Tech gurus frequently emphasize the importance of community to entrepreneurs. This month we talk with Fishbowl Labs, an AOL-owned group. They offer a very select group of high-growth startups, programmers and designers in Northern Virginia a very special community. It's provided in what they term "the most inspiring office space in Northern Virginia ... flexible and fun," to which we might also add: free, and at AOL's Dulles headquarters. Could your company qualify to join their incubator? Co-Founder Fletcher Jones and Social Media and Events Manager Lauren Meeker tackled our questions.
1. Tell us about Fishbowl Labs - what does it offer the entrepreneurial community?
Jones: At Fishbowl Labs, startups are surrounded by other entrepreneurs, engineers and product managers who are also starting companies and facing similar challenges. Startups have access to AOL's range of employees who work on designing, engineering and distributing AOL content and products. AOL also provides resources that small businesses need but could never afford. Fishbowl companies have access to AOL's Quality Assurance Lab, a valuable resource that provides an advantage over a typical co-working space and most incubators. In addition to the resources at AOL, the Dulles campus sits on the backbone of the Internet -- up to 70 percent of the world's Internet traffic passes through data centers in Loudoun County. As the D.C. tech community continues to evolve, it is important that high-growth tech startups take advantage of the close proximity of such astounding Internet traffic.
5. Can you give us a success story about how Fishbowl's mentoring and environment has assisted tenants?
Meeker: When Fishbowl started, it included one company - Speek - which consisted of three people. Speek, which now employs 14, continues to be part of Fishbowl, and has raised over $1.5M in seed funding. They are now in the running for Wall Street Journal's Startup of the Year, and continue to grow at a rapid rate.
3. With applications to Fishbowl Labs due soon for the fall, what advice would you give new applicants, and how many will you accept?
Jones: We are looking for companies that come highly recommended by at least one other Fishbowl company or mentor. It is also incredibly important that they have the right culture fit for Fishbowl and AOL -- we're looking for companies that have charisma, hustle and drive. We are also actively seeking companies who are looking for and can benefit from the type of expertise (data, design and distribution) that AOL can provide. We are not yet sure how many startups we will be accepting during this application period, but we have unlimited space for great companies.
4. In addition to the criteria on your website, which types of companies would you most prefer?
Jones: ... Companies that are focused in [data, design, and distribution] can really take advantage of the Fishbowl Labs program. We are especially interested in companies that are Internet-enabled, with a significant consumer or mobile component. These are the companies that will get the most out of our AOL mentors.
5. What have your startups told you about the experience?
Ryan Shank, COO of Mhelpdesk, says, "Fishbowl Labs is high-energy, it is productive, everyone out here is working towards a common goal - everyone is trying to build the biggest, baddest company possible at an amazing speed. Everyone is just in it to win it. Everyone is working together and helping each other, yet at the same time everyone has their eye on the prize for their own company."
Danny Boice, CTO of Speek, adds, "You can interact with the more corporate AOL environment as much as you want to, but you also get to act with your normal, traditional startup environment. People are wearing shorts and flip flops, working strange hours, and pulling all-nighters. You have all the great things that come with being a startup as well so you have the best of both worlds."