Innovation Economy

High-tech nods to wanderers and would-be mayors

(Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2010

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Highlights from Scott Kirsner’s Innovation Economy blog. For the full blog, updated daily, visit

Boston’s shadow mayors. Did you realize that John Harvard’s Brew House, the Weston tollbooths, and the Back Bay Filene’s Basement all have mayors? None were popularly elected, but none were tainted by under-the-table campaign contributions, either.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’re not a Foursquare user yet.

The mobile phone application turns your daily peregrinations into a competition: Every time you go somewhere (your neighborhood Dunkin’ Donuts, or TD Garden), you use the Foursquare app or mobile website to “check in,’’ getting credit for being there. The person who has checked in the most at a particular location becomes the mayor, at least until someone else steals the title.

It’s a way of virtually tagging your hangouts. Foursquare also enables you to see which other users have checked in at a place you frequent, or leave comments and recommendations. Try the mac and cheese at John Harvard’s, even though it’s pricey, suggests one user.

The free app has proven addictive for some folks.

Eric Andersen, an IBM employee, has amassed points for checking in nearly 1,800 times and has been awarded mayorships of almost 100 locations, including the Boloco restaurant in Harvard Square, the MIT Press bookstore in Kendall Square, and the Williams-Sonoma shop at the Natick Collection mall. Social media consultant Joselin Mane is no slouch, either, having surpassed 1,000 check-ins and become mayor, somehow, of Microsoft’s research lab in Cambridge (despite not actually working there).

Susan Kaup says that for her, Foursquare “makes what I’m already doing more of an adventure.’’ It’s also an opportunity for Kaup, a digital marketer and event planner who lives in Somerville, to share her advice with strangers. At the West Side Lounge in Cambridge, she posted an endorsement of the “amazingly delicious grapefruit gimlet.’’

Some Foursquare users check in from unusual spots. Public relations guy and event organizer Chuck Tanowitz has become the mayor of the law office of Ellen Rappaport Tanowitz in Newton. (He happens to be married to the good solicitor.)

Andersen, the IBM’er who is on his way to becoming the Foursquare mayor of all Eastern Massachusetts, said, “I check in to pretty much every place I go.’’ He has made new acquaintances using the application, noticing others who frequent his hangouts.

He recounts a recent bloodless revolution at Toscanini’s ice cream shop near Cambridge’s Central Square, where he ousted the sitting mayor by showing up frequently and either ordering ice cream or a spiced butterscotch latte.

The former mayor, marketing executive Ace Battacharjya, can console himself, though, with his remaining mayorships of Boston’s Petit Robert Bistro and House of Siam.

Keeping a low profile. You won’t find a listing for Alpond Capital LLC on TheFunded, the website that collects gossip about venture capital firms. There’s no website for the company, either. Founder Andy Marcuvitz, who splits his time between Lincoln, Mass. and Newport, R.I. (where he owns a waterfront home on Alpond Drive), does not blog or tweet.

But Marcuvitz, who left Matrix Partners in 2004 after a successful 14-year stint with the Waltham firm, is charting his own course through the changing world of venture capital, rather than just jabbering about how the current structure of the industry can’t endure (and hoping that the shakeout will affect only other investors).

I caught up with Marcuvitz recently, when I was working on a post about Project Concord, one of two start-ups he has backed (and helped to found) since leaving Matrix. Both are in the digital video space.

Practicing venture capital intelligently isn’t about avoiding risk, or chasing trends, Marcuvitz says, but about “taking risks in areas where you have strong convictions.’’ There’s a “gross deficit,’’ he said, of “people practicing [venture capital] with strong convictions.’’

When people started talking about venture capital as an industry, Marcuvitz said, that may have signaled a fatal shift. Industry implies something that can grow and grow. “Venture capital is not scalable,’’ he told me. “As you pour more money into the pool, it doesn’t create a greater number of opportunities.’’

What it does create, though, are more firms chasing the few worthwhile opportunities, and lots of pressure to invest in companies at valuations that probably don’t make sense.

With Alpond, Marcuvitz has no limited partners to answer to: It’s his own money. (Limited partners are the pension funds, individuals, and university endowments that pour money into most venture capital firms.)

“My mode of operating is not to wait for things to come to me,’’ he said. With both ZeeVee and Project Concord, Marcuvitz said, “I’ve gone out and found the people and said, ‘Hey, guys, how about something like this?’ ’’ Project Concord is developing technologies to support the online delivery of premium video content.

He doesn’t think of what he’s doing as angel investing, or even seed-stage investing. “The term sheets look similar to the way they looked when I was at Matrix,’’ he said, “and the amounts of money are consistent with what an A round would have been at Matrix, and we operate the companies the same way.’’