Washington DC is the best place in the world to start an EdTech Company

Yes, I moved (away) from San Francisco. DC is better than you think it is…

I was 15 minutes early and already the room was filled with people drinking beer and snacking on pizza. Who knew an EdTech event, on a slightly snowy Tuesday, would be such a scene? Having just moved to Washington from San Francisco, where all tech is popular, I was pleasantly surprised that any city could rival the interest. I moved here because of the growing, under-the-radar (startup) companies that are quite literally changing the world, and I was right—they are most definitely here.

“DC is the best place in the world to start education companies” said Tom Davidson, founder and CEO of EverFi, who talked candidly with 1776 co-founder Evan Burfield for about an hour. The mix of policy makers, talent, and capital “from people who know what they’re doing” said Davidson, make it such a fertile place for companies to start up and grow. Only problem used to be the exit. “My challenge with the DC market isn’t the funding side, but the exit side,” said Davidson, when asked about the state of DC EdTech startups. There have been hundreds of Beltway businesses created but that simply did not make the exit. “The venture community in the (Silicon) Valley understands when to exit” said Davidson, and then added, excitedly, that this has drastically changed in the past year.

EverFi is a SaaS business that builds tools for students to learn all the things we should have learned in school, but didn’t. Financial literacy? Student loan management? Sexual assault? Digital citizenship? These are some of the topics covered in the digital curriculum that EverFi builds and shares on its platform. EverFi works closely with schools to use the platform and the service is completely funded by private corporations such as Burger King and PepsiCo. And no, these corporations have no say in the content and EverFi does sell any products to the students or schools, nor do they share or sell any identifiable information of the students. It’s a unique model, but it seems to be working. EverFi is backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and Twitter’s Evan Williams and has helped over 7 millions of students in diverse school districts across the country.

Davidson started EverFi after a career as a politician and joked that he’s been to Iowa enough times to be President. While he said he has “little desire” to go back to politics, he has great admiration for politicians and thinks businesspeople could learn a thing or two from the decision-making stamina and never-ending public critique politicians have to master to be successful. The discussion between Davidson and Burfield would have been just as interesting for someone interested in education as for someone interested in entrepreneurism, which is exactly the kind of programming 1776 intends to provide.

The startup hub 1776 is located almost equidistance from Dupont circle, Logan circle, Chinatown, George Washington University, the Washington Convention center and the White House and has events ranging from a reception for women entrepreneurs in STEM to a non-networking-(networking)-party to a fireside chat with Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner of the FCC. It’s a beautiful space, with the feeling of San Francisco without the fuss.

Networking felt collaborative and supportive, hopeful and energetic. Instead of hearing another pitch about a yet another startup doing the same thing as 12 other startups, with less funding and a complicated business model (which is pretty much standard at any similar San Francisco event), I met someone fully employed doing his research before jumping into a new industry. He wanted to learn and explore a bit before selling his not-yet-imagined half-baked product. Not that there is anything wrong with jumping in, which EverFi’s Davidson certainly did, but there was certainly not the same glorification of goop that seems to take the limelight in the Bay Area. EverFi is a real company, with real customers, and the crowd responded with specific questions about how to take action as an entrepreneur and build great product. Instead of leaving overwhelmed with glossy cards—backed with shiny websites no doubt, that I quite often would throw away immediately, I wanted to go back and meet more people, people I sensed were pro-active change-makers—idealists with power. Welcome to the District.

Here are some key takeaways & quotes to inspire you, whether you’re starting out in EdTech, teaching in a rural town or simply interested in business.

Davidson’s Advice

1. Never get too up or two down. You’re never doing as badly as you think, and you’re never doing as great as you’d like to think.

2. Be Competent. What people are drawn to is competence—get really good at being someone people can rely on.

3. Don’t worry about the credit. Stab in the heart, praise in the back.

On running a business…

“There’s no place like the education system to bring the latest and greatest to people that don’t have it.”

“I compare running a business to owning a 17th century farmhouse—you know it’s amazing, other people thing it’s amazing, but all you can think about is the bathroom flooding in the basement.”

On starting out… “We literally slept in North Carolina on the couch of the lobby of the hotel because my credit card was bouncing.”

“I was a terrible venture capitalist, but it taught me a lot.”

“I’d rather be perceived as clueless than exaggerating.”

“Starting a company is really easy, but I don’t think you’re actually a business until you have customers that are yelling at you…until you have paying customers, you’re not in business.”

“The least expensive capital is through your customers, and the most expensive is through venture capitalist.”

On education & creating content for schools…

“Find the greatest, unimpeachable expert in that space to be the curator of the content and develop it to standard.”

“I don’t think I could ever have imagined what the average teacher has on his/her shoulders.”

“I’m hopeful that the expectations of teachers will play out in policy and pay scale.”

“One of the major reasons why the education market is so screwed is it has shoved off the private industry.”

“You literally need to be on the ground level…we know what classes are doing well and what classes aren’t.”

On EdTech…

The Ed space is “difficult, weird, decentralized, very specialized…”

“We’re trying to make an ungodly amount of money…what better (way) to want people to take a big risk than when they’re trying to help prevent rape or cyberbulling?”

Note: I am the the Community Manager for USC Rossier Online and attended the event with an interest in Education and Technology. I’ve previously worked for Betabrand.com and have attend many Tech/Startup events in San Francisco during the past four years.