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Over the last three weeks I’ve had numerous people ask me how my trip to Boston has been going. For a while I corrected them and said “I’m mostly in Cambridge” but gave up. Tonight, after hanging out at the TechStars Boston Mentor evening and program kickoff, I got into a long discussion with a Bill Warner and Ken Zolot about Cambridge, Boston, and startup communities. At some point in the conversation I blurted out “I have no idea why we call this program TechStars Boston instead of TechStars Cambridge.” And then something that I thought was important dawned on me.
My entire entrepreneurial view of “Boston” is centered around Cambridge. I’ve been here for two of the last three weeks (I spent four days in New York). I’m staying in a hotel in Kendall Square across from Google and next to MIT. I’ve spent my days walking to meetings at MIT, Kendall Square, Tech Square, Central Square, and East Cambridge including what I refer to as “the old Lotus building”. I’ve had all of my meals in Kendall Square or Central Square. Other than running, I’ve only been physically in Boston four times – first when I arrived at the airport, then when I took the train to New York, then when I returned on the train from New York, and finally when I spent the morning at Fidelity’s FCAT offices at Summer Street.
Now, I know there is plenty of startup activity in Boston. My old neighborhood near Fort Point Channel (I used to live on Sleeper Street in a condo at Dockside Place) is bustling with startup activity. There’s plenty of stuff on 128 and 495. There’s are other entrepreneurs tucked around the city. But that’s not the interesting story, at least in my mind.
The few square miles in Cambridge around MIT is the white hot center of startup activity in the region. One of my basic principles of startup communities is the need for what I call entrepreneurial population density (EPD) which I calculate as the total number of entrepreneurs and employees of entrepreneurial companies divided by the total number of all employees in a region. Then an even more powerful metric is entrepreneurial density, which is EPD / size of region. A large EPD in a small physical region wins.
Part of the magic of Boulder is the entrepreneurial density of the place. And as I wander from meeting to meeting in Cambridge, running into people on the street who I know, or who I met with the day before, or I who I want to know, reminds me of the dynamic in Boulder. For example, I ran into Matt Cutler on my way to Rich Levandov’s office and we walked over together. I bumped into the StartLabs organizers when going to a meeting with Will Crawford. I saw Joe Chung while hanging around StartLabs. I saw 50+ mentors who I knew last night at TechStars and expect to see more today when I’m there. While having breakfast with Michael Schrage at the Cambridge Marriott Joost Bonsen came over and said hello. At Dogpatch meeting with Yesware I saw Dave Greenstein and gave him a hug for his new kid. And the list of moments like this, which happened with 10 square blocks, go on and on. But when I hop on the red line and travel to South Station, the magic disperses.
I remember when the Boston VC community moved from downtown Boston to Waltham. I understood it was an effort to create a “Sand Hill Road” like venture community but the big miss was that an MIT student couldn’t hop on a bike and ride to Waltham like a Stanford student could with Sand Hill Road. And it’s no surprise that downtown Palo Alto, which is even closer to Stanford, is an attractive place for VCs to hang out. The snarky message when the VCs moved to Waltham was that they wanted to be close to their fancy houses and their private golf clubs and the entrepreneurs could come to them. It’s no surprise that many of these firms have relocated to Cambridge, recognizing that they should be in the middle of the entrepreneurial energy.
I’d suggest to the Cambridge and Boston startup communities that they should think of themselves as two separate but related communities. Even within Boston, it seems like there are different startup communities in downtown, 125, and even 495. I think that thinking of it “Boston” is a mistake.
In my world view, the entrepreneurs drive the startup community. Focus on entrepreneurial population density and entrepreneurial density – and make sure your geographic region is small. Over time, linking the critical mass together in a larger region (e.g. Silicon Valley or Boston) is fine, but the real power comes from the startup communities with the largest EPD in small physical regions which are big enough to have critical mass.
One of the magic special things I remember about MIT is what happens during January. It’s called IAP – Independent Activities Period. Rather than classes, students can do whatever they want, including go home and sleep for the month (which I did a few times). There are lots of events, seminars, and short courses (day, week, month) on campus covering a wide variety of topics.
I decided to spend two weeks of IAP at MIT this year. I rented a hotel room in Cambridge near Kendall Square and tossed out a bunch of “hey – I’m going to be around – anything for me to do?” type emails. I got a little back – much less than I expected – and when I started looking through the online IAP directory I was disappointed in what I saw. But I decided to go anyway and arrived last Thursday after CES.
I’m doing a couple of things – the main being mentoring at StartLabs, a one month program for undergrads starting up companies. So far it’s been really cool – I’ve spent time with all of the companies and am focusing on two of them - Thingdom and Muse Analytical. Thingdom is up – go friend me, play around, and tell them (and/or me) what you think. Muse Analytical is still in product design mode (miniature, portable, chemical analysis) and crossing the gap between tech and product vision is fun. All of the teams in the program (seven of them) are hanging out at RedStar, the offices created by two of my frat brothers – Joe Chung and Jeet Singh. The energy is awesome.
I’m also hanging around the MIT Entrepreneurship Center a little (spent some time there Friday and Monday) and am on a panel for Joe Hadzima’s “Nuts and Bolts of Business Plans” seminar on 1/25 (where I’ll likely say something like “business plans are useless – just go read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and build some shit.”
In the mean time, I’ve decamped to New York for a few days where I’m hanging out with my friends at USV and my dad talking about how to transform healthcare via software and the Internet (not a huge interest of mine, but of them, and my dad) and then spending time with MakerBot creating machines that create machines.
I’m having fun on my “travel different – spend a big chunk of time in one place” efforts so far, although the intensity is pegged at 10 all the time right now which is clearly not sustainable. And I miss Amy, although she’ll be here soon (note to Amy – bring a warm coat.)
On Saturday, I spent the day with my MIT fraternity (the Lambda Phi Chapter of Alpha Delta Phi) at the Microsoft NERD facility in Cambridge next to MIT. We did a full day entrepreneurial retreat called “ADPrentice 2010.” This is the second time we’ve done this – the last time was ADPrentice 2005.
My frat at MIT has spawned numerous startups that I’ve written about in the past, including my post on 351 Massachusetts Avenue (home of the first office for my first company – Feld Technologies). I’m extremely proud of the legacy of entrepreneurship from MIT’s ADP chapter and am happy to continue to play a role in helping encourage it.
Several ADP alums, including Sameer Gandhi (Accel Partners), Mark Siegel (Menlo Ventures), and Eran Egozy (founder/CTO of Harmonix) came and participated. Sameer, Mark, and I were judges for the three ADPrentice contents, which included creating an elevator pitch, creating a marketing plan, and running a startup simulation Dungeons and Dragons style (yes – we used six-sided dice.)
Alex Moore, the founder/CEO of Baydin (a TechStars Boston 2009 company that was recently funded by Dave McClure as a result of a taxi ride) was the ringleader along with a few other alums and undergraduates who all did an amazing job with the day.
Once again, I was blown away by the intensity and intelligence of the MIT undergrads that I spent the day with. It’s hard to believe I was one of them a mere 25 years ago. At some point Mark leaned over to me and said “I don’t think we could have gotten into MIT if we applied today.” While he was being cute (Mark and Sameer are both off the charts brilliant), the message was a powerful and inspiring one as the current generation of MIT undergrads are incredible.
As I watch Amy scurry around and put the final touches on our Homer house before we leave to go home to Boulder, I thought I’d stay out of the way and write a quick final book post on The House Advantage. I read a bunch more books the past two weeks but ran out of gas reviewing them all – see my Shelfari bookshelf if you are interested. But The House Advantage was worth mentioning.
My friend Niel Robertson – the CEO of Trada (which we are investors in) introduced me to Jeff Ma (the author) and then also sent me a book. It turns out that I know Jeff and lived next door to his sister when I was at MIT. You also may know Jeff – he’s the main character in Ben Mezrich’s excellent book Bringing Down the House and the inspiration for he main character in the movie 21. It also turns out that Jeff is an accomplished entrepreneur. He’s had several successful companies, the most recent being Citizen Sports which Yahoo recently acquired.
The subtitle of The House Advantage is “Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business”. In it, Jeff takes on a topic that most business people avoid – statistics. He uses his experience with both the MIT blackjack team, sports statistics, and his friends experiences in these areas to explain very important statistics concepts in very clear and straightforward ways. He’s a great writer – rather than resulting in a dull book about business stats, it’s a spicy read full of stories of Vegas, sports, high speed car chases, airplanes exploding, terrorist drug lords, extreme dance parties, and … well – ok – Vegas and sports.
As I was reading it, I kept thinking “every CEO I work with and every investor I’ve ever met should read this book.” After I finished, I thought “every academic researcher who has ever written a paper should read this.” None of the statistics concepts are complex, but they are regularly misused, abused, and confused. Or ignored.
As a bonus, the book includes the Basic Strategy Chart for Blackjack. How many business books can claim that? Seriously, this is an outstanding book – Jeff – well done!
Do you remember the “Let’s Build a Filter” scene from Apollo 13? It remains – at least in my mind – one of the most heroic engineering scenes in the movies. The one minute segment with the meat of the scene follows:
Several times over the past week the BP Gulf Crisis has come up in conversation. The conversations have started in different places (politics, environment, leadership) but in each case quickly cycled toward the concept that the people involved need to try something different. Now, there might be plenty of orthogonal thinking going on in lots of places around the crisis, but I kept thinking about the scene from Apollo 13 whenever we got to this point.
I’ve always felt that MIT undergraduates represent the smartest and most creative independent thinkers on the planet. My friends at Caltech and Stanford will immediately come to defense of their colleagues and I’ll acknowledge that they are also extremely smart, but I’ve always thought the combination of MIT raw material with the four year undergraduate curriculum creates a unique type of thought process.
It’s summertime and classes are out. It would take a day to identify the top two juniors and seniors from each department. Why not immediately constitute a team of 25 amazing students, give them access to 100% of the data surrounding the crisis, show them the above movie clip, and tell them to come up with a solution to the problem. Pay them each $25k for the rest of the summer – this is tiny compared to the amount of money being spent daily on the outside consultants working on solving the problem.
Then, open source all of their thinking. Have them put their ideas on the web as they evolve. Get anyone involved who wants to try to help solve the problem. MIT has long been a leader in using the web for education – most recently with MIT Open Courseware. MIT and BP already have a longstanding relationship – let’s take it up a level.
If nothing else, this will rally a bunch of smart people to engage in understanding and trying to help with the problem. In the upside case, there is a small chance that it can come up with a solution to the problem. And it will have the added benefit of inspiring a new generation of engineers to go after doing heroic things.