last few months as part of research into how our region can stay ahead of the curve in tech and innovation in the decades ahead.

I started with a simple question — yet heard surprisingly divergent answers.

The lack of uniformity concerns me, now more than ever. After all, there are terrific opportunities for our region when it comes to the application and development of technology. We have proven that we can literally make billions of dollars in this sector. However, to truly succeed in reaching the highest goals, we must first have consensus on what we are building towards.

The variability of answers is instructive. One entrepreneur even quipped, “Why are we even talking about ‘D.C. Tech’? Technology is everywhere. Companies with chief technology officers baffle me. Isn’t that kind of like having a chief electricity officer? It’s meaningless.”

Most of the interview subjects agree that…

 

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ROME — “Déjà vu all over again” is a phrase attributed to Yogi Berra, the Yankee all-time great. He uttered it watching teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs repeatedly.

The malapropism was strangely apt as I walked through this Italian capital during a short holiday last week. It is a beautiful city, and one that I recommend highly for a break. Surrounded by the ruins of a 2,500-year-old culture, it got me thinking about our society and our democratic system.

We have a tendency in the United States to see ourselves as unique and exceptional. Different and better than all who came before. Yet spend some time wandering through the ruins of the Roman Forum, or the catacombs below the Coliseum, and you will realize we are not all that unique.

Everywhere in Rome, there are echoes of a highly advanced society similar to our own. Gladiators were backed by entrepreneurs, who trained them to triumph in the Coliseum. Romans lived in apartment buildings, and ate out at restaurants…

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Few topics in the world of entrepreneurship are subject to such meaningless nonsense than the concept of failure. You’ll know what I mean if you have had to sit through a glib TED Talk glorifying failure, or listened to a start-up savant tell entrepreneurs to “fail fast.”

Failure is not something to be sought, nor is it something to be trivialized into some sort of mantra. Failure stinks. Makes you sad. Keeps you up at night. And, is always a possibility when you are an entrepreneur.

Being an entrepreneur is to know that feeling of arriving home at the end of a horrible business day and thinking to yourself, “I cannot feel any more beaten down than I am at this moment.” And then, after a good night’s sleep, returning to the office the next day and realizing that you were wrong the night before. It is…

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