Whether you are thinking about starting a business or you are already in the trenches, Washington, DC’s vibrant startup culture offers great insight overcoming challenges faced by early entrepreneurs.
Business Insider recently listed DC as the 8th fastest growing startup scene, with an average of more than 20% deal growth since 2012, and a 38.16% deal growth in 2015.
When AccelerateDC hosted its “In The Trenches” event, DC tech founders gathered to share their challenges and “war stories” on the path to success. Speakers included AccelerateDC Mentors, Michael Beirne, Founder of MiniRoots; Subdo Nayar, Market Development for WaterSmart Software; Amita Shukla, Founder of Vitamita; and AccelerateDC Graduate, Tim Hwang, Founder & CEO of FiscalNote.
From scaling to fundraising, these DC tech founders provided incredible insight on how to overcome obstacles to build successful startups.
1. Go big, but be mindful.
“Going big” is a consistent theme among tech founders. Michael Beirne, who shared how he was hit by a car on the way home from receiving a cancer diagnosis, encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs not to wait for life-changing events to force you to chase a dream: “Figure out the biggest thing you can swing for, something you love, and go for it.”
“Figure out the biggest thing you can swing for, something you love, and go for it.”
When it comes to bringing big ideas to life, these DC tech leaders also emphasized the importance of mindfulness. Often, things can go from great to terrible in a matter of days, and when things go wrong in the entrepreneurial process, being mindful can help you back on your feet. Amita Shukla discussed how her research, and her recently published book called Enduring Edge supports this idea and offers guidance on mastering mindfulness in order to achieve success. In it, she says that “when we better understand our mind, we can improve how we make decisions, how we create and innovate, and how we navigate and lead change in our lives, our work, and our world.”
2. Surround yourself with the right people who can tell you “no”.
Every entrepreneur faces challenges and setbacks, but having the right network of mentors and advisors can ease the pain resulting from a misstep or oversight. Save time and money, says Subodh Nayar of WaterSmart Software, by surrounding yourself with folks who can tell you when a bad idea is, well, a bad idea.
Surround yourself with folks who can tell you when a bad idea is, well, a bad idea.
He noted that while entrepreneurs are special because they see opportunity where others do not, this amazing belief in themselves can keep founders from a necessary pivot or reconsideration without perspective from trusted leaders. The tech community in Washington, DC provides a plethora of networking and mentoring resources, including WDCEP’s AccelerateDC, to provide you with the right group of advisors who are not afraid to say “no” when it matters most.
3. Build a fail-safe office culture.
In order for a startup to grow and succeed, its employees must be willing to take risks and fail in order to take risks and succeed. From day one, entrepreneurs should be setting big goals and honestly tracking accountability for each project, iteration, and team member. Building a culture where failure is tolerated for the right reasons will help your team flourish, and can result in an environment of progress-driven accountability.
Building a culture where failure is tolerated for the right reasons will help your team flourish.
Shukla and Hwang stressed that building a team that embraces reasonable risk must be done from the ground up, and requires intentional hiring and management. Hwang suggested that entrepreneurs hold regular and timely post-mortem meetings, allowing team members to engage in honest and safe dialogue about the successes and lessons learned from a project.
Managers who instill this sense of critical review will see more progress and growth in their employees. Shukla supported that suggestion, noting that most companies that implode do so because of management conflict stemming from a fear of failure and accountability that will “drag your company to the ground.”
4. Find the right funding.
As startups in the area continue to expand, Washington, DC is becoming a haven for funding space. While the “In The Trenches” speakers urged entrepreneurs to bootstrap for as long as possible, they noted that if pursuing equity or debt funding not to forget the long-term needs of your business.
Hwang, whose startup FiscalNote recently raised $10M Series C, luckily learned that lesson early on. When 23-year old Hwang first founded FiscalNote, he scraped together $25,000 and camped out with five team members in a Motel 6 while they built their prototype. In 2014, they signed a term sheet for their $7M Series A, but just one day before bringing on the fund they split ways.
FiscalNote’s due diligence showed that the deal would not be a good fit based on the fund’s culture and vision and Hwang and his partners made the unpopular decision to part ways with only six weeks of payroll saved up. Despite the challenging environment, his team rallied together as a family, closing the Series A just two months later. Since then, they have raised another $20M through their Series B and C and currently employ more than 100 people.
How We Can Help
Washington, DC has proven that bold ideas are sometimes born out of what looks like failure at the time. In spite of struggles and missteps that can come with turning a concept into a revenue-generating business, entrepreneurship is an exciting and rewarding path for those willing to go big, fail fast, and prioritize building a team of employees and investors who fit your vision for your business.
To hear more stories of struggle and success, check out the recording of our AccelerateDC In The Trenches Speaker Series, found here. You can find more tech resources, including mentoring and networking opportunities, on WDCEP.com.