Boston's Startup Identity: Embracing Who We Are

Boston has an identity crisis. Like a bad startup, we're trying to be everything to everyone. But we're not and we perform a great disservice to ourselves by being in denial of who we really are. We must not only embrace our strengths and weaknesses, but proudly display them. Just like a good startup looking to recruit a good culture fit, you attract the best when you can clearly show them why they should join you. It's time we did this for Boston.

After spending the last 2.5 years in our ecosystem and visiting NYC and Silicon Valley's ecosystems, I'm going to take a stab at defining Boston's identity. (Special thanks to Bill Warner and others at the Nantucket Conference who discussed this months ago, but didn't quite complete crystallizing.)

Boston's Startup Identity: Embracing Who We Are

1) We’re modest.

Have a big exit? You won't find any vanity plates on Ferrari's. You won't find founders with big egos putting themselves before their companies. Instead, you find a lot of people putting their heads down and building big companies.

You'll also see we take the concept of "HumbleBrag" seriously. Send a tweet out showing pride for an accomplishment and the @BosHumblebrag account will be all over it.

2) We’re loyal.

As Mark Zuckerberg put it, Bostonians are more loyal than Silicon Valley folks. That's why he said he'd likely start a company here. After talking to people in the Valley, I can confirm that the estimated time spent at a company is longer in Boston than the Valley.

Of course, part of our weakness is we're loyal to a fault. We can't build an ecosystem if we have early stage employees that stay long after the IPO (see Acme Packet). Combining this with our modesty may explain our weaker angel community.

3) We love revenue.

Boston startups build companies that make money and then grow it...not grow then figure out how to make money. The first question you'll get at any demo event is invariably, "How do you make money?"

The benefit of this is that combined with our slightly lower cost of living compared to NYC and the Valley, you're more likely to build a company that can be bootstrapped completely (see BuySellAds or Grasshopper) or before raising any funding (see RunKeeper and 170 Systems).

4) We’re a sports town.

Whether you love baseball or football, hockey or basketball, college or pro level, there's something for any sports lover here. On top of that, we have this awesome habit of winning championships. All 4 major sports teams have won a title in the last decade, making Boston the envy of every other major city.

For startupers, this means there’s always some sport we’re keeping one eye on while we’re working on our laptop on the other. We always welcome a good rivalry too for all the local transplants (ie- fans of the Yankees, Jets, Steelers, Bulls, etc) as most startupers can still carry on a good sports conversation and you'll find them tweeting about their favorite teams. If you love sports, this is a town to be in.

5) We’re too quiet.

All that modesty makes for an area devoid of hype to the point of near silence. Since our tech press doesn't stretch far outside our echo chamber or region, other cities think we're smaller than we really are (sit down, NYC, the #2 spot is still ours no matter how loud you guys get relative to your size).

Of equal importance is the question, where do successful entrepreneurs go after their success? Often they buy a house on the cape and disappear as David Cancel's Angel Bootcamp presentation from the first edition posited. We need them to be leaders and re-engage the community and inspire the next generation. This is starting to change though, so the next generation of successes has a chance to be a part of a new story. 

6) We’re academic.

The personalities of all the schools nearby definitely shows through in our ecosystem. We also know a thing or two about university spinouts and great entrepreneurship programs. Even our investors get in on this by being professors and EIRs at our local universities.

This also means there's tons of new talent available to our ecosystem every year. We're just scratching the surface on retaining this talent, which leaves lots of opportunity for more companies to capitalize on it.

7) We’re reflective.

We spend plenty of time reflecting on how we can be better than we were yesterday. We love a good post mortem from our failed startups and sharing of knowledge from those that are succeeding.  We also spend a great deal of time on reflecting on our ecosystem as a whole as judged by the attention many of my posts here, those on BostInnovation and beyond get in town.

8) We’re hardy & love our 4 seasons.

50 inches of snow in a month? Wind chills below zero? No problem.  Just gives us more reason to focus on building great companies. We even play sports to make the most of “the season Southern California misses” like hockey, skiing, and snowboarding.  We also know how to appreciate a warm summer day, because we know it’s not to be taken for granted.

9) We’re highly analytical.

Some of our best marketers are really analytics junkies first (see Sarah Hodges and Chris O'Donnell). Some of our best companies are built on analytics: Crimson Hexagon (your tweets), Performable - HubSpot (your business), Zeo (your sleep), Runkeeper (your running), Compete (your industry), etc.

10) We do B2B, SAAS, Travel, AdTech, Gaming and Ecommerce.

When I went to NYC this summer, David Tisch talked at an event I was at and listed off 6 or 7 different verticals where he thinks NYC is the best place to build your company. We need our leaders to be able list off the same type of list here (and accept what we're not capable of). From what I've seen, we can make strong claims to B2B, SAAS, Travel, AdTech, Gaming and Ecommerce verticals.

If you’ve got the next FaceTwumblrSquare, that needs millions of users to make a dollar, we won’t be able to help you. Our investors don't get it (with the exception possibly of Spark Capital) as they mainly came from the aforementioned verticals. 

Bonus: Education is also emerging with some natural advantages with Pearson and other publishers in town and our many universities and respected schools, but lacks an anchor company that the above verticals have.

11) We have second place syndrome.

Being the #2 ecosystem (sorry, hype machine, NYC), we’re always upset about not being number 1.  That’s natural; the team that loses the Super Bowl is always the one with the longest offseason.

Luckily, we’re used to being underdogs from our sports fandom. As we embrace that, we can emulate our teams that have made Boston the City of Champions. This requires us to embrace who are though; the Red Sox won in 2003 by embracing their slugging and moneyball strategies, not trying to do that and be a hit and run, small ball team at the same time.

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So why this list and why now?

EVERYONE needs to learn this list and feel ownership. There are plenty of people that are looking to join a bigger ecosystem (see Hopper, Backupify, Kinvey and many others) and this is who we are. There are plenty of people that don't want the hype and the noise of the Valley or the big city experience of NYC. Knowing what we have to offer best helps people know it's the best decision.

So in bullet point fashion...Boston is:

  • Modest
  • Loyal
  • Loves revenue-driven businesses
  • A true sports town
  • Academic
  • Reflective
  • Analytical
  • ...and best suited for B2B, SAAS, Travel, Adtech, Gaming and Ecommerce

And we'll leave those couple of things we still need to work on out of the pitch ;)

How would you define Boston's ecosystem personality?

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