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Mom and Dad, what did you do during the cultural revolution?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 8, 2010 11:00 AM

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Let's talk about early 1775. 

If you were living in eastern Massachusetts then, it wasn't clear that a revolution was on the way. Most citizens weren't yet convinced that a split from Britain was inevitable, and there were plenty of loyalists who wanted to preserve the status quo. The few fighters who confronted the British in the spring of 1775 were volunteer members of militia. There wasn't an army until the middle of that year. It was in Cambridge Common, just outside of Harvard Square, that George Washington took command of it on July 3, 1775.

Today, we've got the equivalent of a small militia trying to make a cultural revolution happen. Most people who work in the innovation ecosystem are fine with the way things are (as long as they have a job, or aren't trying to launch a company.) The majority would prefer to complain about what bugs them, or describe the things that are wrong with the current culture (insular, risk-averse, too enterprise-focused, not open enough to students and first-time founders) rather than actually doing anything to change it.

Others have envisioned a new culture, and are bringing it to life in little pockets here and there. Game developers gather once a month in Waltham for Boston Post-Mortem; those working on mobile apps go to Mobile Monday; young entrepreneurs participate in the weekly DartBoston gathering and Capitalize, which brings them into the boardrooms of local venture capital firms.

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Just about everyone interested in start-ups goes to the Web Innovator's Group gatherings at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge -- which may soon need to move to the Boston Garden. Programs like TechStars Boston and the Venture Development Center at UMass Boston create a supportive culture for fledgling companies.

Gus Weber of Microsoft hosted a small band of these cultural revolutionaries at a dinner meeting this past Wednesday in Kendall Square (only two stops on the Red Line from where Washington took command of the Continental Army, I might add). I did my best to facilitate the conversation. It was messy, but we tried to focus on the things we might do to turn a few very lively campfires into an all-out innovation conflagration. 

Here are some of the topics we discussed. I'd love to hear your thoughts. (In the picture above are HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan, who is working on some interesting initiatives to promote Boston as a center of new marketing thought, and Joost Bonsen, a super-connector at MIT who also hosts the television show "High Tech Fever.")

1. We still have a lot more work to do ensuring that students (undergrads, grad students, even high schoolers) have a chance to visit interesting local companies, meet entrepreneurs, and generally become aware of the Boston innovation scene. Jason Evanish, a recent Northeastern grad who created Greenhorn Connect, had a nice metaphor: we have a pretty good "big league" system to support established entrepreneurs and companies major opportunities that require significant capital, but we need a better "minor league" system to support students trying to turn academic projects into companies, learn about entrepreneurship, get mentoring, and connect with companies that will give them something substantial to work on.

2. We have too few angel investors. We need to encourage those who do exist to make themselves a bit more visible, and encourage others who might potentially do some angel investing to learn more about it. Groups like Golden Seeds Boston have made an effort to “train” new angel investors, but I’m not aware of other places where people with the means can learn about investing in early-stage businesses in a way that makes sense for them.

3. Bill Warner (founder of Avid Technologies, and one of the animating forces behind TechStars Boston and the Mass TLC's annual Innovation UnConference), brought up the challenge of building substantial, industry-defining companies here. He said that we need to "play big" in Massachusetts, rather than constantly selling promising companies to outside acquirers. That led to a discussion of whether big company CEOs and senior executives make themselves accessible enough to entrepreneurs, serve as mentors, and share their experiences. The consensus was that most are invisible, when we need them to help entrepreneurs build the next generation of really important companies in Massachusetts.

3. Nabeel Hyatt of Conduit Labs (he helped start the weekly OpenCoffee gathering in Cambridge) suggested we need more small dinners (David Beisel has organized a few of these under the WebInno banner) -- especially those around a focused topic, and especially with a well-chosen group of participants (not necessarily open to entrepreneurs of all stages/levels.) Hyatt says he often attends such dinners in the Valley, and finds them useful.

4. We need to be louder about what we're doing. Groups and events ought to promote other groups and events to their members. How can we better spread the word about the revolution that's brewing, and recruit others to participate?

5. Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital said that one way to invigorate the start-up ecosystem here, and perhaps even create big companies in emerging industries, is to go into "crazy mode," funding all kinds of ideas -- some of which may seem nutty or insignificant. Some may just need $10,000 to get going, not $10 million.

I suggested to the group that there are hundreds of thousands of people who work at start-ups or larger innovation-driven companies who aren't yet members of this militia, and aren't engaged yet in making the new culture. No one disputed that. 

So let me ask: are you part of the cultural revolution yet? Or just reading this, sitting on the sidelines, and waiting to see how it all pans out?

(Here's some coverage of the dinner from the Mass Innovation Nights blog, Myriad Missives, and Greenhorn Connect. Tweets about it used the hash tag #crbos, for "cultural revolutionaries Boston." Who was there? Bobbie Carlton of Mass. Innovation Nights, Gus Weber of Microsoft, Kate Imbach from Mobile Mondays, Jason Evanish of Greenhorn Connect, Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital, David Beisel of Venrock, Jason Schupbach from the Mass. Office of Business Development, Bill Warner, Shawn Broderick of TechStars Boston, Tim Rowe of Cambridge Innovation Center, Brian Halligan of HubSpot, Cort Johnson of DartBoston, Jeffrey Bussgang of Flybridge Capital, Joost Bonsen of MIT, Nabeel Hyatt of Conduit Labs, Jon Pierce of Betahouse, and entrepreneur Doug Levin.)

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About Scott Kirsner

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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