DC was the blankest canvas of a city that I could imagine: Peter Corbett - Technical.ly DC

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Nov. 25, 2014 11:45 am

DC was the blankest canvas of a city that I could imagine: Peter Corbett

He's known for helping to first bring together the DC tech community. Now, the CEO of 50-person ad agency iStrategyLabs talks about what first brought him here and how he's watched it all grow.

Peter Corbett, founder and CEO of digital ad agency iStrategyLabs, at Apps for Amsterdam 2011.

(Photo by Flickr user Waag Society, used under a Creative Commons license)

iStrategyLabs recently created a Wizard of Oz-worthy contraption: the Dorothy trigger allows you to activate a command on your phone with a click of your shoes. It’s the kind of clever, attention-grabbing merger of technology and digital strategy that the seven-year-old agency has built a reputation on.

Founder and CEO Peter Corbett has long been credited as helping to first crystallize the #dctech community — he led the launch of DC Tech Meetup and Digital Capital Week. He’s been something of the city’s tech scene tastemaker, so word of iStrategy’s expansion to Brooklyn this summer came with all the requisite nerves about where leadership would remain.

Here, he said. Most of the company’s 50 employees are here, as is the stack of prizes they’ve won, including Ad Age’s 2014 Small Agency of the Year.

We chatted with Corbett to ask him whether Emerald City (hint, hint, D.C.) is really as bright as it may seem to the untrained eye.

Edited for length and clarity.

###

Why did you found iStrategyLabs in D.C.?

I had moved down from New York about 10 years ago, and I worked for a number of ad agencies and I got laid off. I kind of always planned to be an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur who’s going to bootstrap a business, what’s the easiest thing to do?

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D.C. was the blankest canvas of a city that I could imagine, whereas New York was like a Jackson Pollock painting.

I could really make an impact on the city itself and the community of people that I was a part of and wanted to be a part of.

How have you seen the D.C. tech community evolve since then?

There’s always been successful technology startups in the D.C. region going back to the AOL days. But when I moved down to D.C. 10 years ago, the designers and developers and startup folks weren’t a community.

Brick by brick over time, I would host coffee events, happy hours. And then we created D.C. Week [which grew from 6,000 people in 2010 to 12,000 in 2012] and the D.C. Tech Meetup [now with over 10,000 members].

I wanted to hang out with designers because I’m a designer, I wanted to hang out with developers because I’m a developer, and I wanted to hang out with business people.

How do you explain the change?

There’s sort of a confluence of positive forces:

  • The invention of social technology, which has enabled all of us to connect with each other.
  • A big macro trend that has happened and continues to happen in D.C. That is the reorganization of cities, the move of people into cities. When you have density, you have friction. And the sparks that fly out due to that friction, due to the heat that’s generated, are companies.
  • There’s more and more early-stage capital. Specifically in D.C. you’ve got the rise and activity of people like the Disruption CorporationNextGen AngelsTEDCO, CIT. There’s so much money it’s ridiculous.

What’s special about D.C. tech?

It’s probably one of the best connected scenes. The tech community in D.C. also happens to be very supportive and very friendly.

Yet it’s always comparing itself to other places. Yes, it is a great place to start a company, but why the insecurity?

What’s missing?

Peter Corbett. (Photo courtesy of iStrategyLabs)

Peter Corbett. (Photo courtesy of iStrategyLabs)

The thing you can’t change about the D.C. tech ecosystem is whether or not the customers are there.

In D.C. you have some Fortune 500s: Marriott and Hilton and a few others. But there isn’t a density of corporates doing big deals like there are in Silicon Valley or in New York. You’re not going to get NBC Universal to move its headquarters in D.C.

When you’re building a software, you need to see your customers, you need to hopefully bump into them all the time. Many companies over time have left D.C. after becoming successful, and that’s just how it works.

The D.C. tech ecosystem hasn’t come to grips with that. [Editor’s note: iStrategyLabs has an office in New York that focuses on customer development, but its main operation remains here.]

Yeah, maybe D.C. is nearly one of the best places to start a company, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best place to grow a company.

Any advice for someone looking to follow your entrepreneurial path?

The best advice is to literally just do. Do something. There is that dividing line between those who do and those who talk.

The right advice is particular to every person. I was fired and then I had to figure out how to eat.

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