Loads of hand-wringing, tears, and digital ink have been spilled over the last week in Boston. Oh no! The venerable venture capital firm Greylock Partners is going Westward Ho. It’s battening down the hatches–in Silicon Valley. Here an excerpt from a Mass High Tech interview by Galen Moore, with Greylock parter Bill Helman:
Helman acknowledged East Coast investors are more conservative — a tendency he said he has observed in board meetings. But if Boston is going to be more like the Valley, the solution goes beyond the investment community, he said. “(On the West Coast), it’s the entire community that’s focused on entrepreneurial activity. It’s not just the universities and their licensing departments. It’s not just the venture capitalists. It’s the big companies.”
New England, with its strengths in education and health care, could do the same, he said. “You create this reinforcing ‘success begets success’ ecosystem. And that’s what we need to do in other domains. We need to do that in consumer Internet, we need to do that in clean tech.”
Hallelujah. At the risk of acting like a hammer who makes everything a nail, I’ve long been saying that the answer to rebuilding Boston’s cred as a center of innovation is creating and funding meaningful robust consumer internet ventures. (I buy the clean tech argument too–but it’s way slower and riskier.) Why emphasize consumer internet? The reasoning is simple.
If Boston wants to have ample mindspace for innovation, we have to gain mindspace from people. At the end of the day people–journalists, academics, CEO’s, students, policy-makers, and employees–are all consumers. Their impressions of creativity, technical competence, and innovation are most forcefully driven by the products and services they use. Consumer products. In Silicon Valley, that spells Google, Flickr, Apple, eBay, Twitter, Facebook and smaller efforts like Mint.com, and Kiva.org.
In Boston, we can safely build all the enterprise software, and back-end analytics, and ad optimization businesses we want, but that’s not going to visibly and quickly move the “innovation image” needle.
Consumer internet is cheap to fund, fast to build, but scary as hell to the local institutional investment community. The decision makers just haven’t, in their own careers, built household-name brands and consumer experiences. And there is a dearth of local big companies who understand this world as well.
What to do? Well, we can hunker down in our Boston comfort zone, and slowly slip away to tech-cred obscurity. Think the British Navy. Or we can do what we’ve done in the past…give it a college try. Mini-computers were scary too, in their day. We got past it. We can get past this, too, if we can summon up the creativity and courage. I think we can.
We still have an envious infrastructure, a vibrant workforce, and some pretty interesting local consumer internet companies in various stages of development (Zipcar, CSN Stores, TripAdvisor, Ziggs, NameMedia, CarbonRally, WorkItMom, Care.com, VistaPrint, ShoeBuy, RunMyErrand.com, DesignerShoes.com, Gazelle, SimpleStores.com, StyleFeeder, BeatThat!, RueLaLa, FirstGiving.com, Zeer.com, My Perfect Gig, C-Market, FashionPlaytes, MyHappyPlanet, TheUpDown, and Daily Grommet, of course). I’d like to see all of these move over to “household name” territory. I think many can, if we collectively make it happen.
What local names are missing from my list? I’d like to include them in the post for my great band of faithful readers.