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Clay Johnson Opens "Big Window" for Tiny Disruptors

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, November 16 2010

Clay Johnson has seen his path through the world of technology and politics make its way from being part of the groundbreaking Dean campaign to the founding of the multi-million dollar Blue State Digital to heading up the Sunlight Foundation's* high-profile Labs wing to, as of this week, the launch of something he's calling Big Window Labs. Big Window's mission: to provide support for small teams of perhaps two or three people who have both a desire to "be disruptive in what's core to Washington, DC," whether that's in government, politics, and media, and to make adequate amounts of money while doing it. It sounded to me a bit like what the tech industry calls an incubator. Is it?

I asked Johnson. His answer -- not quite:

I try and avoid the word "incubator" because I think that the incubator model is broken. I think companies that are coming out of incubators, more often than not, are built to get acquired and that a lot of these startups seem more like speculative contracts. The model of the incubator seems to be "think of a neat feature for Google or Facebook to have, make it, and then we'll help you go sell it to Google or Facebook."

That model certainly has made incubators and some founders a lot of money, but I don't see a lot of focus on creating small businesses that are actually sustainable. Your classic incubators don't seem concerned about that. 

So there's not a great word for it. But I say we make it easier for people to bootstrap their own businesses and get to profitability so that entrepreneurs can create companies they love.

Johnson's a programmer by background, and he went on to say that he has a natural fondness for the notion of using the web or mobile to create change. But more central to his mission, he said, is helping to make it so that smart people naturally attracted to DC can make their way to the city (if they're not there already), team up with like-minded people, build something productive and sustainable, find some useful advisors, make an honest living, grow things to a natural point, and have a good, fulfilling time doing it. "We don't have enough of that in Washington," said Johnson.

Big Window Labs' co-working space will be based at 3634 Georgia Avenue NW, about a block south of the Petworth Metro stop.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.