Boston Capital

Not-so-great migration

By Steven Syre
Globe Columnist / December 17, 2010

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The story about young tech talents leaving Massachusetts to make their fortunes in California is a grating old tale to people in these parts. Sadly, it comes in many chapters.

The latest — perhaps ultimate — stick in the eye: Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard dropout who created the earliest versions of Facebook right here in Massachusetts, and then moved it all to California, is Time magazine’s 26-year-old Person of the Year.

Zuckerberg, the youngest person other than Charles Lindbergh to win the award, now leads a six-year-old company with 500 million members and an estimated $2 billion in annual revenue. That company, which couldn’t figure out how to make money from its own popularity a few years ago, is now on a revenue growth track that roughly equals the pace of Google Inc. at the same age.

Perhaps there are commercial reasons why a magazine would select someone with a half-billion members as its Person of the Year. But there’s no question Zuckerberg has emerged as the nation’s most successful entrepreneur, and Facebook has become by far the hottest young technology company.

Zuckerberg was getting a lot of visibility this year, even before he became the Person of the Year. “The Social Network’’, one the best movies I’ve seen this year, told a somewhat unflattering version of his story to millions this summer. I cringed watching Zuckerberg pull up stakes and move to Palo Alto so easily in the film. In that version, he’s tempted west by Sean Parker, the former business partner of one-time Northeastern University student and Napster founder Shawn Fanning, another local techie who migrated to California.

Globe columnist Scott Kirsner wrote a somewhat different version three years ago. Kirsner described how Zuckerberg and Facebook cofounder Edwardo Saverin first went to the Charles Hotel in Cambridge in the spring of 2004 to pitch their story to Battery Ventures, the Waltham venture capital firm, but never reached a deal. Zuckerberg went to California for the summer, found his money there, and never came back.

Some version of that story has played out over and over. The broader east-to-west migration of young technology talent continues to some degree, though some investors and entrepreneurs are making a conscious effort to blunt that pattern.

“There was a lemming mentality through the last decade. If you were a young and ambitious guy, you had to leave and go to the West Coast,’’ said venture capitalist Michael Greeley, a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston. “A lot of steps have been taken to arrest that movement.’’

Greeley is a distant relative of the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, long credited with the phrase “Go West, young man.’’ The irony isn’t lost on Greeley trying to keep young entrepreneurs and their companies in Massachusetts today.

He helped start 12 x 12, an group of venture investors and established entrepreneurs organized to help a dozen selected start-up businesses get off the ground within a year. The group held its quarterly dinner meeting Tuesday, joined by Governor Deval Patrick, among others. One was the head of a business known publicly only as Company No. 5.

“This was a young guy leaving Boston, his bags were packed just like Zuckerberg,’’ says Greeley. “We matched him up with people, and now he’s staying and building a company here.’’

OK, maybe not exactly like Zuckerberg. But you have to start somewhere.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at