In some ways, when Paul Singh settled back down in his old Virginia stomping grounds to launch Disruption Corporation, he was returning home to cultivate his garden.
But in the mind of this ambitious venture capitalist, that meant creating a whole new ecosystem for the tech industry.
Sitting in a glass-enclosed room in his Crystal City headquarters, Singh told Technical.ly DC why he wants to model a “sustainable model for an American city of the future” right here in a neighborhood that was once viewed as nothing more than federal contractor central, Arlington, Va.
In 2013, Singh bid adieu to the high-metabolism early-stage VC fund 500 Startups and returned home to marry West Coast entrepreneurship with the pragmatism of Northern Virginia.
"Our efforts in the city should be a 100-year legacy."
By then, he’d recoiled from some of the fast-paced ethos of the tech industry. “The word ‘startup’ now has become too Hollywoodized,” he said.
So he founded Disruption, a firm that uses proprietary software called Hubble to identify the most promising businesses.
Singh launched the $50 million Crystal Tech Fund in April 2014. Though Singh said it’s not specifically targeted at local startups, the truth is that more than half of its portfolio companies are based in the area.
But the fund is also circumspect. Singh wants to invest in small but fast-growing companies — not just any startup that bites off more than it can chew. One thing he values most in prospective businesses is “when the core team has everyone on board.”
“The dirty secret of venture capital, is that you don’t know who the winners are,” Singh stressed. “You just have to trust your gut.”
With a dozen carefully-chosen investments, he hopes to nudge NoVa, historically a hub for government-byproduct industries, into embracing its emerging technology scene.
Singh has got his work cut out for him — he’s learned that firsthand.
Before packing his bags for the West Coast in 2007, Singh had lived in Reston, Great Falls and Ashburn, and studied at George Mason University.
Back then, unless you were in “defense or politics or lobbying or IT,” he said, “you didn’t really matter.”
But during his “super angel” (to quote LinkedIn) days in California, he began seeing signs of a mentality — and economic — shift.
"The dirty secret of venture capital is that you don't know who the winners are. You just have to trust your gut."
“I started to get more and more D.C. companies pitching to me,” he said. Startups like Contactually and Social Tables.
That’s when he considered his time was up. “I can finally move back,” he thought. (In truth, he’d never really left, keeping a house in Virginia and traveling back and forth: “I would do laundry here and I would do laundry there,” he readily pointed out.)
But though the 33-year-old has apparently returned for the long haul, he also brought back some Silicon Valley pizazz.
“I want to create the most productive environment for every kind of creative entrepreneur,” said Singh.
The Disruption Corporation offices are bare but flashy: Sean Paul and other ’90s tunes are playing non-stop; colorful graffiti by Chicago street artist Justus Roe adorns the temporary wall; and a cold coffee keg fuels a focused but buzzy crew.
The offices extend across 44,000 square feet — but only 28,000 so far are occupied. “I don’t really need all of this space,” said Singh. “We can just cram into this little spot.”
So, he’s opened up a chunk of the space to any company in the Crystal Tech Fund portfolio that needs flexible office space. Some have decided to set up shop here, like Speek, nvite and Bloompop.
They sit down in groups of one to a dozen while airplanes outside whizz toward Reagan National. “We want high views,” said Singh. “The kind of views that entrepreneurs don’t get.”
Then, there is the surrounding Crystal City, which is quietly growing many of the amenities that could draw young technologists to the erstwhile suited-up office emporium.
Singh envisions a trifecta of entrepreneurial hubs: an upcoming WeWork residential space; the TechShop makerspace; and Disruption, the high-tech hub.
“Where they all collide is all the restaurants in the middle,” he said.
Every Thursday, Disruption opens its doors to area entrepreneurs. These sessions tend to draw in the multitasking millennials whose offices are where their laptops lie.
During one such #sparkdisruption session, we ran into a little microcosm of the #DCTech universe: Christopher Breene, Jeff Tong, Stephanie Nguyen, Omid Jahanbin — while the potent Commonwealth Joe brew had our heart aflutter.
“Our efforts in the city should be a 100-year legacy,” said Singh. And, “For some reason, I really like Virginia.”