Jay Batson is a serial tech entrepreneur in Boston, having most recently founded Acquia. He now spends all his time helping startups through Techstars, MassChallenge, and mentoring hookups. He blogs at Startup DJ, loves bikes, and has been known to spin a good electronic dance music set.
This year I switched from an active operating role as founder of Acquia to being a mentor and angel investor in early-stage startups. Between helping companies via Techstars, MassChallenge, and random introductions, I’ve tried to lend a helping hand to many, many dozens of companies this year. Which means I’ve gained a rare place among those who can see the local tech ecosystem from a high perch, and I have a couple of thoughts about our tech culture.
The growth in the number of startups in Boston since I founded Acquia in 2007 has increased phenomenally, and I see no end in sight. Credit what you wish – the emergence of AWS, the “Lean Startup,” or the growth in angel capital – the result is that Boston is no longer only the birthplace of old mini-computer or networking companies. Rather, it has re-energized into a full startup ecosystem. These startups have created thousands of jobs in the city, and I’m really happy with where our tech community is at.
It’s particularly exciting to see the vast bulk of these companies locating themselves within half a mile of the Red Line, stretching from Davis Square to the Broadway stop in South Boston. Notably, unless they are in the Cambridge Innovation Center, most startups are no longer in Kendall Square, which has become the home of Big Companies. It’s great; I can bike from company to company in 10 minutes, making it the most geographically concentrated tech center in the country. (Thanks to the City of Boston’s Nicole Freedman for making Boston so bikeable!)
This extended “Red Line Tech Corridor” is what I think Boston will become known for, eclipsing the “128 Corridor.” I don’t see this stopping in 2014, and predict most startups will rent office space in the Leather District, Downtown Crossing, Chinatown, or the A St. end of South Boston. (Rents in the Innovation District have quickly gotten too high for startups!) But this concentration in the historic downtown area will only happen if the buildings are updated with credible, fiber-based high-speed Internet. Amazingly, a ton of startup-priced vacant office space in these areas simply does not have fast network access. If the new Mayor wants a meaty, high-impact problem to tackle early in his new administration, here it is. This state of connectivity is embarrassing for the city.
2014 will bring good changes in how capital gets raised locally. Angel groups are starting to solve the problem of a too-slow process; Common Angels shows the best progress. We will definitely see several more small, very-early stage investment groups / venture funds that focus on seed rounds, like Boston Seed. These avoid the signaling problems VCs have at that stage, and provide new ways to help startups accelerate growth. Angel Syndicates show early signs of disrupting the existing investor landscape, shortening the fundraising process for entrepreneurs, and opening up ways for guys like me to have a more positive impact. I’m personally skeptical about equity crowdfunding.
But, with the easy availability of capital, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear news of a cycle of startups closing their doors in 2014. Not all startups should survive. This cycle is healthy, including for the people in those companies. Keeping an unsustainable business going destroys the spirit and health of an entrepreneur. Plus, the people that are freed up bring wisdom into their next job or company that can help others succeed more quickly, which benefits everybody.
I have two things I want to do in 2014. First, I resolve to actively find things to do to make our tech startup community culture better. Helping Dmitri Gunn with Lunch Beat Boston in 2013 was great; I resolve to build on that this year and find new things to add. Second, I resolve to ask more questions when startups call upon me for help, and to admit when I don’t have good advice. It’s all too easy to spout the most obvious thing when asked for advice; that first answer, though, may not be the right one for a situation. I resolve to dig more before saying something, or simply admit I don’t have an answer. I hope others like me will consider adopting this approach, too.