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The Cultural Revolution: Which Side Are You On?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 13, 2009 10:55 AM

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There's a cultural revolution afoot in the Boston innovation economy.

One culture is dying out, and another kind of culture is emerging.

The old culture was clubby and insular. To get funding, you had to know someone who knew someone at one of the venture capital firms perched high atop Mount Money in Waltham. To get anywhere, it helped if you'd already had one or two successes on your résumé. The typical employee or executive went to work in Hopkinton or Burlington, put in a solid eight or nine hours of work, and went home. They weren't well-connected outside their own company, didn't go to industry networking events, and didn't make time to mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs. In technology, the focus was almost always on developing products for the world's biggest customers, whether they were banks, telecommunications firms, or health care providers. The old culture felt it needed non-compete agreements to create artificial employee "loyalty." The old culture was reluctant to boast about what it was achieving, or Boston's prominent place in the global economy. And Boston's metabolism was slow: only a year or so after a trend emerged in Silicon Valley, a handful of companies had been formed here to pursue it.

Lots of people still live and work in that culture. They're sort of like people who still break out the seersucker suit on the first hot day of July...people who still wait in line at toll booths to hand over their crumpled dollar bill... or those Japanese soldiers who didn't realize World War II had ended.

Are you part of that world -- or are you part of the new culture? Here's what defines it:

The new culture is open, fast-paced, and encouraging of first-time entrepreneurs. It's about blogging and tweeting and digitized networks of people sharing information about what they're interested in, and where they're investing. It's about informal "unconferences" popping up to discuss the latest tech trend. It's populated by people who see the value in having broad networks of friends and acquaintances across lots of companies. Employers who operate in the new culture realize that the way you keep people motivated and maintain your position in the marketplace is by giving them interesting projects to work on and rewarding them appropriately -- not by forcing them to sign lengthy non-compete agreements. The new culture isn't afraid to spread the good word about the innovation that happens here in Boston.

The new culture is about seizing opportunities, not reinforcing hierarchies.

When I think about things that represent the new culture of innovation in Boston, here are ten that come to mind:


    - TechStars Boston, a summer program to help give young entrepreneurs a jump-start. It's taking place for the first time this summer, with support from people like Bill Warner (founder of Avid Technology), Shawn Broderick (founder of TrustPlus), and Brad Feld (an MIT alum co-founded the Colorado VC firm Foundry Group.)

    - Web Innovators Group, a free monthly gathering that attracts roughly 500 people to see new start-ups demo their products. Run by venture capitalist David Beisel of Venrock.

    - Stay in MA, a program funded by Flybridge Capital Partners that makes it free for students to attend seminars, workshops, and conferences.

    - Blogs exposing the inner workings of venture capital and entrepreneurship, from local leaders like Larry Cheng, Bijan Sabet, Jeff Bussgang, Dharmesh Shah, Healy Jones & Prasad Thammineni, and Leah Busque.

    - OpenCoffee, an entrepreneurs' gathering that happens every Wednesday morning in Central Square, introduced to Boston by Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital and Conduit Labs founder Nabeel Hyatt.

    - Biotech Tuesday, a monthly schmooze-fest for life sciences types, founded in 2002 by Seth Taylor and Peter Kolchinsky.

    - The Mass Technology Leadership Council's annual Innovation Unconference, held for the first time in 2008. One focus of the event is on encouraging successful entrepreneurs and executives to share their experience with up-and-comers.

    - Microsoft's New England Research & Development Center (NERD). Yes, it's surprising that the Redmond, Washington behemoth would be contributing to the new culture of innovation in Boston, but the honchos at Microsoft's Kendall Square outpost have made it clear that they want to be part of the fabric of the community here. Their first-floor conference center has regularly hosted conclaves like CloudCamp Boston, a forum on how federal stimulus is affecting the cleantech industry, a June dialogue about the future of IT in Massachusetts attended by Gov. Patrick, and this weekend's GameLoop conference. (Many events are free, and they're listed here.)

    - Highland Capital's Summer Entrepreneurship Program and Spark Capital's Start@Spark, two programs designed to support fledgling entrepreneurs.

    - EurekaFest and the Cambridge Science Festival, two local events targeted at young people and families that celebrate the excitement of invention, science, and engineering.

There are, of course, a lot more people, events, and institutions contributing to the emergence of this new innovation culture in Boston -- from Mass Innovation Nights to Hubspot.tv to Betahouse to the Awesome Foundation.

What else am I missing? How are you contributing to (or participating in) this new culture? What are the signs that the old culture is stumbling towards irrelevance? (Or perhaps you believe that it's here to stay...) When did this cultural revolution begin?

Leave a comment if you would--

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35 comments so far...
  1. Thanks for the snapshot of the new innovation culture. Thinking there is a similar old vs. new culture that parallels this in the social sector; old-line nonprofits operating more traditionally and the emerging culture of social entrepreneurship, where I see myself. We here at Social Capital Inc. think and work on how use of new technologies, among other things, can help strengthen old fashioned-place based communities.

    On a practical note, this reminds me that I really do need to get a transponder lest I get stuck in a monstrous traffic jam one of these days.

    Posted by David Crowley August 13, 09 12:40 PM
  1. Scott,

    Great article -- and I totally agree that we're seeing a big shift in how Boston thinks about innovation and how it builds great new companies. It's exciting to see the energy and enthusiasm.

    Thanks for all of your efforts in helping the Boston innovation scene.

    Posted by Dharmesh Shah August 13, 09 12:41 PM
  1. Scott - I see it and feel it too. I have had the good fortune of working in the Boston area my whole career - my success was pinned on building a network here and abroad though. We are really positioned well as a network hub in Boston due to all the educational platforms we have here. The only add from my standpoint that is evidence of this trend is the solid list of companies that were showcased at MITX Awards this spring...some really cool companies and products there. I am seeing and feeling the same trend you posted about. It is exciting. It is also critical for our way forward.

    Posted by jeff Bennett August 13, 09 12:52 PM
  1. Great post, Scott! Amen. Only...you left out our Maine Party!! :-)

    http://www.boston.com/business/technology/innoeco/2009/07/the_vc_league_of_justice.html

    Posted by Jeff Bussgang August 13, 09 01:01 PM
  1. While the "Old Boy Network" may not officially be dead -- it's certainly an artifact of the past. The New New England culture that knits together tech entrepreneurs, investors, thinkers and innovators lacks the stuffiness, exclusivity of the old guard.
    It's exciting to be a part of it. My hope is that the quality of interactions, number of joint explorations, and our "can do" spirit increases even further. Boston has all the necessary ingredients for a robust tech sector. Keep it going!

    Posted by Patrick Rafter August 13, 09 01:17 PM
  1. Great list, I'd also add the Popsignal events to the list - popsignal.com

    Posted by Gregg Snyder August 13, 09 01:23 PM
  1. Like a lot of things, I don't think that the pendulum swings so far from one extreme to the other. I do agree that there is a changing of the guard in the VC world in Boston, and that the types of innovative groups and gatherings you describe are changing a lot of the dynamic.

    However, there is still a significant value in 'old-style' paradigms, like operational excellence, managing for profitability, and lowering the risk by betting on someone who has done it before. The ideal combination would be a team that has the best of both. Kind of like Google, with Eric Schmidt joining Sergy and Larry.

    Posted by Mike Feinstein August 13, 09 01:47 PM
  1. Scott- your observation is right on target.

    I think http://massinnovationnights.com/ has earned a place at the table.

    Our specific desire is to see more events that contribute practical knowledge as well as networking opportunity. To that end we are working on the next TestCase 2 covering A/B testing. http://www.catalyst-corp.com/testcase-index.html
    and our other project is to bring Eric Ries to Boston in November for a talk on lean startups. http://theleanstartuptalkmit.eventbrite.com/

    Lean Star

    Posted by tom summit August 13, 09 01:59 PM
  1. A very fun article, with several events I'll want to check out as an entrepreneur myself. But lets not forget the important role that online communities are also having in this cultural revolution impacting Boston. Many of the local events stem from larger, dynamic online communities where members are reaching out to make conections with peers of those group, but on a local level. Most of thos broad networks across companies that you discuss in your article, bring the added value of talent, insight and perspectives that significantly complement the local innovation culture of Boston.

    Posted by Michael Schultz August 13, 09 02:08 PM
  1. I love the simile of people that still wait in line for tolls. I mean come on, even my parents got ez-pass.

    Posted by Jeremy Kutner August 13, 09 02:11 PM
  1. Great piece - it is exciting to see the new culture take shape in Boston!

    I would add websites... like VentureFizz (www.venturefizz.com)... that are trying to raise the awareness of all the great things happening in Boston's tech community!

    ....apologies for the shameless plug - but I couldn't help it!

    Keith Cline
    VentureFizz.com

    Posted by Keith Cline August 13, 09 03:14 PM
  1. Really glad you did this post! Thanks Scott! By my count, there are about 60 starts that have announced in the last year as the result of this new wave. Perhaps more!

    Posted by John Stack August 13, 09 03:50 PM
  1. The old culture reads the Boston Globe's website.
    The new culture is over at news.ycombinator.com

    Posted by Gary Boothby August 13, 09 04:32 PM
  1. Great summary of events. I noticed you touched on the upcoming GameLoop conference at the MS NERD center. It's really great that game development events are really exploding in the Boston area. I'm putting together a list of the recurring game development meetups on my blog: http://gtjuggler.blogspot.com/2009/07/boston-area-game-development-meetups.html - Hope that helps.

    Posted by Alex Schwartz August 13, 09 05:01 PM
  1. Scott, I see and agree with a great deal of what you are saying. For example, I love what folks are doing to encourage and support entrepreneurs. And I've heard way too many times -- including from those on Mount Money -- that Boston wasn't a friendly place to fund or be funded.

    While it could be considered stifling, what I have always appreciated about the Boston economy and approach is the hearty skepticism. It isn't to knock people down but to make them stronger. Maybe some of the folks weren't closed, but reserved? Boston has always felt real to me... maybe a bit rough, but I prefer ideas being challenged to be improved to only being nurtured and putting a hope ring on them. What I look forward to is how Boston's Boston-ness comes out with these new ideas and new openness. I see it as a powerful combination.

    Posted by Jana Eggers August 13, 09 05:47 PM
  1. Great write up, Scott! I am excited to be part of the "cultural revolution". One of my favorite things about being an entrepreneur is connecting with all the other people and companies that are innovating in a big way in Boston. You don't have to look very far to see the emergence of new ideas and scrappy entrepreneurs ready to tackle them, and that is the sort of energy that I think will continue to drive a thriving startup scene in Boston.

    I am also grateful to all the serial entrepreneurs, investors, and thought leaders who are willing to share their time and expertise to keep the cycle going. Innovation is much more fun, effective, and compelling when you can draw it out from many sources.

    Posted by Leah Busque August 13, 09 06:51 PM
  1. I'd like to see Boston turn away somewhat from the more consumer/advertising oriented start-ups that have come to largely define SV, and focus more resolutely on the power grid and energy areas. That would perhaps tie in more directly to the particular tech history of Boston, over the past 50 years, in electronics equipment and components. It's a big theme, and likely to get bigger.

    Posted by Gregor August 13, 09 06:52 PM
  1. We're here!
    Upgrade! Boston: http://turbulence.org/upgrade_boston (Next event at Microsoft NERD on Monday)
    Networked Art Commissions: http://turbulence.org
    Networked_Performance: http://turbulence.org/blog
    Networked: a (networked_book) about (networked_art): http://networkedbook.org
    Networked_Music_Review: http://turbulence.org/networked_music_review
    We're a not-for-profit always on the lookout for creative people ... and financial support would be most welcome.

    Posted by Jo-Anne Green August 13, 09 08:49 PM
  1. Gary - Paul Graham's Y Combinator program, which started in Cambridge, was definitely an early part of this cultural shift, so I give them a lot of credit. And the Hacker News site is great, too.

    Thanks for deigning to visit the Globe's site, even if briefly--

    Posted by Scott Kirsner August 13, 09 08:54 PM
  1. Nailing it, Scott. I'm seeing this at the ground level through Boston World Partnerships and my role advising first-time start-ups. Our innovation community is self organizing. There's something big happening just outside of the mainstream and the people commenting on your post get it. You pointed to some great role players and yes, there are many more. Still, how do we create a table that seats all, with the intention of reducing the friction that keeps entrepreneurship from gliding along more smoothly? Jana is right...we want to maintain healthy friction. But there's a lot of old school thinking (unhealthy friction) that still needs to work its way out of the system.

    Posted by Kai Rostcheck August 13, 09 11:09 PM
  1. Scott, great post! As a first time entrepreneur I'm glad to be part of this changing culture. I'm new to the Boston scene and did not live here to experience the "old culture" but I can say I'm pleasantly surprised at how supportive the community has been and how many venues and opportunities (both offline and online) there are to help entrepreneurs get their innovative ideas off the ground. Like Jana, I've heard lots of stories about how tough it is to get funded in Boston - especially as the co-founder of an internet based customized fashion company geared towards women. In the past this would have been 3 strikes (e-commerce, fashion, consumer product for women) against me - an almost hopeless cause for even the likes of "Big Papi"! While Boston still has a ways to go in terms of embracing innovations in the consumer space, I think we're turning the corner as seen with the recent Series A investments by New Atlantic Ventures and LaunchCapital of Fashion Playtes, Highland Capital and Canaan Partners investment in Paragon Lake last year, and LaunchCapital's investment in Daily Grommet. I believe these companies are paving the way for a new kind of consumer culture here in Boston that will hopefully rival SV one day. I'm also excited by the growing number of women-led tech-based startups. While I'm still usually only one of a handful of women in the room at a lot of the events, and most of the investors we have pitched to are men, women such as Jules Pieri of Daily Grommet, Sarah McIlroy of Fashion Playtes, Leah Busque of RunMyErrand, Jana Eggers of Spreadshirt, Karen Miller of Doink.com and Christina Lampe-Onnerud of Boston-Power are just a few of the innovative founders and CEOs blazing a new trail in Boston. "The Times - They are a-Changin" in Boston. Bob would be proud.

    Posted by Monika Desai August 14, 09 03:06 AM
  1. Another trade organization that's a strong advocate for Internet business and marketing is MITX - the Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange http://mitx.org

    From awards shows, including the largest Interactive Awards show in the country, to more than 70 business and professional development events per year, MITX is a vital hub for the digital media, marketing and technology industry.

    Posted by Jeff Janer August 14, 09 10:45 AM
  1. In short, this is a terrific post. I have some more thoughts on it here...
    http://www.mass.gov/blog/innovation

    Posted by Greg Bialecki August 14, 09 08:22 PM
  1. The innovation sector in Boston needs to make serious investments in keeping engineering students in the area, rather than letting them flee to SF which is seen to be more exciting and a nicer place to live.

    Posted by Geoff Menegay August 15, 09 07:50 AM
  1. Boston Media Makers
    http://bostonmediamakers.com

    It's a real life twitter garthering on the first Sunday of the month at Doyle's where everyone gets to hear from everyone else.

    Men, women and children are welcome!

    Posted by steve Garfield August 15, 09 08:57 AM
  1. As a new Bostonian student entrepreneur, I'm excited to see the influx of student entrepreneurs in the market place to really drive the new evolution of 'the career'. There will still be a couple of iterations of the student startup environment in Boston, but here's to someone who is really looking fwd to a highly collaborative community of student startup enthusiasts.

    Posted by Fan Bi August 16, 09 02:02 AM
  1. That is a great list of initiatives. I would list here a low-cost, intensely collaborative new offering from my organization, Cambridge Innovation Center, called the Cambridge Coworking Center (C3) (www.cambridgecoworking.com).

    C3 is place for entrepreneurs that work in close proximity to each other (no fixed desks), and it sometimes seems that just about everyone there is in some way lending a hand to everyone else.

    And then, of course, there is the Venture Cafe effort which has received some press on these pages, but which doesn't exist yet, so I wouldn't overplay it. Anyone interested in following that effort should go to www.venturecafe.net.

    Posted by Tim Rowe August 16, 09 11:06 AM
  1. Sorry for the late comment, but I completely agree with you. Over the last year or so I have felt a shift in what's happening and a new set of faces emerging. I hope it continues and grows.

    As a Bostonian, thank you for all you have done to foster this new environment. You have been a major catalyst.

    Posted by Brian Halligan August 16, 09 11:17 PM
  1. A “revolution” implies a radical change where one structure is completely swapped for another. Instead, I’d say that the Boston innovation economy is in the midst of a significant evolution, adapting to a new set of circumstances where openness, collaboration, and experimentation are increasingly valuable. We’re able to do so especially because of the solid institutional and structural foundation we have to build upon. It has been amazing to watch the Web Innovators Group grow over the past four years since a dozen of us first gathered informally in a Central Square bar. WebInno’s success has been completely due to the collective energy of those in the already existing entrepreneurial web and mobile community wanting a regular central meeting hub to engage with one another.

    One additional initiative you didn’t include is MassChallenge whose mission of their Venture Funds Competition is to “catalyze a startup renaissance in Massachusetts.” See http://www.masschallenge.org/.

    Posted by David Beisel August 17, 09 11:41 AM
  1. Scott, I think you are right on with this thinking. In fact, more and more I'm seeing a shift away from the Boston to the West Coast interviewing style:

    The Boston Style Interview:
    1. What section were you in ?
    2. Are those light or dark colored Khaki's (we don't wear anything black here).
    3. Our CEO do NOT work out at lunch - - they work at their desks - - and we check.
    4. We're looking for someone who has already built an electric car company from $0 to $500 million - - not some bright innovative thinker just wants to build electric cars.

    The Silicon Valley Style Interview:
    1. Tell us about your idea - - will it change things in a big way ?
    2. What gets you out of bed in the morning
    3. How do you stay healthy and motivated ?
    4. Do you own a blue blazer. We do not.

    Posted by gary ambrosino August 17, 09 02:13 PM
  1. Hi Scott,

    Nice aggregation of what's happening in the Boston tech scene. I just wanted let you know we will be hosting out third annual TECH cocktail Boston event focused on showcasing local tech start-ups and entrepreneurs soon on 9/3. Details can be found here: http://bit.ly/tcbos3s

    Hope you can make it!

    Cheers,
    Frank Gruber
    Co-Founder, TECH cocktail


    Posted by Frank Gruber August 17, 09 02:51 PM
  1. Scott - there are certainly ventures that require outside capital, but let's not forget that given the state of sophistication, and the incredibly lowered expense of developing web-based apps - there are more reasons than even to be self-funded, or (gasp!) customer-funded.

    Whether it's in music (my original background) or in software (where I provide advice) or professional services (my current, self-funded/customer-funded company), you really have to consider whether the hand that feeds you is ultimately going to tie you up in knots, or set you up for success.

    I'm all for changing the New England VC scene into a more relaxed and risk taking mindset, ala "the Valley," but for the 10 times when VC is warranted, there are easily 1000 times when it isn't.

    Overall I agree though - that Boston has a metric ton of innovation capability, that is not widely recognized. That has to change, and thank you for helping to raise that bar significantly.

    Posted by Dan Keldsen - Information Architected August 19, 09 06:13 PM
  1. Please consider participating in www.BostonWorldPartnerships.com

    BWP is the global "alumni network" of fans of Boston that are fired up to share and connect.

    These Comments make the point. This is a great roundup roundup of opportunities. Thanks for being such a great champion Scott!

    See you out there!

    David Cutler
    www.CreativeBusinessDevelopment.com
    www.EatMedia.com

    Posted by David Cutler August 27, 09 11:28 AM
  1. Great post AND great comments! At Boston World Partnerships, we're all about bridging the gap between these cultures by using a network of passionate, pro-Boston business people to make resources on both sides of this divide more accessible. Obviously there are lots of such people - one only needs to look at the comments above! What tremendous assets for our region!

    Our Connector network has been live for 6 months and is starting to bear fruit. For example, here's a quote from a Turkish tech transfer executive that our Connectors helped to get plugged in here in Greater Boston...

    "I can say without any hesitation that the connections established through BWP will read as the first pages of the success stories we are working on from our side of the planet." http://tinyurl.com/l2g35s

    We would love to hear from any of you who wants to learn more and/or get involved. This Connector group is awesome. Cuts across industries and countries of origin and geography unlike any other organization in Boston. In fact, we're now signing up Connectors in cities as far afield as Buenos Aires, Beijing, Dublin, London, and Cairo!

    We are now signing on more Connectors. Learn more about the requirements and benefits of being a Connector with this list of FAQs: http://tinyurl.com/nvhl7a

    And here's more about why we've structured our Connector role as we have... http://tinyurl.com/lhxfwm

    Thanks, Scott, for your leadership in pushing this conversation - it's really critical!

    Dave McLaughlin
    dave@bostonworldpartnerships.com


    Posted by Dave McLaughlin August 27, 09 12:08 PM
  1. "What else am I missing?"

    The Venture Development Center, opened on May 1, 2009 at UMass Boston. Its the city's start-up venture incubator. Check it out: www.umb.edu/vdc.

    Posted by William Brah September 26, 09 10:21 AM
 

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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