If you're looking for a lecture, you'd better go see your parents, because you're not going to find any at D.C. Entrepreneurship Week 2012.
Organizers of the week-long event cringe at the words panel or speech. We prefer “featured guests, discovery sessions,” said Jon Leonardo, co-founder of DCEW.
“We are different,” he said. Entrepreneurship week events in other cities are held in hotel ballrooms and auditoriums. “They sell tickets, fill rooms, make money. We're don't do this to pay the rent,” Leonardo said. DCEW groups meet in board rooms in offices throughout the city. “It's an opportunity for people to practice their pitch,” he said Tickets to each event are $10, but DCEW gives out discount codes in their promotional material, so most entrepreneurs go free.
Tara Chantal Silver, another co-founder of the group, described the event as “careful, purposeful, intimate.”
“We're not looking to fill 1,000 seats,” she said. Event organizers put a cap on attendance at events. Silver says 40 attendees is the optimal number, but they cap it at 70.
At events in other cities, she said, “The biggest stuff happens outside in the hallway.” At DCEW, it doesn't work that way. This year, they are focusing on pitch sessions, where three or four entrepreneurs meet in a room with two or three venture capitalists from different firms to pitch their ideas and get feedback. “There are no PowerPoint presentations; everybody gets five minutes to talk,” Silver said. Hopefully, the entrepreneurs come away with some valuable ideas and advice. The goal of the event is to achieve the three Cs, according to Leonardo: connect, collaborate and create. They want to connect the entrepreneurs with resources and capital, have them collaborate on current or future business opportunities, and create jobs.
DCEW strives to keep the talent in the D.C. region, Silver said, — they want to keep people from running off to New York, Boston, or Silicon Valley with their ideas. Even though many of today's pitches involve Web or virtual business models, the assumption is still that New York and California are where the money and the bigwigs are, so that's where the people look for funding, Leonardo said. But that often ends in disappointment for a potential entrepreneur, especially if they don't already have contacts there, Silver said. They need connections, a foot in the door, and face-to-face meetings still rule, Silver said, “Otherwise people don't know where to start.”
Still this week was Silver's “PR 101 therapy session,” as she called it, where the group talks through people's problems and gives them ideas to try. Modeled after the pitch sessions, Silver said her program starts with quick introductions so members can get to know each other, then they talk about what makes a small business challenging. One issue is that small businesses don't have a big budget for public relations, and Silver coaches them on using earned media. But they can cover any topic attendees want to address. “We ask, ‘What phase are you at? What's not working? Did you try this?'”
Most of the attendees are those who already own small business, are in their first years and experiencing success, but looking to take it to the next level, Silver said. Another big group is those who have day jobs with businesses on the side and are wondering when the right time is to take the plunge and devote themselves to their own venture full time. This is a real niche for DCEW, because these are just the sort of people who have neither the time nor the money to attend a high-profile conference like the kind held in New York, Leonardo said.
Leonardo said that in 2010, D.C. was rock-bottom on lists of good places to start a small business. This year, the Huffington Post ranks D.C. number six in their ranking of top large places to launch a business. Silver said she attributes the jump to the hard work DCEW has been doing. “The community has galvanized, the city has evolved,” Silver said — it's not just for government jobs anymore. Other cities are overtapped for business opportunities, but not so here; it's ripe for new endeavors. This is DCEW's third year running the event, which is often more than six months in the planning.
For more information about events or to register, go to DCEW.
This post is courtesy Maria Geist.