Evan Burfield – Startup America – K Street Capital Part 2

When you meet Evan Burfield, he looks you up and down and runs a quick algorithm. If the results indicate you can serve his short-term goals, you’re a friend. If you have no apparent near-term value, even if you had helped him in the past, he deems you not worthy of his attention.

That appears to be the formula. See a person, judge them from high to low in terms of the value they can perform in terms of his next goal. He’s a brilliant analyst of short-term value and knows how to push the accelerator to get people to serve his goals. In this post, as in part 1 (seen here) and in upcoming Part 3 we follow this pattern and track the list of bodies that were pushed aside when value was extracted.

Startup America – 2011

After Evan’s second experience being fired by investors in the only companies he’d ever led and founded, he was once again, made available to industry. Yes sure, he’d been “promoted” to “Chairman of the Board,” of Synteractive, a company that had no board supervision, but let’s just say he was underemployed.

In 2011, we find Evan, on the street, looking for some way to remain relevant. He shared with friends that he had aspirations for political office and dangling in front of him was a new Private/Public partnership… Startup America an Obama administration initiative headed up by AOL’s Steve Case. With time on his hands, timing is everything, this initiative was his path to political office.

His short-term utility detector picked up the scent as he focused on Scott Case, (no familial relation to Steve, prior Scott was the co-founder of Priceline). Scott was the new CEO of the initiative hired by Steve Case. Scott immediately began building a team and he soon hired Donna Harris to build partnerships. Boom! Now Donna rose onto Burfield’s short-term utility radar. Evan was determined to be a Startup America partner.

I was coaching Scott Case at the time and working on the Startup America mentorship program after being introduced to Scott by Steve Case. My relationship with Scott offered me a grandstand seat to watch Evan cozying up to Startup America.

As Startup America sought directors for the multiple jurisdictional leadership positions… some of them were obvious.  Prominent Startup Community Organizer, Jonathan Aberman, an early volunteer working with Case on the national organization was a natural choice to lead Startup Virginia.

To help get Startup Maryland organized, Aberman convened a meeting  of top Maryland-based entrepreneurs including: Tien Wong (DC entrepreneur and the most connected human being in the Washington Region), Julie Lenzer (who was then successfully leading the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship), Mike Binko (a very accomplished startup veteran), Rob Rosenbaum (the then President of TEDCO) and Mark Walsh (then Chairman of the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, a FOS (Friend of Steve Case) and former AOL executive). This would become the organizing board for Startup Maryland.

Binko and Lenzer would later be named the co-leads of the movement with the support of the board.

DC had few obvious choices, but Evan felt he was the man for the job. Burfield was not in the same league as any of his counterparts of Startup Maryland or Virginia in any measurement except his extensive vocabulary of Startup cliches. No one could out-passionately reinvent kickass anything better than Burfield. While his experience, track record, and character paled when compared to his DMV peers, he absolutely kicked ass in his t-shirt wardrobe. No one in the world was his superior in terms of  Startupish-talk and Startupish-leisurewear.

Lenzer, Binko and Aberman were unquestionably strong choices and both selflessly agreed to volunteer when recruited. I don’t know about anyone else but my past experience with Evan and the knowledge of his past character issues and failures made me leary of his value and ability to perform in the role. While others were recruited, Evan actively campaigned for office. What was his motive?

Evan, at that time, a relatively unknown, cozied up to Aberman, worked the Harris relationship campaigned tirelessly to lobby for the role. In a concern that no one else was raising their hand to lead Startup DC I began my own private recruiting mission. I independently looked for potential leaders. Beleive it or not (why this may seem unbelievable), I reached out, in an unofficial capacity to Peter Corbett.  He wasn’t interested. Jamey Harvey… not interested. Eventually, Evan was the most competent candidate, a relative one-eyed man in the land of the blind of candidates willing to take the role. Burfield was the last man standing.

With strong backing from Harris and Aberman, Evan obtained his objective and was crowned the leader of Startup DC.  While Aberman was an early supporter and certainly helped Evan obtain the post,  sometime after, the Burfield, Aberman relationship soured. In private there was no secret that Aberman had lost respect for Burfield. I saw direct evidence of this in comments made by Aberman and based on others close to Aberman. When I reached out to Jonathan for comment for this post, in typical Aberman show of class, he did not deny a schism but he would not comment on it (Aberman ain’t no Mr. Cranky).

Evan would keep the Donna Harris relationship warm, she had not yet exhausted her value. That relationship soured much later.

K Street Capital – 2012

Evan’s next Brilliant Idea… getting non-tech-savvy, lawyers and lobbyists to invest in the tech sector by introducing them to some of DC’s stupidest companies. He was going to start an Angel Group to introduce these lobbyists to startup investing. “Brilliant” curation of deals. According to Crunchbase, K Street made investments in many of Mr Cranky’s Dogs of DC Tech, including:

  • Speek – A company that competed in the extremely low-margin conference call space with one easy-to-duplicate feature (customer-defined named conference calls as opposed to computer assigned numerics) co-founded by Danny Boice, one of the few people who when standing next to Burfield, makes Burfield eligible for sainthood. Speek was sold in a distressed asset sale where the investors received nothing.
  • Disruption – A company that specialized in selling stuff to startups that they didn’t want, couldn’t afford, and that don’t stay in business long enough to have a lifetime value that justifies chasing them. Disruption, founded by Paul Singh was one of two operations he attempted to run simultaneously. The other one, an accelerator (Crystal Tech Fund). It’s hard enough to run one enterprise successfully… both failed.
  • Social Tables – A great company! I’m pretty sure that K Street didn’t invest. Evan is just counting his $2,500.00 personal investment as a K Street capital investment in Social Tables.  $2,500 is not an investment… it’s a PR expense.

K Street petered out in a puff of smoke. Many of the non-Tech Startup members who saw so much trash presented as golden investments will probably never dip their investment foot in the startup water ever again.

Hallway

In 2012 Evan partnered with Jonathon Perrelli to work with a group of high school students on their impressive High School project called Hallway. Evan was named Chairman, conned the founders out of some stock, and went out pitching to raise money. I saw him pitch at the Dingman Angels, in place of the operating team who were attending class at Thomas Jefferson High School that day.

The company was quite impressive as a High School Science project but was not in anyway an investable idea. It was similar to many companies like StudyHall that experienced the high cost of customer acquisition, the low bar of competition and the low lifetime value of a customer. The Dingman Angels had no interest. Hell, even Evan’s own K Street Capital didn’t invest.

Yet Burfield and Perrelli convinced founder, Sean McElrath to skip college to make Hallway a thing. The company failed in 2014, Sean went on to University of Virginia.

There’s a reason, no competent Angel investors would invest in Hallway. Yet it was a great publicity vehicle for Evan, Thomas Jefferson High School Alum who himself skipped college to found a company. Here was Evan, the very “successful” startup businessman, validating a school project. He helped convince these kids that they were the next Zuckerbergs.

I have heard, that the founders of Hallway had a falling out with Burfield.

My big issue at the time was Evan interfering in these kids heads. He was neither parent or guardian. Most importantly he was not equipped to judge what is or is not a valid startup idea. After 20 years he’s still not been part of a winner. I’m glad he never had access to my kids.

Up Next

Look for Part 3 of this series that will track the debacle that was 1776, the bodies Evan had pushed aside and the prospects of success for his 4th company and future failure.

See:


(update note: 10/27/2017 12:53 – updated the details of the Startup Maryland formation adding Lenzer, Binko and Wong’s involvement)

(Author’s Note: I struggled when writing this post. I was hoping to produce a two-part series but the length of part 2 was becoming too long and unwieldy. This post is a transitional post and less substantial than Part 1 and the upcoming Part 3. It is foundational transitional post that I believed was needed in order to support the conclusions that will be made in Part 3.)