Several years into writing Washington Post’s “The Download” column, Shannon Henry published an entry in December of 2004 that queried local technology players on what trends might emerge during the coming year. More specifically, Henry addressed how, depending on the prevailing economic and entrepreneurial climate, the region’s tech identity wavered between that of a government town and one pushing to “develop a separate identity for the region built on ventures in software, telecom, the Internet…”
Sure, today you could probably swap out “software, telecom and the Internet” for “SaaS, green IT and social media” but the identity challenge is in some ways still the same: is this a government town or has it tangibly evolved into something more? And if it is going to evolve into something more, does it require a unified effort by industry segments that historically operate in walled gardens? More succinctly, if a tourist asked for directions to the epicenter of technology innovation in Greater Washington, what would you say? Head towards Northern Virginia, hang a right at New York Ave., and then hop on the I270 Corridor?
The latter question was recently brought to light by Washington Post writer Zachary Goldfarb, one that spawned a pioneering July event developed by the NVTC and folks like Peter Corbett at iStrategyLabs known simply as Twin Tech. And unlike the Caddyshack II abomination, Twin Tech’s sequel event (Twin Tech II) that took place last week to the tune of 1,200+ attendees, was a smash hit.
With word (via ExecutiveBiz’ exclusive interview with Washington Post writer Kim Hart) that the publication is resuscitating “The Download” column starting Monday, I am reminded why it was both incredibly popular and infinitely valuable to the Greater Washington technology and government community.
Through Shannon Henry’s seven years anchoring “The Download”, followed by equally strong work by her successor Ellen McCarthy, the column looked beyond what appeared on the surface and instead lifted the hood to profile the people and companies shaping the community and driving innovation. The column’s recipe for success was that it did not, like so many other columns, try and determine who the hottest companies were. Companies come and go, and every company thinks what they do is worthy of glowing ink. I will never forget McCarthy’s column in mid-2005 on local firm Xybernaut, and the fact it had issued 110 press releases the prior year – most effusive of it prospects despite 33 consecutive quarterly losses – only to implode under scandals despite $153 million in venture capital. Let’s see — 110 press releases at roughly $800 a pop; hard to imagine where all that VC money went.
“The Download” stuck with people because, odds are, bright minds will continue to build and lead companies for years and years. And what these people are doing – whether professionally or personally – is interesting and in many cases not visible to the public. One important reason that the column has succeeded – and a reason I believe it will continue to succeed under Kim Hart’s hand – is that those who have written for it grasp both the broader currents driving the Greater Washington tech scene as well as the nuances that make it unique. During her time at the Post, Hart has covered startups, telecom, 2.0 companies and other vital components of the community.
I also believe that the success of Twin Tech in some ways mirrors why “The Download” was required reading: the vibrancy of the tech community fueled excitement over Twin Tech, while Twin Tech fueled excitement building for a more integrated innovation effort. Similarly “The Download” not only captured the area’s bustling tech activity but in some ways amplified it.
Brian Lustig is co-founder of Lustig Communications, a Rockville, MD-based communications firm that works with growing technology and government IT firms. Lustig is also a contributor to local business and industry publications.