At the end of March, a tiny item in the Term Sheet column in Fortune announced a big #dctech deal — small local ticketing startup nvite had been acquired by Silicon Valley’s Eventbrite. It was precisely the kind of news tech ecosystems outside the Valley like to celebrate: scrappy local team working on something cool gets noticed (and scooped up) by a unicorn. It’s a success story that rolls around rarely, which is why it was remarkable that, for nvite cofounders Marty Ringlein and Alex Girón, it was the second time it had happened.
— nvite (@nvite) March 31, 2017
Ringlein and Girón first worked together at Cygnus Business Media in 2005. Ringlein was “just a baby” — 23 or 24 years old and in his second job out of college. But he was also Creative Director tasked with hiring and leading a design team capable of bringing Cygnus into the internet age. So Ringlein decided to only hire designers who could also code and soon he had built up a team around a mantra that has followed him since — “You do really big work, you do it really quickly and you don’t let shit get in the way.“
Back then it was Girón who was the risk taker. “Now we’ve switched roles,” Ringlein reflected recently.
The two soon left Cygnus — Ringlein went to The Motley Fool and Girón headed to NavigationArts. But all that talk about starting something continued. Ringlein remembers one specific day, in December 2006, when Girón was traveling in Russia and they were catching up over instant messenger. We should start our own agency, Girón suggested, for the umpteenth time. LOL, Ringlein responded.
But he couldn’t shake the idea and within two weeks he’d left The Motley Fool. “If I don’t do this right now I’ll never do it,” Ringlein said.
The company they launched, on Jan. 18 2006, was nclud, a “creative web design agency.” At first, Ringlein admits, the “company” was really just him and Girón doing aggressive amounts of freelance work. But slowly nclud started to grow — after landing the gig of doing a big redesign for D.C. marketing agency Ogilvy, people started to take them seriously.
The founding duo started assembling a team in their Blagden Alley offices — a team of smart, tech savvy, forward-thinking folks with good taste. “We wanted to create a place where people like us would want to work,” Ringlein said.
Team building was a big deal for Ringlein and Girón. In my conversations with each of them they mentioned the importance of team over and over again. And this isn’t without reason — Girón believes it was the team that, in 2010, lured in nclud’s biggest client: Apple.
“We were fairly up with trends and very interested in what was new,” Girón said. It was the “right time, right place with the right people.”
“It’s the coolest thing,” Ringlein said, of getting the Apple call. “There is nobody above Apple.”
But what was Apple, iconic West Coast company renowned for design, doing with a 12-person creative agency based out of D.C.?
Nclud did a lot of “experimental stuff” for Apple, Ringlein said. For example, there was the time that Apple asked nclud to come up with some prototypes for what could be done using a really shitty processor and a small screen. “We thought they were pranking us,” Ringlein recounted, with some glee. But they were not, he learned, years down the road. Small screen and shitty processor? Meet the Apple Watch.
It was that kind of work, and the team at nclud loved it. “We never really thought we’d sell the company, to be honest,” Girón said. Back then, he said, they were building a lifestyle company.
But that all changed when, in 2012, Twitter came knocking.
By this point, nclud had long since outgrown it’s Blagden Alley home. The company’s second office, Girón said, was in Adams Morgan. But pretty soon they picked up to move again, this time to 1203 19th Street NW near Dupont. There Girón and Ringlein launched a new venture — Canvas Co/work.
The early iteration of coworking in D.C. was a natural extension of Ringlein’s build a place where cool people want to work ethos — nclud invited freelance designers and others into their space to work. Half of the office was nclud’s and the other half was Canvas.
As nclud grew, also, the company began to host its own events. The design (especially web design) scene in D.C. wasn’t as active in 2006 as it is today. It’s hard to imagine these days, when tech startup parties are de rigeur, but back then nclud was hosting some of the only, and biggest, #dctech gatherings. It was all the way back then, in fact, that the team first started playing around with the idea of building their own RSVP software.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Twitter’s acquisition interest presented some difficulties.
The San Francisco-based social media giant wanted to bring the nclud team in-house, but not everyone at nclud felt ready to pack up and move. Of the 12 employees at the time, just six were prepared to follow nclud into a new era — others had children and responsibilities and couldn’t imagine leaving D.C.
“This was a huge struggle for Alex and I,” Ringlein said. He felt responsibility for those six employees who couldn’t join, but what could he do?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Somehow, Ringlein managed to change the terms of the deal to allow him to essentially sell nclud twice — six employees and their intellectual property to Twitter (that’s what Twitter wanted, after all) and the other six employees, nclud’s client list and name to Browser Media (which runs nclud under the same name to this day).
“I think it’s the smartest business deal we’ve ever done,” Ringlein said.
So Ringlein and Girón moved to San Francisco for the first time. Ringlein didn’t last long at Twitter — it didn’t suit him. “I did not super love it,” he said, explaining that 2012/2013 was a hard time to be at the company. For Girón, though, it was a better fit. “It was a crazy experience,” he said, of his year and eight months at Twitter, during which the company grew for 500 employees to around 3,000. “A great experience from my perspective.”
By summer 2013 Ringlein was back in D.C., working as a Presidential Innovation Fellow for the Obama Administration. Girón, for his part, left Twitter in January 2014 and took a year off. It was at that point that Ringlein started to think about what his next project might be. After years in an agency setting, he realized he’d always wanted to create his own product. And as he tossed around ideas a memory kept coming back up — “nvite,” that custom software the nclud team had built for a party years ago.
So Ringlein talked with some former teammates and they started working on it. In summer 2014 nvite raised a $1 million seed round led by Paul Singh’s Crystal Tech Fund, and in January 2015 Girón officially moved back to D.C. and joined the team too.
Over the next years, nvite became the go-to ticketing platform for #dctech events. You know what I mean. The one-click social RSVP and social guest list features were new and exciting and the design (of course) was always spot on. The company was a poster boy for #dctech pride — in February 2016 they even launched a specific site for D.C. tech events. Being here and not using nvite was something of a dubious statement.
This time, when Eventbrite called, the whole team moved west. It was really the perfect exit for nvite — the company was always too small to really compete with Eventbrite and others, but it does have something to add. “We didn’t necessarily set out to sell the company,” Girón said, “but we always knew that was an option.”
Girón couldn’t be happier with the move (he loves San Francisco) and Ringlein is enjoying it too. “Eventbrite is an amazing company,” he said. “It feels good.” But still, “D.C. is always home.”
So what’s the secret sauce behind not one, but two exits, both to hot Silicon Valley unicorns?
Team, Girón and Ringlein say. Gathering a rockstar team and creating “a place where great talent can do great work” is the key. “Great people doing great work — that has to make money,” Ringlein said. “And if not, I’m done.”
So far, he’s far from done.