What’s Up With 1776 & Benjamin’s Desk?

Yesterday, 1776 announced it had merged with Benjamin’s Desk and also spun out a new company, called Union. Understandably, the Washington, DC startup community met the news with mixed reactions. Some have lauded it. Others have harshly criticized it. Many have reached out to me wondering how I feel about it and what it means to me.

Let me start with a story.

There was once a nameless rose bush. Six feet wide and just as tall, it was a giant ball of green dusted with light pink flowers. Every day I walked past this bush, I would marvel at the pops of pink and the glorious smell that reminded me of my grandmother’s perfume.

One day when I walked by, the homeowner was hacking away at the plant, cutting off branch after branch. Gone were the glorious flowers. Gone was the nostalgic scent of rosewater. I was devastated that this bush was no more. Where the bush had been now sat three hacked up plants that resembled nothing more than sticks poking out of the ground. I continued walking by that house day after day. And soon, that old rose bush was forgotten.

But one day, in the spring, as I walked by, something caught my attention. Could it be? That smell…my grandmother…the flowers. So many of them. There sat not one, but three glorious green bushes loaded with the biggest pink roses you could imagine.

It was so hard to see those beautiful roses pruned off. But pruning is part of an ongoing relationship that involves nurturing; it is intentional action designed to to stimulate growth and to encourage new life. And in this case, pruning showed that the one massive rose bush was actually three plants, each just waiting to come into its glory.

I see 1776 this same way.

When we launched it in 2013, it was never about making money. For me, it was never about glory, or ambition, or, frankly anything having to do with me.

It was about helping entrepreneurs. Helping them solve our world’s greatest challenges. Finding them in unexpected places. Helping them find the unique mentors and scaling methods they would need to grow their companies in complex, government-regulated industries. Helping them get funding when Silicon Valley wouldn’t touch them.

But, we soon discovered, the problems were much, much bigger than this. We all know entrepreneurs are critical for job creation. They need a strong community, mentors, vital resources and supports around them, especially outside of Silicon Valley. But, as we traveled the world, we found a lot of entrepreneurs isolated and without strong local supports. And we found communities working really hard to help their entrepreneurs, but falling short because startups need more capital, connections, resources than any single community can offer. As entrepreneurs ourselves, we wanted to help fix this.

Over time, our little venture became a giant bush dotted with roses — Challenge Cup competitions, a venture capital fund with 30+ investments, visits from heads of State and President Obama, requests from cities all over the world to open campuses, a technology platform touching thousands of entrepreneurs the world over.

All of the roses and the smell of success hid the fact that 1776 was really several plants so intertwined with each other than none of the bushes was reaching its full potential.

First, a coworking business. When we launched 1776 back in 2013, the world was just discovering how helpful coworking spaces could be to a startup community. Today, there are thousands of spaces and we will only see this trend continue because vibrant spaces are such a critical element to every strong entrepreneurial community.

Running a coworking business is hard work. Rent, overhead, staff, events, programming all add up quickly. Startups come and go on a daily basis as they get funding or run out of cash. It is critical to have a model that is both economically sustainable and excellent in its delivery of support, resources and community. It’s hard to do this. It’s even harder to do when coworking is only part of your focus.

Second, a fund. Over the past four years, I’ve met thousands of entrepreneurs around the world. Men, women, young and old. Every one of them trying in earnest to build something from nothing, and often doing it without funding, without mentors and without being plugged in to the connections they needed. Launching a venture fund seemed like a no brainer step. The 1776 Seed Fund has now invested in dozens of companies, as far away as Nairobi, and many in Washington, DC.

Finally, a technology platform. We originally built Union to solve a simple problem for ourselves — how to do a better job of tracking the startups we worked with to make mentor, customer and funder connections for them. But every time I would talk about Union with other coworking spaces, incubators, and accelerators, they invariably would ask the same question: “Can I use it?” Turns out that while infrastructure for startups was emerging across the world, the programs were running themselves (as we were) with alot of excel spreadsheets and Google docs. After awhile, we started to wonder, what would happen if all these spaces and programs could share a common tool? Could we also share mentors, customers, programming and more? I think we all pine for the day when an entrepreneur can truly start and scale his or her company in any city they want. Thus, the birth of Union.

Yesterday’s announcement is the culmination of a lot of difficult decision making about how to prune the 1776 plant so that each of the underlying bushes can truly flourish.

Benjamin’s Desk and 1776 are merging, which will put a dedicated focus on coworking up and down the East Coast. Jen and Anthony will lead it, and they are amazing people who love the work they do and they do it for all the right reasons. I have no doubt the DC startup community will love them and all of the newly branded 1776 communities will thrive.

The 1776 Seed Fund remains an independent entity, and I look forward to continuing to support our portfolio companies. Some will grow, some will fail. We will support and celebrate them all.

Union will become an autonomous organization, focused on bringing the world’s startup programs into a single platform. Some of my favorite people, statup programs and communities are already using Union, and I know they all see the same vision I do — together, we can help the startups that are changing the world.

So, what does this transaction mean to me? Honestly, it doesn’t matter because it was never about me.

What is important is that the pruning means we can better help entrepreneurs — in DC and Philadelphia, up and down the East Coast, and in communities around the world — to start and scale no matter which city they choose to call home. For me, that will be the sweetest smell of success.