The new mayor of Boston will no doubt be eager to tackle a host of responsibilities, but a top priority must be to continue the excellent work that Mayor Menino and his administration have done to boost the local entrepreneurial ecosystem — an undeniable key to attracting a young population, bolstering job creation and spurring inner city economic growth. My South-End-based company, Sonicbids, founded in 2000, has been one of those beneficiaries.
1. Resist the urge to throw big money at startups.
Starting and running a business is not for the coddled. Policy makers (are you listening Rhode Island?) should not throw money at young entrepreneurs in the hopes of creating a sustainable startup ecosystem. Innovation often comes from having your back against the wall and a lack of abundant resources.
2. Get to know young business leaders.
Too many politicians focus their time with the moneyed and well-suited CEOs of larger businesses. Engaging young leaders of local startups not only boosts their confidence (critical to success), but also helps shape policy by understanding real needs. I met with Mayor Menino when my company was just four people. The feeling of accessibility and familiarity was key in our decision to stay and grow within city boundaries and not move across the river.
3. Invite startup CEOs to serve on City Boards and Initiatives.
Accessibility is more valuable than money. Over the years, I was asked by Mayor Menino to serve on many boards and initiatives, side-by-side with prominent local business, academic and civic leaders. Not only did that give me access to the upper echelons of local establishments (critical in deal-making), but also provided invaluable experience in observing, listening, and interacting with vastly knowledgeable people.
4. Grant small low-interest loans to boost startup employment.
The turning point for Sonicbids was not raising $4.5M in venture capital but an early, small, low-interest loan from the Department of Neighborhood Development. The granting alone was enough to make us feel the City cared about our survival and growth, earning our loyalty. It also allowed us to hire two key employees at a critical time—a catalyst for future growth.
5. Get the City Press Office to push local startup success stories.
Startups need publicity to assist with recruiting and deal making. There’s nothing better than a well-placed mention in a speech by the Mayor or a plug of a Boston startup in a story written by local press or a national business blog or publication. Sonicbids benefitted from all of the above thanks to Mayor Menino’s support.
6. Sponsor initiatives that bring the local entrepreneurial community together.
With Mayor Menino’s blessing, I co-founded and lead Boston Young Entrepreneurs, an initiative that for five years brought together aspiring founders for knowledge sharing sessions at City Hall (as part of the One In Three initiative). The Mayor’s Boston World Partnerships, on whose board I also served, helped create many a productive networking event, whose benefits Sonicbids still reaps.
7. Create more affordable startup space.
The Innovation District is a great start, and Mass Challenge is growing in stature as a local accelerator. Less heralded but equally as important has been Mayor Menino’s focus on the SOWA district where Sonicbids is located. A small loan from the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 2007 made it possible for us to build out our own office space on Harrison Ave. That in turn helped attract dozens of young people (whom we employed) who moved into condos and apartments nearby and patronized shops and restaurants in what was once a run-down area.
8. Boost Boston’s creative scene.
A recent report by the Startup Genome Project shows a clear correlation between the music and creative scenes of a city and the health of local startups. Resist the urge to cut back on cultural funding, make licensing for music venues easier, and encourage local organizations like the Arts & Business Council which helps artists think like entrepreneurs. Mayor Menino’s Create Boston effort (on whose board I served) was a good start, but the city needs more.
9. Build on Boston’s academic strengths (reach across the river).
To quote Bill Aulet from MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, “to succeed in business today you need a hacker, a hustler and a hipster.” Our universities, including those across the Charles, attract all three (Berklee has the hipsters; Northeastern has the hustlers; MIT has the hackers). How about creating an Innovation Council or a City-sponsored Boston Hacking Day that encourages cross-pollination and collaboration between our best and brightest.
10. Encourage private investment in local startups.
Many of our most promising startups flee to the West Coast for what they believe to be better funding opportunities (Facebook is a good example). My own company was funded not by a Boston VC but by a New Jersey fund. There’s no reason for that. We have some of the best VC firms and active angel-investor communities within a 15-mile radius from City Hall. A City Hall-led forum or initiative that encourages private investment in local firms can reverse a worrisome trend.
Panos Panay is the founder/CEO of Sonicbids.