Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Entrepreneur Engagement in Beantown

Tonight I attended a large-scale entrepreneur and VC mixer in Boston, hosted by the VC firm, Charles River Ventures. For 2 hours, I met some fantastic folks on both the entrepreneur and VC side.

Web 2.0, mobile communications, niche web marketing, detailed analytics, and on, and on.

All was going great until the panel started.

Moderated by Om Malik, the panel consisted of 5 members:

•Andy Miller, CEO, Quattro Wireless
•Rich Miner, VP of Mobile Technology, Google
•Andy Payne, Co-founder, Lab256
•Jeff Bennett, President & COO, NameMedia
•Jim Scheinman, Co-founder, Bebo & Entrepreneur in Residence, Charles River Ventures

At first, it appeared that the discussion was going to be about launching a startup in the midst/aftermath of a market correction. This was, after all, a subject very germane to most of the audience and worth heavy consideration.

Instead, the conversation quickly turned to a self-loathing session of mediated crowd-following where Malik proposed a topic discussing why the East Coast was falling behind the West Coast in entrepreneurship, and each of the panelists piled on in his own way.

I would say that the first mistake made was the immediate conflation of entrepreneurship with Web 2.0 innovation and mobile communication. These are just TWO (2) small niches of entrepreneurship, and if we allow ourselves to limit the definition of an entrepreneur to someone in only those spaces, then we have lost the race before it even started.

If that wasn't bad enough, the next and more egregious mistake was to focus on the past in order to look for answers. Any good investor will tell you that past performance is not a good indicator of future results, and this is no different here. Even if this were a viable strategy, it is clear to most people that, despite the recent past where Boston has come up short in the notoriety of VC deals and startup companies; going back a few more years, Boston can claim to be home to Sycamore, Ciena, Boston Scientific and so much more. So what gives? What did we all just witness?

Is this myopia, short-termism, and fear mongering by wealthy absorbed digerati?

YOU BET.

As soon as we were given the mike, I stood up immediately to defend the value of startups that bring real products to the market-place, and to point out how so many of them have come right from Boston (Sam Adams, BabyStyle, Staples, Kayak, Virgin Money etc.) After me, another VC from Lead Dog Ventures, John Landry, took the mike for an all-out scolding of the panel members for their Boston-doubt, "How dare you come to our town and insult our companies and the way they do business. Enough already!"

Bravo John. VC fertile grounds are complicated enough, but to try to ascribe global trends to an industry which has very personal roots is wrongheaded.

Great meeting the individuals and networking, but as for the panel gathering, I could have done without.