The best startups can go anywhere. Here’s why some are choosing Crystal City -- and why you might want to follow their lead.
By Bonnie Boglioli-Randall (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
A new breed of tech hub is on the rise from sea to shining sea. While Silicon Valley remains the world’s most influential startup ecosystem, budding centers of innovation like Crystal City, Va, boast entrepreneurial cultures ripe for rapid development.
Cropping up in formerly unlikely places, these blossoming hubs are attracting significant human and economic capital on a scale previously unheard of outside of Silicon Valley. A diverse consortium of founders and investors alike are lured to the reduced startup costs and desirable quality of life that they offer.
With a tech sector increasingly demanding leaner, more collaborative work environments alongside access to insight and capital, cities like Crystal City are redefining how individuals, companies and technologies grow. Call it the democratization of Silicon Valley, outside of Silicon Valley. This is a city that’s worth watching.
Crystal City: From Concrete Jungle to Thriving Tech Ecosystem
Hop on the Yellow Line from the nation’s capital and take the 12-minute ride across the Potomac to glistening Crystal City, the urban core of Arlington, Va. A slew of construction cranes dot the horizon and a dazzling array of vibrant office spaces, workshops, lush and accessible green space, trendy retailers, art galleries and restaurants greet the eyes. Passersby snake their way around the city’s streets and underground walkways that connect offices and condos with playgrounds, cafes and workshops.
Once colloquially known for its lackluster concrete buildings that housed defense contractors, Crystal City has transformed itself in just a few shorts years with the help of the private and public sectors. A healthy mix of large and small employers are headquartered here while a growing number of startups call the city home -- many of which are drawn to the city’s collaborative spaces, accelerator programs and nearby investors.
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Crystal City was ever anything but this perfectly primed tech hub. Located inside Washington's beltway, it draws from the highest concentration of advanced degree workers in the country. It also doesn’t hurt that the nation’s largest employer, the federal government, is just a hop and skip away.
“The best startups can go anywhere,” says Brooke Salkoff, Venture Partner at research and advisory firm Disruption Corporation. “Here in Crystal City, there’s a confluence of factors that make projects more likely to succeed.”
At Disruption Corporation, Salkoff helps to manage the new $50 million Crystal Tech Fund that funds and fosters high growth post-seed companies typically underserved by investors. A veteran TV correspondent and startup founder herself, Salkoff was drawn to the prospects that Crystal City offers and the chance to get in on the action early.
“I tend to go where the big stories are,” explains Salkoff. “When Paul (Singh)’s path and mine crossed last summer, we started a conversation about what he was planning to build in Crystal City and I knew it was a big deal immediately. What he envisioned was altogether new, bringing together tech, venture and city.”
Influential Movers & Shakers Eye New Territory
To get a tech hub up and running takes guts. It takes determination. And it takes a heck of a lot of greenbacks.
Enter Paul Singh.
He made a name for himself in Silicon Valley as an entrepreneur and original partner in super angel fund 500 Startups. Moving back to his native DC area after a successful run in California, Singh founded Disruption Corporation in 2013 -- snagging Brooke Salkoff along with former 500 Startups partner George Kellerman in the process.
Being an early adopter in any space means there will be a few bumps along the way. That’s when any investor will tell you that a little luck comes in handy. Seeking affordable office spaces for Crystal Tech Fund’s portfolio companies, a serendipitous collaboration with commercial giant Vornado Realty Trust was just what CTF -- and Crystal City -- needed.
Singh’s plans to cultivate fast scaling companies required flexible, short-term space for the 40 or so companies expected to join CTF’s portfolio; Vornado was growing tired of sitting on vacant office spaces.
Killing two birds with one stone, Vornado and Crystal Tech Fund agreed to a large lease deal of 27,000 square feet of office space for CTF’s use. The realty group also added a healthy $10 million to Crystal Tech Fund in a move squarely aimed at priming the neighborhood for its rise as a major hub… one that will require a lot of office and workspace leases in future.
This Ain’t Your Boys’ Club
Shavanna Miller has always had a thing for fresh flowers. Through years of trial and error with internet floral delivery services, she recognized that local florists often lose out to big players because they don’t have the necessary resources to sell and market their products online.
Looking to disrupt the $9 billion floral industry, she started Bloompop. The e-commerce platform offers florists a direct method to sell to local consumers that integrates digital marketing tools, virtual shops and subscription services. Starting small in Washington DC’s startup incubator 1776, Bloompop has leveraged the insight and funding of the area to get ahead. Now serving new markets and scaling fast into New York, Chicago and Atlanta with the help of Crystal Tech Fund, Miller believes the collective environment, insight and life within a scaling tech hub has been a key reason for Bloompop’s growth.
“We found our lead developer, advisor, and investors through these spaces,” says Miller. “It seems obvious, but one way to jumpstart a large group of connections in the tech scene is to be in one of these communities.”
Miller is indicative of today’s entrepreneurs-- many of whom are increasingly women (American Express OPEN 2013 State of Women Owned Businesses Report). Hubs like Crystal City hold serious sway for many female founders compared to the male-dominated worlds of the Silicon Valleys and Alleys. With tight-knit communities to swap ideas in incubators and at local Meetups, a nascent tech hub can provide everything for them in one spot, alleviating some of the stress that goes along with growing a business.
“To the extent that there are women founders juggling their lives, Crystal City has all the resources to help alleviate some of the challenges that many of them face in starting companies,” explains Salkoff. “Our role as an investor is to put the puzzle pieces in place so they can succeed as quickly and easily as possible.”
Photo courtesy of Stephen Elliot in Associate with Mud Productions.
Don’t miss our first City Meetup in Crystal City on June 26! Register today.
About the author: Bonnie Boglioli-Randall is a Silicon Valley-based freelance writer with a predilection for covering the startup ecosystem, helping tell the stories of nascent technologies and organizations. She’s an enthusiast of non-fiction (of the sort that make most people’s eyes glaze over), running and her family. She’s always up for a good conversation. Follow her on Twitter at @BonnieBRandall.