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Washingtonians In Startup-Land: In The Trenches At The Fort

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D.C.’s new business accelerator, The Fort, gives tech start-up companies a place to develop and grow, with help from mentors, financiers and fellow start-ups.
The Fort.vc
D.C.’s new business accelerator, The Fort, gives tech start-up companies a place to develop and grow, with help from mentors, financiers and fellow start-ups.

As a founding partner of D.C.'s new venture-capital fund, Fortify.vc, Jonathon Perrelli hopes to nurture what he sees as a burgeoning industry in this government town: technology.

"I found a real void for early-stage capital [in Washington]," Perrelli says. "That's why in May of last year we started writing checks, and people were like, 'who are these people writing low six-figure checks? Why are they doing this? This is a Silicon Valley thing!'"

Fortify dreamed up a way to introduce D.C.'s tech startups to their angel investors, by launching what it hopes will be an annual pitch competition, called "Distilled Intelligence." This past fall, winners received $25,000, and a handful were invited to set up camp in Fortify's new office, which opened off Farragut Square in January. Fortify calls the sleek, modern space on K Street "The Fort."

"As a student of military history [who came] from a military family and traveled with military contracts and doing defense work, I think why we call it The Fort is that it's about being in the trenches together and helping one another," Perrelli says.

The "tech accelerator" not only provides its thirteen portfolio companies with seed money and cubicle areas, or "bunkers," it provides a sense of community. In addition to interacting with one another, they can turn to the Fortify team for advice, or as Perrelli calls it, TLC: everything from help with interviewing candidates to having extra advisers come along on sales calls.

"That's one of the main things we spend our time on, is with the companies," he says. "So we're really like founders in their company."

Hence the Fortify motto: Founders Funding Founders.

One of the Founders being funded by Fortify, Winston Lord, truly appreciates the TLC. Especially since, like so many others at The Fort, the native Washingtonian went out on a limb to co-found his company, Venga, a guest-management system for eateries and bars.

"We capture all items that are on a bill, and are creating customer profiles for restaurants, so they know their customers a lot better," Lord says.

He says after college he enjoyed nearly two decades of steady - and cushy - paychecks, working in politics, sports and eventually PR. He left it all behind for Venga - which, incidentally, is Italian for "Let's go!"

"So I haven't pulled a salary in two years!" he says. "[It's] a huge risk, but there's going to be a huge reward, so it's worth it."

One bunker over, Stephen Candelmo is kind of in the same boat as Lord. Candelmo used to work on K Street, as a big-time lawyer. Now he's the CEO and founder of Klaggle, a service that helps web-users write, share and utilize online reviews, which is important, Candelmo says, since 80 percent of users sift through reviews before spending their money.

"Our secret sauce is that we actually analyze what people are writing in real time, and we can score a written review or opinion, Candelmo says. "So it's allowing us to really attack the problem of opinion and data overload."

Having left behind that law-firm life, Candelmo says he's thrilled to have found support now that he's taken the plunge and gone out on his own.

"It's one thing to be doing it for your clients, which is great," he says. "But when you're doing it for yourself, and it's just that natural high of making something out of nothing that offsets the risk."

And yet it's that very risk that gets Fortify's Perrelli going.

"We applaud when people say, 'I just left X consulting firm, I just left this government contracting gig,'" Perrelli says. "Because they're taking that risk. I mean, that's what it's all about."

But, he says, it's not just about taking that risk and succeeding. "Our investment thesis is, 'Invest on the way up,'" Perrelli says. "So companies who are doing well, continue to support them. And then companies that are failing, let them fail fast. In fact, help them to fail, and have them move on. And so those will die a happy death because they'll go on to start another company, hopefully."

Whatever happens, though, Perrelli's excited about this new tech breeding ground on K Street, and says Washington's more conservative venture capitalists are excited, too.

"I think later-stage VCs all appreciate what we're doing because I think they believe that we'll create some great companies," he says. "Hopefully the next Living Social or Facebook comes out of a Fortify company that's in The Fort."

[Music: "Start Me Up" by Various from Reggae Stone]

Photos: Washingtonian Startup


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