Washington’s new economy, on a recent Friday evening soaked by an early summer storm, is centered squarely above Marvelous Market in Dupont Circle. Its leaders—and those in their orbit—have dripped their way through a door covered with brand stickers, up a narrow staircase, to a homey-feeling office space with a Red Bull fridge and pizza on the kitchen island. A pug runs around underfoot, hopping on couches next to people playing videogames on the flatscreen TV over the mantle.
The crowd has a few oldsters, but the average age looks closer to high school; kids mill about with beers in one hand, iPhones in the other. In fact, they need an iPhone to get to the beer, some of which is locked away in a cooler that only opens when you check in on FourSquare. They stand, mesmerized, as the lid opens smoothly. “Very cool!” someone says, as he picks out a Yuengling resting on round, artificial ice cubes.
The cooler’s creator, Peter Corbett, watches benevolently, taking in their admiration. The oohs and aahs had started a few months previously, when his social media-activated refrigerator debuted at South by South West. “The whole reason we do this is because we think social media is boring. Who cares about another tweet or another check-in?” Corbett tells them.
This, in the sector’s parlance, is some next-level shit. The congregants start thinking of other ways to use collective electronic action in the physical world. Corbett, vaguely Eurotrashy with his wavy hair, pink shirtsleeves, and white sneakers, is way ahead of them. “You could have Lady Gaga pop out of a cake at half-time if a million people tweeted,” he says, before wandering off to tend the crowd.
For all the time Corbett spends holding court, his longest chats are with the lost-looking souls, like one eager woman looking for a Web developer to launch a business to help Chinese students at U.S. colleges. Corbett listens carefully, then tells her she should figure it out herself. “If you drink a lot of coffee and Red Bull and stay up late at night, you’ll learn how to program,” he says, as if magical things happen after midnight with enough taurine. “Just go to the Internet, and type in ‘PHP tutorial.’”
For four years now, Corbett’s hybrid public relations and marketing firm iStrategyLabs—which has expanded to another office across the street, and will soon consolidate its 20 employees in even larger digs on Connecticut Avenue NW—has served as ground zero for the nascent tech industry in D.C. The giant LivingSocial in Gallery Place may have hired hundreds of people and taken hundreds of thousands of square feet in office space. But Corbett, aided by a cadre of CEO ringleaders, has been the one putting on events, connecting with universities, badgering city officials, and serving as the public face of a community that government-town Washington barely realized exists. “It’s not just Peter blowing wind,” says tech journalist Alex Howard, who’d stopped by the gathering. “There are actual people here.”
This isn’t just another one of the young professional groups that pack D.C. bars with suits and skirts. It’s the most visible manifestation of the kind of ecosystem that thrives organically in Silicon Valley, generating ideas that turn into companies and create wealth. The District covets that, not only for its potential to expand as the federal government’s growth levels off, but also for its ability to upend stodgy stereotypes and infuse D.C. with a buzzy energy it’s never really had.
Corbett has been the new economy’s biggest cheerleader, spokesman, and advocate. Part of the reason why is that Corbett sells cool for a living and sells the tech scene on the side, in ways that don’t always seem entirely separate. “I thought segmenting time to do pro bono was an old way of thinking,’” he says. “We had to be integrated, essential to the community.” That community, however, is trying to get beyond Corbett—and he’s trying to let it go.
Like lots of successful techies, Corbett, 31, describes his childhood in the New Jersey suburbs as a nerdy one—learning to code as soon as he could read, being the best gamer on his block. “I was the one that people were saying, ‘He’s going to be this technology wiz kid,’” Corbett says, recalling his nerd crew. “We were real hackers, in a way.”
But he also knew when to act otherwise. When his single mother of three married an architect, doors opened, bringing the world of Northeast boarding schools within reach. Corbett chose Phillips Exeter, and after one year of social rejection, quickly shed the geek persona.
“I made a very deliberate choice,” he says, sitting in iStrategyLabs’ living room. The side table has a copy of Monocle, which Corbett reads religiously. “I was like, ‘OK, if this is how it works, I’m gonna conform, and I’m gonna play the game. And the reason I’m gonna do that is because I’m here not only to get a great education and go to a good college, but I’m here for the network.’ I mean that’s why people go to schools like this. These are the sons and daughters of senators and CEOs, and potential future senators and CEOs, so why wouldn’t I want to make a good impression and have some benefit from that later in life?”
During his junior year, he cut his hair and bought lots of Tommy Hilfiger (the style stuck with him; Lacoste and Brooks Brothers are now mainstays of his wardrobe). “I put on that smile and shook the hands and slapped the backs, and just did it,” Corbett says.
Corbett remembers how many people from his year got into Harvard—35, or one in 10. He wasn’t one of them. Instead, he headed to Emory in Atlanta, where he joined a fraternity and busied himself with extracurricular enterprises, like putting on concerts that drew thousands of people. His business partner, Scooter Braun, ended up finding a kid named Justin Bieber on YouTube. “So he did a lot better than I did,” Corbett says, with a wan smile.
During senior year as a business undergraduate, Corbett put together a documentary project on the definition of success, interviewing conventionally successful people like the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a writer for M.A.S.H. For Corbett, it meant being at the center of a scene.
“Part of the tension growing up was that I never won awards for anything, I was never the best at anything,” he says. “And I was confused, because you know, people always told me, ‘Peter, you’re really talented, you’re going to be successful.’ And I always said, ‘Well, why don’t I get recognized for anything?’ And it was because you don’t win awards for being an orchestrator of things. You win an award for being the best this or that.” Later on, Corbett would get plenty of recognition for his role as concertmaster. And every accolade, from the Washington Business Journal’s 40 under 40 to a Webby honorable mention, is listed on iStrategyLabs’ website.
Moving to D.C. was something of an accident. After graduating in 2003, Corbett joined a TV production company that shot fashion shows all over the world, and soon tired of it. His girlfriend had moved to D.C., so he got a job at an ad agency and came down to join her. They broke up three weeks later, but Corbett stayed. A couple years later, he was laid off from the ad agency, and still stayed. With three months of living expenses in the bank, he founded his own company. The origin story is something he often tells young founders toiling in the crucible of an early-stage startup.
“It was me in my apartment, 20 hours a day for a year,” he says. “I almost quit. I almost couldn’t do it. It was crushing. It was very lonely.”
In 2008, Corbett made his first hire: His younger brother Joe, then 26, who hadn’t been up to much in New Orleans. The new chief operating officer slept in their office for three months. They won some contracts for interactive ad campaigns, with big names like Geico and American Eagle. Corbett started hiring faster, for multiples of the tech startup trinity: hackers (he’s now got seven), designers (four), and strategists (five). Corbett and two other executives have small desks in a cramped room on the third floor of the building, squished beside a drill press that’s sometimes used for making contraptions like the Foursquare cooler (iStrategyLabs’ new digs will have a whole workshop for such projects). Corbett’s Emory diploma and magazine profile spreads are framed on the wall. He rents in Logan Circle, alone.
Purely by its profile, iStrategyLabs belongs in New York City: It’s buzzy, it’s flashy, its clients include everything from Pinkberry to Audi to Walmart. Its ad campaigns are more like stunt marketing—for Honest Tea, it launched a social experiment to see how many people in different cities would leave a dollar for a bottle left unattended. And it doesn’t do politics (“it’s the only thing dirtier than business”). But Corbett figured he’d be a bigger fish in the D.C. pond, and says he just likes the people better. And he and his staffers are pretty adamant that the rest of the startup community should do the same.
“If you leave, I think you gave up,” says Joe Corbett, who’s a dark-haired version of his brother. “If you’re headed to the West Coast because you got funded, I’m like, ‘Good, bye, fine, go. I don’t agree, but it’s your life.’”
The D.C. area has had tech businesses for almost as long as there’s been such a thing. Traditionally, though, they’ve gravitated toward Northern Virginia’s office parks, not the hip neighborhoods of Northwest D.C.
“The last boom was more about the infrastructure, actually building the telecom networks, the UUNets and the Nextels,” says Mark Ein, a venture capitalist who hosts startups out of three lofty floors above District Chophouse on 7th Street NW. “The more engineering types that build those types of companies tend to prefer a more organized suburban environment than the creative class, which enjoys a more urban environment.”
At first, though, the new generation of people working on consumer-oriented concepts—the kind of thing you’d see in Silicon Valley, not Reston Town Center—felt diffused and underground. “It was kind of a hush-hush kind of thing. ‘I work at a tech company,’” stage-whispers Web developer Justin Thorp, who now works at a financial literacy company called HelloWallet. “We all had secret handshakes.”
So about five years ago, Corbett launched a campaign to make the D.C. tech community aware of itself. Each event had a different name and a different purpose: Big Ideas Big Action was a weekend of “helping people understand how to create new and important ideas and bring them to life.” Twin Tech, a 1,000-person happy hour, matched up Virginia investors with D.C. startups. D.C. Entrepreneurship Week is a mishmash of social events and “hackathons” that elevates the tech community’s presence for a more extended period of time—as well as iStrategyLabs’.
Now, there are many others: TechCocktail, Foster.ly, MoDev, and innumerable smaller groups. Many are more practically oriented, with “less showmanship” than Peter’s events, as one CEO put it. The scene is still small, though, and based around a tight group of connectors; it only takes a few weeks of making the rounds before you’ve met them.
After a couple years, Corbett wondered whether the scene was mature enough to handle something like the tech Meetups that happen in New York, where thousands of people watch startups make three-minute pitches in quick succession. He concluded it wasn’t yet. “A thousand flowers needed to bloom first,” Corbett says. “There needed to be a thousand people leading a thousand things that were somewhat interesting, and then once that happened, we had enough fertile ground where we could say, ‘Here are those really interesting flowers.’”
Last January, Corbett’s cadre decided they were ready, and threw the first D.C. tech Meetup. The monthly events drew hundreds, then thousands of people. Now, they can say they have the biggest in the country, which generates its own kind of gravitational pull. Other organizers are listed on the Meetup page, but Corbett maintains creative control; he picks the people who get to present. “It’s a hard thing from a diplomacy point of view,” he says. “You have 150 people who want to be up on that stage. How do you tell not-140 of them that they’re going to be up there?” The gatekeeper role goes even further: The Mid-Atlantic Venture Association, one of the biggest groups of investors in the area, asks Corbett for ideas of interesting startups that someone might want to fund.
Creating social space for the burgeoning tech scene, of course, also creates a lot of visibility for iStrategyLabs. Most events had some corporate sponsors—the tech sector is surrounded by a cloud of “service providers,” like lawyers and publicists, eager to get a slice of startup cash—but Corbett’s brand is right in there with them.
“He’s the Don King of D.C. tech,” says Thorp, referring to the legendary boxing promoter. “I think he realizes this whole notion that if you want to get a lot, you have to give a lot. It’s paid off for his business—iStrategyLabs is booming. Everybody sees him as this ever-present force.”
Asked how much iStrategyLabs made last year, Corbett says the number was more than $3 million and less than $10 million.
At first, D.C.’s government and business community didn’t know what to do with the tech rabble. They were accustomed to dealing with corporate law firms and federal contractors. Corbett became the guy who could explain it. The first one to reach out was Vivek Kundra, former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s chief technology officer.
“He was like, ‘I want to meet the technology community leader guy that people talk about, because we need to harness the power of our nerds,’” Corbett says. Together, they ran Apps for Democracy, which was supposed to generate citizen-driven tech ideas for improving government. But Kundra soon left to work for the Obama White House, and D.C. government went through another three chief technology officers in three years.
If the tech bureaucracy was clueless, the business establishment was even worse. Steve Moore, former head of the public-private Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, remembers going to one of Corbett’s happy hours and being completely befuddled.
“Everybody’s wearing flip-flops, everybody has CEO on their business card. Where did all these people come from? I said, ‘Corbett, what is this?’” Moore says. “There’s this enormous group of developers actually functioning now in the city. They’re here, and the numbers might be bigger than we think. And the only reference point we had for these numbers was the events that Peter was throwing.”
It was clear that the newbies weren’t going to play golf or go to galas, the traditional lubrication for the gears of Washington commerce. So Moore left the cultivation of this new economic force up to Corbett. “I wanted to get across to them that somebody got it, and that they should stay here and not go anywhere else,” he says. “If Corbett said, I dunno, ‘I think we should do a tech week,’ I said, ‘Shit, that sounds great.’”
On another occasion, Corbett remembers coming to a meeting with Tim O’Shaughnessy, the founder of a new startup out of Georgetown University, soon after they got their first big round of angel investment.
“I said, ‘Here’s this hot new company called Hungry Machine, with awesome Facebook apps. Tim, tell him what you need,’” Corbett remembers. “This room was talking about tax breaks. He was like, ‘I don’t make any money. I need engineers. And Georgetown isn’t turning them out. The only people who are doing it are George Mason and the University of Maryland, and when they graduate, they go to the Valley, or New York.’”
The company would grow into LivingSocial, now the jewel in the tiara of D.C.’s tech sector. And Corbett is still telling D.C.’s flagship private universities, Georgetown and George Washington University, how much they suck. (Schools around here tend to focus on the city’s traditional industries, churning out public policy graduates and sending interns to government offices.)
O’Shaugnessy, though, no longer seems disinterested in tax breaks; the city gave him $32 million worth to keep LivingSocial in town. For that matter, neither does Corbett.
Since serving on Mayor Vince Gray’s transition team, Corbett has demanded attention for the baby sector, and it’s worked: When Gray visited an 800-person Meetup on mobile applications at the Warner Theatre, Corbett asked everyone who was hiring to raise their hands, and more than half the crowd did—exactly what the mayor of a city with double-digit unemployment needs to see. At another event a few months later, TechCocktail’s Frank Gruber introduced Gray at an event as “our tech mayor.” “His eyes lit up,” says David Zipper, the city’s director of business development and strategy. Gray then sat in the front row through a feature-length documentary about what it’s like to launch a startup, and now talks about the nascent industry every chance he gets.
This spring, Corbett called a come-to-Jesus meeting with 25 tech founders, the mayor, and his team at another company’s office in Georgetown. Over sandwiches, they talked about tax tweaks that could make it easier for angel investors to fund startups. Several months later, Gray proposed a bill that would do just that, and Corbett made sure the D.C. tech scene knew who they could thank.
“This change was born out of a lunch session where I (DC Tech Meetup founder Peter Corbett) convened area tech CEOs and investors over lunch to help the Mayor understand what challenges and opportunities they were facing,” Corbett boasted in an email blast to the D.C. Tech Meetup group. “We talked A LOT about taxes.”
Everybody has a theory why Silicon Valley is what it is. Some people say Stanford University. Others say IBM and its spinoffs. Most people agree that an intense concentration of people doing the same thing is what keeps fueling it, like the nuclear reactions in a supernova.
Dozens of cities around the country are trying to figure out how to tap a little bit of that startup heat. Traditionally, the District has leaned on the federal government, which expanded rapidly over the last decade—but that golden era is ending, and the city needs alternatives. Just over a year ago, the city hired a full-time staffer to attend to the needs of tech companies, figuring they will serve as a magnet for the young, upwardly-mobile people that all cities want to attract.
For D.C., though, the federal government still gives the tech sector a competitive advantage over other cities, even as it shrinks. First, it’s a source of talent: As federal spending shrinks, office workers will figure it’s finally worthwhile to defect to startupland, just like the financial crash funneled thousands of smart people into startups in New York. And second, it creates demand for companies to find ways to help government function better, and an atmosphere that encourages thinking about big policy ideas.
Evan Burfield, an Oxford University-educated entrepreneur who started his first business at 19, runs the local affiliate of Startup America, President Barack Obama’s initiative to encourage high-growth businesses. Since March, he’s been busy setting up a startup ecosystem that will pull people in. “People don’t move to D.C. to start a tech company. People move to D.C. to change the world,” he says. “But instead of interning on Capitol Hill, they’re starting companies.”
As part of a national initiative, Burfield has to work with Startup Maryland and Startup Virginia. The District likes to talk about regionalism too, but in reality, a tech company helps D.C. most if it’s in the city proper. It has a lot of catching up to do: Arlington has had a powerhouse tech sector serving the defense industry and federal research institutions for decades. Both Maryland and Virginia have state funds that invest in startups, creating a steady flow of venture capital that D.C. just can’t match—not to mention lower taxes. And of course, places like Silicon Valley and New York still lure away the best with promises of funding and mentorship.
Gray admitted as much at the launch of a big economic development strategy last month that’s supposed to cultivate the sector. “There are two types of tech companies,” he told the gathering. “Those that started in the District of Columbia and they went out of business. And those that started and left.”
On that front, Corbett’s a tremendous help, because he advocates for the District. There’s a very particular rationale.
“It’s not because I have some weird love of three stars and two stripes or something,” he says. “It’s because we have density, I have a love of density, and that’s what we need. This is the center of the region, it’s the city. And this region is so uniquely screwed up.
“Put it this way. If you’re a startup in Manhattan, you don’t go to Jersey City ever. Ever! In a million years. You don’t know it exists. And that’s Rosslyn. Reston is like Bergen County, which is where I grew up, it’s the suburbs. You don’t go there, it’s just weird. So D.C. suffers from that. We’ve been trying to fill up the donut. And we have been. And hopefully by filling up the donut, you make everything good.”
Last winter, Corbett helped D.C. land its first tech accelerator—a business model where venture capitalists provide seed money, space, and mentorship in exchange for a small piece of equity. Jonathon Perrelli, a former cybersecurity entrepreneur looking to start a business accelerator, was about to set up shop in Arlington. Corbett introduced him to Zipper at the D.C. government, who found a $100,000 grant to keep Perrelli in the District.
The Fort, as Perrelli’s new space at 16th and K streets NW is called, has created a new center of gravity for D.C.’s tech sector. It even looks different: The foyer as you step off the elevator is a shock, doused in a blacklight.
“Wait, you didn’t get the full effect,” Perrelli says, fiddling with a projector to get the Fort’s logo on the wall. “When you walk into an Apple store, or get on a Virgin flight, it’s different, it’s unique, it’s something that makes you feel a variety of emotions. And we want people to be happy. We want people to be creative. We want people to think open.”
We take a quick tour, with coders and founders all within each other’s sightlines. This way, every office has a window. “This is our view of K Street,” Perrelli says proudly. “It’s pretty kick-ass.” I ask why it’s important to be on the lobbyist’s corridor, which is pretty expensive real estate. “Because this is where the power is,” he answers.
Sure, that puts them near decisionmakers who might have use for the products they invent. But it’s also full of high net worth individuals, who Perrelli and Burfield want to dragoon into funding startups. Until there are enough sizeable tech companies around to reinvest in the sector, lawyers, lobbyists, and more traditional business folks will have to do.
“Otherwise, they’re just going to go buy a boat,” Burfield says.
Ultimately, to prove itself as a viable tech hub, D.C. desperately needs two or three companies the size of LivingSocial to go public and stay local, seeding the rest of the scene with newly minted multimillionaires. That’s something that neither Burfield, nor Corbett, nor any other booster can control.
“There are 40,000 people shouting at a Redskins game,” as one skeptical ex-entrepreneur put it (he gave up on one unsuccessful startup, and is now in defense consulting). “That doesn’t mean the Redskins win.”
For the folks who stuck around after the last tech boom—maybe seeking refuge in federal contracting, like Perrelli—the present carries a distinct tinge of déjà vu. The late 1990s also had their Peter Corbett: A guy named Mario Morino, who invented software in Northern Virginia in the 1980s and retired to become a philanthropist and the tech community’s patron saint. He brought people together through a site called Netpreneur, which organized events called Coffee and DoughNets, and even invested in new companies. When he left for Cleveland, a lot of the air went out of the tech scene (though Sept. 11 and the dot-com crash didn’t help).
Burfield wants the reinvention of the D.C. tech industry to be more grassroots, and less dependent on a small clique of machers, which he thinks was destabilizing. “That was all top-down,” he says, of Morino’s influence.
Corbett recognizes that problem, too: He talked about it with Morino last winter. “He said, “Peter, this is great, but it’s not going to mean anything unless you can institutionalize it,’” Corbett says. “I’ve been so concerned for so long that too much of this would be predicated on my own efforts.”
Meanwhile, there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the tech scene with Corbett’s centrality. Multiple people asked me not to make this story about Corbett at all, but rather “the community.” Specific beefs are hard to pin down—when pressed, critics will often dissemble—but undeniably present. “There is a trade-off in the breadth or pace of accomplishments and how artfully they’re executed,” writes Michael Mayernick, another D.C. tech scene fixture, while professing deep respect for what Corbett’s done. “I think it is fair to say a comprehensive treatment of him would make reference to that dissatisfaction, and my reference to it is merely an acknowledgement that it exists.”
Whenever grumbling crops up—on blogs, Meetup comment threads, or floating rumors—Corbett is invariably defensive. “I love hearing secondhand about what some of the haters out there say. Keep talking. I’ll keep doing. Punks. #dctech” tweeted @Corbett3000 in mid-June. Some of the carping may be less about what Corbett does than the ostentatiously hardworking persona he projects, with his constant stream of tweets that often focus on how little he sleeps. The patter gave rise to a fake Twitter account, @Corbett3001: “You know what I love about mornings? While everyone else has been sleeping, I’ve been #crushingit for the past 187 hours.”
According to Corbett, he ends up doing more because he just operates at higher velocity. “This place is so easy. It’s comfortable,” he says of D.C. “I’m inherently a New Yorker, or an outside-of-New Yorker, and I need that, and I bring it back here and people don’t know what to do with it. I talk 10,000 miles a minute and just hustle harder than anybody else, and people don’t inherently do that here. I think D.C. does lack a certain amount of hustle compared to other places.”
Still, Corbett knows the scene has to start running without him. In part to forcibly extract himself, he’s taken to traveling a lot for work, globetrotting from Rome to Barcelona back to New York City, where he has an apartment with three other tech types on the Lower East Side. He thinks he’s too busy to have a girlfriend, but sometimes finds himself lonely, without the constant stimulation of event planning. “Now, on Saturday afternoons, I don’t have anything to do, and it would be nice to go to the farmers market with someone,” he says.
The problem is, he’s just not convinced the scene is ready yet. Toward the end of the iStrategyLabs Friday happy hour, Corbett sits back on a couch, watching the crowd. He’s tired, waiting for people to leave of their own accord before shooing them out. “I do think this city and the people in it have so much potential,” he says. “There’s very little, or not enough, really smart coordinating.” But he says it again, as if giving himself a talking to. “I have to step back, because if I don’t, it’s possible that I will thwart the growth of the ecosystem.”
Then he gets up, and starts clearing away beer bottles.