What I Learned From Researching the DC Tech/Startup Community

When I applied to UCDC, the program that let me live in DC for a few months and intern here at Spinnakr, there was only one thing listed on the cons side of my Pros/Cons list: a 20-25 page research paper.DC Flag

  • The good news: I could write about anything I wanted.
  • The bad news: I could write about anything I wanted.

As a student, the freedom to write about anything is both a blessing and a curse. It’s great to be able to choose a topic that actually interests me, but it’s hard to think of something that I’m 20-pages-passionate about and that translates well into academic writing. I thought it best to bring my experiences at Spinnakr into the research so I settled on this:

An ethnography of the DC Tech/Startup Community that compares and contrasts it with Silicon Valley’s. Also (because I’ll take any opportunity to do so) I planned to analyze whether generational influences were apparent on either coast. Specifically, I wanted to investigate whether Gen Y values permeate the DC startup scene since it’s so young and new.

After 2.5 months of research, a survey, some interviews, daily observations, DC Tech meetups, Social Media Week, ladies-in-tech lunches, intern coffee dates, and countless articles, I’ve learned a lot and come to some interesting conclusions that are briefly outlined below.


Washingtonian tech & startup people are wildly prideful. When I spoke with Adam about what he saw as the biggest differences between DC and The Valley, he explained that DC is much like a liberal arts college – it’s not too publicly acknowledged, but students want everyone to know how amazing it is so they rep it like crazy. Every DC Tech meetup I went to reaffirmed the startup community’s appreciation and respect for itself.

If you stopped a random stranger on the street to talk about tech startups, chances are they would associate the term with Silicon Valley, right? Well, I think DC-based startup people are out to change that. The #DCTech pride here reminds me of rappers who claim their hometowns as their own through their music – they want to both boost the image. The startup community is making a name for itself by innovating and churning out incredible products and services, and they’re not doing it quietly either.


Circle Of Trust

The infamous circle of trust…are you in or out?

Picture yourself as a new parent who’s just beginning to look for a babysitter. You can’t accept just anyone, this is your baby we’re talking about! You have to pick someone who you trust immensely, right? Same goes for startups. When so much is at stake, like reputations and financial support, founders need to know that their staff has the company’s back.

Personally, I got the feeling that the DC startup community is one big family. Everyone is so friendly to each other and everyone wants each other’s companies to succeed. It’s as if a win for a DC startup is a win for the community; people are genuinely happy to see others thriving, much like the liberal arts school analogy above.

Generational Observations

Have you noticed that descriptions of millennials (Generation Y) are more often negative than not? Sure, we’re tech savvy, but we’re more likely to be stereotyped as self-centered, noncommittal, lazy, “festering cesspools of narcissism and ADD.” Awesome.

In my research I read a bunch of articles that narratively discuss twenty somethings who are forced to move home because they can’t afford not to. A bad job market, low paying jobs, and overwhelming stress make for unstable, slightly neurotic, but still highly productive millennials. In my paper, I refute the claims that millennials are lazy, and instead ask that we reevaluate a system that clearly isn’t working*. We don’t want our youth to go crazy, now do we?

So I had my observations about DC tech culture, and I had my information about millennials in the workplace. But where did the connection lie? The ah-ha moment came to me as I was reading about venture capital and investments (the backbone in a startup anatomy). To me, monetary supporters (whether angel investors or venture capital firms) are representative of stable, formal, traditional, corporate-spirited BabyBoomers and Generation X. On the other hand, startups represent the millennial who is overwhelmed, trying to find a work-life balance that doesn’t exist (smartphones; can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em), super creative, innovative, and extremely productive. Millennials want to change the world, because we know we can. We just need a little support along the way.

*If you’d like to read my argument in detail, I’d be happy to send it your way. Just shoot me an email.

  • Grant W.

    Very well expressed, constructive and easily understood. I am very impressed with the comments and conclusions but, frankly, I would have expected no less from such a mature observer. Thank you.

  • Kloft

    Great read. Email link is broken. I’d like to read a bit more about the details behind your thoughts, but can’t send the request…

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