Does Boston Have Too Many Startups? A response to Kirsner’s Sunday Globe Article

In the Sunday Globe this week, Scott Kirsner posed the question, "Does Boston Have Too Many Startups?"  The article seemed to try to make the argument that all our little startups should just be employees at bigger startups (disregarding how bigger startups, start out...).

The article is really best summed up in the quote in the article by Craig Driscoll, "companies that hope to grow need to do more than complain about how tight the talent market is." I find it fitting that coincidentally, Ryan Durkin, COO of CampusLive (and mentee of Mr. Driscoll as a Highland Capital portfolio company) writes about attracting talent today.

I've spoken with a number of friends about the article and had some interesting Twitter conversations as well and wanted to highlight some of the key points that came from them.  (Note: Kirsner sought out some thoughts which you can see on his Globe blog here.)

1) We don't talk about logical career paths enough

Quick: explain, with examples, a logical career path for someone to evolve to be a successful entrepreneur.  Stumped? I know I am. Most examples I think of fit in the "Zuckerberg" files of folks who didn't have much of a startup pedigree before launching their monster success (think Matt Lauzon, the many TechStars companies, etc).  I look at the titans of our community like David Cancel, Dharmesh Shah, Jeff Bussgang and know very little about "how they got here."

It's easy to tell people "go work for a startup first," but you need to show them examples of people that have succeeded in doing that, and if you didn't as a founder, then you have to acknowledge you have some hypocrisy on your hands.

2) We don't have enough serial entrepreneurs and mafias

We are all familiar with the Paypal Mafia and some of the many startups the former employees spawned, but where are Boston's Mafia's? There was a great Bostinnovation series covering some of them, but it seems like there are fewer and certainly less celebrated.

These mafias are exactly what would convince someone to *join* a startup instead of start their own: join a team and have a great exit and then have peers and valuable experience to start another.  Maybe an offshoot of Eric Paley's Founder Dialogues needs to be "Mafia Dialogues" and bring in a few people from a successful team to share their combined story. We also need to think about whether it's good for a CEO of a billion dollar company to be proud that all of his first 10 employees are still working at his now billion dollar company.

I think Rob Go was also on the right track highlighting the power team of Brian Balfour, Aaron White and Ariel Diaz teaming up for Boundless Learning (and also happens to talk about the importance of "more shots on goal," not less startups as Kirsner suggests).

3) We don't take enough chances on Greenhorns

I am very lucky. What few of you remember is that no one was interested in hiring me when I came into the tech scene. John Prendergast was the first to give me a small shot doing some work for him, which then led to the opportunity to pitch Laura and the oneforty team on joining them (John was on their board).  That was a 6 month journey to get that full time offer from oneforty.  If I didn't live as lean as possible and have the luxury of a little savings, I may have never made it.

Just like our investors are often criticized for wanting too much traction before they invest, many of our companies only want to hire people that have done a role before.  I know too many young, eager people who want to work at startups, and yet there doesn't seem to be many roles available to them.  

I've been asked a lot about if Janet Aronica, who I hired at oneforty, is looking for a marketing job over the last 6 months and the irony is, I doubt anyone would have taken a chance on a young, eager talent coming from the low rungs of a PR firm just 18 months ago.  I also look at Kristin Dziadul, who once made videos trying to get HubSpot's attention and was smartly hired by Rob May and Backupify despite coming straight out of school.

This is not to lump everyone together. Matt Lauzon and the Gemvara folks have taken chances, and I know Diane Hessan has been an awesome advocate for some of the truly hungry Gen Y folks. Unfortunately, the rest of the community hasn't caught on yet.

4) We don't take recruiting seriously

It bears repeating via Craig Driscoll, "companies that hope to grow need to do more than complain about how tight the talent market is."  Vinod Khosla went as far as to say "New CEOs should spend 50% of their time recruiting."  West coast VC Sequoia is particularly strong on recruiting. I've seen the aggressiveness of them firsthand as they held an event the night before Startup Bootcamp for their founders who were speaking the next day to tell a bit of their stories, answer questions and meet people. I know Dropbox has spoken at at least 3 Boston area schools in the last 6 months.  How many schools have you spoken at in your own back yard?

Maybe we need an event or two to talk more about recruiting talent (One of my favorite events ever was a fireside chat with Akhil of MassChallenge and Paul English talking about recruiting).  I think it's a competitive advantage for some companies while others throw money at it, but it certainly seems like it might help.  More awesome posts on the subject like Brian Balfour's and David Cancel's would help too.

5) Complaining about funded startups is an insult to entrepreneurs

The funding climate in Boston has improved, but it's still hard to raise money.  As the opening to the Bloomberg TV show states, TechStars is more selective than Harvard. If you manage to raise money, that's quite an accomplishment, as David Friend says in his message to Kirsner.  If you have an idea that goes far enough to funding, you have an at bat and need to go try to execute. The amount you'll learn with your small team will be tremendous and put you in a great position to contribute to another company.

Now, living off of savings, is obviously a big risk and so if someone is risking financial ruin to keep their fledgling startup alive, it most likely makes sense to go work somewhere. Then again, the Valley wouldn't have Airbnb if those guys weren't relentless.

6) We need to clarify what a startup is

Wayfair is a $350Mn+ company. HubSpot has over 300 employees.  Are both of them still startups? Neither? I worked at E Ink when they went from about 90 employees to 165.  From my experience, the Dunbar number is very real.  The culture really started to shift at that point and more HR rules and regulations hit, not by choice, but out of necessity.  Few companies are really like Google and provide the independence and opportunities similar to startups, and even there, I don't think you get the same thing.

I've heard about HubSpot's education classes that try to teach some business and entrepreneurial lessons, but I have a feeling they're the exception, not the rule. I also wonder how they'll be able to maintain it as they grow further.

7) What motivates an entrepreneur or early stage employee?

Another great quote from Craig Driscoll on advising companies was, “They need to figure out how to recruit and create jobs that are attractive for entrepreneurial people."  An entrepreneurial person cares much more about working with other smart people, having flexibility and independence in their role and a feeling of true contribution and influence in the big picture of what they do.

When I worked at E Ink, everyone looked forward to their quarterly meetings where Russ Wilcox explained the state of the company.  It lifted the covers on how the company was doing and especially during the wild ride that was the exploding popularity of the Kindle, you could feel everyone having a renewed sense of purpose after work as they were a part of the amazing opportunity to replace paper books with E Ink technology.  I think that same sentiment is happening now with Gemvara as Matt hammers home the vision to change jewelry and e commerce on the web.  Entrepreneurial employees want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, while feeling like they're really making a contribution.

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I'm glad Scott brought this conversation out for discussion, but feel like it missed the mark on what really matters in this ecosystem developing.

What are your thoughts?

Do we have too many startups? Are companies recruiting effectively?