How Blue State Digital Co-Founder Plans to Hack D.C.

Blue State Digital D.C. puzzle Clay Johnson is used to upending the way Washington works. He was the lead programmer for Howard Dean in 2004, a breakthrough campaign when it came to using the Internet. He co-founded Blue State Digital, a consultancy that put online tools in the hands of hundreds of other campaigns in 2008 (and earned a title as one of Fast Company’s "Fast 50"), as well a role in this month's iCitizen article.. Now Johnson is launching an incubator to help other startups "disrupt the business of Washington."

Big Window Labs will provide office space, legal services, and mentoring to startups in the fields of media, politics, and government. These aren’t the kind of companies that incubators like Y Combinator or TechStars usually take on, however. Washington is about consultants—professional service firms that help campaigns succeed and government contractors work more effectively.

What companies could come out of Big Window Labs? Imagine a startup that figures out how to do better political TV ads. Or one that converts direct mail donors into Internet donors. Or one that figures out how to navigate the federal procurement process more efficiently.

Every election cycle, a slew of such new companies emerge, having figured out new and better ways to attack certain pieces of the campaign puzzle. But without mentors to help them grow and become sustainably profitable, Johnson says, they get "taken advantage of" by the older, more established D.C. firms. Either they buy a huge stake in a new venture for pennies (Johnson says he knows of one startup that sold a 90% stake for a mere $200,000 because the founder "didn’t know any better") or they simply absorb the entrant into their own practice.

"D.C. is not a supportive area for entrepreneurs," Johnson says. "I want to make it a safe place to grow a business."

For the most part, Johnson won’t be investing money in the companies in this incubator. Washington consultancies generally don’t need the kinds of investments that tech companies do. Instead, Johnson will be investing himself. He’ll come on as a co-founder, in return for a stake of between 6% and 15%, depending on the venture. He will work closely with the companies to shepherd them through the process of becoming sustainable businesses.

Johnson says he’ll choose three companies to work with for 2011, and will aim for five in 2012. He’s the only partner in Big Window currently, though he's looking to grow the team. He also says he plans to bat a thousand—and that could explain why he's not certain that "incubator" is the right term for Big Window Labs. Typical incubators invest in a slew of companies expecting that only a few will win big, "it’s not in our model that any of our businesses will fail," Johnson says.

Following his experience building sustainable enterprises at Blue State Digital and, more recently, at the Sunlight Foundation’s Sunlight Labs, Johnson, 33, says it’s time for him to start teaching others. "The more people that do what I’ve done, the better for Washington and the better for the country."

[Image: Flickr user laura padgett]

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