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Wise move or ‘boondoggle’? 15 DC technologists react to SXSW situation

D.C. technologists are divided about the District's expensive SXSW initiative and the last-minute cuts to its budget.

The WeDC campaign launch party at Hierarchy DC, Feb. 5, 2015. (Photo by Lalita Clozel)

The Washington, DC Economic Partnership’s grand plans to market the District at SXSW this year are on the chopping block.
The budget for the campaign called WeDC was originally expected to be $475,000, a 182 percent increase from last year, according to the Washington Post. This has brought up rancorous disagreements between District officials past and present. “There were a lot of decisions made by the prior [Vincent Gray] administration,” said Joaquin McPeek, a spokesman for the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
Now led by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the District is conducting a “top-to-bottom review” of the SXSW promotional portfolio “that was given to us,” McPeek said. Officials have not come to a decision on how much should be cut, he told DC on Tuesday. As a result, the WDCEP is scrambling to make cuts around the largest expense of the campaign, which is also irreversible: the leasing of a restaurant space located across the street from the Austin Convention Center for five days.
We found out that the D.C. tech community isn’t quite in agreement on the issue, either. Here are some of the comments we received:

Some local technologists were disappointed by the cuts:

Peter Corbett, CEO and founder of iStrategyLabs, told DC in an email: “I think investing $500k in marketing DC at the most important tech and creative conference in the US is a wise and encouraging move by the city. The tax bill of a profitable 50 person company in DC can be around $150k. Let’s find just 3 great new company’s at SXSW to bring to DC and the whole program pays for itself! That doesn’t even include the benefit off all the money they’d spend and personal income taxes those employees would pay in DC.”
Mike Chan, the co-organizer of Startup Weekend DC, wrote: “I think regardless of what the city is spending, the fact that DC is willing to budget that much money to growing its profile on a national stage is admirable.” Adding: “If the city government doesn’t push itself to take risks to improve the ecosystem, it’ll be perpetuating one of the reasons why this region hasn’t seen entrepreneurship flourish yet – the fact that people are too comfortable in their cushy government jobs to take risks and start a startup.”
Jennifer Lannon, a program manager at Springboard Enterprises, wrote on Twitter:

Others were a little torn:

DJ Neekola, the CEO of Pelonkey, a company that has been involved in organizing the SXSW campaign, said in an email: “I do really support all they are trying to do to improve the city’s creative economy. I think the budget cut really hurts the initiative, but I’m sure that there are other places the money needs to go in the city, so I can’t complain about money taken away from the initiative. … In return, there are a lot of creatives helping WeDC on their own to help support this initiative. … If we continue to fuel this movement, DC’s creative economy will flourish down the line, and there will be more money later on to do even bigger things for all of us!”
Dag Gogue, the founder and CEO of Transit Labs, also wrote: “[A] city cannot lead if it doesn’t show up. Events like SXSW are where ‘groupthink’ happens and perception masquerades as reality. To me, the real question is whether this $500,000 expense was responsibly devised with goals and metrics to measure in mind — or if it was a hap-hazard expense so some government officials could party in Austin.”
Frank LaVigne, who makes the (almost) daily DCTech Minute YouTube videos, wrote: “I can understand the Mayor Bowser’s reaction to a budget approved by her predecessor with a line item like ‘$251,500 to transform a restaurant into a “We DC” lounge.’ … Unfortunately, the cuts that will probably ‘come from events and other ancillary features that were planned’ would have been the real ‘steak to the sizzle’ of the DC lounge. … This year, Mayor Bowser should have left the budget in place and taken a “go big or go home” attitude. She could always re-evaluate and adjust for upcoming years.”

Some questioned the strategy:

Sage Salvo, the founder of edtech company Words LIIVE, wrote: “The issue is not the nominal dollar amount but rather the direction and the non-circulatory effect of the spending. DC is spending on an effort to impress and attract ‘non-DC’ start-ups, when they could instead spend that same money on those of us, current DC entrepreneurs and start-ups.” Adding: “When other entrepreneurs, from the other cities, see our success model, e.g. DC tech companies seem to be getting funded at higher levels, then they will have the proper incentive to come to DC to be apart of the success.”
Brandon T. Luong, the creator of the DMV Startup campaign, said in an email: “I understand DC is trying to create a cooler image of itself as reflected in the We DC campaign, but I would say they need to revisit it as the campaign name and the website do not demonstrate the hip side of us. … On a tangent rant, DC should embrace its real image of blending both hood and sophisticated look, and the entire DMV statue. I’m sort of tired of DC trying to put on the hipster image to draw in new people.”
Nancy Prager, a local intellectual property lawyer, wrote on Facebook: “SXSW is noisy. To get any attention is nearly impossible. To get substantive attention is harder still. … Why didn’t DC get a booth in the trade show for the duration of SXSW and sponsor a few events throughout the conference? My answer: Boondoggle.”

Many would have preferred that the money be spent closer to home:

Paul Singh, the founder of Disruption Corporation, said in an email: “[R]egardless of how much (or how little) money they ultimately spend, it feels like a boondoggle to me. It seems like an overblown ad campaign that won’t directly benefit anyone in DC unless they choose to go down there and hang out at the actual venue. … I’ll certainly keep my mind open if they can prove that it’ll move the needle on specific and measurable items. If they really want to spend the money, why SXSW? Why not do something like this in Virginia or Maryland?”
Babs Lee, another co-organizer of Startup Weekend DC, wrote: “SXSW is a monstrosity. That money is better spend on existing startups. Or perhaps as simple as running a campaign to invest in startups that relocate to DC.”
Maxime Paul, founder of e2: educating entrepreneurs, told DC: “They should have just invested in companies here. It seems like they have little faith.”

And some decided to take a step back from this maelstrom:

Raymond Rahbar, the founder and CEO of UberOffices, said in an email: “It’s one of those things that I assume we won’t know the benefits (if any) until years down the road. It’s impossible to measure the impact immediately. … I could also be wrong, but they are also gathering sponsors to offset that cost. … If they can get a lot of sponsors from the usual suspects they’ll also lower their price tag quite a bit.”
Rebecca Williams, an organizer of the DC Legal Hackers, noted in an email: “Vetting expenditures like this is something community members should be doing. There should be a democratic dialogue between the community and the government on how tax dollars are spent. While the District currently has two open data catalogs, finding line item budget or spending information is not available on these websites.”
Travis Valentine, a LivingSocial engineer, admitted on Facebook: “For what it’s worth, I didn’t even know the City was doing anything.”

Companies: Washington, DC Economic Partnership

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