I moved my family. I sold my Swiss farmhouse, bought a Victorian money pit instead. I forced my wife to change job. And all for what ? Boston. A place that so painfully undersells itself you’d think Indianapolis had more going on. A place that has such surly drivers that even a broken down MBTA transit feels homely. Why, oh why ? It turns out, like most expats here, we hate to admit it, but we love the place. The good news is also that however bad Boston Metro is at marketing itself compared to other hotbeds, it’s a pretty phenomenal ecosystem for tech and biotech startups. Today I am a believer : Boston is a great place to build a great startup company.
Over the last few quarters, we’ve managed to share that view with a bunch of teams. Beyond #stayinMA, we’re thinking #movetoMA. All of us can make an impact in getting more team to build here. For clarity, when I say Boston I mean Boston Metro, from the glorious density of Kendall Square to the beautiful Leather District warehouses, from Bocoup in Congress Street to Fresh Tilled Soil in Waltham. Let’s dig in.
The European bridge
At Atlas Venture we’ve always had European companies that would naturally establish headquarters in the US and choose Boston as their base. Take Christopher Ahlberg at Recorded Future – he was essentially told to come over in 1997 (following in Business Objects’ footprint) and never looked back. “I am a big fan of Boston: access to customers, proximity to Europe”. The same occurred with Globoforce, a rewards company that sells to Fortune 500 and started in Dublin and put HQ in Boston, or more recently with Grabcad, an Estonian company that naturally wanted to be close to the heart of the CAD community. Hardi Meybaum knew from day one he wanted to be in Boston, forcefully networking his way into the best CAD entrepreneurs and investors in record time. So far, so obvious.
The Hub of Choice for the Big Data Ninja
What’s interesting is that more recently we’ve been able to hijack businesses that were on their way to the West Coast and convince them to set up shop here. Let’s take the example of the most exciting new kid in town: Fred Lalonde, the founder of Hopper. Hopper is a big data company; it runs its own data center and up until recently they even used to make their own servers. Most of their days are spent trying to run algorithms on a thousand computer cores.
Late last year Fred and his team decided to move Hopper headquarters from Montreal, Canada to the Boston area. In his own words: “Our two primary motivations were: the balmy January weather and the tragic outcome of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. In truth, when we decided to come to Cambridge we made a bet that we would meet super smart people that share our love for solving insanely hard problems – and that in itself would justify all the pain and cost of relocating.”
Getting Fred to buy into Boston was no mean feat. He was Valley bound and it took multiple trips and some real grassroots work to get him to appreciate the depth of the local ecosystem. But it paid off, both for us and for him. “Now that we are here, we are discovering a bustling community of big data practitioners, entrepreneurs and venture firms. Every week there is another big data meet-up in Cambridge or Boston where we bump into someone brilliant form Vertica, Cloudant, ITA, Basho, Bluefin or Hadapt. It really feels like Kendall Square is becoming the Haight-Ashbury of big data, and we are psyched to be here.”
There’s more what that came from
Fred is not alone in having made a proactive decision to come to Boston Metro. In recent months we can point towards a number of companies that we have funded and attracted here: Matt Thazmon’s PowerInbox, who was on his way from Atlanta to San Francisco when we hijacked his flight: “definitely the right move, we’ve been able to build a great team, cost of living is lower and honestly there are less distractions so we can just heads down focus on making email better. Also for our API launch, 7 of the 10 companies were from the area which shows that Boston companies are doing great things in email”.
I would love to take credit for attracting Sravish Sridhar and the Kinvey team over but the reality is that there was a girl, they fell in love, she had a PhD to complete and so on and so forth. Srav has become a pillar of his community in no time and like me he’s feeling the power of the ecosystem working for him: “I’m proud that we are Boston Built. We had a fantastic learning experience in the TechStars Boston 2011 program, which truly accelerated our business, because the Boston entrepreneurial and investor community were all-in to help us. We’re now growing rapidly with a team filled with world-class mobile and backend talent from local universities and companies.”
Here is how Mike Matousek from Flashnotes ended up in Boston: “I was in California at a conference where I met Michael Lazerow and he sold us on the benefits of the East coast then make an introduction to Ryan Moore. My experience of the city so far has been very positive. Throughout the city you can feel the energy and that is contagious for a start up company”.
There’s many more examples of the same ilk, including in our portfolio Hopper, Grabcad, Kinvey, ObjectiveLogistics, Flashnotes but also Backupify, Spill, Enpocket in its day, Nexage and many others. Most recently the Seedcamp backed uberVU announced the creation of a Boston HQ with another Atlas alum, Mark Pascarella, joining as CEO.
Boston for tech: deep, underestimated, under-marketed
I originally came to Boston with low expectations. It made sense for me and my partnership, but I did not expect much. I had a vision of blue blazers and a closed, relatively sleepy ecosystem reflecting on its glorious past. Whilst there are some echoes of that, I discovered a much deeper and vibrant ecosystem than I had anticipated, and reason to settle here that go well beyond the quality of public schools in Brookline. It’s dense, it’s high quality, you can actually attract and retain talent, and some pretty groundbreaking stuff is being built.
Ernie Cormier talks about “grounded creativity” as the unique mix of creativity and rigour that he’s found locally, combined with a deep tech and financial infrastructure. Matt at Power Inbox talks like many other about the nice manageable scale of Boston: “The startup scene in Boston feel denser than the 60 mile stretch in the Bay Area. Everyone has been really helpful so far and its nice to see familiar faces at the events so you can build relationships with people.” We’ve got more coming, and will soon be announcing the return of an exciting Silicon Valley gaming heavyweight. Stay tuned
Boston: Density – Talent – Creativity – Rigor. You don’t need to be Silicon Valley to build powerful stuff.