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The top ten DC startups of all time

A street scene outside Woodward & Lothrop at 11th and F NW

A display window at Woodie's

A tabulating machine from Herman Hollerith, the founder of a precursor to IBM

The original Hot Shoppe on 14th Street NW, which launched J. Willard Marriott's hotel empire

One of the original Children's Bargain Town stores, which became Toys "R" Us

Dischord Records #1

Bethesda Softworks' first breakout game, Gridiron!

A UUNet office

The D.C. startup scene is sometimes viewed through a very short lens, as a new phenomenon that sprang up out of nothing in the last decade. But even the largest companies were once startups. Today, we look at some big companies that started right here. The businesses profiled below all started in the greater D.C. area; some went on to become household names. All of them, in some way, have helped make D.C. into the thriving entrepreneurial center it is today.

1.The most senior business on our list is the venerable department store Woodward and Lothrop, or "Woodie's," founded in 1887. In its initial iteration, Woodie's, cofounded by Samuel Walter Woodward and Alvin Mason Lothrop, was a dry goods store at 11th and F Sts NW. The company expanded to the suburbs after the second World War and has the distinction of being one of the first stores in the country to sell Play-Doh. After successfully serving the D.C. area for more than a century, Woodie's was liquidated in 1995.
(Side note—a second department store, Kann's, had a shorter, but no less significant, lifespan. Founded by Solomon Kann and his three sons in 1893, Kann's stood on 8th Street NW, across from the current National Archives. The company was known for its low prices and liberal social policies; according to John DeFerrari, who covers D.C. history in the blog Streets of Washington, Kann's was the first company in the city to use black mannequins in its store windows. Kann's went out of business in 1975.
2. Okay, stay with us, because this one has as many mergers and acquisitions as a modern-day corporate takeover. In 1896, the Tabulating Machine Company (TMC) was incorporated in Georgetown by Herman Hollerith, who invented the punch card and was hired by the U.S. Census Bureau to help process the 1890 census. In 1911, TMC then merged with two other organizations to become the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co., the predecessor of IBM (International Business Machines). Several years and name changes later, with Thomas Watson, Sr., at the helm, IBM was born. To check out Hollerith's digs first-hand, visit Sea Catch. The restaurant occupies the warehouse where Hollerith did all the bean counting.
3. In 1927, newlyweds J. Willard and Alice Sheets Marriott opened an A&W root beer stand on 14th St. NW in the District. As winter drew near, the Marriotts added hot food to the menu and the eatery was quickly christened "Hot Shoppe." The nine stools grew to a chain of 70 restaurants by 1965, giving Marriott the foundation he needed to grow a second enterprise—the international hotel chain that bears his name. Today, Marriott has 3,700 properties in 73 different countries and territories—not a bad return on an investment that started with a single root beer stand.
4. After serving in World War II, in 1948, D.C. resident and second-generation entrepreneur Charles Lazarus decided to follow in his uncle's footsteps and open a baby furniture store. Lazarus capitalized on the post-WWII baby boom with D.C.'s Children's Bargain Town. Soon after opening, Lazarus stocked furniture as well as toys, and in 1958, when he opened a second location, he changed the name to Toys"R"Us. Lazarus's original shop now ouses local blues bar Madam's Organ. According to Toys"R"Us company history, "although the name [the backward 'R'] drew ire from parents and teachers alike for its grammatical incorrectness, Lazarus knew it was an attention-getter." The company continues to sell toys (and baby furniture) today.
5. BET (Black Entertainment Television) got its start in D.C. in 1979. Robert Johnson, founder of the company, was working as a lobbyist for cable television and noticed that there wasn't much on the dial for black audiences. He took a chance, a $15,000 bank loan and an investment from John Malone, the then-CEO of the country's third-largest cable company, Tele-Communications Inc., and spun it into BET. The network is now a subsidiary of Viacom, Inc., but it still operates out of Northeast.
6. Dischord Records, a record label founded in 1980 by Ian MacKaye, still produces music in the District, though they've come a long way from their first release, the Teen Idles' Minor Disturbance. MacKaye, a member of the post-hardcore band Fugazi, has insisted that Dischord produce music solely from D.C. artists. "We only release music from the D.C.'s music scene because this is the city where we live, work and have the most understanding," he has said. "To expand would be to dilute our focus."
(Not familiar with D.C.'s indie music scene? You've certainly heard of D.C.'s other famous record company, Columbia Records, which was founded in the District in 1878 by Edward Denison Easton as the Columbia Phonograph and the American Gramophone Company. The company is now based in New York City.)
7. Love Five Guys burgers and fries? Send some thanks to Jerry and Janie Murrell and their five sons, who opened their first burger joint in Arlington in 1986. Until 2002, Five Guys' lovers had to visit the District to get their fix—whether it was with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms or as many as ten other toppings. The Murrells made franchises available to locations in the DMV and then nationwide in 2003; you can now order hot Five Guys' fries in 47 states and 6 Canadian provinces.
8. Hardcore gamers know the name Bethesda Softworks. The video game publisher was founded in 1986 by Christopher Weaver in Bethesda, Md., and made a big splash with Gridiron!, a football simulation. In 1994, the company partnered with Media Technology Limited, which was eventually bought out by ZeniMax Media, Inc. Today, Bethesda operates out of Rockville, Md., and is considered a subsidiary of ZeniMax. Some of the most popular titles to come out of Bethesda Softworks include the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series.
9. Before Verizon, ComCast, AT&T and other service providers competed for the pleasure of bringing you access to the Internet, there was UUNET in Fairfax, Va. The company was founded in 1987 by Rick Adams and was one of the first commercial ISPs in the country. UUNET was sold several times—most notably in 1996 when it was acquired by WorldCom for $14B--and is now part of Verizon Business. The story of UUNET is fascinating and worth knowing; Fortify Ventures founder Jonathon Perrelli worked at UUNET, first in sales and later as an engineer. Perrelli says that despite the more than 8,000 people UUNET employed across five continents, "the company felt like family."
10. Northern Virginia­–based Summize, founded in 2006 by Abdur Chowdhury and Ajaipal Virdy, was a webcrawler for online reviews and summaries about books, movies, music and other media. Summize was acquired by Twitter in 2008 for $15M, marking one of the first times a D.C. tech startup of the newest variety cashed out for a big payday, and putting the District on the proverbial startup map.
Who will be #11 on this list? It's hard to say the long-term impact of events like the sale of Summize on the D.C. entrepreneurial scene. The landscape has changed; these days, a motivated student with a laptop has the same chance of becoming a household name as a well-funded serial entrepreneur. Whatever the future has in store for D.C. industry and D.C. entrepreneurs, it sure will be fun to watch.

Read more articles by Allyson Jacob.

Allyson Jacob is a writer originally hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the Innovation and Job News editor for Elevation DC. Her work has been featured in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati CityBeat. Have a tip about a small business or start-up making waves inside the Beltway? Tell her here.
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